When I visited Estonia four weeks ago, I witnessed the bittersweet, albeit largely temperate, passing of the kroon, Estonia’s national currency since 1992. As I, and indeed most of the country, rushed to dump my krooni before Jan. 1st and the euro arrived, I nevertheless held on to a two-krooni note—a relic, no doubt, of a time that once was.
After fifty years of Soviet rule, Estonia was the first former Soviet republic to ditch the ruble and adopt its own national currency. Now, eighteen and a half years later, Estonia is once again a forerunner in Eastern Europe—this time, as the first former Soviet republic to drop its own currency to join the euro zone.
Still, while this latest currency switch might deem Estonia more vigorous than its Eastern European counterparts, the subtle reality of the switch remains less encouraging. Indeed history, it seems, is repeating itself this January.
While Estonia quickly dropped the ruble in 1992 to assist the emergence of a national identity that it quite obviously lacked, today Estonia may be joining the euro zone for many similar social (in addition to the obvious economic) reasons— to once and for all solidify its identity and break from its century-old problems with the east.
To get at the center of what’s socially at stake in Estonia’s currency switch, one must first recall the history of this small Baltic country of 1.3 million people. And therein lies the problem: Estonia has only existed, in the formal sense of a state, between both World Wars and since 1991. Moreover, for centuries upon centuries, the area now called Estonia was ruled by Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, or Poland—but always in a constant flux.
Really, Estonia has not always been Estonia.
And yet, even since 1991 Estonia has continually struggled to retain a constant citizenship. With ethnic Russians comprising one quarter of its population and with 30% of the population speaking Russian as a first language, the country has had problems requiring even its own government employees to speak the national language. As a result, Estonia has vamped up its National Language Inspectorate and has been testing government clerks, teachers, and even bus drivers in their Estonian language abilities. The testing has caused hardship particularly in places like Tallinn, the capital, where roughly 50% of schools teach in Russian and, consequently, a new government law now requires 60% of class time to be taught in Estonian.
Nevertheless, the switch to the Euro will no doubt bring about greater economic prospects for Estonia. The past few weeks have been marked by an absence of chaos (with McDonalds as the exceptional high profile price hike investigation)—a transition far better than was seen in Slovakia in 2009 or than most exports had expected.
Undeniably, the loudest of Estonia’s internal social controversies over issues like removing Soviet statues and other conflicts with ethnic Russians have also quieted lately. Yet still, I can’t help but wonder about the conclusion of a NY Times piecelate last monthcovering the Estonia currency change that concluded with a quote from an Estonian citizen that read, “Now we are back in Europe.”
Indeed, whether or not that’s the reality of the Estonia that currently exists, or even the sentiment of the majority of the Estonians who live there, it’s what the powers to be in Estonia had hoped to convey to the world, and more pointedly, themselves: