Reelika Virunurm

Reelika spent over four years living in Germany, which she considers her second home country. Back in Estonia, she is working in communications, writing in her free time, and also showing tourists how to eat blueberries in the forest. She is trying to travel as much as possible and learn a new language whenever possible.

15 years of Estonia’s EU membership – victories, challenges and future developments

Estonia has been a member state of the European Union for 15 years – Estonian World takes a closer look at the journey towards the EU, the biggest achievements during these years and contemplates the developments and challenges the country might face in the future. 

The first vote in my life that I was legally allowed to cast was probably the most important one. It was 14 September 2003, I had just turned 18 and still remember how proud I felt being able to participate in the referendum concerning the potential Estonian membership of the European Union. On that day, I walked to a polling station very close to my home – and everyone in my family participated as well. The results spoke for themselves – 66.83 per cent of the Estonian voters supported joining the EU, and the turnout was 64 per cent.

Born in the year of the perestroika – a reformist initiative launched by the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1985 – one of my first memories was standing in the Baltic Way that united approximately two million people standing hand-in-hand all the way from Tallinn to Vilnius. I also had a father who joined Kodukaitse (the Home Defence Guard) right after Estonia regained its independence in 1991 – all of this means that I am a child of the generation who very well understands that being a part of Europe is the most important thing for Estonia’s future.

On that day in 2003, I could not yet imagine that there would be a time when enrolling for my master’s degree programme at a German university would be just as simple as enrolling for the universities in Tartu or Tallinn. A antime where Estonia would not only be a part of the EU, but also Schengen and NATO. I could not yet imagine that driving from Tallinn to Trieste, Tarragona or Toulouse would be almost as easy as driving to Türi.

I have often wondered what would have happened and where would Estonia be today if the results of that September referendum had been any different. Estonia has not only developed faster that anyone could have expected, and experienced immense social, economic and even psychological benefits in the process, but has also become a trusted partner within the EU. A partner with a voice that has its own representation in Brussels, who held presidency of the Council of the EU in 2017; a country with the easternmost EU border who is also considered an expert in many matters concerning relations with Russia.

Estonia’s road to the EU

Estonia is often depicted as a wunderkind among the countries formerly occupied by the Soviet Union. In a study conducted by the US think tank, StrategEast, in 2018 and 2019, Estonia was considered the most westernised of the former Soviet-occupied countries – it received 23 points out of the maximum 25 points for political and legal westernisation.

This does not come as a surprise to Estonians themselves. If there is anything that the media in the Western countries might not take into account, or even understand, is that Estonians have always considered themselves European – even during the Soviet occupation, or especially during these hardships. For most Estonians, joining the European Union was simply a continuation of the politics of the Republic of Estonia, founded in 1918.

Estonia joined the EU on 1 May 2004, the Schengen area in 2007; and in 2011, Estonia was also the 17th member state to join the eurozone. According to the latest Eurobarometer, 81% of the people in Estonia feel that they are citizens of the EU and trust in the EU lies at 53%.

In his official statement, marking 15 years since Estonia joined the EU, the foreign minister, Urmas Reinsalu, emphasised that joining the bloc and exercising our member rights was the will of the Estonian people, and that former governments and diplomats have all worked very hard to make this happen. “The European Union membership has made Estonia more influential, has immensely increased our security and has given Estonian people additional rights and freedoms,” he said.

Klen Jäärats, the director for European Union affairs at the Government Office, is a man who has worked in Europe and with Europe for years. He does not hesitate to quote one of the statements by the Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, right away: “To put it very simply, we are at the table, not on the menu.” Jäärats says that joining the EU is what we wanted, and we have used this window of opportunity very well – he goes on to quote the Irish poet Seamus Heaney and his “June Poem”:

“History says,

Don’t hope

On this side of the grave…

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.”

“Great things can, indeed, happen when history and opportunities come together, and you use them well. Estonia has used these opportunities more than once in the course of history – for example, both times when we became independent, and also when we joined the EU and NATO,” Jäärats asserts. “At the same time, we must remember that everything we have achieved is not just thanks to opportunities or sheer luck, it is first and foremost thanks to the actions and heroic deeds of our own people.”

Jäärats notes that it would be much harder to start this journey towards freedom and democracy one more time. In his opinion, Estonians are currently already forgetting the hardships on the journey towards the EU. “We did not simply decide to ‘go’ or ‘join’ the EU, we were accepted into this alliance. It was a rough journey – a course of obstacles to fulfil the criteria to be accepted,” he emphasises.

He says it’s still somewhat hard for people from the West to understand the rapid development of many newer EU member states. “I have tried to explain this development to some of my colleagues in Western Europe – how Estonians have experienced completely different societies, different economic systems, different value systems, not to mention three different currencies. This has all happened within one generation and would be a huge change for every country – the protagonists and real heroes of the story are Estonian people who have suffered through all of this but have mastered everything in the end.”

Jäärats also agrees with me that Estonians have always felt part of Europe. Lennart Meri, the first president of Estonia after the restoration of independence, strongly supported the theory that we never left Europe, Europe simply returned to us. “Still, the story of the EU has always been much more about the large Western European countries – France, Germany and the UK – and the stories of Eastern European countries have mostly been forgotten. The narrative of the EU, especially the last 15 years, has largely been about getting re-acquainted, getting to know each other again,” he says.

The benefits of EU membership for Estonia

Jäärats emphasises that the EU is closely tied to NATO and Schengen. “I would say that the most important public benefit is definitely Estonia’s safety and defence – one of the main reasons we joined these alliances. Looking back, thank God we did!”

The EU has, of course, helped Estonia in developing a lot of aspects of our daily life – water management, new roads and infrastructure, fast internet, to name a few benefits. “On a larger scale, however, the EU has helped us to feel safe again. Preserving our liberal market economy also becomes more important,” he explains.

Sven Mikser, a former foreign minister, backs up the safety argument. “Belonging to the EU is giving Estonia – a small country and a small nation in a geopolitically complex area – the certainty that tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, Estonia will still be a safe place for living and working, a country to invest in. We can go discover the world from Estonia and then come back home,” he told Estonian World.

Klen Jäärats also emphasises that the membership in the EU has brought Estonia more freedom. “Estonians wanted to leave the Soviet Union not only to be able to buy bananas in a store, but to have more personal freedom all around, and all the other freedoms and liberties that came with it. These freedoms and liberties have only continued expanding since then – we can travel more freely than ever, not to mention the free movement of goods and people.”

From a country behind the Iron Curtain whose citizens could not travel freely, if at all, Estonia’s passport has now become one of the best in the world – it ranks 12th in the world by its total visa-free score. “We mostly feel European when we travel outside of Europe – the world is very large and the more you travel, the more you understand the difference between Europe and other corners of the earth. There are not many places that are an oasis of freedom in the world – most of them still comprise of Western countries,” Jäärats observes.

Estonia’s achievements in EU

Estonia joined the EU while being one of the most euro-sceptical countries. But during the last 15 years, Estonians’ support for the EU has steadily risen and is currently among the highest in the union. According to the latest Eurobarometer, 81% of the people in Estonia feel they are citizens of EU and trust in the European Union lies at 53%. Estonia is not alone in that matter – the level of trust towards EU is at an all-time high in most member countries.

Matti Maasikas, the undersecretary of European affairs at the foreign ministry, emphasises that Estonia has established itself well as an equal partner in the EU. “We play a crucial and responsible part in shaping EU common policies, most importantly everything related to the Digital Single Market, Neighbourhood and Enlargement policies, Cohesion Policy, Common Agricultural Policy, everything related to connectivity as well as many other areas,” he says.

Maasikas remembers that even for seasoned European diplomats, some small European countries like Estonia were not so well known when accepted to the EU in 2004. It has all changed now. The “new members of the club” have grown into their roles and have become much better known and understood by others. “According to the latest EU Cohesion Monitor by the respected ECFR think tank, Estonia is 14th on the list of member states that other EU countries want to build coalitions with. Quite a diplomatic and political achievement, given Estonia’s relative weight among the smallest members of the club,” he notes.

Klen Jäärats agrees with these observations and states that Estonia has focused mainly on being a respected and trustworthy partner – a partner whose voice matters and whose collaboration is always welcomed. “It is especially important in the area of security where Estonia has become somewhat of an expert, especially for our region, for obvious reasons,” he says.

“We are, of course, a very small country with very few people, but as Jakob Hurt said, we can be great in our spirit. The general notion in Europe seems to be that Estonians are practical and open-minded people and it is easy to cooperate and collaborate with them – this kind of trust is harder to measure or publish in numbers, it is currently very high, and very important,” Jäärats adds.

Estonia’s contribution is also underlined by Urmas Paet, a former foreign minister, and now a member of the European Parliament. “Our contribution to the EU consists of our peaceful experience during huge societal changes, a healthy common sense that dictates our balanced and responsible fiscal policies, and the know-how and activity directed towards developing our world-known digital solutions as well as cyber security,” he told Estonian World.

Another former foreign minister and a lifelong diplomat, Marina Kaljurand, told Estonian World that “European Union has restored Estonia’s place in Europe and has given us a 27 times stronger and more powerful voice.”

The challenges in the EU and Estonia’s future

According to Matti Maasikas, the European Union faces immense challenges, both from outside and inside. He states that the rules-based global order and the benefits of globalisation that EU stands for and embodies, are being challenged. “In this situation, our political leaders and elites face a tremendous task to explain the benefits of the European integration much better. First of all, to our own citizens, but also to our partners abroad. We all must have the courage to make the positive case for the European Union.”

Klen Jäärats emphasises that the larger processes and developments in the world are not going anywhere and it is not possible to hide our head in the sand and think that they cannot touch us in small Estonia.

“One large topic, where the EU definitely has to take a stand and be active, is the global structure of the world that is mainly from the 20th century and largely developed by the West – I am talking about IMF, United Nations, WTO and other Western institutions,” he explains. “In a wider world, Europe is still simply a small peninsula, with only 500 million people. In a few decades, the population of the world might be around 10 billion – this is a huge change that our generation will most probably experience first-hand. This will be the key topic of the future.”

Jäärats mentions migration as another big topic. “What consequences this will bring, is a question that needs to be tackled in the coming years. Estonia has always been a supporter of stronger borders – not within the EU, but definitely the outside borders. This topic is of a huge political concern everywhere – and Estonia again has its own experience from history. Regaining control of the borders is important, but also depends on the solidarity between the countries, as mentioned before,” he says.

On an even larger scale, Jäärats can see two other “megatrends” in the world – that could be seen as crises, but there could also be opportunities. “First of all, the ecological crisis – it’s not just about the weather or the climate, but about sustainable lifestyle and sustainable development,” he notes. “I think Europe needs to find an opportunity in this crisis. We need to turn this into a new ‘green revolution’. I might be a pessimist, but I do not believe that people will change their behaviour. The solution would be to focus on and invest in the green technologies.”

Another great trend – a challenge and an opportunity in one – will be the technology. “The liberal market is based on an agreement on how the society works. Information technology is definitely changing all of these agreements. It is a huge system with giants like Facebook and Google, not to mention the large Chinese enterprises,” he says.

Quo vadis, Europa?

On the question of whether the European Union is still the best solution for Estonia, Jäärats sees no other alternative.

“The experience we have had during the last 15 years has been very intense – we have experienced the largest financial and economic crises of our times, we have seen European borders under attack, and the migration crisis that has followed it. I do believe Europe can manage these crises well – for example the Greek economic crisis,” he points out. “What has kept us together is solidarity – and solidarity is always based on countries helping each other.”

He underlines that the giving and receiving within the EU has always been equal. Estonia has not only received the wonderful benefits, but also contributed a lot – to security, development aid and solving issues. “The EU is a mechanism for finding solutions and no system is ever perfect, but no other system from the past or present even comes close to it. Such a deep connection and co-operation between the states does not exist in other alliances.”

Jäärats sums up his observations with a few good comparisons. “Some people gladly criticise things or simply do not want to deal with issues. It is always best to be in a system that forces you out of your comfort zone. It is always easy to fall into your own egocentric world and not change anything, but it is more important to be a part of a system that makes you tackle things that need to be tackled – but can often be ignored in democratic countries.”

“Another great quality of the EU is that we are in an environment of the best countries of the world, which is very motivating. Like football, it is no fun playing against an easy team, but instead challenging yourself against the best in the Champions League. The European Union is definitely the Champions League here.”

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Cover: Estonian and EU flags hoisted in front of the Kadriorg Presidential Palace on the morning of 1 May 2004, the day Estonia joined the European Union (courtesy of the Estonian foreign ministry).

What is it like to work for one of the fastest growing Estonian startups?

Kreet Prants, the verification operations lead at Veriff, the Estonian startup of the year, gives an overview of the fast-growing company’s goals, working culture and the kind of people it is looking for to join its team.

Veriff is one of the fastest growing startups in Estonia, providing web and mobile identity verification solutions that help reduce fraud and meet “Know Your Customer” (KYC) requirements, and offering innovative online identity verification solutions to other companies. I go investigating in its comfortable and bright office right in the middle of the Tallinn business district. I am greeted by Kreet Prants, the verification operations lead, to tell me more about Veriff, its goals, company culture and the kind of people it is looking for to join its team.

Kreet, could you tell a bit more about yourself. What is your background and why did you decide to join Veriff?

I have previously worked at TransferWise, also as verification operations lead, and this was where I got to know and understand the processes and complexities of verification better. I spent altogether four years at TransferWise and felt I wanted to put all the things that I learned during that time to good use somewhere else as well. Veriff so far has proven that this is the environment where I can do that and develop my skills.

The field of verification – making sure people’s documents are valid – is the same here, but the goals are different. Veriff has a very clear goal in mind: we want to make sure people are able to access the services they need to wherever and whenever. At the same time, we aim to give our client companies the sense of security they need to have to allow their customers to use their services. It is a very clear and strong goal and the whole company is coming together to make that happen. We are moving very fast towards making it a reality and it is very exciting to be here.

How would you describe the ideal candidate for the position of a verification specialist? 

First and foremost, we are looking for people who find verification really interesting. This can be for very different reasons, because the people in our team also have very different backgrounds and majority of them have not worked in this field before.

All of our team members work towards solving this puzzle together: we are figuring out very complex problems by breaking them down to smaller pieces and solving them one by one to get people verified safely and securely. We do not compromise on the security aspect.

So, the ideal candidate is enthusiastic about verification and understands the problems we are solving with our product. They should feel motivated by the opportunity to help other people – because this is what it’s all about. It is not only about helping the clients who want to get verified, but also helping your teammates and helping the companies who are using our service. The general attitude of helpfulness, paying attention to what is happening around you and being ready to pitch in when it is needed, is crucial.

The team is very diverse, and you all seem to be very open-minded.

Yes, the team is very diverse, and it is not a goal on its own, it has simply happened. I like it a lot as it shows that it does not matter what your background is or where you are coming from – if you share our common goals and characteristics, then you should fit right in very fast. It is all about the attitude!

We currently have people from 10 different nationalities – and this number might be outdated very soon already. In our team, it is still 50/50 – half of the people are local and the other half from outside of Estonia.

How is the work organised daily?

Our service runs 24/7, which means we are available around the clock, including weekends and public holidays. All the teams also must have this availability – this generally means we work in shifts. The shifts change in time, depending where customers need us the most. As our team grows, there is also more flexibility in scheduling. We do all the planning in advance to make sure the people can arrange their lives accordingly and have plenty of free time to spend outside of work.

The majority of our day focuses on actual reviews of different documents, analysing the facematching, looking at the bigger picture of the data we have gathered and making decisions based on this data – to understand if it makes sense, if there is a problem, and marking down these decisions so that companies can use it in order to make their own decisions.

We don’t expect people to come in and already know all of this by heart; we have different resources, reference materials and databases and we have a full training to get people up to speed. Eventually it just comes down to this personal interest in verification again – you should have this goal in mind that the world is not uniform, people come from very different countries and backgrounds – and use different documents. Access to different technical solutions is not the same everywhere, but we still want to give everyone an option to use our service. This is what our verification team is working on every day – putting all the knowledge we receive from doing the checks back into product development.

What kind of different teams you have?

We have one big verification team, but within it we also have smaller teams who are moving towards focusing on their specific areas of support, so that they can bring additional expertise – for example about different countries, specific document types and so on.

In general, we are working together, we are sharing different responsibilities, we are always flexible when helping each other out, but we are also taking on specific team focuses, so we can research some topics in depth.

What are the possibilities for growth and development within the company? How do you motivate people? 

In verification, there are a few parallel threads that are very relevant. One of the first things you can develop is to become an expert at what you are doing – really advancing your knowledge of different regions and countries as well as different document types. This knowledge will help you not only in Veriff, but also in different areas of compliance in many other companies as well.

Another similar thread has to do with anti-fraud where you can build on your knowledge of documentation and country-specific details and add general understanding about how our product works and what are the different checks we can build into the system, identifying the patterns how fraudsters are trying to bypass the checks.

We are always helping our customers, so there is always an option to focus more on the customer support aspect. Helping the businesses is somewhat similar to account management where you really have to get to know a specific customer very well. We have a handful of customers that we know in detail, so in many cases you can help them before they even come to you with an issue or a question, because you understand where they come from and where they might need some clarification.

On a wider scheme on things, there are also other teams in Veriff besides verification – you can always decide where your skills shine and where you feel you can benefit the most, so there are always opportunities in other teams as well.

It goes without saying that there is always the possibility to become a team lead. We are, for example, organising leadership skills bootcamps, for people who have not necessarily been in a leading role in the past, but feel like they want to develop their skills for the future. This is meant for people regardless of their roles, so that people feel confident when they take on this extra responsibility.

What motivates you and the team most about working at Veriff?

For me personally, I always want to see the impact of my work and feel it is meaningful and that again comes down to the goal that we are working towards.

When I have a very big, clear and relatable goal for myself and within the company, then this is a big driver for me. I know that by doing what I do, I can help a lot of people now and in the future with real problems – and this will help them save time, money and have a better life overall. Personal impact is very important.

Another crucial point to go along with it is that besides my personal impact, I can also feel that the whole team feels the same and is doing this together, so that I am not the only person responsible for everything. Everyone is hands-on-deck, if something needs to be fixed then the whole company comes together to solve that problem. This feeling of people having your back, helping and supporting you when you need it – especially in an environment where the tempo is fast and the goals we set for ourselves are high, is very reassuring.

What about other benefits – do you have team events and get-togethers?

We are currently trying out a lot of new things – as right now, our growth pace has become faster. Initially, we just had different team events and company events, but now we are adding all kinds of different formats in-between, so that even in smaller groups people can find time to come together and share ideas, learn together, different workshops, leadership bootcamp sessions, lunch sessions to learn from other team. We are constantly adding different formats where people can come together and learn from each other as well as get to know each other better.

Veriff also participated in project Career Hunt that was organised by Work in Estonia in order to attract more talents from other countries as well. How do you support and help people in the process of moving to Estonia and settling here? 

First, because our team already is very international, we have gathered first-hand experience about the challenges and difficulties of helping people to move to Estonia. Veriff, of course, helps with documentation, which is quite easy for Estonian startup new joiners. The new joiner simply has to take this leap of faith and decide they would like to come to Estonia themselves, but from that point on we will definitely help them get settled and our team members always make an effort to help everyone feel at home.

Can you give some insight or hints about the salary as well?

It is important that people understand that we really value the effort needed for night shifts, as it might affect your personal life and needs some extra adjustment – this we compensate with additional premium. In general, our salaries definitely match the complexity of the work – and overall, we are investing in the general working environment as well. Veriff employees have sports benefits compensations, healthy food and snacks in the office, they are able to take part in all kinds of different events to help them unwind as well.

What is the bigger picture for Veriff and where do you see the company is going and growing in the future?

We have very ambitious goals. I cannot give all of them away right away, but what we are working towards is figuring out how to give the opportunity of verification for people all around the world. In some countries, things are straightforward, and the documents are issued in a safe and secure way by the government. Many governments, however, are maybe not putting as much effort into security measures. Taking all of this into consideration and figuring out what are the alternatives we can bring to the table, so that companies feel that they can trust our checks and allow the people to get access to the necessary services.

Our clients still need to feel it is an effortless process which only takes a minute in their daily lives, it is easy to understand and fast. The bigger goal is to reach people in all of the countries and allow them to get access to different services they might need.

Currently Veriff service is already available all around the world, although the physical office is based only in Tallinn.This will also change, and we are planning to expand to other locations in the future.

Any last piece of advice?

I would like to invite people to consider joining Veriff (or any other company) based on what the real goal of this company is – and if it resonates with them. You can find different opportunities to grow and develop almost everywhere, and the salary usually will match the effort that you are putting into your work, but it all starts with the goal of the company. Is it something you really care about? Is it something you want to help come to life? If yes, then let yourself be heard!

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Cover: Verification operations lead Kreet Prants (in the middle with the white shirt) with her team.

Political scientist Heather Grabbe: Let’s make the EU the best it can be

Estonian World sat down with Dr Heather Grabbe, a political scientist focussing on open society concerns, who believes that the people of Europe should make the European Union the best it can be, address its flaws and solve its problems.

On 2 October, the Open Estonia Foundation held the XXII Open Society Forum in Tallinn, discussing the topic, the “Long Shadow of the Financial Crisis – Social Strains and Economic Recovery” on a wider level, as well as concentrating on “Estonia – State of Affairs”.

Estonian World had a talk with Dr Heather Grabbe, the executive director of the Open Society European Policy Institute. Grabbe is a political scientist focussing on open society concerns and issues and has been listed among the five most important “Women who shape Brussels 2017” by the Politico magazine.

What is the exact purpose of the Open Society European Policy Institute?

The purpose of the Open Society European Policy Institute is to encourage the European Union to pay attention to human rights and European values in all of its external areas like laws, security, trade etc. Within the European Union, we make sure that the EU’s values, particularly the rule of law, human rights, rights of minorities and vulnerable people as well as gender quality are observed and continued to live and breathe. An open society is a society where people are able to discuss these issues and where the rights are a healthy part of the society. We work to make sure that the EU really upholds these values and is implementing them.

Also, to keep raising the difficult issues there are in Europe today, particularly of the most vulnerable people – we work a great deal on the “voiceless” people, who really don’t have voices in the political debate: for example, the Roma, who are the largest minority in Europe and have very little representation. There are also other vulnerable groups and minorities in many countries that we work with, but the Roma, they have very little representation anywhere and their voice also needs to be heard.

What are the most difficult issues we are facing in Europe today?

The key issue is changing expectations among the public and about different institutions. There has been a fall in the level of trust in democratic institutions, there’s been a rise of political parties and political leaders who essentially say to the public that they cannot trust political institutions. That is a very big challenge because if you don’t have these institutions, who does speak up for rights? These are the institutions we have relied on in democratic countries for several hundred years already. It’s quite hard to maintain public interest in democratic debate if they don’t believe in the institutions of democracy.

A democracy has to live and breathe through the public engagement in it. But if people believe that, for example, political parties don’t work in their interest or if they don’t believe that the parliament can be trusted to work in their interest, if they don’t engage in public debate, then we start to lose democracy. How do you restore trust in the institutions, especially if these institutions are not necessarily performing very well?

“A democracy has to live and breathe through the public engagement in it.”

At the Open Society European Institute, we are not here to defend institutions, we are here to say, “let’s make them work the best they can for the public interest”. It is really worrying how much institutions are not responding to the fall in public trust by engagement with the public.

Estonia sees itself as between East and the West as well as much more Nordic. Similar to the AfD in Germany, there has been a rise of populism in Estonia in the last few years. Do you see a general loss of trust and a rise of populism in Europe or are there different divides within Europe? How do you view Europe as a whole – is it still divided into East and West and what are the general tendencies?

The main thing is that populism is a style of politics that adapts itself to the political opportunities available in a particular environment, in a particular country. Which is why we see a variety of a different kind of populism across Europe. Obviously, there are some common themes, as you pointed out – the migration sentiment is a kind of narrow acceptable version of racism. In the past, populist parties tended to be anti-Semitic; nowadays they tend to be more anti-Muslim. Still, all of them find that they can talk about migration without sounding as if they were overtly racist, but still putting forward the idea that the foreigners are to blame for the country’s problems. So that is a fundamental thing.

Populism is not so much an ideology, as a view of what politics and society are about. I’ve done quite a lot of academic work on this and I’ve drawn on the works of Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist, as well as other British political scientists, who strongly claim that populism is a normal part of politics. It is usually on the fringes, but what is happening now is that it’s growing so much faster due to the vacuum that is left by the mainstream, traditional parties. Their withdrawal has allowed populism to flourish and to become much bigger that it was before. It has increased from 8% of the vote in 2000 to 24% of the vote now across the whole of the European Union.

Now, there are some big differences across countries in these figures, but all in all, it is really significant that there is just so much increase in many different countries, as you pointed out as well. What we see is that populism moulds itself around the national concerns. In countries like the Netherlands, where LGBT rights are well-respected and there is little homophobia, populists don’t oppose gay rights – in fact, they do the opposite. Geert Wilders and his party, they, in turn, blame the Muslims for not respecting gay rights, or women’s rights. It is moulding itself to what’s happening in that country.

Whereas, in Hungary, there are much higher levels of antisemitism, and the populism is drawing on that background and blaming Jews. You do not see that much in countries where antisemitism is much lower. It is this moulding of the populism that is so significant.

“Populism moulds itself around the national concerns.”

What is so dangerous about populism at the moment is that it reaches this kind of high level, especially the number of populists there are in any government. The populists are usually not offering any kind of solutions, they are pointing the fingers of blame. Typically, three fingers of blame – they blame the elite, the external enemy and the internal enemy. This blame politics leads to hatred, it leads to social tensions, it leads to fears. That means that very often it does not lead to solutions or long-term policy proposals, because there are often very few actual policy proposals from populists.

This is an issue in national politics, but it is even more of a problem in the European Union, because populists oppose many European values – of tolerance, equality, respect for the rights of minorities, gender equality etc. But populists also oppose the EU’s working methods, because they spread a narrative that you cannot trust foreigners, you cannot trust people who are different from you – that means that they oppose the whole concept of foreigners working across borders on joined projects, and especially elites working across borders – what the European Union is actually all about.

Populists are absolutely against the idea that the elite of their country should be the elite of other countries and do deals, because for them, negotiation is not possible, compromise is not possible and foreigners are to be mistrusted. To sum it up, their worldview and mindset is absolutely opposite of that of the European integration.

This theme is very appropriate in Estonia as well. Our main concern, I guess, is still the difficult Soviet past and integrating our Russian-speaking population better. However, the populists here have mostly attacked the refugees, the Muslims, gay rights – all of it which make a very small part of the actual day-to-day issues. It seems to be a fear-mongering of something that is not really the main concern.

That is very typical of populism. The politics of fear is something that works exceptionally well in countries where people have reached a high level of prosperity – for example, Austria – and they feel they have a lot to lose through the changes. In countries that have suffered from dictatorship or very difficult history recently, like Estonia, but also, for example, Spain and Portugal, there is often a less of an appeal of populism.

“In countries that have suffered from dictatorship or very difficult history recently, like Estonia, but also, for example, Spain and Portugal, there is often a less of an appeal of populism.”

Populists can claim there are Muslims who are coming, claim there is a threat, but people have, in their living memory, known that things can be much worse that the democratic system they work and live in now. That seems to have an immunising impact.

I can agree that a lot of the Spanish people still remember the times under Franco, and they often compare it to the Soviet times in Estonia, even when the latter seemed to have been even worse.

Exactly, they value the rights and the freedom they now have, they understand that democratic institutions are incredibly important and that they are the source of our freedom. That is what I think what is missing in debate in some countries in Europe where there is a sense of taking many things for granted.

What would be your message to the Estonian society? One of the last polls we had recently stated that quite a high number, 69%, still supports the EU. Estonians do see and feel the benefits of the EU and Schengen.

I am definitely not an expert on Estonia, but I have had the pleasure of coming here for visits since the mid-1990s. Particularly during the period before Estonia was accepted to the EU, I was here a lot and find Estonia to be a very fascinating country.

That is a very high number, you can be proud of yourself. Much higher than in many countries at the moment. It is crucial that Estonians see the benefits of the EU and Schengen despite the economic crisis of the last decade. Quite soon after Estonia joined the eurozone, there was the economic crisis, a big contraction in the GDP and a lot of suffering in this country. And yet, people do not blame the EU, which I was think is also very interesting. Very different from certain other countries!

On some level, the Estonian people are even proud that our government took austere measures to cope with the crisis. I wrote my master thesis back in 2011, the height of the Greek economic crisis, while studying at a German university, and analysed the attitudes and media discourse in Estonia, Germany and the UK towards Greece and the crisis itself. All three countries took a very different approach and discourses, but to sum up, it seems that with the Estonian mentality that, in tough times, you have to tighten your belt, hang on and hope things will get better in the future, instead of always placing blame. I guess these polls also show that my generation is still hopeful about the future and that we can change something.

It is actually very important that countries like Estonia engage in the European Union. It might seem this is a union of big countries, especially Germany, and very often people get the impression that the voices of small countries don’t count. Actually, they do. The way the EU was set up was to make sure that smaller countries’ opinion, votes and voices are also heard. For example, the way a lot of the business is done through the European Council, very often it is done by consensus.

The Estonian representation still very much matters and that is why the EU is still the best sense of security in an uncertain world, where the whole of Europe is going to become less significant on the global stage – both in the terms of the GDP as well as in terms of population.

There was a nice comment by Paul-Henri Spaak who was the Belgian prime minister decades ago – he said, “There are only small countries in Europe now. The only difference is between those who know it and those who don’t.” I think there can be a delusion of grandeur among some of the larger member states. They might think they are big now, but over the coming decades, they are going to get smaller and smaller in terms of GDP and population.

“There are only small countries in Europe now. The only difference is between those who know it and those who don’t.”

On a global stage, the EU is absolutely essential in the European countries who are all together in the EU in facing global challenges that no one country can face on their own, no matter how big – climate change, digital revolution, changing demographics – which, in turn, will change welfare systems. These are the things that need pan-European coordination, where we need to pull together and speak with one voice. Within that voice, the voices of the smaller countries still definitely count, and they have a role to play.

My main advice is that let’s make the EU the best it can be, let’s address its flaws, solve the problems within EU and let’s appreciate that this is the best thing that has ever happened in Europe.

Winston Churchill also used to say that democracy is the worst form of government we have, except all those other kinds that we’ve tried from time to time. The European Union is also the worst way of managing Europe as a region, except all the others that we’ve tried over the centuries that have led into terrible wars and terrible tyranny.

How should the EU prepare for the next crisis, be it economic or a value crisis?

The value crisis is definitely raging right now. There are obviously things that need to be done to prepare for the next economic crisis and I think most countries know very well what needs to be done, the question is only the political will to do it.

On the value crisis that also really concerns me currently, I think the EU needs to get a grip on the rule of law, because it is the rule of law that allows the whole of the rest of European integration to function. Without the rule of law, there can be no single market, there can be no European arrest warrants, there can be no Schengen with borderless travel. If we allow some member states or some parties to undermine the rule of law, by defying the rulings of the Court of Justice, by saying that they simply won’t implement some parts of the EU law – that will destroy the whole system.

This is why it really matters – it is not just a matter of some unpleasant populism in small countries that doesn’t matter, that is not the actual situation. The actual matter is that some governments and some parties who would like to take over the state institutions in their own countries are threatening now the whole European Union by undermining the rule of law.

This is really worrying and, I think, it is absolutely essential that the EU prepares for the next crisis and gets grip on the values now. Of course, the European Union also needs to develop a comprehensive migration and asylum policy. It is only possible to do that if there is a problem-solving mindset among all of the member states, instead of a do-it-alone mindset among some.

What would be your advice for UK? Is there anything left to save?

As a pro-European British person, is it really painful to watch my country’s government against the interests of the British people. I firmly believe Britain’s future would be far better remaining in the EU – the economic future, but also its cultural future.

I hope that after Brexit, Britain will still have a very close relationship with the EU and work can be done to re-build ties with other countries, including Estonia. As you might know, you have some really big fans in Britain! I hope that after Brexit, the top debates about Europe and about the foreigners, especially about the xenophobia that has grown, will diminish. It will be a difficult process and I think Britain will go through a long period of economic pain and a slowly dawning realisation that this was a huge mistake.

Where do you think this sudden xenophobia and hatred of foreigners, Eastern Europeans, Polish workers etc in the UK really comes from? What can be done?

Psychologists write on that topic all the time – it is simply a fear of the foreign, fear of the unknown. Political leaders and opinion-formers, writers and academics should not encourage those fears in Europe, it only gets worse. They have the responsibility not to do that, but to educate people, to talk about the common humanity that binds us.

“Political leaders, opinion-formers, writers and academics have the responsibility to educate people, to talk about the common humanity that binds us.”

Also, they need to talk about the need for labour outside our own country to fill the employment gaps and need for an open economic economy, especially in terms of the labour market. In Britain, there has not only been a dereliction of duty, but also an irresponsible fanning of the flames of xenophobia – there was nothing natural or preordained about it, that was a political choice made by certain political parties.

All of this has a long-term effect on the British society and it damages the social fabric, it affects families, it affects children, it affects everyone who suffer from this much more xenophobic atmosphere.

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More information on the Open Estonia Foundation can be found on its website.

The Mindvalley University in Tallinn – a month full of international experts and learning

Estonian World visited the Mindvalley University’s Tallinn session and spoke with some of the attendees to find out more about the programme that calls itself “a tribe of changemakers”.

The Estonian capital is crowded with tourists every summer from May to September, but one may have noticed that during the last month there was an influx of an incredibly positive international crowd in Tallinn. People from all over the world were taking part in the Mindvalley University in Tallinn, from 28 June to 22 July.

“A tribe of changemakers”

Mindvalley is an international education and technology company concentrated on personal growth, with clients from all over the world and founded by Vishen Lakhiani from Malaysia. Lakhiani is closely connected to Estonia through his wife, Kristina Mänd-Lakhiani, and chose Tallinn to host the Mindvalley University this summer. All events took part at the Kultuurikatel, a hub in the middle of the city that also hosted all events for the Estonian presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2017.

Mindvalley calls itself a tribe of changemakers and has come up with the namesake university to teach people various skills, offering them an ecosystem of workshops, seminars and talks from international experts.

The speakers in Tallinn included Marisa Peer, an internationally known therapist, speaker and author; Jim Kwik, an expert in speed-reading, memory improvement and optimal brain performance; Nassim Haramein, who explores physics, mathematics, geometry, cosmology, quantum mechanics, biology, chemistry, anthropology and ancient civilisations; Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, an Indian spiritual leader; Ben Greenfield, a professional athlete, nutritionist and biohacker – to name a few.

In Tallinn, Mindvalley also introduced a “startup day”, during which founders of successful startups shared their experiences on how they got started – and tried to find an answer to the question why Estonia has the highest number of startups per capita.

“Trying to break the system”

As for any successful event, it is not only made up of the performers, but also the people who are taking part in it and absorbing the offered wisdom. Estonian World met a few of them on the spot to investigate what this event meant for them and how they got started. First thing to notice was, there was a lot of hugging going on during the event, and none of the interviews held or the new acquaintances made ended without a hug.

Irina Gavriliu from Romania had recently graduated from university and decided to focus on self-development and self-awareness to find out what she wanted from life, instead of doing what the society thought she should do. As any graduate, she would like to figure out where she fits in and what her vision and passions are. “Mindvalley University reminds you that you are capable of anything – in case you have forgotten,” she said.

Gavriliu added that she loved to be around people who were “trying to break the system” and exploring the world while doing so. “There is an amazing crowd of people from all walks of life, and it gives you a great perspective to hear their stories and have them ask you questions. Sometimes the right question is much more important than the answer.”

She was not short of words to describe her time in Tallinn in general – she was amazed how well everyone spoke English, the general vibe of talent and young people full of energy. “The Old Town is, of course, lovely, and the city is very clean, but I also feel that everyone has been most warm and welcoming. Tallinn feels like home after all this time here,” she noted.

Ingrida Klassen from Lithuania is the master developer of the BrainRx – a global brain training programme – in the Baltic region. Furthermore, she is also a proud mother of four.

Since Mindvalley University also offers a programme for children, she had brought three of her oldest ones with her – to have the same experience as her. “I feel like me and my children are speaking the same language after going through this experience, and they are so happy and excited to be a part of this,” she said. “Once they are old enough, I am quite sure they will also prefer the Mindvalley University over a ‘normal’ university, as the education they receive here is so much more comprehensive and will help them further in life.”

Klassen added that she arrived in Tallinn by car from Vilnius, and it did not feel different at all. “Estonia and Lithuania share a similar culture and the atmosphere also feel very similar, feels like home to me as well.”

Estonians not cold and introvert

Estonian World also met Daniel from Israel, who was planning to start a degree in business and entrepreneurship soon, but had had a rough year so far, which had made him to analyse his own perspectives in life. “I am musician but have not been able to play for a year due to an injury. I heard about Mindvalley from a friend who took part in their event in Barcelona,” he said. “All this year, I have been making most of my personal time out, listening to different lectures, meditations and learning more about myself. I have learned to ask myself, why do certain things, which are the things I love, and to get my own priorities and perspectives in order.”

Daniel also found the surroundings beautiful and the local people nice and authentic. “I honestly cannot understand why Estonians sell themselves as these cold and introvert people, you are definitely not!” he added, laughing.

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Cover: A session at the Mindvalley University in Tallinn. Images by Karen Harms and Estonian World.

Rüdiger and Antonel Roach, South African expats, living in Tallinn.

A South African couple shares their tips on moving to Estonia

A South African couple, Rüdiger and Antonel Roach, packed up their things and moved to Estonia in March 2017; now that they’ve settled in, they’re happy to share their experience and tips on moving to a strange country.

This article is commercial content, paid for by the European Social Fund and the Estonian ministry of the interior.

Estonia’s welcoming programme for current and future expats is an action plan supporting the adaptation of newly arrived people; the programme contains one-day thematic trainings and an Estonian language course for beginners.

Estonian World met Rüdiger and Antonel Roach – a couple from Pretoria, South Africa, who moved to Estonia in March 2017. For them, it is the first time to be living outside of their home country. From the many courses offered, they took advantage of the language lessons of the welcoming programme – and are happy to share their personal experience and tips for anyone deciding to live in Estonia.

Coming to Estonia

“It all started with us simply deciding to move and live outside of South Africa, so the first step was to start job-hunting online and looking through many postings,” Rüdiger explains. “We found the Estonian company, Jobbatical, that helped us a lot – many other companies abroad were not very keen on having the first job interview via Skype, but in Estonia it did not seem to be a big issue at all.”

He recalls that the whole application process was definitely an upgrade from South Africa and although it was the first time they both ever heard about Estonia, they did some quick search about statistics, safety and other facts about the country and were just as quickly convinced. Antonel adds that the whole process of searching for positions, sending out their applications and actually moving to Estonia was “ridiculously fast”.

The only stumbling stone for the couple was that South Africa does not have an Estonian embassy yet, so they reached out to other embassies in different countries and told their story. “Finally, there was a positive reply about a working visa from India – so we took off and stayed there for three weeks until all the paperwork was done by the local Estonian embassy.”

Settling in Tallinn

After asking what their first impressions were upon arriving to Estonia, Rüdiger exclaims that the thing they first noticed – and are still enjoying every day most of all – was the level of safety. He explains that the first six months felt like being on holiday for them, since the lifestyle in Tallinn feels very calm, secure and relaxing. “Coming from South Africa, this was a very big thing for us!“

The snowy and muddy weather in late winter was still a shock to them, however. “We felt like we had not done enough research about the weather! It did get better though and most of the time we are really enjoying the four seasons here.“

Other things that, they are enjoying about the life in Tallinn are the public transport and the fact that many places are from a walking distance. There is a tram stop right outside their house which makes it very easy to get anywhere in the city fast. “We do have a car, but we only use it for special occasions and bigger purchases,” Rüdiger says. “You don’t really need a car here unless you live in the outskirts. In Pretoria, I commuted to work over 35 kilometres and back every day, but here my office is one kilometre from home and I usually walk there every day.”

They both agree that Estonia really grows on them and have come to appreciate the lush, clean, green nature very much – it is very different from South Africa. (This is where the conversation turns into a long discussion about the perks of Tallinn’s green areas, such as Paljassaare, Pääsküla bog, Schnelli and Kalamaja parks etc.)

And what about surprises?

“Definitely the sauna culture!“ Rüdiger brings up the memory of his first sauna experience in Saaremaa island – a real smoke sauna. “Basically, it was just like a warm summer day in South Africa! Another experience we had was renting a sauna and a cottage just across the border in Latvia. It was the New Year’s Eve and it was very cold. We chiselled a hole in the ice and dipped ourselves in. Your whole body shouts and the skin starts tingling but you feel great afterwards – very crazy!“

Comparing the Estonian and South African working culture

Both Rüdiger and Antonel currently work at a company called Synctuition, an Estonian startup developing and offering binaural audio technology, which has been developed in cooperation with psychologists, neurologists, musicians, sound engineers and meditation experts.

They agree that it is hard to compare the both countries’ working culture. “In Estonia, we only have experienced the entrepreneurial side and startup companies whereas in South Africa, I was working for big corporations only, so the experience is very different. I think we were not so prepared for the Estonian working culture which, a lot of the time, is openly bossless,” Rüdiger notes. “Nobody tells you to sit and do what you are told; everyone works in teams for the common goals and discusses things in a team. Talking everything through, working together, making an impact all in all, I find this type of working culture very positive. I have been promoting this and telling people back home about it.”

Rüdiger recalls that he first started out at another startup, Shipitwise, and then moved over to Synctuition. “Both Estonian companies have made me feel very welcome, and it is natural for Estonians to switch to English as soon as one non-Estonian person is present.”

Antonel had a little different experience to begin with. As a qualified interior designer, it was not so easy to find a suitable position and the company she worked for had a harder time including her in terms of day to day office culture. “It was challenging to do what you know in a language you know nothing about.”

The welcoming programme and learning experiences

“From the courses offered at the welcoming programme, we took the language course first and although it was tough, we at least got a feel for the Estonian language – just enough to start learning and get our feet wet,” Antonel recalls their decision. “Our Estonian teacher, Evelin, was wonderful and very passionate – we were really sad to leave her class! It was so much fun to have a classroom full of people who were just as confused as we were. For every time you got something right, there were so many exceptions to the rule – hilarious!“

“A lot of the other courses in the programme teach you a lot – everything that is useful to know about life in Estonia. We are planning to attend a few more, but I guess they are most useful when you have just arrived,” Rüdiger adds. They both agree it is also a great way to meet new friends and still see some of them regularly.

Rüdiger and Antonel Roach.

Advice from Rüdiger and Antonel for anyone moving to Estonia

  • Take every day as it comes, it is a rollercoaster! Everything is changing fast in Estonia.
  • Don’t take things personally and don’t be offended. Estonia will probably be so much different from our own country anyway, so just keep an open mind. Always remember the way you grew up is not the only way or the right way.
  • Remember how small Estonia is. The connections you make really matter. Take care of your social circle, friends and acquaintances. In case you need a new apartment, new job, some advice, anything, your friends can probably help you.
  • When you go to another country, you have to adapt and not just stay in your own bubble. We have tried to be as Estonian as possible from the beginning and to assimilate to the culture, we tried the sauna and all the different local foods. It makes the experience so much more interesting, no matter which country you go to.
  • Last, but not least – they both agree that one thing that Estonia could improve upon is the availability of English translations. On many websites, the information is only in Estonian and Russian, for example. Considering the amount of expats moving here each year, the situation should definitely improve still.

The couple agrees that what helped them most of all was keeping an open mind – they did not leave South Africa with a lot of preconceptions and prejudices which made the whole process psychologically a lot easier. Rüdiger still emphasises the fact of having a back-up plan. “The easiest approach is that nothing really can go wrong though – the worst that can happen is that you simply have to go back to your home country.”

The welcoming programme is funded by the European Social Fund and by the Estonian ministry of the interior. You can read more and sign up for free courses on the Settle in Estonia website or keep yourself updated with latest information on Facebook.

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Cover: Rüdiger and Antonel Roach in the Old Town of Tallinn. Read also: Moving to Estonia? Here’s why your decision to do so has just been made even easier.

Autolevi brings peer-to-peer car sharing to Estonia

Estonians have always been rather individualistic and that also applies to car ownership; one company now wants to change that.

Tauri Kärson, an Estonian entrepreneur, founded the peer-to-peer car rental company, Autolevi, in 2012 after graduating from his studies in logistics and researching the habits of Estonian car owners. “One great example of how Autolevi works, is a car owner from Autolevi’s community, who rented out his car in Tartu for two weeks and found the experience very positive – he saved money on gas, earned extra revenue from renting the vehicle and rode a bicycle to work – thus ended up losing four kilograms (nine pounds) in the process,” he says.

He argues that alongside the smarter use of money – people would otherwise invest in their cars – car sharing has a huge impact on our environment. “It takes around 35,000 tons of CO2 to produce an average car like Ford Mondeo (Ford Fusion in the US – editor). Instead of owning one, it can be so much more convenient if in need of a vehicle, you rent a car within 10 minutes of your home instead. They have done incredible research on this in the US, one of the findings being that just one single shared car takes 15 cars off our streets,” Kärson says.

He also found out from personal experience that peer-to-peer car rental is a good chance to earn back a part of the car’s cost. “I studied logistics and noticed that this idea is already working well in other countries in Europe and also in the US, for example. Estonia is, of course, very different, but we are definitely moving in the direction of greener thinking as well. I talked to a couple of friends who were interested in the idea and we started gathering data and doing market research,” he recalls. “We interviewed around 200 people in person, especially car owners, asking them if they would rent out their car to other people and what would motivate them to do so.”

Kärson first found two like-minded partners – one took care of the IT side and the other one helped with legislation, looking into risk management. The project started to move and the feedback was good. “At first, we were all doing it as a side project and worked on it in the evenings, after our daily jobs. In just a few years, I committed to Autolevi full-time and it has grown massively. We are also active in the Latvian and Finnish markets now.”

Green thinking and social change

The founder says his main motivation comes from green thinking – after having studied logistics, he didn’t like the fact that there are so many resources staying idle that could be put to good use instead. He wrote his thesis on the same topic, studying the habits of car owners and gathering data on the average costs of owning a car in Estonia. A very high number, around 80 per cent of the car owners, said that someone else outside their close family circle had already borrowed and used their car in the past.

“Starting a positive change in the society has also been very motivating to me – how to bring your idea into action and implement it into everyday life,” Kärson notes. “Autolevi is focused on using the resources wisely, as well as building trust in a community  – encouraging people to trust each other more, to have more open communication, and being smart about your money. Owning a car has many accumulating costs that add up to much more than people usually think it does.”

Kärson is also passionate about inspiring entrepreneurial mindset and stimulating people to be more aware of their costs. He believes the future to be in peer-to-peer services. “In the past, you had to buy everything for yourself. The society is definitely moving in a more flexible direction – you don’t have to own everything, but everything has to be accessible to you when you need it.”

He brings out other examples of micro-entrepreneurship, such as renting out a summer home or even peer-to-peer sharing of lawnmowers. “This should give people more sense of security as well as teaching them how to put their investments into good use. Many things amortise or lose their value fast – for example, a brand-new car loses 20 per cent of the value right after driving out of the car store. It’s not only wiser to buy a car that is used a couple of years, but also to think of clever ways how to get the money invested in your car back,” he says.

As for his own company’s future, Kärson says Autolevi has already reached a large community of car sharers in Latvia, where it is also the first and only car sharing startup. The next goal is engaging the Finns. “There are two similar competitors in France and the Netherlands now, but our best role models are actually the companies in the United States – they definitely provide well-rounded services that are tailored to different target groups.”

According to Kärson, today his company has over 900 cars in its database and over 20,000 users, who have different lifestyles and needs. “Some rent a car for a weekend road trip, others need a substitute vehicle while their own car is in repair and sometimes you just need a specific vehicle, for example one that fits all your purchases from a store to bring back home.”

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Cover: Tauri Kärson, Autolevi’s founder, with one of the cars that is shared.

How the e-culture of Estonia created the book of “The Ordinary Estonian”

A new book, co-created by the nation of Estonia and called The Ordinary Estonian”, is fusing stories written by Estonians on various themes. Complementing them with photographs of everyday Estonian life, the two Estonian authors, Karin Nemec and Helen Ree, have been able to utilise the internet and the e-culture of Estonia to create a lasting snapshot of the present-day Estonians. 

The first crowd-sourced book – touching the soul of a nation

“It has been a very interesting process to create the book, we had a very positive response to the call for short stories on our webpage with over 300 stories collected,” says Karin Nemec. “On top of the stories, we have received an overwhelming support from the media as well as the Estonian government.”

The two authors term the book “the first crowd-sourced book written by the nation, for the nation”. The initial idea came from both authors living for a number of years outside of Estonia. Helen Ree being in Switzerland and working as a professional photographer, while Nemec is raising her two-year-old daughter and one-year-old son in Shanghai, China, where her family was transferred after graduating from the IESE Business School by her husband’s company in 2012.

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“Living in Switzerland for the past seven years as an expat, I have often met people who had some knowledge of Estonia, mostly geographical, but rarely could anyone say as to who really are these Estonians,” Ree explains.

“What do they like to do in their spare time, what do they eat, what is important to them and their families. There are no books that touch the soul of a nation and that is what Karin and I tried to create – a book that tells you as to who we are, what makes us laugh, what makes us tick. And there is no better way to write about a nation than to let the nation write its own story.”

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“We hope the people will enjoy the book as much as we enjoyed creating it. Interestingly, the internet was actually the crucial tool for its creation. For example, Karin and I have only met once in the past two years, yet we spent countless hours and nights on Skype exchanging ideas, and as mentioned before, the Estonians from all over the world contributed stories through our website, and, of course, email was the communication tool for putting the book together, hence the process was very virtual,” Ree says.

An amazing photo journey through Estonia

Ree explains that the only physical component of the book was her numerous trips to Estonia to capture the photographs. She reminisces about her backpacking trip to Asia and says it was a great contrast to making and photographing her way through Estonia, staying with the locals and getting to know her own people in a new way.

Over a three-month period she visited Ruhnu island, Saaremaa, Nõva, central Estonia, Viljandi, Lake Peipus, eastern Estonia and back to the capital, Tallinn. The highlights of her trip were wild boar hunting, a local sauna party and a sailing regatta. “Already on the first evening I got invited to the birthday party of a local electrician. I felt welcomed everywhere. People kindly asked their friends or acquaintances to host me, and often it just snowballed from there.”

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Ree admits she was sceptical at first whether people would really let her into their homes and lives, but she was more than surprised and the emotions she experienced were overwhelming. “Words can’t even describe how deeply touching and enriching this experiment has been for me. Estonians are surprisingly hospitable, warm and open. I’ll never think of my nation the same way again,” she starts laughing.

Ree thinks that the surprising tendencies she noticed everywhere in the country are signs of how close Estonians still are to the nature, how many old country houses are being renovated again, how people are craving to “get back to their roots”. “There is definitely life outside of the hustle and bustle and glamour of Tallinn as well, on the countryside and in the towns and villages of Estonia.”

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“All in all I took thousands of photographs of Estonian families and individuals. In the end, we used 76 of them. It was not easy to select such a small number of photos, but it was key to make sure the photo merges well with the story. I tried to capture moments of daily life of Estonians, the things you do not see when on holiday or rushing through life. The families I stayed with and the people I met during my travels are great memories that will be with me for a lifetime,” Ree adds.

Putting it all together

Karin Nemec thinks that despite the long process of putting it all together over a long distance, the stories were really a lot of fun to go through. “From the start we hoped the people would have fun with the themes and the stories, reflecting on their lives and what it means to be Estonian, and we are very happy with the result. There were many moments where you read a story and can completely relate to it.”

“From the business perspective, we also learned a lot. Everything from getting people behind the idea to create the book, crowd-funding, working with printing houses and retail outlets. We are both avid readers, and this has been an eye-opening experience to know what it takes to publish a book,” she says.

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“We wanted this book be the representative book of Estonians and used high quality photo paper and special liner textile for the materials to make it really beautiful and solid. The graphical design of the book was done by Marje Eelma from Tuumik Studio,” says Nemec. Ree adds, “The book is easy and fun to read since the stories are short and grasp the essence, the photos are somewhat humorous and the facts give interesting insight. Many foreigners who had seen a draft of the book, like Estonians and ask when can they visit the country the next time.”

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Images by Helen Ree.

Marten Kuningas – a singer-songwriter who persists singing in Estonian

At this year’s Positivus Festival, one of the largest music festivals in the Baltic region, only two bands sang in Estonian. One of them was that of Marten Kuningas, a young Estonian singer who has remained committed to singing in Estonian, rather than English.

Known for lush sounds and romantic song writing skills, Kuningas just released his second solo album, “Praktiline mees” (“A Practical Man”), before taking a break from Estonia and moving to live and study in Berlin. Estonian World had a talk with Marten and his band mate Peedu Kass (electric bass/contrabass) before they made their move.

“A Practical Man”

Marten recalls that when his first album, “Janu” (“Thirst”), was a record about yearning and searching, the new one, which was released at the end of August, will also be just as introspective – looking in the mirror, going deep into one’s soul.

“The music on the new album carries the same meaning; it is quite dark but still emotional. The title itself is about pursuits, about the wish to become more practical, more down to earth and more grown-up. I have been asking myself the question of what do I have to give – in life in general, as well as to my audience?” he says.

“The recording and material concerns have been a quick progress, but the songs themselves came to life over the years. One could say, through a flow of unconsciousness. The title song, “Praktiline mees”, itself is actually from four years ago, but it is still very valid. It is about getting older and becoming more mature. The lyrics of this song might seem raw and unpolished, but they can also be understood through humour. The song is created for a someone special,” Marten adds slyly.

Other songs from the album include “Elu suudlus” (“The Kiss of Life”) and “Tagurpidi vaal” (“Twisted Love”), which won the first prize at the Estonian Uno Naissoo Competition of Music Composition and Interpretation.

The band

The name Marten Kuningas stands at the same time for a person and a band of four: Raul Ojamaa (electric guitar), Kristjan Kallas (drums) and Peedu Kass (contrabass and electric bass). As with any good rock or pop band in the world, the good creative chemistry between the band members is the one that will ultimately spin the records.

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“I am very happy to be able to play with them. We sound really good together,” says Marten.

Peedu feels the same way: “We met during the Tallinn Music Week last year and clicked right away through smaller mutual projects. I guess everybody in the band has a quite similar taste in music. We have been listening to the same stuff and when somebody has an idea, everyone else usually agrees on it. Marten is definitely the mastermind behind this – we believe in his introspective and eclectic style, his lyrics and his decisions.”

Experimenting with music and singing in Estonian

“Estonian is of course the language that I speak best – I love the language and it is therefore natural for me creating songs in it,” Kuningas says.

“I am not ruling out writing songs and singing in English, it is definitely not out of the question. I enjoy different languages as well. In general, I adjust myself according to the music and to the concerts and events at which I am invited to perform. I guess I am not trying to be anything that I’m not.”

“Marten is kind of a language wizard; by using words, he makes magic. Singing in Estonian is not always easy, especially for the younger audiences in Estonia who expect the Estonian bands to sing in English as well, to sound more upbeat. Marten is honest and passionate about the Estonian language; it’s as if he breathes through it. He creates puns and comparisons in his lyrics that might otherwise get lost or just sound linguistically weaker in English,” Peedu Kass adds.

Marten states, however, that he would like to experiment more with different styles of pop music, and wouldn’t rule out rap and electronic music.

“I have this idea to make an album with only vocals and acoustic guitar. I am interested in many things, but at the same time, I am kind of slow, I would like to be slicker and do things faster. In practical terms I would also like to become more methodical.”

The uniqueness and power of Estonia

Both musicians agree on the power of performing in Estonian and go on discussing the opportunities of Estonian music in general.

“The best compliment I got lately was from French exchange students in Estonia. Although they didn’t understand the lyrics, they said my music had the purest sound, the sound of the Estonian language, and it will be the best thing they will bring with them from Estonia. They brought vinyl records back home. I do think the Estonian language is very beautiful. I don’t see why it couldn’t be more known in the world as well. If you look at Icelandic music for example – yet it is strange-sounding stuff, but it is already world-famous and appreciated. The sound of music in Estonian is in the same way about creating and conveying magical, ancient power,” Marten explains.

“I guess singing in Estonian can also distinguish you from millions of other singers. Right now, this has been our choice. We are not ruling out songs in English in the future, of course,” Peedu adds.

Marten Kuningas ba¦êndiga_Foto Renee Altrov

“Estonia is just a very unique place. We do have bands like Ewert and the Two Dragons who have ‘made it’ and have become fairly well known outside Estonia, but in general I think musicians shouldn’t try so hard to make music only in English. I believe success or breakthrough should happen more naturally. On the other hand, I do understand the pros and cons of being an Estonian and making music in Estonian. We are so small as a nation, but yet we have this incredible need for privacy and being alone. We are all very connected through invisible threads, and everybody seems to know everybody – maybe these are also the reasons behind the desire for being alone,” Marten contemplates.

“I do understand the Estonians’ need for their own space, but we should also not forget to be open to the world and be more tolerant. Estonians can be shy and reserved on one hand, but on the other hand, enormously interested in what the world thinks of us and what our image is. We should make use of what we have and stop comparing ourselves to everyone else.”

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Marten Kuningas is also on Soundcloud, Facebook, and Instagram.

Photos: Rene Altrov.

Photobook project “The Ordinary Estonian” attempts to create an authentic image of present day Estonians

Please meet Helen Ree, a professional photographer who has been living in Zürich for four years, and Karin Nemec, a former manager in the Estonian finance sector who currently lives in Shanghai with her young daughter — the co-ordinators of the photobook project on Estonians, called “Harilik Eestlane – The Ordinary Estonian”.

The photobook will introduce Estonians to the world in an innovative manner and create an interesting picture of Estonians in the modern time. This is the first crowdsourced photobook with short stories created with the help of public.

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What makes Estonians happy? What do Estonians believe in? What do they and don’t they like to talk about? These are just some of the topics covered in their book, and everyone is welcome to submit their own personal story. “Our purpose is to gather interesting material about Estonians and create an interactive short-story photobook which would give a true and authentic image of present-day Estonians and be a perfect introduction to our nation for foreign friends and business partners. According to our information this is the first crowdsourced photobook with short stories co-created with the nation,” Karin Nemec explains.

The idea for the project ignited during conversations between Helen and Karin, who have both been asked several questions on Estonians since they are living abroad. “We noticed that there are not easy-to-read and visual books on Estonians which would give a deep and interesting insight to our nation and society. Most of the books are too traditional and somehow too official. They lack the human touch and visual material. There are also lots of questions that many guidebooks do not provide the answers to. Foreigners are mostly interested in how we actually live and what our daily lives look like. The most obvious answer seemed to ask Estonians themselves directly — how do we live and what we are like right now,” Helen Ree goes on to elaborate. “The idea behind it is innovative and we would like as many Estonians as possible to participate to have the best outcome.”

Intended both for Estonians and foreigners interested in Estonia

Helen continues to explain that the book will be intended both for Estonians themselves (published in Estonian), as well as in English for tourists and anyone interested in Estonians and finding out “what makes them tick”. Another important thing is to record the opinions and stories of Estonians in 2013. “Maybe in 10 or 50 years, things could be completely different? It would be a great present for the coming Estonian generations to understand their ancestors,” Helen points out.

Since May 2013, the topics about which to write have been published on the project’s website, and the project itself has been growing rapidly. Helen has already talked about the project on the Estonian TV and radio. “The feedback was very positive. A lot of people contacted us on the website and we have received a lot of positive feedback already. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves also mentioned the project on his Facebook page which has helped a lot. Currently, around 270 stories have been submitted.”

Inviting Estonians to cooperate through stories and photos

The source of inspiration for the photos in the book will be the famous Estonian photographer Johannes Pääsuke who travelled on foot through Estonia exactly 100 years ago to take photos and portraits of ordinary Estonians in their daily lives. “My purpose is to depict Estonians in 2013, to capture the spirit of Estonians and their everyday lives. I am looking for both young and old people, living in towns or on the countryside, from all different backgrounds,” Helen explains her vision of the photos.

Helen Ree

“I would like to stay with one person or family for 1-2 days and watch them to just continue with their everyday routines — going to work, working in the garden etc. As a photographer I would appreciate if they barely noticed me there, and just kept up their usual everyday business. I would like to get close to the people. The photos will be illustrating the stories, and creating a kind of symphony between stories and images,” Helen says.

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Cover photo: Karin Nemec

Global Estonians: Maari Ernits, an aspiring opera singer in Amsterdam

Maari Ernits, an Estonian in Amsterdam, invites me to meet her at the Amsterdam Public Library, in a rooftop café which overlooks the whole city. After some twists and turns and trying different things in her life, she has realised her true ambition and is studying to be an opera singer in the Conservatory of Amsterdam. It turns out that we have a few friends in common in Estonia as well. Maari talks to Estonian World about life in Holland and her future plans.

Maari, how did you end up in Amsterdam?

I come from Tartu, and at first I studied law at the University of Tartu. I had been singing in Tartu Women’s choir for years and learned to play the violin at the music school. At some point I noticed that I was getting better and better at music and singing, so I decided to follow my heart and change course in my studies. It’s now my second year in Amsterdam, and I’m studying opera singing in the Conservatory of Amsterdam (also called Amsterdam School of the Arts). I also tried for the Sibelius Academy in Finland and another one in the Netherlands, but since I was among the very few who were accepted here, it was an easy choice. The competition was hard, only nine people out of two hundred got excepted for my study programme.

How do you manage and where do you live?

I organised everything myself, but I did get some financial support from Kultuurkapital (Cultural Endowment of Estonia) as well. My schedule at the university is always busy, so I hardly have time for anything else. In the beginning, I lived in Amsterdam for three months, and then decided to live somewhere more calm with less tourists. I’m currently living in Heemstede, a suburb of Amsterdam about a 20-minute train ride away from the city centre. It is very idyllic there. Before that I lived in Slotervaart, almost 45 minutes away.

What were your first impressions of Holland?

First of all the bureaucracy was a bit intimidating. It took some time to get all my documents “apostilled”, and there were always little surprises like having to apostille and confirm my birth certificate again. One wouldn’t think a birth certificate can expire! I was surprised that it is very hard here to organise things via e-mail. Most things are still being sent via post,- and can take up to three months. The second slightly tiny surprise was that Dutch people really don’t hide anything. It is a common notion that to draw the curtains on your house means there is something to hide. This is due to their Calvinistic background and mentality, and explained to all the tourists as one of the peculiarities of Dutch life. Even in my university, not only the windows, but the walls and doors are made of glass as well. Everything is open and you can see everything what is going on. For a privacy-seeking Estonian this takes some getting used to.

What do you like most about life in Holland?

It really is a very liberal and tolerant society. No one is being discriminated against, no matter what’s their skin colour, sexual or other preferences. Everyone can do what they like. I like the laid-back attitude of the Dutch people the most. You could say that “anything goes”. Personal happiness is important to them.

What is more difficult about living there?

The straightforwardness and directness of the Dutch also takes some getting used to. They tell you everything right away and without inhibitions. Especially professionally, in the music world, the critique can be harsh at times, but you have to learn to handle it, and not take it personally.

What about Estonians in Holland?

To be honest, I haven’t met so many Estonians here yet. One of my best friends is studying in Groningen, a city known for its university. I’m looking forward to celebrating Jaanipäev (Midsummer Night) soon, which the Estonian community is organising here. I know that there was one girl studying to be a flute player a couple of years ago at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, and there are quite a few Estonians working and studying in The Hague as well. I guess that right now my group of friends is more international in general due to my university being very international. I tend to spend my free time with fellow students and musicians, going to the opera together etc.

What are your future plans? Do you see your future in Holland as well?

I have nothing against Holland, but I see my future elsewhere. In my professional life, Holland would offer too little room for development. The country is rather small, and so are the cultural circles. After finishing my studies, I will try my luck in other countries needing good opera singers. Germany would be great, but it’s also difficult in my field as they use other vocal systems and voice types there. I have family/relatives in New York, and as hard as it can be to “make it in New York”, I will definitely give it a try. I understand that there are many mediocre opera singers over there, and less really good ones. This might be my chance.

What about Estonia?

I guess that anything is possible. I’m always open for Estonian projects as well. In general, I am also worried for Estonia.

Why? What would you like to change?

I certainly wish for more tolerance, understanding and seeing things in a broader perspective. Coming out of the closet and breaking taboos in a general sense as well – having enough courage to be who you are and do what you want to do. Living in such a liberal and tolerant society as the Dutch, it seems silly that in Estonia the debate over same-sex civil partnerships, let alone gay marriages, still continues. Similar to the President’s Independence Day speech in February, I wish that Estonians would discriminate less, and care more for each other.

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