A Festive Day for Ida-Viru's Stellar Student

12/5/2013 3:08 PM
Category: Opinion

Which Estonian city has changed in appearance the most this fall? A strong candidate for that title would be Jõhvi, the heart of Ida-Viru County, writes Erik Gamzejev, the editor of Põhjarannik, a northeastern Estonian paper.

It was only in October that the double overpass junction was completed downtown. Today is another day for celebration in Jõhvi. The grandest portion of a new promenade will be opened, leading from the central square, through a tunnel, toward the concert hall. This new pedestrian path, which goes underneath a railroad, is given special pizzazz by snowball-shaped lights that hang on cables overhead. The new look also extends to the square, fitted with red cranberry-shaped chairs, a nod to the town's official symbol [jõhvikas = cranberry - Ed.]

Also today, a monument to the late film-maker Kaljo Kiisk, who has ties to Jõhvi, will be opened at the concert hall. Meanwhile, the municipal government is busy moving, as they will shortly relocate from a temporary rented space in a shopping center to one of Jõhvi's oldest buildings, which has been proclaimed as the town hall.

In the recent past, the small town of Jõhvi also became the site of Estonia's most modern prison, a concert hall with some of the  acoustics in the country, a new courthouse, police and rescue building, and sports arena. The public secondary school construction will begin shortly. Just outside of Jõhvi, room is being made for an industrial park, where logistics companies will be keeping busy a few years down the line.

While a number of Ida-Viru towns mostly have cause to talk of troubles and local leaders do not tire of lamenting how the state government does not understand them or support them, Jõhvi comes off as a teacher's pet. This contrast is confirmed by various rankings lists. Whether the issue is local government administrative capacity, resilience or some other indicator, Jõhvi tends to compete with the other top Estonian cities. By contrast, Narva and Kohtla-Järve will, in a good scenario, earn a C on their report cards.

In recent decades, Estonia's regional policy has not exactly shined with frequent examples of outstanding achievement. But Jõhvi's success story is certainly among the few noticeable positive signs. especially  considering that Jõhvi is a town of just 10,000.

Jõhvi's efforts have only begun to bear fruit in recent years and were preceded by a long and thorny road. The foundation of Jõhvi's rise was established immediately after Estonia regained independence, by separating from Kohtla-Järve in the early 1990s.

The head of Ida-Viru County at the time, Märt Marits, took set a firm course that strengthening the Estonian state's presence in the county would require consolidating as many state agencies as possible in Jõhvi. His first symbolic victory was snatching up the Viru District Court from Rakvere's jurisdiction.

At the beginning of the century, in transforming Jõhvi into one of four regional centers in Estonia, a lot of the hard work hidden from public view was done by council chairman Vallo Reimaa, who would later become regional minister; true, he was only kept in office for a very short time.

Ten years ago Jõhvi's plans and steps forward were cause for annoyance in Viru County's ancient capital, Rakvere. The local mayor, Andres Jaadla, coined the term "Jõhvi-ization," claiming that excessive attention to Ida-Viru's county center would impede the development of Rakvere.

Ten years later we can say that both Jõhvi and Rakvere have done well, and their rivalry has been beneficial for both. That's despite the fact that the district court which once caused a heated dispute is no longer located in either town.

A key of Jõhvi's success has been reasonable negotiation between the local and state powers. Differences in party loyalties have from time to time caused stumbling blocks and essential decisions have sometimes been delayed, but they have always been executed in important matters.

An important factor is that those involved in local politics have usually been able to hold a line that is acceptable to the voters, regardless of ethnicity. In Jõhvi, as in the rest of the region, Estonians are the minority ethnicity. If voting took place on ethnic lines, the Center Party would dominate here as is the case in neighboring towns. That party is usually included in decision-making in Jõhvi, but rather than dominating it has had to take part in teamwork.

At the same time, the fairly intense competition and fragile power relations have kept Jõhvi's authorities on their toes. They haven't had a chance to let down their guard or make foolish mistakes.

Yet the growing threat of 'Kohtlajärve-ization' coming from the neighbors is something that still encourages some to bombard  Jõhvi voters with campaigns of demagoguery.

The fruitlessness of this activity has also been recognized by a citizen election coalition that has close ties to Kohtla-Järve authorities and has attempted to gain power in Jõhvi. Four years ago, they launched every imaginable assault against Jõhvi leaders. In the recent elections, they used a more clever tactic, seeking a compromise by trying to flatter the Jõhvi leaders.

Jõhvi's current mayor and biggest vote magnet, Tauno Võhmar, has said that he doesn't see a reason to formalize a coalition agreement while holding a one-seat minority on the council. He is trying to do an experiment, believing that for the sake of public interest, no one on the council should resist reasonable and justified decisions. He believes it is possible to keep interest groups, egos and ambitions at bay.

For now it seems to be working. This is confirmed if only by the opposition's proposal to raise the mayor's pay by more than 20 percent.

It is possible that Võhmar will try to establish a new type of local politics, which in the future may enchant Kohtla-Järve voters as well. Despite its achievements, it is clear that Jõhvi, with its 5,000 taxpayers, faces the tough challenge of fulfilling its role as one of the most important regional centers in Estonia. Merging with Kohtla-Järve or at least with the district of Ahtme is probably just a matter of years.

Translated from uudised.err.ee

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