Erik Gamzejev: Ida-Viru County waiting for a wizard

Erik Gamzejev.
Erik Gamzejev. Source: Mirtel Kõue Gamzejev.

The government's Ida-Viru County special representative will not have a magic staff, nor are they expected to perform miracles. However, they could have a tiny hammer with which to tap on the conscience of parliamentary parties and remind them what their candidates have promised people in the region over the last three elections, Erik Gamzejev finds.

Thirty-four people are looking to become the wizard of Ida-Viru County.

Associating the soon-to-be-created position with that of a wizard might not be that much of a stretch, looking at the superhuman expectations and empty toolbox involved. Besides, Ida-Viru tourism promotors have for years used the term Ida-Võlumaa (Eastern Fairyland) to market the region.

Following the March general elections, where most parliamentary parties failed in Ida-Viru County and a frightening number of votes was cast for citizens Mihhail Stalnuhhin and Aivo Peterson, party leaders agreed that serious attention needs to be paid to the region before the problem gets out of hand.

The three ruling parties did not manage to determine what needs to be done specifically during coalition talks. The solution to the Ida-Viru County problem was summed up in a single sentence: "We will appoint a government representative to Ida-Viru County to better manage regional challenges." In other words, we'll appoint someone and they'll have to see what can be done and...

The role and powers of the incoming Ida-Viru County representative remain vague at best. Recent signals suggest they will have to support efforts to improve Ida-Viru County's socioeconomic situation and increase state presence.

In simpler terms, these bureaucratic cliches stand for reducing unemployment and poverty and promoting pro-Estonian sentiment. In other words, things that haven't really worked over the past decades.

Ida-Viru County has a far higher unemployment rate than any other, the highest relative poverty rate and wages below the Estonian average. The Narva City Council is clinging to streets named after Red Army soldiers and most local municipal school graduates' Estonian proficiency is symbolic at best.

If the expectation is for a single official, who will not be getting a team or a budget, to solve all that, the candidates would have to be Old Khottabych, David Copperfield and the like. The vague nature of the position is also the reason why Ida-Viru County local government heads have so far been unenthusiastic about the prospect.

But let us try to be optimistic and think that every person in charge of Ida-Viru County issues on the government level is a benefit. Provided, of course, the other ministries and agencies can resist the temptation to saddle the representative with what should be their duties. That said, we must not forget that we will be dealing with a government representative in Ida-Viru County and not the other way around. Their orders and salary will come from the central government, not its Ida-Viru counterparts.

It is clear that the nature of the position will be fleshed out by the inner strength and charisma of the person who lands it. Their job description could be single-sentence: to make life better in Ida-Viru County. The effectiveness of the work could be measured in unemployment rate, average salary or the average cost per square meter of apartments in Jõhvi by 2026. The prerequisites for success are intimate knowledge of life in Ida-Viru County, as well as considerable authority both in the region and in government circles.

Politicians and ministries have spent years churning out press releases on how €350 million from the Just Transition Fund will make Ida-Viru County happy. It will help and the opportunity needs to be seized. But it will not be enough, considering how many jobs, how much money and prosperity has been lost to climate policy in Ida-Viru County already.

Ida-Viru companies paid over €600 million in emissions quotas and various environmental fees last year alone of which fewer than 5 percent made it back to the county.

External factors promoting economic development in Ida-Viru County are also few. It was possible to read in development plans from less than a decade ago how the future of the Ida-Viru County economy rested on three whales: the oil shale industry, which had plans to expand into motor fuels; logistics as a bridgehead between east and west; and tourism, hopes for which also largely rested on the nearness of Saint Petersburg and its seven million residents.

The latter two took a serious blow once the true countenance of Russia and the Putin regime was unmasked. The oil shale industry has had its wings clipped and is flying lower than planned, trying to navigate a maze of Brussels climate rules.

Why would entrepreneurs take risks in Ida-Viru County that neighbors Russia? The Just Transition Fund investments might be one answer. A soon-to-be-built magnet factory that was the first venture to benefit from the measure promises to be a success story. However, a few dozen more are needed. It must also be added that the magnet factory would not have materialized had there not been a successful rare earth metals company in Sillamäe since the middle of the previous century.

Unlike wizards, the government's Ida-Viru County representative won't have a magical staff, nor should we expect them to perform miracles. However, they could have a tiny hammer with which to tap on the conscience of parliamentary parties and remind them what their candidates have promised people in the area over the last three elections.

Almost all politicians who ran for parliament in Ida-Viru County promised to channel revenue from environmental taxes paid in the region back to the region. It was the chorus of songs meant to woo voters before elections, while the idea fell flat once it came time to put together a coalition.

Should the government's Ida-Viru County representative succeed in channeling some Ida-Viru County environmental fees revenue back to the area, they would earn a diploma from the wizarding elementary school. If they can motivate politicians to promise what they have pledged before elections, it would expedite the solving of problems. If not, one is hard-pressed to see why we need such a representative.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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