Erik Gamzejev: What will we do with Ida-Viru County?

Erik Gamzejev.
Erik Gamzejev. Source: Rene Kundla/ERR

Why separate dealings with Ida-Viru County, Estonia's northeasternmost region, has thus far not borne fruit for many decades and what would help the region get on track is the subject of journalist and Ida-Viru County specialist Erik Gamzejev, in comment he provided for Vikerraadio.

One thing is certain, Gamzejev said: The present moment, with more local people who want and act towards a better Ida-Viru County than ever before, must be seized.

What to do with Ida-Viru County? This has been one of the most common questions post since the recent Riigikogu elections, when the biggest "vote magnets" in the region were [former Center MP] Mihhail Stalnuhhin and Aivo Peterson (EÜVP/Koos), who have both expressed views sympathetic to the Kremlin (both of whom narrowly missed out on winning seats-ed.).

While Stalnuhhin has now vowed to wind down his political career and Peterson is now in custody on suspicion of fostering [with Russia] an anti-Estonian relationship, this does not serve to nullify the army of those who support their views.

It is telling that Stalnuhhin and Peterson together received more or less the same number of votes in Ida-Viru County as all 24 Reform Party, Eesti 200 and Social Democratic (SDE) candidates combined, as these are the three parties currently forming up a coalition.

The main theme of these elections was, directly or indirectly, the attitude towards Russian atrocities in Ukraine. The attitude towards this is a major issue for the future of Estonia in fact. The votes cast by a large number of Estonian citizens living in Ida-Viru County, for candidates who have not consciously condemned Russia and/or have not supported help for Ukraine, emerged as a reliably calibrated measure of sentiment.

Kaja Kallas, Reform Party chair, effectively the winner of the elections, said that a result like that in Ida-Viru County represents a problem for the state, and must definitely be dealt with separately.

Dealing with Ida-Viru County separately has been on the agenda in Estonia since the resolutions made by the Popular Front in 1988, followed by the government's Ida-Viru problem committees, special representatives, special programs and action plans.

If you look at recent election results, it may seem distressing, as if it's all been about carrying water with a sieve. Within the public space, there are thoughts along the lines of all the integration activities so far having failed, of it being pointless to pamper Ida-Viru County: Spend a lot of public money there and drive the Russian-speaking people there to Estonian farms, to language camps, or the Estonia Theater, as much as you like, they still will keep their minds on Russia.

However, that would be a misunderstanding. The big gulf between the standard of living and the living environment on either side of the Narva River has been the biggest victory so far, one which does not make even Putin's television fans living in Estonia in any way exchange their current life for one in Russia.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the hoped-for changes in attitudes towards the values of the Estonian state have not taken place as quickly and extensively as was desired, over 30 years ago.

Why this has transported may be the subject of several doctoral dissertations from social scientists. But the mixed cocktail of causes gets intertwined with blue-eyedness, Russian propaganda, the decline of the region's economy, corruption with local politicians, the soviet mentality of some of the region's residents, the volatility of central state initiatives, including, for example, the constant postponement of education reform, the lukewarm interest in the region from most political parties, and much more.

However, it is worth focusing prime attention on what to do, so that in four years' time, or even after the 2055 Riigikogu elections for that matter, there is no reason to discuss the same issues over and over.

The simplest and shortest answer is: In Ida-Viru County, the same things that the three parties that will come to make up the governing coalition pledged before the elections, must be put in place.

The reform of the transition to Estonian-language education must be completed consistently and with high quality. Teacher Lauri's suggestion does not work here: Doing something in half measures will lead to failure. In addition, the local colleges in Estonian higher education institutions must be strengthened. Ultimately, it depends on the schools, what the mood and desire of the young people of Ida-Viru County will be like in the future, and their ability to bring their home country to a better position.

In order for them to want to do this in Ida-Viru County, more needs to be invested in modernizing the local living environment. The money for this must come from environmental fees paid up by local businesses, which for decades have migrated the lion's share to the center, leaving only a tiny part to promote local life. In this case, the talk that the rest of the Estonian taxpayers have to drown out the lives of Ida-Viru County would not be taken seriously, either. So far, it has been quite the opposite.

Together with EU Just Transition Funds, from the same source, setting up new businesses in Ida-Viru County must be encouraged, and with minimal bureaucracy. Be it fine chemistry, IT, the circular economy, metallurgy, bioproducts, the film industry and more. But as long as the new economy is not yet functioning at full capacity, the state should not utilize artificial steps to throw a spanner in the works on a functioning and competitive existing industry, much of which is related to oil shale.

If Ida-Viru County provides contemporary jobs with good wages, it will keep local, progressive young people and attract more educated people from other parts of Estonia as well. In this case, the composition of the voters of Ida-Viru County may already be somewhat different at the next Riigikogu elections compared with the recent one. It is perhaps no exaggeration to assume that even a small proportion of this year's Stalnuhhin and Peterson voters have changed their minds, in the face of positive changes in local life.

It is to be hoped that the need for change in Ida-Viru County will be recognized by all three political parties that are creating a power alliance. Of these, Eesti 200 had also written down a specific Ida-Viru action plan in their program. A member of the Reform Party has talked about a "minister for Ida-Viru County". SDE, about directing environmental charges to Ida-Viru County and contributing to cultural life there.

Another important factor is that in the major cities of Ida-Viru County, people are currently in power who do not slander the Estonian government, but expect effective cooperation, though keeping them in power requires mastery of the art of tightrope walking, it is true, given the composition of local councils.

There are now more local people who want and are working for a better Ida-Viru County than ever before. This opportunity must not be passed up.

Erik Gamzejev is editor-in-chief of Põhjarannik, part of the Postimees Group.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mirjam Mäekivi

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