Is Estonia still open for business to foreigners?

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There’s often a disconnect between the direction of government and the vibe on the streets. I’m not talking hip-hop crews, hipsters or the wider youth, I’m talking about the majority of decent everyday Estonians, no matter what their language or age.

Estonia, believe it or not, is diverse in cultures and races. The numbers are lower, naturally, but the range is there. Pakistani families enjoy trips to Ulemiste Keskus on a Saturday, Nigerian friends sing and dance on Stroomi Rand, Brazilians throw parties with great food and conversation. Many countries of the world have representation here, with cultures to share and friendship to offer. 

From a business perspective diversity of cultures brings great potential, niche markets, new products and services, a lot more room for everyone to move. Ten street food outlets serving tastes from ten different nations makes more sense than ten of the same local offerings, equally delicious but suddenly the markets might feel crowded. Variety is the spice of life, but crucially it also brings opportunity.

The tech sector is onto this, filling their talent gaps with cybersecurity specialists from Egypt, full-stack developers from Ghana, customer service reps from Azerbaijan, the list goes on. Until Covid-19 hit in the spring, there were more than enough positions to go around, and local talent was not losing out. 

The cracks, however, were already starting to appear within some branches of the government, with a clear lurch to the right on immigration, affecting non-EU students and temporary workers; Covid-19 a convenient alibi. 

It’s here where we can return to the juxtaposition between the feelings of the populace and Riigikogu on foreigners. Government policy that panders to dormant xenophobia will see it bubble to the surface, but this doesn’t appear to be significant enough of a threat. We can set this diminishing sideshow aside for a second as the core of Estonian society is open-minded by default, in fact, it’s been their key to survival through the ages. What’s concerning is who’s getting in on the headline performance. 

When a government actively works against what’s best for business and the economy to suit their own members’ Nationalist ideals, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding occurring. It’s happening in the UK as we speak, there are rumbles in Sweden, France and Greece, and Poland is also far gone. 

Personal political aspirations of circumscribed societies aside, what is actually best for Estonia and Estonian business? When I arrived in 2014 the direction was pretty clear: today Estonia, tomorrow the world. Everyone seemed to be striving for the same thing, singing along to the same far-reaching tune, an Estonia with a global presence, a strong and pioneering technology sector, an open world view. Along came e-Residency, Latitude 59, a new female president excited by innovation and learning by example; and then the needle was ripped from the record with a tearing scratch. Something more serious started playing, and only a few joined in the singing. 

Maybe there is a point here. Maybe it was time for Estonia to look after its own, to put protective measures in place, and to own the vision of the country as a global innovator before the foreigners get their feet too far under the table and hijack the dream. 

As someone working as a writer for businesses in Estonia, I have seen a change in the landscape. The hard truth for foreigners like me is that Estonians are getting better at English, work is changing from writing full articles to collaborative writing or simply proofreading. The benefits of being a native English speaker in Estonia are diluting, and like many of us here, I’m having to diversify. 

It’s a blessing and a curse, being in demand because of the language you speak. I’ve got by on it quite well for the last 6 years, but times are definitely changing and it’s not good for the niggling impostor syndrome to allow oneself the luxury of settling into a groove that’s diminishing. 

So, they’re right, aren’t they? We’re no longer needed, surplus to requirements, possibly a little in the way. What about Estonians? Why can’t they do the jobs Johnny foreigner is doing? Well, they can. But let’s not forget that all-important fact, that we outlanders are, in all but the blood coursing through our veins, Estonians. 

We might have been born in England, Morocco, Mexico, France, but we all love Estonia, we’ve decided to be here long enough to become permanent residents, we pay into the system, we spend in the shops, we put our kids into Estonian schools and expect them to make this country their home because after all, they were born here – which by extreme political standards is the benchmark for where you should stay or return to. 

And this is the point. Because we’re investing in the future of Estonia, we share the common goals of the people and to an extent of national commerce. But this isn’t the issue, because most Estonians know this, they’re with us and on our side. It’s elements of government policy stirring up the division, maybe naively, possible with an agenda, but certainly out of sync with popular opinion. 

Like most countries, Estonia relies on the talents and brawn of foreign workers; the superstar startups, the service sector, healthcare and education. Incidentally, the money earned goes back into the economy, very rarely does it get sent ‘home’ as happens in the UK.

The answer to the question then, of whether Estonia is open to business to foreigners, is a resounding yes. Healthy economies thrive on immigration; on overseas talent. Smaller countries like this need to draw from a wider pool to assemble the necessary, functioning system to reach that world-beater goal and the majority of those in business know this.

Read any inspirational books on building a business, accumulating wealth or managing a successful team and one recurring piece of advice comes up over and again: surround yourself with the best people, and the rest will fit into place. If those great minds are elsewhere, then so be it for the time being. Education and training within the country need to step up and deliver what’s required. Instead of devising ways to keep foreigners out, this is what a government intent on making the country better for its citizens should be putting their energy into.

First appeared in Äripäev, 31st July 2020