The Republic of Estonia, which is celebrating its centenary this year, has come a long way from the agricultural society of the past. His Excellency DR MART LAANEMÄE describes what makes his country one of Europe’s digital leaders.

Excellency, just like this year’s partner country of the ITB Berlin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Estonia can also score with breath-taking landscapes at the Baltic Sea. Which tourism highlights in your country can you personally recommend and how has tourism changed in recent years?
This year there are many events all over the country to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Republic. Exploring Estonia is easy with fast public transport, good roads as well as bicycle and hiking paths. You can always find something interesting, either nature or culture or both. Good food and good music are available everywhere. Half the country is forest where you are still online over the cellular data network.
The islands are very special. There are over 2000 and if you want to visit many of them you can rent a yacht. Six bigger islands have regular boat connections; all have their own history and culture. You can attend fantastic summer concerts on Naissaar, a short boat ride from Tallinn. On the biggest island, Saaremaa, the Kaali meteor crater is worth visiting anytime, but especially if there is a concert there. The island of Hiiumaa has unspoiled nature and a great summer restaurant with tasty smoked flounder at Kalana, which for most Estonians is the farthest point in the country. If you stay up long enough, you will see amazing sunsets during the white summer nights, when Estonia has up to 19 hours of daylight.
The most important development in recent years is the constant growth of overnight stays by tourists. We hope the people who come for a day trip from Helsinki or Stockholm or with a cruise ship come back for more and stay longer.

After regaining independence in 1991, a year later, the constitution, turning your country into a parliamentary democracy, followed. What changes has your country made during the last 25 years?
Estonia has achieved the main goals of the founders of the Republic 100 years ago – we are a relatively wealthy developed country, per capita in the middle of the G20 and with a seat at every table where the business of Europe is decided (e.g. UN, EU, NATO, Eurozone, OECD, Council of Europe, OSCE, WTO). The rule of law is paramount; the courts are independent and function very well. Transparency International puts Estonia on the same level with France, Uruguay and Japan on their corruption index.
Democracy means that of the many political parties who have been elected to parliament, six have participated in the various government coalitions over the years and each has provided at least one prime minister. There is almost no government debt because Estonians believe you should only spend the money you earn. The economy is diverse and modern, health care is good, the air and water are clean and life expectancy has never been this high. Above all, Estonia has probably the most advanced digital society in Europe today – everybody uses digital services – and this is the key to success in the future.

Among other things, like the Soviet occupation before 1991, about a quarter of your population is still Russian-speaking. The integration of this group is an important but also sensitive topic. What measures do you take to ensure this process?
Estonia and Russia are neighbours whose political border has not moved much during known history, because is mostly water; the land border today is 160 kilometers long. Estonians, Russians and many other nationalities have always lived on both sides of the border and moved back and forth. Many prominent people in one country were born in the other. Before the Russian Revolution, some of my ancestors lived in St. Petersburg, which in the 19th century was the city with the most Estonian inhabitants in the world and was an important centre for Estonian culture and politics. With the founding of the Republic in 1918, all the inhabitants of Estonia became equal citizens and national minorities gained the right to cultural autonomy. These rights still exist today.
Estonian society will always have members who prefer to speak another language such as Russian at home or at work. Many of them identify themselves with another nationality, for example, Ukrainian. There is a Russian-language state school system with good schools, which help to keep Estonia in the top 5 worldwide in the OECD’s PISA tests. Some Estonian authors write in Russian, their books are published and also translated. There are Russianlanguage private and public media. What the government has been doing in recent years is to strengthen public television in the Russian language so viewers can receive information about Estonia and the world, which they would not get from TV programs made in Russia. German broadcasters, especially Deutsche Welle, have been excellent partners in this effort. The e-government is available in Russian (and English).

Since 2004, Estonia has been a member of both the EU and NATO. In addition, your country held the EU Council Presidency in the second half of 2017. What advantages and disadvantages has the EU brought to Estonia in recent years?
The European Union has helped to make Estonia a success and Estonia wants the EU to be successful. Estonia is now part of the largest and richest single market in the world. Before joining, we thought we were doing very well already, but literally the day we joined our economy began to accelerate at an unbelievable rate, for example, trade increased by 20 percent. EU structural funds have helped us make up for the years we lost to communism, we have begun to invest them in human infrastructure rather than concrete and, we believe, we will be able to contribute to the success of the EU more and more in the future.

Due to the geopolitical situation between East and West, the location of Estonia is of great military importance, both for the United States of America as a NATO partner, and for Russia as a direct neighbour state. How do you see the role of Estonia in this ongoing conflict?
Estonia’s location means being the subject of many conflicts between nearby large states and the last thing we want is another such geopolitical conflict in our region. We want to maintain the security we have in Europe today. Security is indivisible and all of the world should be secure, so Estonia has actively contributed to security worldwide for decades. We must continue our efforts in international diplomacy. Estonia also needs to have an appropriate level of military force for defence, this we organize together with our NATO allies.

Financial services, transport and logistics, telecommunications, tourism, trade, and the real estate and construction sectors are among the most important parts in Estonia’s liberal economic policy. On the other hand, Estonia is also considered as a digital pioneer state in Europe. What role does digitization play in the individual economic sectors?
Digitalization makes life easier for everyone. Estonia is a land of small and smaller enterprises, which produce all sorts of machines and equipment for export. Digitalization is an advantage for them. They can use cheaper bookkeeping, banking and many government services. The broadband network needs to be finished. For government digital services, the 4G network that covers the country is sufficient.
Government services are very important. One of these is the fact that every Estonian resident has a digital identity and a digital signature is equivalent to a physical signature. The only things you have to do in person are marriage, divorce and buying/selling real estate. People who want to do business in Estonia can apply for an e-residency card, which offers all these benefits. Estonia leads the world in internet freedom, but a free internet needs excellent protection. Estonia also leads Europe in cybersecurity.
Another service is all kinds of information servers. For example, agriculture is more efficient because every tractor and combine is online and uses state provided electronic maps. Legislation is the most important; for example Estonia already has laws for self-driving cars and so on. You can do anything digitally in Estonia, so digital is crucial for business. Of course, it is important for all these companies to be included in the digitalization of European industry (e. g. Industry 4.0) and so far it has been successful. Here large manufacturing countries like Germany have taken the lead and our companies have followed suit.

In terms of foreign trade, your country cooperates above all with Russia and the EU Member States, to which it mainly exports wood, metal and textiles. In addition, Estonia offers good investment conditions for foreign companies. What do these look like in detail?
Estonia has a diverse economy. Nearly half of Estonia’s exports are various kinds of machines and electrical equipment, produced by many small enterprises. Wood and wood products are important. Estonia is no longer a cheap labour economy. Our advantage is a skilled population, digitalization and good conditions for doing business. Estonia’s main investment incentive is the ease of doing business, thanks to digital services. The tax system is simple and enterprises pay income tax when the profit is paid as a dividend, which encourages investment – if you re-invest your profit, it means you defer the tax until you take out a dividend.

Estonia’s economy is one of the EU’s most energy-intensive and strives for the greatest possible energy independence from Russia. 80 percent of primary energy production is still generated from domestic oil shale. Which current projects in the field of renewable energies could help in this case in the future?
Estonia has no problems with European climate goals, but energy use is high. The computers that a digital society needs use a lot of energy, but the main reason is heating during the long, cold winter. Programs to improve old buildings are reducing energy loss. Estonian cities rely on district heating and the power plants are able to burn different types of fuel. The use of biomass and wind energy is increasing, as well as cleaner burning of fuel. Electricity can sometimes be an efficient way to transport energy, but burning oil shale is a temporary solution. Estonia has to increase renewable energy and be connected to European electricity grids; already today we can buy electricity from Scandinavia.

Estonia enjoys a good international reputation, especially in the field of higher education. The University of Tartu, the Tallinn University of Technology and the former College of Education renamed “Tallinn University” in 2005 are excellent examples of this. On the other hand, many young, well-educated academics are leaving. How does your government want to counteract this trend?
Estonia is an integral part of the Baltic Sea region and has particularly close links – including digitally linked e-government – to Finland, just 80 kilometers across the water. Many people work for the same international company in different countries of the region, and especially those people who work in Finland tend to commute back and forth and keep their homes in Estonia. Historically, Estonia has always been an open country. Many people have come to Estonia and many people have left and come back. Two important examples: 500 years ago it was the artist Michel Sittow, in our lifetime the composer Arvo Pärt. The government has to keep Estonia an attractive place to live and work. Today, more people are coming than leaving.

Estonia has an internationally oriented, diverse and vibrant cultural scene. For example, the capital Tallinn together with Turku in Finland has been European Capital of Culture in 2011, and there is also a common German-Estonian cultural history over 700 years. Which current cultural projects would you like to highlight?
Estonians like to be very musical, but we love theatre the most, and our larger theatres even offer translations, so visit any theatre! Often you don’t need to understand the language. Larger theatres have surtitles. You can even see Estonian theatre productions in Germany organized by German theatres!
This year there will be a large number of concerts in Germany – for example, the Konzerthaus in Berlin has chosen many different artists to present this year. In May this year, Estonia is featured at the “Nordischer Klang” music festival in Greifswald and in July at the Rudolstadt festival in Thuringia. But, as I said, this is the year to visit Estonia because there will be events taking place everywhere throughout the year.

Official name: Eesti Vabariik (Republic of Estonia)
Capital: Tallinn
Area: 45,227 km²
Population: 1.3 million
Population density: 29 inhabitants per km²
Official languages: Estonian, Russian as common language
Government: Republic, parliamentary democracy
Head of state: President Kersti Kaljulaid
Head of government: Prime Minister Jüri Ratas
National anthem: Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm



Interview: Tino Barth Photos: Mohamed El-Sauaf