Estonians shoulder national shame in ferry sinking DISASTER IN THE BALTIC SEA

September 30, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff Correspondent

TALLINN, Estonia -- The sinking of the ferry Estonia has been a doubly traumatic catastrophe for this little country struggling to emerge from the shadow of its Soviet past.

Estonians yesterday felt not just grief for the hundreds who had been lost at sea when the ferry sank in the Baltic, but an acutely burning dismay, a sense that Estonia's ambitions to be accepted among Western, progressive nations had been critically hobbled the maritime disaster.

"The boat was called the Estonia, first of all. It was the flagship," said Tiia Raudma, who works in the Education Ministry. "In a way, it's the worst thing that could have happened."

When the Estonia went down early Wednesday off the Finnish coast, carrying as many as 900 people to their deaths, it set loose a wave of national self-doubt back home. In Estonians' eyes, the sinking seemed to mock all the progress that they thought they had made since achieving independence in 1991.

What did the sinking say about the seamanship of Estonian sailors, who had been hired to replace Swedes because they accepted lower wages? What did the inability of the ship's owners, the Est Line, to come up with a reliable passenger list say about Estonian organization? What did the rescue operation, carried out almost exclusively by Swedish and Finnish coast guards, say about Estonia's standing among its neighbors?

"This shows that Estonia, as a country from the Eastern bloc, is not ready to relate to the Western world as an equal," said Sulev Alajoe, a member of Parliament.

Estonia had grown accustomed to thinking of itself as the success story among the former Soviet republics. The currency is stable, the economy is showing signs of life, private enterprise is flourishing. Although the government of Prime Minister Mart Laar was toppled Wednesday over a currency scandal, this little nation of 1.6 million has been casting itself as Scandinavia's southern annex.

Then disaster stripped away the modern veneer and, to the horror of Estonians, seemed to lay bare a national inadequacy.

"What we've achieved during these last few years -- compared to Belarus, even Latvia -- it is something. But we can't just jump over the 50 years that went before," said Mr. Alajoe. "Real change takes a generation."

What for most countries would be simply a maritime disaster, is for Estonians a reflection on their national character. Worst of all, the majority of those who died were Swedes, the very people Estonians want most to emulate, and whose scorn they want most to avoid.

"It's a great misfortune, to be sure, and a great catastrophe," said Jaan Kross, a novelist whose works have been published in the West. "But for a little country like ours, it's also very problematic."

Doubts about the inadequacy of Estonian training and preparation won't go away, he said. "We'll be hearing more of that. It's unfortunate. It's just one more problem."

Officials of an Estonian emergency committee set up to deal with the sinking complained yesterday that the Finns, who have been coordinating the rescue effort, have not been conscientious about providing them with information.

Eleven Estonian survivors arrived home in Tallinn yesterday, but government officials said they had received little advance notice.

But they acknowledged that pre- vious lists of the passengers and crew aboard the Estonia had not included children under the age of 5. A new list issued yesterday bore 1,051 names -- 87 more than previously reported. Estonian officials said the list apparently includes people who bought tickets but failed to show up for the sailing, as well as people who bought tickets but then gave them to others.

"Apparently not all is in order regarding the registration of passengers," the home minister, Heike Arike, said wearily last night.

More than 24 hours after 142 survivors had been taken to Swedish and Finnish hospitals, he acknowledged that Estonian officials still were not sure of the identities of their countrymen among them.

Mr. Alajoe said he had spent all day trying unsuccessfully to find out whether a young woman named Merle Juust, who had worked in his campaign, was still alive. He said he had received contradictory information from various sources.

The Estonia went down in heavy seas and strong winds after sending off just one distress signal. Most of its passengers were trapped below decks as the ship capsized and sank. There are no answers yet as to what caused the disaster.

Indrik Parand, a Foreign Ministry official who is on the emergency committee, said he resents any suggestion that poor Estonian seamanship was to blame.

"Nobody's guilty until he's found guilty," Mr. Parand said. "I don't think Estonian seamen are different from their Swedish or Finnish counterparts in their training and skills. It's only that their labor is cheaper."

But Mr. Alajoe was doubtful. Shoddy work is Estonia's great Soviet legacy, he said, and the ferry disaster and its aftermath have made that only too painfully evident.

"Many, many Estonians have been working to build up our state, our economy, to build up our cultural identity," he said. "Now it means we have to start from zero all over again. Well, the ferry was working under the Estonian flag, and the responsibility is on Estonian shoulders."

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