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Tuesday, 10 December, 2002, 20:17 GMT
Estonia's Euro vision
Tallinn Town Hall Square
Tallinn's old town is a Unesco world heritage site

As proud host of the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2002 Estonia was keen to show that it had rejoined the European mainstream and was enjoying a renaissance, 11 years after regaining independence.


Our main concern is that we are no longer sandwiched between big regional powers

Ahto Oja
Environmentalist

Opinion polls show more Estonians in favour of joining the European Union than against it.

But the margin does not suggest that the referendum on EU membership planned for next autumn is a foregone conclusion.

A survey carried out by the Estonian polling organisation Emor in November showed 57% of Estonians in favour.

But the European Commission's Eurobarometer poll showed 32% support for EU membership, with 16% against and 42% who think it is neither good nor bad.

Scepticism

Eiki Berg, a political scientist at the University of Tartu, says scepticism is widespread in Estonia, due to the hardships of the transition to a market economy and a political culture that is still catching up with mature democracies.

Tallinn market
The post-Soviet transition has been hard for some

According to another Estonian political scientist, Kaido Jaanson, Estonia's development is too rapid at the moment and "some elements of the population, old people for example, cannot adapt to the market economy".

But EU membership should help stabilise the economy, he says.

Estonia has an annual GDP growth rate of 5.8% for 2001-2004, putting it ahead of most other EU applicant countries.

There are hopes that EU membership will help to develop Estonia as a major transit hub in northern Europe, giving a boost to the port of Tallinn and its links with Russia and the country's Baltic neighbours, especially Finland.

Estonia already has strong trade and cultural ties with Finland, an EU member.

Security

Marko Mihkelson, director of the Baltic Centre for Russian Studies, believes Estonians are very conscious of the fact that they have "always been on the border between east and west" but their traditions "belong with western civilisation".

Castle in Kuressaare, on Saaremaa Island
Castle in Kuressaare: A history of invasions

Environmentalist Ahto Oja says it is misleading to argue that Estonia has left one bloc - the Soviet Union - only to join another bloc - the EU, because "the basic ideology is different: the EU is a free union, not a dictatorship".

EU and Nato membership will provide Estonia with "a security umbrella".

"Our main concern is that we are no longer sandwiched between big regional powers," he told BBC News Online.

Russians form nearly 30% of Estonia's 1.45 million population. In the capital Tallinn non-Estonians - mostly Russians - account for 50% of the population.

Mr Berg believes that, in addition to the benefits provided by the free movement of goods and services, EU membership will improve Estonia's relations with Russia "to the extent that good neighbourliness becomes the rule".

Spreading the word

But Nikolai Meinert, an ethnic Russian who experienced decades of Soviet rule in Estonia, says few people in the Baltic republic know much about EU rules.

Restaurant in Kuressaare, on Saaremaa Island
Saaremaa Island: A haven of tranquillity

"Mostly people are not well-informed about the EU - what it will bring," he says.

According to Mr Berg, those who are against EU membership "worry about pooled sovereignty and unequal treatment".

A survey commissioned by the Centre for Finnish Business and Policy Studies (EVA) found that support for the EU was greater among non-nationals than among ethnic Estonians, many of them hoping that the EU would help stabilise their social status.

Mr Oja accepts that competition may get tougher inside the EU, and this might make life difficult for some manufacturing enterprises.

But Estonian agriculture has survived without generous farm subsidies, he says.

Environment

EU membership may help protect Estonia's environment, he says, with the introduction of tighter EU controls, for example to curb oil shale burning.

The fuel - used in Estonian power stations - is three times less efficient than coal.

Many Estonians polled by EVA said they thought EU membership would also open up more travel and study opportunities.

Price rises are expected with EU membership, but there are hopes that it will raise living standards in the long term and guarantee security.


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08 Apr 02 | Europe
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