The long, grey days of Soviet rule are well behind Estonia. Today, first-time visitors are astonished by the gusto with which the country has embraced the market economy. Entrepreneurship is widespread, and the economy has diversified considerably since 1991.
It's in the digital sphere where Estonia has excelled, earning it the nickname 'e-Stonia' in the tech world. Various innovations have originated from Estonian software designers, most notably Skype, which allows free voice and video calls to be made over the internet. Estonian citizens can vote, lodge their taxes and affix a digital signature to documents online, and in 2014 Estonia became the first country to offer a virtual 'e-Residency' to nonresidents.
Estonia has been lauded as the outstanding economic success story of the former USSR. It has joined the EU, NATO, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Eurozone.
Having politically and economically shaken off the Soviet era, Estonia’s gaze is very much to the West and the north. Its people view themselves as having more in common (linguistically and culturally) with their Finnish neighbours than they do with Latvia and Lithuania to their south, and see the ‘Baltic States’ label as a handy geographic reference but not much more. There’s even been talk of further cementing ties with Finland by building a tunnel under the Gulf of Finland to connect the two countries, but the cost of such a venture is likely to be prohibitive.
Meanwhile, if Estonia is increasingly facing West, it's also nervously looking over its shoulder to the Great Bear to the east. The Russian annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in the Ukraine (widely believed in these parts to have been fomented by the Kremlin) have rattled the nerves of many in this newly independent country. People here are painfully aware of the fleeting nature of the first Estonian independence in the interwar decades. That the current period of statehood has now lasted longer than the first offers only limited assurance.
Estonia's response to the Ukrainian crisis has been to enthusiastically support sanctions against the Russia Federation and to simultaneously strengthen ties with NATO, with president Toomas Ilves calling for a permanent base to be stationed on Estonian soil.
Tensions with Russia escalated in 2015 when an Estonian security officer was sentenced by a Russian court to 15 years in prison for spying; the Russians insist that they arrested him on their side of the border while the Estonians (and the EU) claim that he was kidnapped on the Estonian side. Estonia has now declared that it is planning to build a 110km-long, 2.5m-high fence on its land border with Russia (much of the rest of the border is defined by Lake Peipsi and the Narva River).
At the same time, the Estonian government is increasingly aware of the need to improve relations with its own large ethnic Russian minority, a substantial chunk of which have yet to gain Estonian citizenship. While the average Russian living in Estonia has a higher standard of living than the average Russian living in Russia, they still lag behind their Estonian compatriots. A 2015 Amnesty International report noted that Estonia's ethnic minorites, of which Russians are by far the largest, are disproportionately affected by unemployment and poverty.
A drive through some of the crumbling towns of the northeast, where both work and hope are in short supply, gives some clue to the Russian plight. Russian speakers are over-represented in the prison population, HIV infection rates and drug-addiction statistics, and the greater social problems in the Russian community in turn feed the negative stereotypes that some Estonians have about Russians.
While instances of overt hostility based on ethnicity or race are infrequent, they do occasionally occur. The tension, and ultimately violence, that was sparked by the government’s decision in 2007 to move a Soviet-era war memorial from the centre of Tallinn demonstrated that fissures remain between the country’s ethnic Russians and the rest of the population, and there are regular complaints (from the Russian media, in particular) that Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia are being discriminated against. One strategy from the Estonian side has been to attempt to curb the influence of the Russian media by promoting Russian-language news services from within Estonia.