Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 24
8 March 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
Surfing the Baltic

Mel Huang

People would find it shocking just ten years ago if you told them that by the end of the millennium, surfing would become the number-one pastime on the Baltic. After all, ten years ago, the infant national movements were still heavily oppressed by Soviet forces and most people wandered through life directionless as dictated by the morals of homo sovieticus. And also, the image of a lanky blond surfing on a piece of ice doesn't make much sense.

What has made sense over the past few years is the "Internet revolution" and the form of surfing associated with it. Like most places in the world, the Internet is booming in the Baltic. However, the "Internet revolution" has been even more dramatic here than elsewhere in Europe, as the three small countries attempt to bridge five decades of lost time during Soviet occupation. They have gone from imposed, low-tech isolation to being a part of the high-tech global community.

Once independence was restored, the peoples of the three countries realised that the world had changed much since 1940 and, for better or for worse, it had become smaller. The economy is now global, communications across the world take milliseconds, and everyone is finding a niche in this new global community. In no time at all, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania plunged into the web and things have not been the same since.

After just a few years, everyone and their grandmothers are using the Internet. E-mail has become a vital communications tool and thousands of web sites appeared to open these three small countries to the world and vice versa. Most offices, both government and private, were soon wired up; Internet service providers popped up all over, offering ever better connection rates and speed. The Internet has become a daily reality within a very short time, while dependency and addiction to the Internet are as normal as other forms of habitual activity.

Take a look at Estonia, the smallest of the three countries at 1.5 million in total population. According to a recent study commissioned by Eesti Telefon, approximately 13 per cent of the population use the Internet on a regular basis. That places Estonia at number 15 in the world for per capita usage, higher than many post-industrial countries in Western Europe. Latvia and Lithuania are a bit further behind, but not by much.

The smallness of the three nations in comparison to other highly-developed cultures gives them an added impetus to join the global rush for an Internet presence. Also, with fifty years of deferred knowledge and lost ties with the rest of the world, the Internet became an invaluable tool to re-educate and re-discover those fascinating bits of the world that most other people take for granted.


Like it or not, English has become the de facto official language of the Internet. A great majority of the pages, both within and outside English-speaking countries, are in English. Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian have a relatively small number of speakers; thus to be open to the world, they must also speak the Internet's language. It wasn't long, given the popularity of English in the three countries, that a large number of pages soon featured parallel versions in English. Plus, surfing on the Internet is a wonderfully interactive way to pick up English vocabulary.

These pages are not limited to English, however. There is an astonishing number of sites that boast three or more languages. At one point, the Estonian Foreign Ministry's site (www.vm.ee) boasted some seven languages on its page. It is not uncommon to find alongside the two main languages (the local language and English), many others, such as Russian, German, Swedish and French. It is possible to do web searches in Latvia in Spanish. Resources for learning Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian soon made their way onto the Internet both on the Baltic and around the world.

Of course, there had to be development for the domestic market in the local languages. Estonia escaped from the biggest problem for all Central and East European countries: their alphabet is fully represented in the standard character set. Most languages from the region feature a handful of characters not available except in special font sets, and Lithuanian (10 non-standard letters) and Latvian (11) are no exception to the same problems faced in Czech, Polish, Slovene, and others. However, these days, pages in Latvian and Lithuanian boast consistent encoding and the acquisition of fonts to read the pages properly is simple.

Step into the Baltic web

Surfing on the Baltic is amazingly easy. It seems that anything and everything have found a home on the Internet, and in the three Baltic countries it is no exception. Most companies and government institutions have a presence on the Internet, which is complemented by the thousands of personal web pages. Things as diverse as nuclear energy to Teletupsud (that's Teletubbies in Estonian) are floating around cyberspace waiting for the curious or unsuspecting.

All three countries have many good search engines and Yahoo-like servers. To start off, you can check out these: www.ee (for Estonia); www.latnet.lv (for Latvia); and www.online.lt (for Lithuania). From there, the possibilities are endless.

Each of the countries' tourism offices is on line: www.tourism.ee (for Estonia); www.latviatravel.com (for Latvia); and www.tourism.lt (for Lithuania). For the real good stuff, like where to go, where to stay and what to do, the In-Your-Pocket guide and its companion web site are indispensable for both locals and travellers at www.inyourpocket.com (for all three countries, as well as Minsk and Kaliningrad). For the best pictures of the region, have a look at the Tallinn official site (www.tallinn.ee) or www.sec.lv/Kristine/castles.htms. You can also do your hotel bookings on-line, see what's on the menu at a whole host of restaurants, or to see who's playing at which club that evening. As might be expected, the tourism sector has one of the strongest positions on the Internet here in the Baltics.

For official information, pretty much every government institution in all three countries is on the Internet. The most useful sites for Estonia are the Foreign Ministry (www.vm.ee), the Riigikogu (Parliament, www.riigikogu.ee), President Lennart Meri's office (www.president.ee) and the government of Prime Minister Mart Siimann (www.rk.ee or www.gov.ee). With the general elections coming up in early March, the Estonian Electoral Commission will also be updating its site by the minute as results arrive (www.vvk.ee).

In Latvia it is also easy to find information at the Foreign Ministry (www.mfa.gov.lv), the Saeima (Parliament, www.saeima.lv), office of President Guntis Ulmanis (www.president.lv), as well as the government of Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans (www.gov.lv).

The same is true of Lithuania, where the best information can be found at the Foreign Ministry (www.urm.lt), the Seimas (Parliament, www.lrs.lt), office of President Valdas Adamkus (www.president.lt) and the government of Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius (www.lrvk.lt). Aside from all these, you can find links to institutions as varied as the Estonian Constitutional Court (www.nc.ee), the Latvian Police (www.pd.gov.lv) and even the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania (www.iae.lt).


The media also has a strong presence on the Internet. Most magazines and newspapers have their own sites, and a large number of newspapers have their entire contents on their respective sites. For example, both large dailies in Estonia - Eesti Päevaleht (www.zzz.ee/epl) and Postimees (www.postimees.ee) - have their full contents on quite early each morning. The leading Lithuanian daily Lietuvos Rytas (www.lrytas.lt) is also fully on the Internet. However, Latvia is lagging a little in this respect, with most sites reserved for subscription information. The three official news agencies - Lithuania's ELTA (www.elta.lt), Latvia's LETA (www.leta.lv), and Estonia's ETA (eta.www.ee) - are all on line with immediate updating of news, but are subscription-based services, as is the regional Baltic News Service (www.bns.ee).

If you're not looking for information, but are just having a bit of fun or exploring, there are a million things to find on the Baltic web. Looking at some random pickings, you can learn more about Estonia's leading pop star Maarja and her growing international success (www.maarja.com) or perhaps the reigning European Basketball Cup champions Zalgiris in Lithuania (www.zalgiris.lt). To take part in the ongoing Eurodebate in Estonia you can check out www.euro.ee; or if you prefer, vote on the century's top figures at www.sada.ee. Finally, if you want to check out Lithuania's pagan religious movement Romuva (after all, Lithuania was the last European nation to abandon paganism several hundred years ago), check out www.romuva.lt .

A tiger leap

One of the wonders of the Internet is its educational value; as cliché as it may sound, information is at your fingertips, provided there is an Internet connection. That is why Estonia embarked upon the ambitious Tiger Leap project. The original intention of the project (www.tiigrihype.ee) was to link every school in Estonia to the Internet by the year 2000, though today the program focuses on modernizing education with the Internet in all aspects. Progressing at a steady pace alongside the rapid development of the Internet in general in Estonia, the project has gained the attention of many around the world. In fact, it was during a trip to Tallinn several years ago that a certain US Vice President Al Gore heard about the project. Soon after his return, the US government announced a similar project to link all US schools to the Internet by the year 2000. It is nice to see Estonia being able to influence the high and mighty.

Why is it popular?

People wonder why the Internet is so popular in this part of the world. The best answer (if not necessarily the most correct one) was offered by ex-Foreign Minister of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves: "Certainly it is healthy alternative to the centuries old solution to the darkness of Hyperborea - alcohol."

Mel Huang, 8 March 1999


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