Forbes contributor Mark Adomanis has written some interesting pieces about the Baltics recently, from a perspective that is familiar in its insularity and origin. While bemoaning the use of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as ideal economies by conservative analysts in the US, Adomanis has decided to look at other numbers to prove them wrong.
So continues American analysts’ adventures in chart land, where one finds hard data to back his or her assertions about austerity and enterprise, and the other refuting those points by discussing mass emigration and declining population figures in the region, as Adomanis has done most recently. These actual, physical countries rarely penetrate ‘chart land’ because in ‘chart land,’ real countries don’t exist; only charts.
I cannot speak to Latvia or Lithuania, as I have been to Latvia three times, Lithuania once, and, unlike my American countrymen, I don’t feel justified in using them in contests of political ideologies by digging out a graph here or tossing up a chart there.
As for the Estonian population, I’ve said it before and will say it again — nobody really knows what the population of Estonia should be. In 1934, there were about 1.13 million people in the country, roughly 19,000 more than in 1922. During the Second World War, the population decreased by a fifth, due to Soviet mass deportations, refugees fleeing West, and war-related deaths. The rebound of the 1950s and ’60s that led to impressive and sustained population “growth” was based largely on migration from outside Estonia but within the USSR, and on the development of industries and regions that had been, until that time, nonexistent and sparsely populated.
For example, the village of Sillamäe in northeastern Estonia had a population of about 2,600 in 1940. In 1989, there were 20,500 people enumerated. Today, there are 15,800 people living there. Based on data alone, people over there in ‘chart land’ might be able to draw some interesting conclusions about people ‘voting with their feet.’
But if you had actually been to Sillamäe and were familiar with the place, you might realize that Sillamäe was a 100-percent planned Soviet city. As it was planned, its population growth was not organic, either. Since the Soviet-supported economy collapsed decades ago, many people have left, either to Tallinn, or farther west, to London, or even Los Angeles. Why have they left? Some ask. Here’s another question, Why should they have stayed? You are dealing with a city of people who emigrated from other places — Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan. They left those places behind, too. The view of the Gulf of Finland from Sillamäe at sunset can be gorgeous, but it’s not stunning enough to keep people bent on a better deal from moving on to better opportunities when they arise.
So now, in 2013, 22 years after 1991, 73 years after Sillamäe experienced its last organic growth, we are left to wonder — what population can Sillamäe, the former planned Soviet city, naturally support?
As someone who has been to Sillamäe, and has been in Estonia on and off again for more than a decade, I can say that the quality of life in Sillamäe is undoubtedly better today that when it was at the end of Soviet rule. It’s a prettier town, many parts of it cleaned up, hazardous environmental dumping waste sites capped and remediated. People working in Soviet factories like those in Sillamäe had low life expectancies, in part because of the rampant pollution both in the workplace and the city itself. Knowing that, seeing remnant traces of that skeletal Soviet life, if you were to walk into the slick, ultramodern offices of the rare metals producer Silmet today, you would certainly feel like clicking your heels together because life in Sillamäe has improved. And that’s perhaps what gets people so hopeful about that Skype office in Tallinn, you keep hearing about. Because they are familiar, personally, with the starting point.
These are subtle nuances that are lost on the denizens of chart land. We are not talking about props in your theoretical contests, we are talking about real countries inhabited by people with complex histories that cannot be summed up in a line graph.
The New York Times, Forbes, and other media that continue to rely on Russia-based or focused analysts to cover Estonia are doing their readers a disservice. Regional branding aside, Estonia is part of the Nordic economy, and many of the policies enacted by the Estonian government are done with the implications of relations with the ‘mother’ economies of Sweden and Finland in mind. Euro adoption and austerity were both measures favored by Swedish banking interests, which dominate Estonia.