Estonia’s Chargé d’affaires in Ottawa, Riho Kruuv, raised a few eyebrows with his blunt and direct keynote speech last Sunday at the Toronto concert-assembly in celebration of the 93rd anniversary of the Independence of Estonia. He also received thunderous and long-lasting applause at the end of his remarks, suggesting that the audience agreed with him on all the salient points.
The two most important ones had to deal with the actions and non-actions of Estonian citizens living abroad. Mr. Kruuv noted with some dismay that electoral participation at the polling stations in Toronto, enabling Estonian citizens to vote for members of the Riigikogu, left something to be desired. All Estonians with citizenship, no matter where they live, have a say in shaping the future government that will be decided on March 6th when the nation goes to the polls. (The e-voting option is still available for those who did not mail in ballots or vote in person.) Voter apathy is not a good sign in any democracy. Mr. Kruuv expressed hope that this syndrome is reversible.
The more pressing concern is, alas, not a new one by any means – that of maintaining a viable, healthy and educated polity of a size that will ensure the continued existence of our nation as both a democratic state and linguistic, cultural entity among the world’s countries and languages. This needs to be resolved not only by increasing the birth rate – the demographic reality is that soon there will be more pensioners than ever before who need to be supported by the taxes paid by an already dwindling workforce. The other issue is that many of Estonia’s brightest and most promising professionals and cultural innovators have ventured abroad. Should they return, and apply what they have learned in the wider world to the benefit of the nation, then this is certainly to Estonia’s benefit.
Historically, many Estonians have left the land of their birth – even during the short period of the first and long awaited Republic, which suffered along with the rest of the world under the impact of the Great Depression – in search of a better life elsewhere. But never in such numbers as now. Those that fled certain deportation to Siberia or death contributed greatly abroad to the struggle to have independence regained, emphasizing the illegality of the occupations and insisting on Freedom for Estonia at every chance. These people have now lived abroad for more than 65 years, it would not be expected that they return to Estonia en masse (although many pensioners have indeed done so).
Riho Kruuv noted that in his personal experience a number of recent immigrants from free Estonia to Canada are already losing their Estonian language skills. And when they choose not to become actively involved in the cultural and political affairs of the diaspora, the loss is twofold – ours here in Canada as well as in the homeland.
The Chargé d’affaires dwelt on the Bring Talent Home program, which was launched last autumn and has received space in this newspaper to promote its goals. Talendid koju was recently deemed as making inroads by Siim Raie, managing director of the Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. According to the Baltic Business News online issue of February 16, Estonian exporters are gaining access to Estonians who are studying abroad, or are already working there in a skilled or professional capacity.
The program’s website, www.talendidkoju.ee, notes that a database of some 450 Estonians who live and work abroad has already been built. These people have agreed to work with Estonian companies either while abroad or upon returning to their homeland. The numbers are interesting – the most positive result is from the United Kingdom, where as of writing 80 people have indicated a desire to return home or work with the program. Next on the list is the U.S., with 37 individuals. Ireland chips in with 17, perhaps due to the Emerald Isle’s own economic problems. And Canada? A mere 4 have expressed willingness to participate.
Raie is quoted by BBN as noting that “the website has become a viable job market where companies can for free advertise job vacancies, traineeship or summer jobs. Offering these ambitious young Estonians who are studying abroad a summer job or traineeship is a good way to forge contacts for the future.” Further, the rapid growth in Estonian exports in recent months has increased the need for employees who have gained important experience from working and living abroad.
But note the corollary: Estonian companies themselves must become international in order to entice talent home. Perhaps, though, not a cumbersome obstacle, considering Estonia’s IT and other successes on the world stage.
The key point for our younger generation, whether born in Estonia or abroad, is that the country needs your contribution now. Independence was not regained, thankfully, by having to pick up weapons again. (As Major Ülo Isberg of the Estonian Army noted last Sunday at the Assembly, remembering those who gave their lives for Estonia’s freedom, the Estonian Army has never lost a war. The military base agreement signed under duress from the Soviets and the infamous secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact meant that the nation never was able to take up arms against either one of the two evil dictators of WW II.)
There are programs and scholarships available for those from the diaspora wishing to study in Estonia, improve their language skills, and pick up the technical vernacular so important in the professions. The command of English, the international lingua franca of commerce, science and diplomacy is already an advantage held by Canadian Estonians.
Consider as well the words of Juhan Kunder, sung at the assembly by the united choir made up of three generations, including the school age as they resonate still in the rafters of the Toronto Estonian House – “siin on ilus elada”.
These are, granted, not easy decisions to make. However, our nation cannot long sustain the present brain drain. Talendid Koju is vital to ensure that our talented young people can give back to the country of their forebears.
Talendid koju – bringing talent home