IN THE PAST five years the United States has provided about $50 million to help Estonia re-establish the democratic institutions and free-market economy obliterated in 1940, when bTC the Soviet Union took over that Baltic nation. Recently, the U.S. aid came to an end and Estonian President Lennart celebrated the occasion as proof that "we are finally standing on our own feet."
Since breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia has wasted no time in putting its house in order. Although it is plagued with lingering tensions between ethnic Estonians and a Russian minority, the country of 1.5 million people has been generally successful in developing a true independence. Much of that success is due to smart and far-sighted economic decisions like tying the Estonian currency to the stability of German mark.
Before World War II Estonia was wealthier and more developed than Finland, its northern neighbor and linguistic cousin on the other banks of a gulf separating the two countries. The Soviet system, however, reversed that situation. Today, Finnish companies -- attracted by low wages -- are major investors in Estonia.
Strong Estonian national identity is something of a miracle, considering that the country has so often been a pawn in power struggles between Russia and Germany. Current Estonian leaders are seeking to preserve their sovereignty through membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Those plans have caused ambivalence in Washington and anxiety in Moscow, where such a NATO expansion is seen as evidence of Estonia's hostility toward Russia's security interests.
In the long run, Estonia's relations with Russia are likely to be its toughest problem. There is no shortage of nationalist hotheads who would do anything to provoke Russia or ethnic Russians living in Estonia. Tellingly, President Meri had trouble winning re-election recently, not because he had been a bad president but because many members of the electoral college felt he had been too soft on Russia.
Pub Date: 10/14/96