The level of well-being in Estonia has grown so much that Estonia is being transformed into a country that attracts immigrants. On the other hand, our population is shrinking and ageing, and the required volume of immigration to maintain a stable population numbers only due to immigration would be almost at the same rate as during the Soviet occupation – but this volume is unacceptable. The chief editors of the Estonian Human Development Report going to come out in 2017 – Tiit Tammaru, Professor of Urban and Population Geography of the University of Tartu, Kristina Kallas, Director of Narva College of the University of Tartu, Raul Eamets, Professor of Macroeconomics of the University of Tartu – write on what should be done to preserve the home-like atmosphere of Estonia.
The Republic of Estonia is preparing for its one hundredth birthday. For twenty five years, once again we have the opportunity to make our own decisions about our own life in Estonia. In discussing the viability of a nation and the future of a nation state, we can not ignore the fact that in the current era of migration a shift has occurred in the things that up to now seemed to us as a matter of course. Today it is impossible to link the fact of being an Estonian only to the place of residence and activities in Estonia. Being an Estonian today is not being geographically connected only with the Estonian state, it is an exterritorial notion – the home of a predominant part of the Estonians, no doubt, is in Estonia, but there are more and more of those who work in another country and commute regularly between Estonia and some other country or have arranged their house in another state, but who often visit Estonia, and virtually every day are actively present in the information space of Estonia. So, today the Estonianism is global in nature, and the e-government, digital culture, digital learning, extraterritorial (social) media and a simple, fast and cheap transport between the states serve as a basis for it. A linguist Martin Ehala has figuratively described today’s Estonia as an assembly of Estonian rural municipalities and cities, widespread throughout the world.
But Estonia, as a nation state, do pertain to the territory. Estonia is a geographical point in a world where the heart of global Estonia beats. But this geographical point, of which originates the development of Estonian culture, language and thought, is no longer a members-only club. To become a member, it is necessary not merely to express the desire but also obtain admission from the old members of the club. At the same time, a person’s skin color or other characteristics do not have the slightest significance. In the abstract, it could cause resentment among many of us. But through the example of an individual human being, this kind of things seem to fall into place as if by themselves. If, for example, Anna Levandi or Dave Benton had decided to set up their home in Estonia and feel well among us, then we also say, “Welcome! It’s great that you have chosen Estonia as your home, and we are glad that you have learned the Estonian language and know our culture. At the same time do not forget the land and the culture of your parents and grandparents, and do tell us about them.” It is just as natural that the life partners of our children more and more often descend from different countries, some of them will build their home in Estonia, and others – far abroad.
It is within our powers to make Estonia attractive. In the same way, the teaching of culture mentioned in the previous paragraph does not mean imposing the study of culture, as it was in Soviet times, but means developing curiosity. People who came to live in Estonia are akin to adopted children, they do not play the role of some Cinderella. The Cinderella’s role is to perform the works that the wicked stepmother and her children do not want to perform. But in this case there is no hope that Cinderella will settle successfully in the new family. She is a foreign worker, and will remain such. If we decide to take the child from abroad into our family, then we teach him or her our language, culture and customs, but we are also interested in his or her native land, culture, language and customs. At the same time, it is easier to focus attention when there are few foster children in the family.
Consequently, human relations and mutual respect, which is the basis for such relations are of vital importance. We are communicating with other languages and cultures through the people. Those Estonians who are creating a home for themselves abroad, and foreigners who create their home in Estonia constitute a transnational network of communication of a transnational Estonia. The Constitution establishes the preservation of the Estonian language and culture as one of the main tasks of the Estonian state. This task is often understood in a narrow sense, only as a support to professional and folk culture. But now, in the open world, the Estonian culture requires a much broader view, which unites both the people living in Estonia, speaking different languages and representing different cultures, as well as the self-determination and the value of Estonians living outside of Estonia. The more confident in itself and more open is the culture of Estonia, the higher is its ability in sensemaking and interaction with other languages and cultures, the more viable and more attractive it is. The Estonian culture will remain based on Estonian language also in the future, but Estonian mother-tongue speakers, including native Estonians, are speaking other languages more than ever. So, Estonia’s viability as a nation state depends largely on the ability to develop Estonian culture, and not only on the demographic changes in Estonia.
Where we create our home says a lot about us in this era of migration. It expresses what we feel about ourselves, where we feel ourselves comfortable and homelike, where it is safe and good to raise children. And also the fact whether we have a job, what is the paycheck for this work and what opportunities gives us our salary in building our home. Job search and payment for labor, in turn, depend on what was our way of getting education – which doors it opens on the labor market and which doors it definitely keeps shut in front of us. And it is the state that creates for us the conditions of education and work, with the support of which we adopt our decisions.
It is possible to argue against the fact that the state borders, citizens and place of business of people and enterprises do not overlap, but it would be wise to get used to the associated joys and difficulties. Just as we can not stop Estonians who wish to live, work, learn, and create a family abroad, we can not shut the doors to a person, who was born in another country, who wants to come to Estonia. Human migration goes where life is better, and it can not be completely stopped, unless someone starts to use solutions that restrict individual freedoms, under the principle of North Korea.
And the data of the report on human development of the countries in the world sends rather clear message: the migrants – refugees, students, workers and migrants for family reasons – move from countries with a low level of well-being to the countries with a higher level. And Estonia is now entering a new stage in its development, where again there are more people who want to create a home here.
The well-being and migration are inextricably linked. The most coherent and the most intuitive indicator for comparing well-being of the states – is the human development index. The index is based on three pillars – people’s health, education level and income on the state level, that is, gross domestic product per person. All this characterizes the decisions taken by the government over extended periods of time. Thus, the highest level of well-being – that is, the top of the human development index, is reached by those states that consistently, systematically and holistically deal with health, education and jobs for the people, that is – are engaged in the development of competitiveness of the economy. In these states, people live well all the time, and citizens of other countries want to create their own home in such a state. This is the law of development of states: while the state is developing, the level of well-being of the citizens of this state is growing, but the growth of the well-being also makes this state more attractive for immigrants.
Although in Estonia itself people air lot of discontent with the country’s development, the Human Development Index tells a different story, showing the history of Estonia on a positive note. Estonia belongs to the group of countries with very high human development index, it is equal to 96 percent of the average value of the index in this group. In 1990-2015, the human development index in Estonia has been growing more rapidly than in most other European Union member states (more rapid change occurred only in Ireland and Croatia), which means that the pace of improvement of our situation is rather impressive. The result is that among the new member states of the European Union, the level of the human development index is higher than ours only in Slovenia and the Czech Republic. So, we can say that, as a result of our collective choices and decisions – from the currency reform of 1992 and other radical reforms in the early 1990s – the decision to join the European Union and NATO, fast digital revolution, the activities of the government coalition that ruled Estonia, and down to the everyday solutions of the residents and enterprises of Estonia – we can be proud of Estonia’s success.
Even if the growth rate of well-being has been remarkable, the level of prosperity is still not sufficient. Income of a resident of Estonia is 61 percent of the average income of residents of countries with high human development index. With the rapid development is related another regularity: inequality in society is also growing rapidly at this time. In all fast-changing societies there are people and regions that are able to quickly get used to the new circumstances, but, as well – there are people and regions for which the changes rather entail deterioration of living standards. According to the most popular measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient, among the European Union countries the level of inequality is higher in Latvia, Lithuania and Romania than in Estonia. The inequality in Eastern Europe became especially big between the cities and the countryside. At the end of the 1980s, as a result of inefficient planned economy of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, there was a shortage of the kinds of food that we consider today elementary, while the level of employment in agriculture was very high. Under the new conditions of the market economy, where the volume of agricultural production, and especially the number of jobs in agriculture have decreased considerably, the outlying districts in particular received the hardest hit. If in the cities the developing service sector offered replacement for jobs cut in the industrial sector, in rural areas located far from the cities such compensating labor market changes didn’t happen. New social order, based on a market economy, and the distribution of population by regions, left over after the Soviet era (a large proportion of the rural population) just did not fit together. Young people in particular did not want to build their home in the countryside, so that the outflow of the population over the last 25 years was particularly high precisely from the peripheral regions of Estonia.
Estonia is becoming a country that attracts migrants
In spite of the fact that over the past 25 years Estonia’s reputation as a country with a population outflow became familiar, it is still a matter of concern, along with the growth of the well-being of the state as a whole. We know very well the reasons for emigration, the reasons for immigration are less known. Firstly, the accession to the European Union has opened the doors to the free movement of people across Europe. Prior to joining the European Union, less than 2 000 people a year came to Estonia, the immigration levels were significantly higher starting from 2005, and in 2015 almost 6 000 people from abroad decided to set up their home in Estonia. 2015 is also a landmark for the reason that at that time more people entering Estonia were registered than those who left the country. So, more and more people want to create their home in Estonia or to return to Estonia. Although it is still too early to assert that there has been a turning point in the pattern of migration in Estonia, but it is clear that it is in the process of change, and Estonia is transforming from sending country to destination country.
People arriving in Estonia can be divided into three groups. Firstly, the Estonians who are coming back home. In a sense, such a reversion is a consequence of emigration – in fact, if they hadn’t left Estonia before, they could not have come back. Due to emigration rate abrupt increase after Estonia’s accession to the European Union, with time, year after year, the number of Estonians returning home has continued to increase. The Estonians make up about half of those people who arrive in Estonia. Still, the emigration and the return is not always linked – people may not want to, or are not being able to return home. However, the Estonian data shows that many Estonians who moved to live abroad want to return home. According to the European Social Survey, in Estonia the percentage of people who have experience of working abroad is one of the highest in Europe. The second group is formed by people coming from other European Union countries, their number also increases year after year. To date, they constitute one-fifth of all arrivals. In the European Union, which has no borders, people from other countries come to study and work, as well as follow their life companions, who were born in Estonia. This is not necessarily the case anymore that when the citizens of Estonia and Finland decide to start a family, the home should certainly be in Finland. Estonia is a country with a fairly high level of well-being to decide in its favor when choosing from several countries. And if children are born in Estonia, then this family migration is already making a small contribution to the vitality of the Estonian population. And also contributes to the economic development of Estonia, as among those who come from the countries of the European Union, there are many entrepreneurs, executives and top-level specialists.
The third group consists of people arriving from outside the borders of the European Union, mainly – from Russia and Ukraine, as well as from other countries, which are referred to as third-country nationals. In general, they form one-third of arrivals. The migration balance of Estonia is positive precisely with the third countries, that is – more people are coming to us than our people are going there. Thus, Estonia has become a kind of migration transit gateway: in total, we lose people that are leaving for the “old” EU member states with higher levels of well-being, but we receive new inhabitants mainly due to third countries located to the east of Estonia. The growth of the well-being and the status of a member of the European Union have clearly increased the interest in living in Estonia. In other words, the migration flow in Europe is directed from east to west, to put it simply – from Ukraine to Estonia, and from Estonia to Sweden. People living in the territories of the former Soviet Union know Estonia and know other countries of the Eastern Europe, that is why Estonia is so attractive to them, in addition to a higher level of well-being, the fact that the country is familiar to them also plays its role. In addition to top-level professionals, ordinary workforce, as well as students, also arrive in Estonia from third countries.
Over the last 25 years, as a result of migration, the ethnic composition of the Estonian population has shifted in two opposite directions at one stroke. The first change is a significant increase in the proportion of native Estonians in the population – from 62 per cent at the end of the Soviet period and up to 70 per cent. So, over the past 25 years, Estonia is becoming more and more the state of ethnic Estonians. Another important shift is the growing diversity of languages and cultures among the people who established their home in Estonia. Of course, the number of people arriving in Estonia is still small, most of them are from the east, but it is growing together with the number of those who come from other European countries. Estonia nowadays actually uses three languages: Estonian, Russian and English. For example, international English language-based schools for new migrants are established, universities and international companies use more English, government officials communicate with their European counterparts mostly in English. On the other hand, affiliation with the European Union has raised to a considerable degree the status of the Estonian language as the Estonian language is a language in which procedures are maintained in the European Union.
Economic viability is ensured, in a first place, by the upward movement along the value chain
Speaking of Estonia’s future, in addition to the language and culture, our economic and demographic viability also raise a serious concern. Although the migration picture of Estonia has changed, and there are more and more people who want their home to be located in Estonia, the current migratory balance is far from being enough to stop the decrease of population and the working age population. Decreasing labor force can lead to the development of a vicious circle, where consumption is reduced, tax revenue is reduced, and the state can not provide all the necessary services for its residents. Old age pensions and health care, above all others, risk a stab in the back, as they are the largest items of expenditure of the state budget. Such an attack hurts the employers as well, as it becomes increasingly difficult to find employees, and wages growth hits the competitiveness. Therefore, there has appeared a natural desire on the part of entrepreneurs to accelerate immigration to Estonia. But is it really necessary? How many hands are needed here, and what can we learn from the history of the labor migration in Estonia and the other countries of the European Union?
We have said and written a lot about the fact that there is a need to increase productivity in Estonia, to produce goods with greater added value, etc. All this presupposes the existence of an educated labour that is able to perform more qualified work. Also, most of the developed countries are struggling to attract educated workers. From the point of view of integration and the viability of the nation state, an increase in educational migration is the best suited solution to attract the best talents. If a young man or woman is studying in Estonia for three years, or better yet, for five years, it means that he or she has learned the Estonian language, has met friends and maybe has even found a life partner in Estonia – that is, the probability that he or she will stay in Estonia is higher. Today, every fifth foreign student settles in Estonia after graduation. From the point of view of the economic development of Estonia, even 80 percent of those who are leaving Estonia are not lost. Friends for life often appear in universities, and in the course of academic education young people, due to communication with each other, become smarter in relation to the specific features of the culture of his or her native country.
The shortage of labor, of course, is mitigated by automation. We are gradually getting used to the self-checkouts in shops or speed cameras on highways. There are many areas where the machines take over the jobs of the people, and we speak of a variety of professions: intermediaries, brokers (sharing economy), accountants, assembly line workers, cleaners and so on. In addition, in the future, the retirement age will definitely increase, as with the increase in life span the number of healthy living years also increases. Therefore, the massive admission of low skill workers to Estonia must be treated with great caution.
Of course, we cannot avoid entirely the migration of low skill workers, because in the future in Estonia there will definitely be lots of simple jobs that Estonians will not want to do. There is also a danger that massive immigration of unskilled workers will launch the so-called migration pump effect – migration is a network phenomenon, where the first immigrant is followed by the family, and then – by new immigrants from the same community. In this case, the belief in the almighty migration policy is naive. But more important: both the Estonian experience of Soviet times and the experience of labor migration to Western Europe shows that the arrival of unskilled labor will sooner or later lead to integration problems.
Cinderella-type migration policies are not viable. With the immigration of low skilled workers it is very difficult to rupture a vicious circle: the wage of an low skill worker is low, so he can buy / rent a house in regions with lower prices, thus causing the origination of poor urban regions, dominated by immigrants. The increase in the tax base is supported rather by upward movement of enterprises along the value chain (taxes on salaries of qualified engineers is much higher than that of unskilled workers), and in the future we would rather leave the simple work to robots. Of course, the government should help businesses in the implementation of such changes, within the available means.
Demographic resilience is ensured, primarily, by a family policy
All population forecasts reflect a decline in population of Estonia, and a significant decline – a medium scenario of the UN population projections shows that the number of inhabitants of Estonia will be less than a million by the end of the century. To ensure the demographic viability of the population, there are three possibilities: to increase the birth rate, to increase immigration and to reduce emigration. The level of emigration from Estonia is remaining high, and we lack political instruments to regulate immigration policy. The only method has an indirect value: to increase the well-being of our citizens and, therefore, to have hope that many of those who are leaving now later will return to Estonia. At the same time, to avoid the materialization of the UN scenario of population decline and to maintain the population of Estonia at a stable level, Estonia needs, together with the support of immigration, about the same amount of immigration as in Soviet times. It is clear that a massive increase in such type of immigration is unacceptable to the people of Estonia.
Thus, the key to addressing the demographic viability should be a combination of the three factors listed above. The state has already done a lot (parental allowance, support for large families, etc.). Thus, as another unused element of family policy, the housing policy should be considered. Home and family are inextricably linked. Urban families have fewer children than families in the townships around the city or in the periphery. One of the reasons – smaller size of housing in cities and less playing space for children. The mass relocation of people to the outskirts of the cities is not the solution, because the jobs are mostly concentrated in the city, but the city can become more friendly to families in order to increase fertility. Local governments can do a lot to make cities and towns more child-friendly, to develop infrastructure, kindergartens, playgrounds etc.
To conclude we can say that today’s Estonia is not anymore strictly geographical notion. We talk about transnational Estonia and Estonians. Many Estonians live in other countries but still act in Estonian information base. Estonian culture is much broader concept as we used to think. It covers all people who live in Estonia despite of nationality an all those who live outside Estonia but feel themselves as Estonians. Sustainability of Estonian culture and nation depends on both of these two groups.
The essay is based on the Estonian Human Development Report 2017. We thank all the authors of the report, especially – the editors of its sections – Allan Puur, Rein Ahas, Anu Realo, Anna Verschik and Marek Tamm, as the main points of this essay have been formulated and resulted out of discussions with those people.