The Baltic Republics Turn Toward the West A Letter from Estonia


Tallinn, Estonia. -- After five decades of Soviet rule, this picturesque seaside capital is like Sleeping Beauty, full of energy and amazement but a bit confused.

Although many reminders of the recent Communist past were quickly removed after Estonia became independent less than two years ago, others are not so easy to obliterate.

Much of the city -- except for the medieval fortress area downtown -- carries the scars of Soviet neglect and World War II devastation. And many of the cookie-cutter mikrorayons that Moscow-trained architects planned in the 1960s and 1970s look no different from other drab high-rise suburbs that mushroomed throughout the former Soviet Union.

Yet there has been amazingly rapid change -- from a wholesale embrace of familiar symbols of Western consumer capitalism to the flourishing of religious cults.

One of the most fundamental changes involves a 180-degree turn Estonia has taken in its foreign relations.

Instead of always having to look to Moscow, Estonia is now reorienting itself to the West. And neighboring Finland, with a population of just over 5 million, has replaced Russia, a nation of 150 million people, as Estonia's largest trading partner.

While some lip-service is being paid to cooperation with TC Lithuania and Latvia, Estonia's future seems to lie in a quick economic and political integration with Scandinavian countries.

"Our aim is to make Estonia an industrial production base for Scandinavia," the country's 33-year-old Prime Minister, Mart Laar, said recently. "We are Nordic. It's only natural that our relations with Finland and Sweden are growing."

Along with more distant Hungarians, Finns and Estonians are descendants of the Finno-Ugric tribes which roamed the forests west of the Ural mountains 5,000 years ago. Even today, Estonians and Finns speak similar languages, which are even more closely related than Spanish and Portuguese. Sweden does not share that linguistic heritage. But during World War II it became the new home for a substantial Estonian emigre community which now shows an intense interest in rebuilding Estonia.

During the communist rule, Soviets tried to isolate Estonia from the West but with relatively little success. Although commercial and tourist traffic were strictly regulated, Finnish television was easily visible in much of Estonia. It kept Estonians fully informed about world events, introduced American pop culture and fads, and enabled Estonians to copy quickly the latest fashions.

By the time Estonia decided to break away from the collapsing Soviet Union, its decision-makers commanded so many mobile telephone sets they could bypass the Soviet system and set up emergency communications through the Scandinavian cellular telephone network.

As Estonia re-emerged from the Soviet-imposed isolation two years ago, these kinds of ready-made links quickly proved it had a leg up on both Lithuania and Latvia, its neighboring Baltic republics, in its ability to integrate with the West.

The narrow Gulf of Finland has become a veritable floating highway, as a dozen hydrofoil vessels and car ferries plow between Helsinki and Tallinn every day. Since the fastest one-way crossing takes only an hour and a half, a small but growing number of Finns are now taking advantage of the considerable income differential between the countries and are living like kings in Estonia. (It is said that even a jobless Finn's daily unemployment compensation exceeds the monthly salary of Estonia's prime minister!)

Finnish companies, plagued by a deep recession and high labor and social costs at home, have wasted little time in transferring manufacturing operations to Estonia. No solid figures are available, but the number of jobs involved is said to be considerable, particularly in industries involving textiles and prefabricated construction materials.

Finnish industrialists were also in the forefront of those who in the last years of Soviet power began talking about Via Baltica, an ambitious road and railroad project, that would connect Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Poland. Such a traffic link would bring Finland closer to the Central European markets and offer an alternative to the land and sea route through Sweden and Denmark, which is increasingly congested.

Via Baltica already exists in a rough but usable form, but it has proven to be disappointing so far. Above all, it has run into a morass of corruption and political problems which have turned crossing the Polish-Lithuanian border into a day-long nightmare.

While Baltic cooperation seems to be off to a rocky start, Estonia is aggressively looking for opportunities to put its relatively well-trained work force to profitable use anywhere. For example, if current negotiations are completed, Estonian construction crews may soon be building apartments in Israel.

Antero Pietila, a Baltimore Sun editorial writer, was the paper's Moscow correspondent from 1983 to 1988.

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