Opinion: Without panic, Southeastern Estonia not running out of people

If a municipality's best and only idea is to construct a new municipality center while cutting back on support for the region's private schools, it is little wonder residents up and leave, Mirjam Mõttus says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

The number of residents of the three counties that make up southeastern Estonia – Valga, Võru and Põlva – has fallen by 3,300 people in the past few years. The Setomaa municipality had the same number of people at the beginning of this year. This means that southeast Estonia has lost a municipality's worth of residents in just a few years. At least that is what the local media reports.

Looking at the interior ministry database the article is based on, one finds that other municipalities have also lost residents in recent years.

The abrupt change is the result of an amendment from the beginning of last year that states residents must have an exact address in the register. This means that people who could until then change local governments whenever they saw fit, must now have a fixed address.

Local governments, setting about tidying up their registers in this way, "lost" over 17,600 people in 2019 compared to two years ago. The number of citizens in Tallinn and Tartu fell by 4,000. The Ministry of Internal Affairs said that, of course, these people have not just disappeared. They are mostly people moving between Estonia and abroad who have not registered their place of residence.

Same old story

There is no cause for panic, then. Life in southeastern Estonian hasn't become drastically worse as people who were not present anyway were simply deleted from registers. This is not to say population decrease in the southeast of the country is purely a "phantom menace."

The trend of people moving from the countryside to cities is persistent on a global scale. It is a rather unstoppable problem without simple solutions. In Estonia, it seems to be the biggest problem, mostly for those staying behind. After all, a local government's revenue base depends on how many residents it has.

And so, local governments have been locked in a silly race for residents for years. The same old circus of trading registrations for gift certificates.

Rural municipality councilmen still produce fossilized sighs and accusations when asked about the reason for people leaving aimed at fellow councilmen, former rulers or even the central government. Nothing new under the sun, just age-old rhetoric of gainful employment, poor decisions etc.


Allow me to linger on the subject of jobs for a time. While salaries might be higher in the capital, life is also more expensive there. From housing expenses to kindergarten place fees and car insurance. All in all, the living standard of urbanites and country folk is more or less the same. Or is it?

Judging by classifieds, a person living in the country and working for a milking parlor can make more than a ministry official. That is why I have little faith in talk of gainful employment as a magic wand that could keep people from leaving rural areas. Especially during a time when rural local governments are having a hard time finding employees.

A southeastern Estonian local government has held 26 competitions to find employees over the past few years 10 of which failed. They are still looking to fill four positions.

Next to talk of bringing enterprise to the countryside and creating high-paying jobs, perhaps local governments should spend more time thinking about people's actual needs.

Indeed, if a municipality's best and only idea is to construct a new municipality center while cutting back on support for the region's private schools, it is little wonder residents up and leave.

The same goes for the power struggles of local kings of the hill that have not subsided despite Estonia's recent administrative-territorial reform. Personally, I'm less than thrilled about registering with a local government where the most innovative idea for improving local life is ousting the chairman of the municipality council or mayor.

People in the periphery have much more serious problems. How to insulate their home or how to buy one in the first place. That school and local bus lines would make sense, high-quality medical care would be available nearby and for there to be access to high-speed broadband. For their living environment to develop and stay with the times.

Luckily, the first tangible steps for alleviating real concerns can already be seen.

Young People to Setomaa

Setomaa has a unique scheme (Young People to Setomaa) where the state and the local government contribute to young people staying in rural areas through housing renovation support. Rumors suggest more people in southeastern Estonia will soon share in the scheme.

If the state and Setomaa municipality contribute a total of €60,000 to the Young People to Setomaa project, the southeastern Estonian specialist instrument will receive €600,000. Recipients are required to put up a third of the total sum. The latter measure is aimed at working specialists in southeastern Estonian companies to be able to improve their living conditions or even buy a house.

The program is being prepared in cooperation with southeast Estonian local governments. It could be one of the first serious initiatives to really help people remain in rural areas. Again – our concern is no longer gainful employment but how to buy or renovate real estate in an area that all but lacks a real estate market. In other words, virtually everywhere outside Harju County and the city of Tartu.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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