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Estonia: Analysis From Washington -- Indicators Leading And Lagging

  • Paul Goble

Tallinn, 27 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Changes in the physical face of post-communist countries often do not correspond to changes in the mental architecture of their populations. Sometimes, one is ahead; sometimes the other. And that creates difficulties within these countries and leads to misunderstandings about them.

No frequent visitor to the Estonian capital over the last decade, for example, could fail to be struck by how radically transformed Tallinn is physically. Not only are there a variety of new buildings and more bright lights, but many of the older buildings have been spruced up.

At the same time, no one who has visited some of the smaller Estonian towns over the same period could fail to note how much so many of them look just like they did before the Soviet Union collapsed. While there are some new signs and some new stores, most buildings remain unpainted and in some cases unrepaired.

On the basis of such observations, many outsiders have concluded that Tallinn has made the transition to democracy and free markets and that the Estonian hinterland has not. But that is not the whole truth, and accepting it as if it were contributes to confusion about the nature of change in post-communist countries.

In the Estonian capital, the psychology of many people has kept up with or is even ahead of the dramatic changes in their physical environment. Indeed, it was largely their mental changes that made these physical ones possible. They had a vision which they have made concrete.

But in all too many cases, these new bottles contain old wine. The beautiful new buildings and the impressive new enterprises contain a large number of people who have changed less than their surroundings, who continue to think much as they did in Soviet times even though they identify themselves in post-Soviet ways.

Some of these are members of the old nomenclatura who for profit and public consumption have reinvented themselves as capitalists. Others appear to reflect the abrasive shock-brigade style of the Komsomol even when they call themselves democrats.

And still others, neither old communists nor new Komsomolites, reflect the inertia common to all human beings and simply have not changed as much as their surroundings might suggest or even as much as they might like to believe.

But if some are inclined to see more change in Tallinn than in fact has taken place, others are certain to see less change in the other cities ant towns and countryside than in fact has.

In one small village on the northern coast of the country, a young man who had been an employee of a Soviet collective farm has transformed himself far more completely than many in Tallinn but with fewer of the outward trappings.

Starting only a few years ago with a truck without wheels, he has built a thriving construction business in a way that any contractor in a Western country would instantly recognize.

He does his calculations in the same way Western contractors do. He seeks out new customers. He bears complete responsibility for his work, his family and his future. And he does all this in an environment he is helping to transform precisely because he has first transformed himself.

All this is not to say that no one has changed in Tallinn or that everyone has been transformed in the Estonian countryside. Clearly, there are many in the Estonian capital who have changed, and there are many in the countryside who have not.

But the fact that new buildings do not prove there are new minds within them, or that old buildings cannot contain them is a useful reminder both to these countries and to those who would help them that whatever contribution a change in the physical environment may make to the future, it will be a change of the heart and the mind that will ultimately determine what that future will be.