I’ve drawn attention to the Baltic nations of Eastern Europe before and how they have successfully mounted a defence of their respective languages and cultures over the last century and more despite the proximity of far greater and more influential neighbours: and contrasted this with Ireland’s abysmal record over the last one hundred years.
Now the Guardian examines Estonia and its emergence as a new global “cyberhub”, a remarkable feat which has seen the tiny country of less than one-and-a-half million souls embrace modernity while retaining its own distinct national identity.
“In 1995, four years after Estonia broke free from the USSR, Toomas Hendrik Ilves read a “very Luddite” book by Jeremy Rifkin called The End of Work.”It argued that with greater computerisation there would be fewer jobs,” remembered Ilves, then a senior diplomat, now the country’s president, “which from his point of view was terrible.”
Ilves and many of his colleagues saw it differently. In a tiny (population: 1.4 million) and newly independent country like Estonia, politicians realised computers could help quickly compensate for both a minuscule workforce and a chronic lack of physical infrastructure.
Seventeen years on, the internet has done more than just help. It is now tightly entwined with Estonia’s identity. “For other countries, the internet is just another service, like tap water, or clean streets,” said Linnar Viik, a lecturer at the Estonian IT College, a government adviser and a man almost synonymous in Estonia with the rise of the web.
“But for young Estonians, the internet is a manifestation of something more than a service – it’s a symbol of democracy and freedom.”
To see why, you just have to go outside. Free Wi-Fi is everywhere, and has been for a decade.
Viik says you could walk 100 miles – from the pastel-coloured turrets here in medieval Tallinn to the university spires of Tartu – and never lose internet connection.
“We realised that if the government was going to use the internet, the internet had to be available to everybody,” Viik said. “So we built a huge network of public internet access points for people who couldn’t afford them at home.”
The country took a similar approach to education. By 1997, thanks to a campaign led in part by Ilves, a staggering 97% of Estonian schools already had internet. Now 42 Estonian services are now managed mainly through the internet. Last year, 94% of tax returns were made online, usually within five minutes. You can vote on your laptop (at the last election, Ilves did it from Macedonia) and sign legal documents on a smartphone. Cabinet meetings have been paperless since 2000.
Doctors only issue prescriptions electronically, while in the main cities you can pay by text for bus tickets, parking, and – in some cases – a pint of beer. Not bad for country where, two decades ago, half the population had no phone line.
To an outsider, it is not immediately clear why Estonia took to the internet so much faster than its Baltic cousins, Latvia and Lithuania. All three won independence at the same time. All three needed quick ways of revamping their ailing infrastructure. But to Estonians, the reason is simple. Estonia has a sizeable Russian-speaking minority, but the country’s ethnic Estonian majority feel Nordic, rather than Slavic or eastern European. In the early 90s, this meant they looked to tech-happy Scandinavia for both inspiration and investment.”
Indeed it was the presence of a significant, and hostile, ethnic Russian minority that led the Estonians to emphasise their distinctiveness as a nation and people, not least through the planned modernisation of their country and society. An example that Ireland could take to heart? We are told that we cannot have an Irish Ireland because we live in an English-speaking world culture. Perforce we must have an English Ireland. Yet the Estonians (like the Finns) have shown that argument to be just another ramshackle excuse for wallowing in a post-colonial inferiority complex.
Unlike us they have had their cake – and eaten it too.
(NÓTA: Of course, one might argue that in Estonia a community we could very loosely term as “ethnic” Estonians came to power with the regaining of independence from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, and so restored and reshaped the nation in their image. In Ireland, on the other hand, it is at least debatable whether or not a community that we might generally describe as “ethnic” Irish took power in the 1920s. In fact it could be suggested that what came to power in post-independence Ireland was an Anglicised-Irish or Anglo-Irish ethnicity, a minority of whom loosely identified with an “ethnic Irish” identity. But that is a story for another day).
NÓTA: Thanks to Siôn for this great link, with some more information on the story above.
- How tiny Estonia stepped out of USSR’s shadow to become an internet titan (guardian.co.uk)
- The Internet in Estonia (marginalrevolution.com)
- A geek shortage in Estonia? (eastist.com)
- Estonian robots boost global online clothing market (rawstory.com)
- Estonian held on allegations of spying for Russia (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Listening Without Prejudice: Tallinn Music Week 2012 (thequietus.com)