Vol 1, No 1, 28 June 1999

T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
The Emergence of Tartu in Estonia

By Mel Huang

The reports issued over the past week on the disproportionately higher GDP of northern Estonia (centred on Tallinn) highlighted the need for development in the rest of the country. Naturally, as the capital, centre of commerce, transportation hub and focus for tourists, Tallinn boasts a distinct advantage. Still, boasting an overly Tallinn-centric Estonia is dangerous for the nation's growth.

However, over the past year or two, the southern city of Tartu, Estonia's second city and home to its grand university (pictured), has begun to make some noise. At first, many Tallinners passed off the Tartu boom as an attempt by the "country bumpkins" to imitate Tallinn. Throughout the century, there has been a quiet rivalry between "cosmopolitan Tallinn" and "academic Tartu". That split was obvious during the interwar independence period, as well as the eight years since the restoration of independence. The current rivalry between the two leading dailies - Tartu's Postimees and Tallinn's Eesti Paevaleht - is a good indication of the difference in focus.

For most people Tartu is only the home of the 367-year old Tartu University, once the second institution of higher learning in the Swedish Empire. Russians cherished it as Yuriev, Germans as Dorpat and Latvians as Terbata. It was the centre of higher education in the region throughout the fickle geopolitical situation.

The recent revival of Tartu is founded on the city's major asset: its brains. In a short time, several small high-tech companies have sprung up and have produced local competition for the "big boys" in Tallinn who are backed by multinationals. When a modern, skyscraper office building, the Emajoe Keskus (Emajogi Centre) - named after the Emajogi (Mother River) which bisects Tartu, was erected, most laughed, saying it was out of place. But it is Tartu which may be having the last laugh now.

The founding by the three Baltic states of the joint Baltic Defence College (BALTDEFCOL) and a host of multinational support and instruction in Tartu has brought further international focus to the quiet southern city. Now, the presence of foreigners sways more towards Danish and Swedish military brass, rather than the busloads of drunken Finnish tourists shouting "Tartto!" with bottle in hand.

Several other major development projects also commenced recently, including a modern 500-inmate prison. Of course a prison is not a shining example of development, but it demonstrates a growing tendency to shift the national focus away from Tallinn.

However, most Tallinners did not take notice of the growing prestige of Tartu until it was announced that an Austrian firm had presented a plan to build the "most modern hospital complex in Europe" right in Tartu. That news re-ignited the old rivalry, and the fires were fanned by the competing dailies.

Regardless, the development of cities outside of Tallinn is surely a healthy sign for Estonia. The resort town of Parnu has developed nicely into a getaway for people in regional countries. However, much work needs to be done to develop the northeastern industrial cities of Narva and Kohtla-Jarve, as well as the more rural southern towns of Viljandi and Valga.

There is one final example of the potential of Tartu. After the parliamentary elections back in March, both the mayors of Tallinn, Ivi Eenmaa, and Tartu, Andrus Ansip, were elected to Parliament. While Ivi Eenmaa resigned her Tallinn mayoral post to join the opposition, Andrus Ansip actually gave up a seat in Parliament as a member of the ruling coalition in favour of the mayor's job in Tartu - yet a further sign of Tartu's increasing importance.

Mel Huang, 24 June 1999


















Baltic States
Czech Republic


Hungary Counts
the Costs of War

Schuster's Slovakia

The Great
Czech Malaise

The Rise of
Tartu, Estonia

NATO Will Crack
in Kosova

Serb Proposals for
Partitioning Kosova

Faults in the Balkan
Stability Pact

Hope for Russia's
Capital Markets


Central Europe

Lateral Thinking on
Central Europe


Book Shop


Crushed by Stalin

Music Shop


Central European
Culture in the UK


Festival Report:
Karlovy Vary

The Russian Soul:
Lutsik's Okraina


Transitions Online
Watch for their
relaunch on 19 July.


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