Karoli Hindriks: Estonia has become angry

Estonian entrepreneur Karoli Hindriks says in a letter to her father, who passed away twelve years ago – the father who taught her to be a patriot – that she’s worried because within the last year, her country has become angry.

Dear Dad,

Twelve years ago, when you passed, I wrote you a letter promising that your life wouldn’t end there. That I would live for you, take you with me in my heart on every journey and adventure to every country I visit. That my heart would be our meeting place on Earth.

On my journeys since then, I’ve seen places you never did. I’ve introduced Estonia to people who had seemed light years away on the screen and in books. I’ve felt the pain and struggles that have taught me to become a better person – a better Estonian.

Our young Estonia has done well, Dad. Remember when I told you stories about my very first trips, where people would ask me questions like, “Do you have TVs in Estonia?” or “Do you have polar bears running around everywhere?”

Today, when I say I’m from Estonia, I get appreciative nods everywhere from the United States to Japan and Australia. Because Estonia today is one of the world’s digitally advanced countries. It’s a shame that you missed out on our Mobile-ID, e-elections, and Taxify. We’re still a young country, but all of this is gradually enriching us as a nation. And we’ve been taking far bigger strides than countries that embarked on this journey at the same time we did, like Belarus or Latvia.

Immense respect for our culture and heritage

But now, twelve years later, I am writing to you again because I am concerned.

You taught me how to be a patriot before we were ever allowed to be patriotic in public. I was inspired by your stories about your mother and father, the people’s pain and struggle – never losing faith in the inevitable arrival of freedom and an open world. I remember sitting on your shoulders one September evening in 1988, excitedly waving the blue-black-white flag and singing, along with hundreds of thousands of people, about a country that to me had only ever existed in your stories. You passed on to me an immense respect for our shared culture and heritage. A respect that I carry with me every day.

But Estonia has become angry. Hate and fear-mongering have brought about the emergence of domestic terrorism and violence.

A couple of weeks ago my phone rang on a perfectly ordinary evening. It was my American friend. She was in a state of shock. She had just been out walking her dog near her home, in the middle of Tallinn. She’d been speaking on the phone when two Estonian men attacked her. The men began to throw rocks at her and her dog, shouting “Go home, foreigner” in English. Both my friend and her dog were injured – the dog more so.

Harassed foreigners look to their embassies for help

My friend’s husband is Estonian. Her home is in Estonia and she runs a business and creates jobs here. Her heart is in Estonia. Wherever she travels, she’s a vocal ambassador of Estonia, praising this innovative country she’s chosen as her home. But it turns out that she is no longer safe in her adopted home country.

And she’s not the only one. I recently learned from an entrepreneur friend of mine about his Spanish team member – an Estonian resident and taxpayer for the past seven years – who has been similarly harassed. For a couple of weeks now, he and his partner, who is eight months pregnant, have been stalked by a man from their neighbourhood. This man follows them, trying to intimidate them into “packing their bags and moving back to Arabia”. It’s got to a point where the family is too scared to leave their home and have had to ask their embassy for advice.

Dad, this would have been unheard of in your lifetime. And for you, it would have been hard to believe. Remember that Canadian-Iranian family who moved to our hometown of Pärnu in the early days of the newly liberated Estonia? Their kids taught me and my brother English. You, Mom and my sister were simply delighted that such lovely people had chosen Estonia as their home.

Today, our country, which has built itself up from total poverty into an innovative digital nation by the sweat of its people’s brows, is turning onto a path of isolation and internal polarisation.

Estonia’s employment needs to go up to nearly 79%

To understand the gravity of the situation, we need some context. We’re living in an era of an unprecedented talent shortage that is paralysing countries and economies across the globe. By 2030, Korn Ferry reports there will be a deficit of 85 million people from the job market. That’s about as much as the entire population of Germany. This labour deficit can cost the world economy around USD8.5 trillion. Any country that can attract external labour in this environment might hope for a slightly softer landing.

To better illustrate what this battle for talent means for us: the labour markets in Japan, Brazil and Indonesia are facing a deficit of 18 million people each – 54 million workers between them. For each of these countries, that’s 18 million people they need to attract from the outside just to keep their economies at their current levels. Not to mention growth.

For Estonia to maintain its number of people in the workforce, employment needs to go up to nearly 79%. But in the first half of 2017, the employment rate was 77.5%. And a 2017 study showed that by 2025, the Estonian job market will have lost 43,000 people.

That’s about €220 million in unpaid taxes, assuming an average salary (€1,221/month) and an average tax rate of 35%. There were 6,503 foreign workers in Estonia last year, but we’ll need many more to maintain our social system.

With no help from foreign workers, pensions and child support will dry up. Our hatred towards strangers is contributing to the deepening of poverty in Estonia.

Newcomers will go elsewhere if we don’t treat them well

Foreign entrepreneurs – like my friend who was recently attacked – currently employ 110,806 people in Estonia, which is 16% of our total employment. If she and others like her were forced to take her business elsewhere, about one in six workers in Estonia would lose their jobs.

If we don’t treat newcomers well, they’ll simply go somewhere else and contribute to another economy instead. It’s a serious blow for us. Not to mention what a deep disconnect this xenophobia is from the Estonia I grew up in.

“If we don’t treat newcomers well, they’ll simply go somewhere else and contribute to another economy instead.”

We need to bring in more smart and skilled people to keep Estonia from descending into poverty. But right now, we’re throwing rocks at those who, through some miracle, have chosen to make our country their home. What’s wrong with this picture?

Refugees are a great source of fear and concern. But since 1997 – over the past 20 years – only 445 refugees have come to Estonia. Almost a quarter are from Ukraine. 165 have come here to escape the Syrian war. About half are children.

Just like our own people once ran from the war, so others are doing now. But the fact of the matter is, even they don’t particularly want to be here – the climate is bad, social benefits aren’t great. Those who do stay roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Contrary to what the fearmongers might have us believe, there are no hordes of manual labourers at our gates, looking to take over our country. Interestingly, as the World Bank reports, the fastest-growing migrant group is that of skilled workers. Over the past two decades, the number of skilled migrants has grown by 130%.

Hatred is born out of fear

Talent movement is what’s shaping economies right now. Migration into Estonia will determine whether we can afford pensions and child benefits. It will also determine how competitive our labour market is.

I know what you might say, Dad. Hatred is born out of fear. Not everyone in Estonia has had equal opportunity to progress and thrive. The average monthly pension in Q3 of this year was €424.8. It’s not easy to live on that, especially when a harsh winter comes knocking. My Mom is retired now, so I see what is happening.

Which is why I know that we simply must do better. Be better.

It’s probably not very often that most of us think about Belarus, for example, where the average monthly pension today is around €118. Two decades ago our two countries started our journeys of independence together. They chose isolation back then.

Estonia was forcibly deprived of fifty years of freedom. Fifty long years of economic progress. The bitterness we’re seeing today can be traced back to that. And it’s understandable. With the whole world gushing about the success of e-Estonia, wouldn’t you be angry if you couldn’t even feed your family?

They’re just people

But we have a choice to make today. It’s time to be bold. Will we take the path of isolation? Fail to keep up with the demands of the economy and descend into poverty? Or can we learn to respect and cherish the people who want to come here from all over the world to help build and boost this nation?

Because that’s all they are – people. It’s too easy to label them. Refugees, migrants, strangers, foreigners. I don’t even want to mention the truly hideous labels I’ve seen used whenever I write publicly on this subject. There are real people behind these labels. Smart, skilled, eager, and ready – for some crazy, wonderful reason – to do their work and pay their hard-earned taxes here. People who can and want to be just as proud of Estonia as we are.

That’s not to say we should naively believe every person on the planet is perfectly virtuous. There are bad people in every social group. But at this pivotal point in history, many good people leaving should be far scarier to us than a handful of bad ones arriving. The value these people can bring far outweighs the risk of some of them having bad intentions.

I have been a patriot, just like I promised

In 2017, my foreign colleagues were the ones who excitedly bought their tickets early for the Youth Song and Dance Celebration. At a recent meeting in Silicon Valley, I witnessed my American co-worker’s impassioned speech about how moving from Florida to Estonia changed his family’s life. His children now go to an Estonian school and are learning our language. An Indian developer on our team greets me in Estonian every morning.

Dad, twelve years ago I was writing my last letter to you, but I’m writing to you again because I need your guidance. You taught me how to be a patriot, and I have been. On all of my journeys, just like I promised. Today I need to figure out how to steer Estonia towards a path of understanding and patriotism. The type of patriotism that strengthens us and our nation.

So that we remember how we once yearned for an open world, and how this openness got us where we are today. So that we see how much our economy has to gain from opening our borders and our hearts. So that we realise that being Estonian goes beyond a human being’s skin colour or religious background. And so that we understand – we are much stronger united than we are alone.

I

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Soldiers of Odin Estonia members at the Tallinn Freedom Square on 9 December 2018 (The image is illustrative. Soldiers of Odin is an anti-immigrant group founded in Finland. The group has denied claims of being a racist or neo-Nazi group. However, the group’s founder, Mika Ranta, has connections to the far-right, neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement and a criminal conviction stemming from a racially motivated assault in 2005).