THE tiny Baltic republic of Estonia regained independence in 1991 after almost 70 years of Soviet and Nazi occupation – a difficult birth amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union, with no petrol for ambulances or food on the shelves. Its GDP has since increased five-fold and today it’s recognised as Europe’s “Baltic Tiger”.

But the country’s newfound economic success is solidly based on cultural confidence – a singing revolution, a much-loved language, an irrepressible national identity, a bold, youthful leadership and a people who never gave up. Are there lessons for Scotland or are our circumstances simply too different?

Estonia: The Baltic Tiger tries to answer that question. Funded by Chris Weir and the Scottish Independence Foundation, filming with director Charlie Stuart began in February 2020 to coincide with the country’s Independence Day celebrations – and ended abruptly with lockdown a few weeks later.

But during that brief trip we had the good fortune to meet and interview some of the people who steered Estonia through its darkest days.

Indeed, that’s the striking feature of this story – Estonia has had such a recent transformation, led by such remarkably young people that their memories, stories, insights and advice are still relevant for other small countries hitting the independence trail today.

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Estonia (with a population the size of Wales) sits high in the Baltics, flanked by Russia to the east, Latvia to the south and Finland just across the sea. The country shares a lot with its Nordic “big sister’ including a unique and fairly impenetrable language, a flat, loch-studded topography and – since independence in 1991 – a steady climb up the international league tables.

Modern Estonia tops the Pisa charts for basic education after pivoting away from Russian influence to embrace the “small is beautiful” model of the Finns: kindergarten from three to seven, autonomy for schools and free school meals, transport and education. But the vital Estonian twist was put in place 30 years ago when the country’s digital revolution was launched – not in the workplace but in the classroom.

According to former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves: “The insight for me came after the invention of the hypertext transfer protocol or HTTP – the basis of the web. I looked at this and said, wow, this is one place where we are on a level playing field with everyone else. When it comes to building big highways, the Germans and Americans have been doing it for 50-60 years. But here on the web is a place where we are no worse off than anyone else – if we start early. So, I proposed we put computers in every school, connect the schools, and the kids would take off.”

The rest as they say is history.

Today 70% of kindergartens have access to robotics and almost every school delivers its entire curriculum using digital technology – which helped Estonians take a relatively short-lived Covid lockdown in their stride and decide to scrap all external exams until the final years of school. It’s a novel approach that’s produced generations of digitally savvy, entrepreneurial youngsters – including the brains behind international success stories like Skype and Bolt.

But this daring transformation didn’t come easily.

Estonia first proclaimed independence in 1918 after two centuries of Russian rule. But soon the country was occupied – first by the Soviet Union, then the Nazis and then the Soviets again, who ruled for almost 50 years with their customary iron fist. In one month – March 1949 – 20,000 people were deported, mostly to Siberia. Two-thirds were women and children under the age of 16.

Academic and politician Marju Lauristin was a founder of the Popular Front which took advantage of Gorbachev’s glasnost in the 1980s to build on the cultural resistance of singing festivals;

“The first rule was no violence – during all these big movements and even the moment of confrontation with Russia, there was no one drop of blood on Estonian soil. None.”

DEMONSTRATIONS culm-inated in the Baltic Chain, where two million people held hands across 400 miles to make the case for freedom. Yet behind the scenes – just as importantly – a small group of 20 and 30-somethings was quietly planning Estonia’s future path: “There was big excitement among the people, but at the same time we had to prepare institutional change. Our lesson, compared to the Arab Spring, is that you cannot achieve democracy by movements alone, you have to prepare democracy by building up constitutional order.’

The Estonians held a referendum to confirm independence – carried by 78% of the population. Despite that overwhelming result, Soviet troops stayed put and when Estonia was finally recognised as an independent country in August 1991 – first by Iceland and then the rest of the world – its dependence on the Soviet Union was laid bare.

Under Mart Laar, then the world’s youngest prime minister, Estonia dumped the rouble and set up its own currency pegged to the Deutschmark. Trade with Russia ended almost overnight. And that was the only trade they had.

Marju Lauristin remembers that as minister of social affairs, she had to announce the abolition of all Soviet pensions. But people were patient and persevered. Land reform under the original Estonian Republic in 1918 meant city folk had relatives with land and food in the countryside. “One old woman said she would eat grass rather than go back to the old Soviet days.”

Mercifully these very hard times didn’t last long.

“We consciously turned our economy to the west so we wouldn’t be left semi-connected like Ukraine. We wanted a clean break.”

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Mart Laar’s government introduced a flat tax with a uniform rate of 26% regardless of income. This and other liberalisation meant Estonia received more foreign investment in the late 90s than any other Central or Eastern European state – especially from the Nordic countries.

OVER time, the digital revolution has also transformed public services – each citizen has an e-ID card with all personal information stored online. It takes on average one minute to declare taxes and signing documents online using digital signatures has already saved 2% of GDP.

Of course, there are still problems.

Estonia wants to be seen as a new Nordic nation with modern social attitudes. But a welfare society isn’t compatible with low tax rates. Old cultural norms mean Estonia still doesn’t have equal marriage laws – a referendum may be coming soon. And last week Estonia got its first female prime minister after two years of far-right involvement in government. But who is looking back fondly to pre-independence days?


Estonia, the Baltic Tiger launches online tonight at 7pm on YouTube:

It will also be streamed onto the Lesley Riddoch Podcast Facebook page and the National’s own Facebook page and a Q&A session will be held afterwards