Communists are out, and capitalism is taking root on this Soviet-ruled island off Estonia. Long the target of invaders, it may soon be the destination for foreigners of another sort: tourists
IT COULD be the ferry to Martha's Vineyard. Families relax on the deck, soaking in the end-of-summer sun that has finally emerged victorious over the week's drenching sea-coast rain. Blond children in hand-knit sweaters frolic with dogs. A snack bar dispenses soft drinks. And aside from the fatigues-clad border guard who examines your passport and special island visa when you drive onshore at the end of the ride, the island looks about as communist as Martha's Vineyard, the popular resort island off the Massachusetts coast.Skip to next paragraph
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There isn't a Benetton's (yet) or any cute bed and breakfasts, but Saaremaa - the largest of Estonia's 1,500 islands - has ``quaint summer getaway'' written all over it. Fishing villages dot the coastline. The occasional windmill, once the island's symbol, punctuates the horizon. Tidy gardens brighten tidy cottages.
Saaremaa hasn't always been so quiet. Over the centuries, the 1,048 square miles of the island have seen a steady stream of foreign invaders and occupants. In the 13th century, it was the Danes and the Germans. In the mid-16th century, Denmark ruled alone. A century later, the Swedes took over. In the 18th century, it was the Russians' turn. During the two world wars, the Germans were here. Late in 1944, Saaremaa was the last bit of Estonia to be ``liberated'' by the Russians.
Now the people of Saaremaa are bracing for the next invasion: tourists.
Last year, following discussions between the Estonian government and Moscow, access to Saaremaa - a restricted border zone - was eased considerably. Foreigners may now visit the island, after gaining permission from the Estonian Ministry of the Interior. As before, mainland Estonians and other Soviet citizens also must get visas to visit, but they are issued more freely now.
But the most important event paving the way for greater tourism, and for a healthier island economy, came in April: Saaremaa dumped communism. The transfer of power from the party to the local councils has been going on gradually for the past four to six years, officials here say. But the decisive break took place after this spring's Estonian Communist Party congress, when all of the island's top officials quit the party.
``For a long time, the party hasn't played the main role,'' says Jaan Lember, deputy mayor of Kuressaare, the island's capital. ``Now, I can say with finality, the Communist Party plays no role on this island.''
The biggest question now regarding the party is what to do with its headquarters, whose ownership is under dispute. The most popular idea is to turn the building into a hotel.
Even for Estonia - the northernmost Baltic republic, which has itself signaled a clear course away from communism and Soviet rule - Saaremaa is radical. It is one of the few places in the republic to dismantle the Soviet structures of government and replace them with the old style of government councils and districts that existed during Estonia's pre-World War II independence. Delegations from Saaremaa have visited nearby Sweden for advice on tourism and how to set up local government.
Kuressaare is one of three towns in the republic to switch to a ``self-sufficient'' budget. Previously, local revenues went to the Estonian capital, then to Moscow, which would disburse the money as it saw fit. Now the money stays in the town, with only an agreed-upon percentage going to the regional and republic governments.
Saaremaa can afford to be in the vanguard of Estonian reform. Ninety-four percent of the 40,000 people here are Estonian, so it has none of the ethnic problems that trouble many regions of mainland Estonia and complicate the republic's drive for independence. (Overall, Estonia is only 60 percent ethnic Estonian; most of the rest are Russian.)
This lack of tension has allowed islanders to do what comes naturally to them: They are starting their own businesses and making profits, a concept far less alien in the Baltics than in Russia. In the last year and a half, more than 200 new enterprises have started on the island, tripling the number of private businesses here. Most of them are small, involving five to 10 people.
``We have practically open business activity for all types of entrepreneurs,'' says Aivar Sorm, Saaremaa's top economic official. ``People come here to start their activity, because there are no limits, in the bad sense, on their business. They do what is profitable.''
Exodus of youth halted
For Jaan Lember, the deputy mayor and former head of a fishing collective, the economic changes have saved an important island tradition - and made dining here a more pleasant experience.
With few opportunities in this sleepy island outpost, youths were leaving, villages were emptying, and the fishing industry was dying. That process has now stopped, says Mr. Lember. Fishing cooperatives are forming, with the support of local government, which provides boats, nets, and other materials.