The Armenians in Estonia: A visit to Tallinn

The dawn over the city of Tallinn, anchored on the coast of the Baltic Sea, is sunny and blue just as it is chilly and damp. The traditional tram lines separate the modern parts of the city from the old ones.

Ages speak through the tiled, triangular, pointed roofs and the colorful towels aiming towards the sky, while new Tallinn has now modern skyscrapers and avant-garde structures.

Part of the city is distinguished with the Soviet heritage architecture – one building repeating the other, built by the same template.

Back during the Soviet times, the Baltic countries were regarded as the “Soviet abroad”, while today it feels like Europe here. Since 2004, Estonia has been part of the European Union and entered the Schengen zone in 2007.

In this country that stretches 45,000 square meters, bigger than Armenia by 15,483 sq. m., the population is only 1.3 million, while Armenia’s is 2.8 million. The Armenian community makes the small part of the country’s scarce population.

President of the Armenian Community Razmik Ivanian says the first Armenians to go there were students of Tartu University.
“By the 2012 census, there were some 1,600 Armenians in Estonia, now the number is down to 1,400, mostly settled in Tallinn and Tartu,” he says.

St Gregory the Illuminator church stands in the very heart of the Estonian capital. The Lutheran church building was given to the Armenian community in 1994 for 99 years. There are Sunday schools in Tallinn and Tartu. All the holidays of the Armenian Apostolic Church are observed at St Gregory.

“Nonetheless, there is some coldness about the Armenians here, only some 200 of the 1,400 attend church services,” says Ivanian, who moved to Tallinn from Armenia in 1987.

Estonian Armenians seem to lack the sun and warmth, but are rather calmer, more balanced, somewhat reserved. Members of the Armenian community accompany their compatriot reporters on their visit to the Estonian parliament to meet the speaker Laine Randjärv.

Estonia is a parliamentary republic. The chief executive body is recently led by 34-year-old Taavi Rõivas, who is so far the youngest to hold a Prime Minister’s post in the EU. However, the speaker says Estonia had an even younger premier, who assumed the post at 32. Five of the cabinet members are women.

There are no native Armenian mandate-holders among the 101 MPs. Ivanian says the community has the right to put forward their candidate, but they prefer keeping distance from politics.

The parliament, government buildings and the presidential residence hold ancient memories of times long-long gone: the old buildings have been preserved and restored. Armenian reporters were surprised to see the modesty of the presidential residence – at the time it was erected by Russian Emperor Peter the Great as a summer residence for his wife Empress Ekaterina I. Even the reception room for the reporters is old-fashioned.

“There is no need to renovate,” says Toomas Sildam, PR advisor to the president of Estonia Toomas Hendrik.

Armenians’ love of luxury, especially of those who rule and reign, is not common in Estonia.

The community here is also discussing Armenia’s decision to join the Customs Union and share their opinion on that issue as citizens of a country that has firsthand felt the benefits of European integration.

“Laws are functional. We can witness how a road policeman stops the Tallinn mayor and fines him, when he happens to violate a traffic rule. We don’t have that in Armenia. The CC is vague too, it is not clear what is ahead,” says Ivanian.

Davit Vardazaryan, in Tallinn since last year, where he came to study at the School of Diplomacy, says it was not like there was no option other than joining the CC for Armenia, but, he says, geopolitics have to be counted in.

“On the other hand, this Estonian-European practice is important. I believe if given a chance the “and-and” policy has to be tested, it might be the best solution for Armenia,” says the future diplomat.

Nonetheless, the two countries share many commonalities – both are small with scarce population, have no energy carriers, have been under oppression of other states or empires over the course of history. Here, as well as in Armenia, the IT sphere is prioritized and has seen substantial progress.

“Shortage of funds prompted us to developing the IT field,” says IT Center representative Anna Piperal.

However, unlike Armenia, 93 percent of the population here uses ID cards (something that’s just now being introduced in Armenia). From banking to elections, to getting doctor’s prescription – everything is done electronically.

“Well, but for getting married and divorced,” jokes Piperal.

As opposed to Armenia, public transport is free for residents of Tallinn, while in Yerevan the ongoing controversy is over the potential raise of bus fare by 50 percent – it did not happen only due to the active involvement of the civil society. Another difference is that women past 50 are employed almost everywhere – shops, banks, restaurants, while in Armenia women of 40 and older are mostly unemployed, because employers prefer recruiting younger women under 30. Unemployment here is three percent only versus the 17.3 percent (officially) in Armenia, the average monthly salary in Estonia is 1,500 euros versus Armenia’s 150,000 drams (264 euros), the annual mortgage loan interest rates are three percent versus 13, respectively.

Estonians confess that a decade or so ago they were wondering what the point was in trading one union [the Soviet] for another, while now they strongly believe the European Union was the right choice for their future.

A few months ago the Armenian authorities decided the Customs Union, rather than the EU with which they had planned on signing the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, was the way to go. And while decisions make drastic shifts such as that one, people keep abandoning their homes, looking for salvation from poverty and unemployment in other countries.

“Each country makes its own choice. We made ours in favor of the EU. Figures, stats, surveys show that Estonia is the most optimistic country in all of the EU. If we count the billions we have been granted for education, innovation, road construction, agriculture – the support has been enormous. I cannot imagine how Estonia would have progressed without it,” says Sildam, the president’s PR advisor.

The Armenian reporters’ visit to Estonia was organized due to the joint efforts and the initiative of Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership and the European Union Center in Yerevan.