Estonia has halted its worrying population decline, raising the question of whether there are any lessons its Baltic neighbours can learn so that they too could slow or even reverse the emigration to Western Europe that threatens their future economic growth.
According to Eurostat, the EU agency of statistics, Estonia’s population increased by 2% in 2015, whereas Latvia and Lithuania registered the worst declines in the bloc at 8.7% and 11.3% respectively. This was the first annual increase since 1988, according to the Estonian Statistics Department.
The turnaround was partly the result of new migration methodology that tries to better capture unregistered permanent residents, together with a smaller age cohort at the typical age for emigration.
But Estonian officials that bne IntelliNews spoke to claim that last year was a watershed and they are confident the population trend will pick up. They point to an inflow of migrants, drawn by the country’s reputation for macro-economic stability, enterpreneurship and internet skills, as well as the way the gloomy economic picture in Western Europe has put off potential emigrants.
“Certainly, the increase in the general attractiveness of Estonia among citizens of the EU and third countries has to be taken into consideration,” says Koit Meres, top statistician of Statistics Estonia. “The change of migration balance towards positive is a long-term trend and, for the moment, we do not see the direction changing in the near future,” he adds.
Ave Tampere, media advisor to the Estonian government, says one factor is the way the government has targeted European migrants and returning Estonians for the country’s booming IT sector. “The reasons behind the growth of migration to Estonia are diverse, including the technical factor of the new methodology, but one of the magnets for foreign entrepreneurs and highly skilled professionals is the booming local high-tech and start-up industry,” she says.
Estonia has set up a “Work in Estonia” programme, which simplifies the process of job finding and relocation to Estonia and can be used as a tool for employers who are looking for specific workforce. “Under the ‘Work in Estonia’ umbrella and together with the local companies Estonia has also conducted active campaigns in target countries to introduce opportunities for IT-specialists in Estonia,“ Tampere tells bne IntelliNews.
According to Tampere, in 2015, 4,929 temporary living permits were issued, up 21% on the year before. “A rise of 18% is also seen in 2016, with 1,080 permits issued in the year’s first quarter, against 915 permits during the time last year,” she underlines.
Meres of Statistics Estonia also suggests that emigrants to Western Europe are now ready to come home. “The people who left the country in previous years have been away for long enough to start migrating back,” he says.
Luule Sakkeus, Senior Research Fellow at the Estonian Institute for Population Studies, argues that this trend is helped by the way migrants today are behaving differently than before. “These days we see more circulatory movements, when people reside in the other country for a purpose of study or work but their main household remains in the country of origin, and they either commute to it more regularly during the year or after some time of residing in another country. It has become a clear-cut trend,” Sakkeus says. “For that reason, it is difficult to capture a new type of mobility by traditional methods of registration, thence the new methodology by the Statistics Estonia.”
He also argues that Estonian migrants behave differently than their fellow Balts. Unlike Lithuanians, who tend to hunker down permanently in the UK or Norway, Estonians nowadays do not leave their homeland for their whole life.
The UK’s Lithuanians, according to Vladas Gaidys, a Lithuanian sociologist and director of polling and market research company Vilmorus, have formed entire communities with Lithuanian services, food stores and so on. “They are like small states within the state, where English is not needed, so getting the Lithuanians back is nearly impossible. Their entire families and all friends have already settled there,” says Gaidys.
So what comfort can Estonia’s neighours draw from all this? Is Estonia too different to provide any hope or lessons?
Lithuania, the Baltics’ largest economy, has the worst net emigration figures in the EU and by 2030 could have more pensioners than those of working age. The emigration problem is one of the key challenges facing the country’s politicians as they head for general elections in October.
“Indeed, our people are leaving. Why? I’ve drawn four conclusions,” Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius told lrt.lt, a website of the state TV and radio broadcaster, recently. “First, they are unsatisfied with the economic and social conditions. Second, there is the negative psychological and emotional atmosphere in the state. And, finally, the possibilities that we can provide to those who return,” he said.
Butkevicius argues that higher incomes, incentives for giving birth to children and a more flexible social system are the potential solutions.
For Gabrielius Landsbergis, chairman of the opposition Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS -LKD), Estonia’s migration success is about two things. “It is all about their economy. The average wage in Estonia is 30% higher than in Lithuania. Second, Estonia has conjured up an image of a modern and efficient state, which it is undoubtedly. No wonder, Estonians are coming back,” Landsbergis tells bne IntelliNews.
“If our party is entrusted with formation of a new government after the October elections, we will follow the Estonian example and create a state-run agency tasked with addressing the comebackers’ issues: from housing to employment to starting a business, and to long-term goals in the country,” the TS-LKD leader emphasises.