Changing Social Priorities and the Increased Salience of the Economy in Estonia: 1991-96(1)


Barbara A. Anderson and John H. Romani


This paper looks at the salience and the seriousness of various social issues in Estonia in 1996. It also looks at similar issues in Estonia in 1991 and discusses the changes between the two dates.

By 1996, Estonia was the most economically successful of any country of the former Soviet Union. Nonetheless, it was still in the process of a difficult economic transition. Gross domestic product declined throughout the early 1990s and only began to increase in 1994.

In 1996, economic issues, especially as they impacted on the lives of individuals and households, dominated the concerns of groups in Estonia. The majority of the improvements and the areas that had worsened in the previous decade were seen in economic terms.

All groups were aware of the positive and negative aspects of the economic changes associated with marketization of the economy. The possibilities for economic improvement as well as the increase in poverty and the overall increase in economic inequality were widely acknowledged. More goods were available in stores, and political restrictions on travel had been removed, but whether this resulted in more acquisition of goods or in more travel depended on whether the individual or household had sufficient money to buy the goods or the tickets.

The assessment of whether the personal economic situation had improved or worsened in the previous decade differed widely among groups. Highly educated Estonians in Tallinn saw their economic situation as better. They also saw the reasons for why some had not fared well as being substantially due to lack of initiative or poor work habits. Secondary-educated Russians in Sillimae saw their economic situation as much worse. They saw structural factors related to lack of jobs and low wage rates as the main causes of their worsened economic situation.

Examination of perceptions of social problems in Estonia in 1991 would not have predicted this situation. In 1991, economic concerns were relatively minor. All groups tended to express a high degree of satisfaction with their jobs. Political and macrosocial concerns dominated views of social problems. Free medical care and primary and secondary education were viewed as quite unsatisfactory, perhaps due to a vision of higher quality without substantially higher costs.

In 1991, in answer to questions about trade-offs in the move to a market economy, a majority of all groups expressed a willingness to take a better paying, but less secure, job, and almost everyone agreed that income differences were necessary in order to stimulate economic growth.

By 1996, some groups in Estonia had become winners in the economic transition, but members of many other groups seem to have underestimated the personal economic cost of the transition. In 1991, they may have thought it would affect only other people or that the duration of difficult times would be shorter. Since Estonia is a "success story" in the transition from state socialism to a market economy, these economic changes in other parts of the former Soviet Union are unlikely to be any less painful.

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Introduction and Overview

There have been many changes in the former Soviet Union in the past ten years. Marketization has increased, and much of the social safety net has disappeared. After deterioration in the standard of living, there has been improvement in some regions. Former republics now are independent countries. All of these changes present both opportunities and challenges.

Estonia has fared best among the former Soviet republics in this economic transition. In this paper, we examine the salience and seriousness of various social issues for groups in Estonia in 1996. We also compare the 1996 results with the results of a survey which took place in Estonia in 1991.

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About Estonia

After centuries of subjugation by Sweden and the Russian Empire, Estonia gained its independence in 1920. In 1940, Estonia was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union (cf. Raun 1991). Estonia became an independent country in 1991. According to the 1989 Soviet Census, Estonia had a population of 1.6 million, 61% of whom were ethnic Estonians. Seventy-eight percent of the non-Estonians were ethnic Russians (cf. Anderson and Silver 1990).

Estonia has long been on the forefront of social and economic change in its region of the world. It was the first part of the Russian Empire to implement substantial voluntary fertility control at the end of the nineteenth century (Coale, Anderson, and Harm 1979; Katus 1994), it had the highest educational attainment of any Soviet republic, and it had the highest standard of living of any Soviet republic. In the Gorbachev period, Estonia was distinguished by rapid marketization. Since the end of the Soviet period, Estonia has been outstanding in economic development, and in 1992 was the first former republic to establish a true hard currency. The Estonian kroon is tied to the German mark. The relative economic success of Estonia is highlighted by its invitation to join the European Union in July 1997; it was the first former Soviet republic to receive such an invitation.

Although Estonia is the economic success story of the former Soviet Union, the move to marketization has not been totally smooth. Figure 1 shows the annual percent growth in gross domestic product in Estonia, Latvia, Russia and Ukraine, 1990-95 (World Bank 1996). All of the countries experienced a decline in GDP after 1990. The decline was especially large in Estonia, perhaps due to early vigorous pursuit of economic policies to move to a market economy. Estonia also was the first to achieve a positive growth in GDP, which occurred in 1994. This means that from 1990 through 1993, the national income of Estonia was declining. In 1995, the gross domestic product was less than 65% of what it had been in 1989. Thus, the economic improvements in Estonia by the mid 1990s were substantially a promise for the future rather than an improvement in the average economic situation of residents of Estonia.

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1996 Focus Group Interviews in Estonia

The 1996 focus group interviews in Estonia were conducted as part of the project "Group Identity and Social Issues in Estonia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan." This paper is based on transcripts from all focus group interviews in Estonia. The authors are very grateful for the hard work that made these transcripts available. The following focus groups were conducted:

Estonian men with higher education in Tallinn

Estonian women with higher education in Tallinn

Russian men with higher education in Tallinn

Russian women with higher education in Tallinn

Estonian men without higher education in Tartu

Estonian women without higher education in Tartu

Estonian men without higher education in Tamsalu

Estonian women without higher education in Tamsalu

Russian men without higher education in Narva

Russian women without higher education in Narva

Russian men without higher education in Sillimae

Russian women without higher education in Sillimae

The focus group participants were age 30-49. The focus group interviews concentrated on what things had gotten better in the previous ten years for "people like you" and what things had gotten worse in the previous ten years for "people like you." In addition, the focus groups discussed whether there were some social groups for which things were especially better or worse.

It is useful to say a little about the locations of the focus group interviews. Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, contains about one-third the population of the country. The population is about half and half Estonian and non-Estonian. It is one of the few locales in Estonia where both Estonians and Russians reside in substantial numbers. Tartu is a smaller city. Tartu University is located there, and many graduates of the university like to remain in that area. Tamsalu is in a rural area. The vast majority of the populations of Tartu and Tamsalu are ethnic Estonians. Narva is a city in northeast Estonia, bordering on Russia. The population of Narva is overwhelmingly Russian. Sillimae is also overwhelmingly Russian. It was formerly a "closed city," and its residents had very little contact with the rest of Estonia. This project needed special permission to enter Sillimae and conduct the focus group interviews.

Appendix 1 presents those things viewed as getting better and those things viewed as getting worse by members of each focus group. In addition, a code appears beside each issue in four categories. This categorization is not perfect, and some items do not fall neatly into only one category. However, it is useful.

The first area is economic concerns. This includes economic opportunities, such as the possibility of becoming rich, and of improving one's standard of living. It also includes concerns with inequality, poverty, and social stratification. These are mainly economic concerns at the level of the individual or the household. We label this area E for economics.

The second area is personal and cultural freedom, including freedom of cultural expression, and concern with discrimination. Concern with discrimination against Russians is included in this category, as well as enthusiasm by Estonians about no longer needing to use the Russian language. We label this area P for personal.

The third area is family concerns, including concerns with family values, the situation of children, and the nature of interpersonal relations. Issues such as better or worse human relations, parents not spending enough time with their children, and decline in moral values of youth fall in this category. We label this area F for family.

The fourth area is macro-level concerns, including concerns with politics, crime, international relations and pollution. Crime can be experienced on the personal level. However, most of the discussion of crime in the focus groups referred to hearing about crime in other places or whether crime rates were increasing or decreasing, based on the media. We label this area M for macro.

Table 1 shows the major areas noted as improving and the major areas seen as worsening for each group using the four categories. The economy is seen as an area of both improvement and worsening for all groups. For most groups it is seen as the major area of improvement and for every group, except Russian men in Sillimae, it is the major area of decline. Almost all groups recognized the improvements in the availability of goods in stores and the potential for economic success. However, they also noted increased economic inequality, and many groups mentioned rising unemployment and job competition. The disappearance of a social safety net was widely noted, although in Sillimae, it was noted that social services for the unemployed had increased. Many focus group participants stated that everything depended on money, if you had it you could do more and if you did not have it you could do less than a decade earlier. A good example was travel. Many groups said there was much more freedom to travel, especially to foreign countries in the West. However, the increased cost of transportation, including within Estonia, was also mentioned. Those with little money saw their travel opportunities as more limited than in the past.

Many groups noted increases in personal freedom and improved communication and information. Some stated that work had become more interesting and people generally were more enthusiastic about their own lives. In the personal area, most of the Russian groups pointed to discrimination against Russians as an area that had worsened. While the Estonian groups seemed to think the main source of problems of Russians stemmed from their lack of knowledge of Estonian language, and to a lesser extent, their education and motivation, the Russian focus group participants, while acknowledging that knowledge of Estonian language was important, saw many additional, and often unfair, barriers for Russians. The Russians in Sillimae seemed the least concerned with outright legal or illegal discrimination. Perhaps their historic isolation in a closed city made them less aware of possible discrimination than Russians in Tallinn or in Narva. For Estonian men in Tartu the major improvement was seen as the ability to use the Estonian language in all settings, that is that it was no longer necessary to speak Russian.

In the area of family and interpersonal relations, many said that with marketization people had become less friendly, and many were concerned with deterioration of values of the young. This tended to be a greater concern of women than of men.

Macrolevel issues were relatively unimportant. For Estonian men in Tallinn, the political situation generally was seen as an important problem area, and the most important problem among Russian men in Sillimae was crime. Overall, politics generally, the environment, and crime were seen as relatively unimportant. With the exception of Sillimae, concern with crime seemed to be with crime in some other place in Estonia. Also, the environment was only mentioned as a major problem by men in Sillimae. Although it was discussed by women in Sillimae, it was dismissed as not an extremely serious problem, despite the high level of pollution in Sillimae. The environment also came up in the discussion among Estonian women in Tamsalu, in the context of new water pipes that had been put in to improve the quality of the town's water, and in Tartu in terms of pollution of a local river.

It is clear from Table 1 that all groups recognized the potential advantages and disadvantages of marketization. However groups differed in whether, on balance, they saw economic aspects improving or worsening in the previous decade. Table 2 schematically represents whether the various groups saw the economic situation as having improved or worsened in the previous ten years. Table 2 is based not only on the information in Appendix Table 1 but also on reading the transcripts for comparative comments as to whether the standard of living or the economic situation for "people like you" had gotten better or worse.

Estonians with higher education in Tallinn clearly thought that their economic situation had improved. Also, to a somewhat lesser extent, Russians with secondary education in Narva saw their economic situation as having improved. Educated Estonians in the capital city would be expected to benefit first from economic growth. The views of Russians with secondary education in Narva are more surprising. The Narva focus groups perceived that the situation of Russians in Tallinn was better than that of Russians in Narva, but educated Russians in Tallinn saw their economic situation as having worsened.

There are several possible explanations for this. It is likely the actual economic situation of educated Russians in Tallinn is better than that of less-educated Russians in Narva. However, the Russians in Narva may be implicitly comparing their situation with that of Russians in Russia to a greater extent than are Russians in Tallinn. Also educated Russians in Tallinn had the most to lose in status in the transition from the Estonian Republic to the Republic of Estonia, and also may be comparing their situation with that of educated Estonians in Tallinn. The worse situation of those in towns or rural areas is also clear from Table 2.

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Views of Social Issues in Estonia in 1991

A survey conducted in Estonia in 1991 with 1,921 respondents provides some useful comparative background for interpretation of the 1996 focus group results. The fieldwork began in February 1991 and ended in August 1991 before the August 19 coup.

The survey builds on an earlier longitudinal survey in Estonia. That survey (1966-1979) was conducted only among ethnic Estonians (Matulionis 1988; Saar 1990; Titma 1985, 1989). The respondents in the earlier survey were in their last year of general secondary school in Estonia in the academic year 1965-66. In the 1991 survey, as many of the Estonian respondents from the 1979 survey as could be located were reinterviewed.

The 1991 survey was also administered to a comparison group of non-Estonians-mostly ethnic Russians. The non-Estonians were students in their last year of general secondary school in Estonia in 1965, 1966, or 1967 in schools in which the main language of instruction was Russian. Thus, the respondents to the 1991 survey were in their early forties.(2)

Based on the 1991 survey, the problems uppermost in the minds of people in Estonia changed quite a bit between 1991 and 1996. The survey asked respondents to rate the seriousness of 14 different social problems, including crime, ethnic relations, availability of housing, the high divorce rate, and the availability of desirable jobs.(3) Figure 2 shows the ranking of the seriousness of the fourteen social problems from the 1991 survey divided into eight groups by gender (Men, Wom), whether or not they had higher education (Hi, Sec) and whether or not they were ethnic Estonians (Est, Rus).

Each of the fourteen problem areas is also classified into the areas M, P, E, or F. The macrolevel issues are shown in red, the personal issues in blue, economic issues in black, and family issues in green.

Macrolevel issues dominated social concerns in 1991. There is a straight red horizontal line at the top of Figure 2 because every group rated crims as the most serious problem in 1991. Seven out of the eight groups rated pollution as the second most serious problem. Relations with governmental leaders was also seen as a serious problem,. For every group, relations with USSR leaders in Moscow was rated as either the third or the fourth most serious problem.

Personal issues asked about in 1991 in the list of potential social problems relate to ethnic groups. The question about whether migration into Estonia was a serious problem was clearly interpreted as meaning migration of Russians and other non-Estonians into Estonia. Ethnic Estonians saw this as a serious problem (ranked third or fourth), while Russians did not see this as a problem at all. The somewhat parallel question for Russians was whether ethnic relations were a problem. This was more likely to have been seen as a problem by Russians than by Estonians.

Economic issues were relatively unimportant. Housing was the second most serious problem for Russian men with a higher education and was the third most serious problem for the other three groups of Russians. Uncertainty about the future was fairly important for some groups, rating fifth for three of the groups. Availability of jobs played a fairly minor role for members of all eight groups, although it was perceived as a more serious problem by Russians than by Estonians. It has been widely observed that Estonia had a labor-short economy. However, there is a straight horizontal black line at the bottom of Figure 2 because every group in 1991 saw a shortage of labor as the least serious social problem. The extreme salience of economic issues apparent in 1996 was not present in 1991.

Family and interpersonal values were not seen as a serious problem. There was some concern about the extent of materialism, and women were more concerned about a high divorce rate than men, but no family issue ranked above sixth for any group.

In 1991, people were generally satisfied with important economic aspects of their lives. Figure 3 shows the percent of members of each of the eight groups who stated that they were satisfied with their jobs, with their housing, with public medical care, and with primary and secondary schools.(4) The vast majority of each group was satisfied with their jobs, and a majority of each group was satisfied with their housing. Thus, immediate complaints about standard of living and work life seem to have been fairly minor. However, there was a high level of dissatisfaction with public medical care and with primary and secondary schools. This is interesting in light of numerous complaints in the 1996 focus groups about the cost of medical care and about costs for lessons for children that used to be free. These are both areas for which it is easy to imagine that the quality could be better, and the possibility of a market could result in a better product. That is, if cost were not prohibitive.

Despite the positive economic picture for 1991, there were substantial concerns among members of some groups about unemployment. Actual unemployment was very low in 1991, but the changes already underway made some people very worried about the possibility of losing their jobs. Figure 4 shows the proportion of respondents who thought they were somewhat or very likely to lose their jobs in the next six months. In 1991, Russians felt much more at risk of losing their jobs than Estonians, and Russian women felt more at risk of losing their jobs than Russian men.

The 1996 focus groups talked at length about the positive and negative aspects of marketization. Figure 5 shows the percent of each group in 1991 who agreed it was worthwhile to take various economic risks associated with marketization. People were asked whether they would work in a less secure, better paying job. They were also asked whether they agreed that there should be differences in income to stimulate economic growth.(5) It is clear from Figure 5 that all groups supported taking risks in jobs that paid well but which were not secure. Men were more willing to take these risks than women, but Russian men were just as willing as Estonian men to takes these risks. Given the greater concern about possible unemployment among Russian women than Russian men, there is reason for women to be more concerned about job security. There was also almost total agreement that differences in income were necessary to stimulate economic growth, with women less convinced of this than men. Perhaps people did not think they would be the ones with low incomes.

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Conclusions and Implications

By 1996, concerns with the economy had come to dominate people's thinking in Estonia. This may be because the economic transition was taking longer than had been anticipated. With the discussions of international agencies and joining international trade groups, the concern with the economy may have permeated all aspects of people's lives. Perhaps people were waiting for the economy to work itself out before other things were considered.

By 1996, some groups in Estonia had become winners in the economic transition, but members of many other groups seem to have underestimated the personal economic cost of the transition. In 1991, they may have thought it would affect only other people or that the duration of difficult times would be shorter.

Also, in 1991, environmental pollution was seen as a very serious social problem. In 1995, only 15% of respondents in a survey in Estonia thought the state of the environment was a cause for concern -- 10% of Estonians and 23% of non-Estonians (Estonia 1995: 20). In 1993, Andres Tarand, Estonia's Minister of the Environment wrote, " the race between environmental requirements and economic development, the former tends to lag behind, but not hopelessly (Estonia 1993)."

Given the relative economic success of Estonia, two observations may be made. First is the decline of the environment as a social issue between 1991 and 1996. With time, that issue may return to the policy agenda.(6) Despite the lack of general concern about the environment, some progress was made in Estonia, as indicated by the improvement of the water system in Tamsalu. With sufficient economic growth, the economic situation even of Russians in Sillimae with secondary education may improve. Second is the salience of the experience in Estonia for other parts of the former Soviet Union. It is relatively clear that by 1996, people in Estonia had become aware of the social and personal costs associated with marketization. For many this has been more painful than was anticipated. In other parts of the former Soviet Union it is not likely to be any easier.

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1The collection of the data for the 1991 survey was supported by a grant from the Social Science Research Council and by Contract No. 805-19 from the National Council for Soviet and East European Research. Data analysis of the 1991 survey data was supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The collection of the focus group data and the workshop in Kyiv were supported by the Ford Foundation Grant No. 950-1163 and by Contract No. 812-11 from the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research. The preparation of this paper was also supported by NICHD Grant Number P30 HD-10003 and by the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

2For some analyses of the 1991 survey results see Anderson and Romani (1996) and Anderson and Voormann (1997).

3For each of these questions people could reply that the problem was 1-Very Serious Problem, 2-Somewhat Serious Problem, 3-Somewhat of a Problem, or 4-Not at all a Problem. The ratings of 1 through 4 were used to obtain rankings of the relative seriousness of problems for each group.

4For each of these questions people could reply they were very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied. Figure 3 shows the percent who stated that they were either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied.

5 For each of these questions people were asked if they agreed strongly, agreed somewhat, disagreed somewhat or disagreed strongly. Figure 5 shows the percent who agreed strongly or agreed somewhat.

6See Kingdon (1995) for a discussion of how and why issues move on and off of the policy agenda.

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