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Discovering Estonia

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"You've become a model for how citizens can interact with their government in the 21st century," said Barack Obama for Estonia back in 2014. Frankly, he couldn’t have said it better. This small country next to Russia may have only gained its independence as recently as 1991, but ever since that day has managed to make Europe, and the whole world, listen. While embracing its natural beauty (Estonia consists of 50% forests and has at least 1,500 islands) and its past (Tallinn, the capital, is the most well preserved medieval city in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Estonia is looking firmly towards the future. And that future is digital.

The place and the people

Estonia, just like its neighbour Finland, has spent a long time under Swedish and Russian rule before finally gaining its independence in the 20th century. But Estonia’s past is a bit more complicated: inhabited since the Mesolithic times when the melt of the glaciers made it habitable, the area has always been a magnet for invaders (the Vikings were the first to conquer it in the 9th century). During the Middle Ages, the country then known as Livonia (i.e. modern-day Estonia and Latvia) was frequently changing hands between German knights and the Danish. Towards the end of the 1500s, the Russians and Swedes started battling for the country, dividing it into three different states, under Swedish, Russian, and Polish-Lithuanian control respectively. The Swedish side prevailed until the 1700s, when Russia completely took over -- and remained in control until the First World War, when Estonia briefly managed to declare its independence, only to be subjugated again to the Soviet forces after World War II. It wasn’t until 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Estonia could finally claim its independence and national identity.

All this coming and going of foreign forces of occupation (with the deportation waves that usually followed) has shaped the way the country looks today: in sharp contrast to other European countries, today only about two-thirds of the population are ethnic Estonians. Of course, the reasons for that are not solely based on its tumultuous past, but also on Estonia’s bright future. Apart from the substantial Russian minority that makes about the ¼ of the population and some smaller Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities, Estonia is a country many expats choose to move to -- something that became even more apparent after Brexit (so far, more than 1,000 Brits have applied to become residents of Estonia).

The country itself, a parliamentary republic since 1991, is as vibrant as its people. Its temperate and humid climate has been perfect for agriculture but also for the development of diverse landscapes, flora and fauna. About 90 different native species of trees and shrubs, 300 species of birds, and 60 species of mammals can be found in Estonia -- and Estonia knows how to take care of them. One of the goals, after it became independent, was to reduce air and water pollution, and enlarge the percentage of forest lands (currently, one-tenth of the country is considered a nature preserve).

Estonian nature though is not the only thing that is well preserved: the country’s architecture could double as a museum. Apart from the medieval buildings in Tallinn, there’s a plethora of castles, forts, churches, barns, and lighthouses that make for impressive sightseeing but also work as venues for several events and festivals. After all, the birth country of composer Arvo Pärt is very fond of hosting classical music concerts in unexpected places.

The economy that makes (and breaks) the internet

Electric power generation plays a vital part in Estonia’s economy, as the country also supplies Latvia and northwestern Russia to a great extent. But Estonia’s greatest power comes from an unexpected source: the internet. Back in 1991 when the country became independent, decided to carve a niche for itself that would make it stand out from its neighbours (after all, who could compete with Finland’s mobile phones business or Norway’s oil resources?). Estonia focused on becoming a technological innovator and has succeeded remarkably. Companies such as Skype, Hotmail, and Transferwise are the brainchildren of Estonian programmers and just the tip of the iceberg of a thriving startup scene.

This innovative approach to technology permeates every aspect of Estonian life. The internet, in Estonia, is a human right; there’s free wi-fi everywhere. The government is also digitalised, transparent, and practically paperless -- all laws are signed digitally, on the president’s tablet, and they are available for the public to read online. All kinds of state services, from naming your child to voting and paying your taxes can be done online in a few minutes, thanks to a digital ID card every Estonian citizen is in possession of. Also, currency is fast joining the digital race, and Estonia is now considering creating its e-currency, a cryptocurrency called estcoin to further boost the e-economy by enabling startups to raise funds by selling it off in return for cash.

But Estonia’s greatest e-innovation so far remains the e-citizenship. For 35 euros per month, anyone can become a digital citizen of Estonia, without even having to visit the country. This means that within a few minutes and with a couple of clicks, you can open a business from anywhere and register it as an Estonian company, create an account in an Estonian bank, create your own online shop, and manage your books and submit your taxes in Estonia. This option has been out there since 2015, and it is estimated that in ten years, there will be ten million e-residents of Estonia, from all over the world. How’s that for a small, Baltic country?

 Useful links
e-Estonia
Become an e-resident

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