Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 13
20 September 1999

Tartu University C E N T R E   V S   R E G I O N S:
The Emergence of Tartu
Mel Huang

The reports issued this summer on the disproportionately higher GDP of northern Estonia (centred around Tallinn) highlighted the need to develop the rest of the country. Naturally, as the capital, centre of commerce and hub for transit and tourism, Tallinn boasts a distinct advantage. Still, an overly Tallinn-centric Estonia is dangerous for the nation's development.

In the last year or two, the southern city of Tartu, Estonia's second city and home to its grand university, 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 over influence between "cosmopolitan Tallinn" and "academic Tartu." That difference was obvious during the inter-war independence period and throughout 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 this 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, but despite the changing geopolitical situation, it remained the centre of higher education in the region.

However, the city has started to shake off these limitations in the last few years. What better way than to feature its best commodity - brains. In a short time, several small high-tech companies have sprung up, producing local competition for the "big boys" in Tallinn - often with multinational funding and control. When Emajoe Keskus (Emajogi Centre), the modern skyscraper office building named after the Emajogi (Mother) River which bisects Tartu went up, most laughed at it being out of place. Do they still?

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

Several other major development projects have 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 focus away from Tallinn.

Most Tallinners, however, did not take notice of Tartu's growing presence until it was announced that an Austrian firm has presented a plan to build the "most modern hospital complex in Europe" right in the city. That news brought out the old rivalry between cosmopolitan Tallinn and its country bumpkin cousins in Tartu, which has been fuelled by the competing dailies.

Recently, a large new biomedical research institute opened its doors in the city, again proving that Tartu is the "brain" of Estonia. The current government also plans to decentralise, by shifting, appropriately, the Ministry of Education to Tartu. However, this has been temporarily setback due to budgetary constraints.

Regardless, the development of other cities besides Tallinn is surely a healthy sign for Estonia. The resort town of Parnu has developed nicely into a getaway for people in the Baltic Sea region. However, much work needs to be done to develop the north-eastern 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. In the parliamentary elections back in March, both the mayor of Tallinn - Ivi Eenmaa - and the mayor of Tartu - Andrus Ansip - were elected to Parliament. Ivi Eenmaa resigned her Tallinn mayoral post to join the opposition (but has since joined the ruling coalition), while Andrus Ansip gave up the seat he won as member of the ruling coalition to remain on as mayor. A symbolic shift perhaps?

Mel Huang, 24 June 1999
Updated on 16 September 1999




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