1.2 Increasing regional polarisation in Estonia

  • Peripheralisation is a process whereby economic, social, political and image-related factors cause inequality in socio-spatial development, creating a divide between cores and peripheries. These factors result in the emergence of a global, regional and local core-periphery hierarchy, which manifests itself in the loss of population, jobs and services in the peripheral areas and their concentration in core areas.

The focus on regional competitiveness, an approach shared by Estonian and EU regional policy, has not helped to reverse peripheralisation.

In recent decades, growing social and spatial inequality has been prevalent in Central and Eastern European countries (Lang and Görmar 2019). In Estonia, too, regional inequalities have increased, and large parts of the settlement system – once economically and socially viable small towns and rural areas – have become peripheral within the country. As most jobs are in major urban centres, rural exodus has become commonplace, especially among the younger generation. It has thus become increasingly difficult to ensure equal availability of vital services throughout the country, as the need for services decreases due to the parallel processes of demographic decline and ageing in Estonian peripheries. While acknowledging the established understanding of peripheralisation in Estonia, defined as a process of out-migration and loss of jobs and services in remote areas away from urban centres (Säästva arengu komisjon 2010), this article argues that these objective processes are intertwined with the subjective stigmatisation of peripheral areas. We also discuss the extent to which the regional policy of Estonia and the European Union (EU) has helped to reduce the core-periphery divide. The article draws on demographic and economic data of Statistics Estonia (current population statistics, the 2011 census and the data on regional gross domestic product (GDP)) to describe regional polarization processes. For regional policy trends, we rely on the results of Bradley Loewen’s doctoral thesis defended at the University of Tartu in 2018 (Loewen 2018; Loewen and Schulz 2019). The thesis analyses the development of regional policy in Estonia and other Central and Eastern European countries, as well as their relations with the EU cohesion policy. The description of subjective peripheralisation processes is based on Bianka Plüschke-Altof’s doctoral thesis (Plüschke-Altof 2017; Plüschke-Altof and Grootens 2019), defended at the University of Tartu in 2017, and analysing the (re)production of peripheral images in rural Estonia and the local initiatives to counter it.

Peripheralisation is self-reproducing

Increasing regional inequalities are manifested most clearly in the ongoing concentration of human and economic capital in Estonia’s major urban areas. This mostly happens at the expense of rural communities and small towns, where these resources disappear and remain absent from regional development. With the exception of the Tallinn urban area (Harjumaa county), all other Estonian counties have suffered from population loss between 1995 and 2017. The population of Harjumaa increased by 5% during this period. Tartu County was relatively stable with a population loss of 5% within this period, whereas other counties saw a remarkable population decline of between 12 and 27% (Figure 1.2.1). Besides out-migration from peripheral areas to the major cities, migration abroad, enabled by Estonia joining the Schengen area in 2004, also plays a significant role. According to Statistics Estonia, the positive migration rate in recent years, including the return migration of people who previously left Estonia, also favours the capital region. For example, in 2018, 57% of those who settled in Estonia did so in Harjumaa. Moreover, many who are officially registered as Estonian residents regularly commute abroad. The 2011 census showed that between 3% (Harjumaa) and 8% (Pärnumaa) of registered residents in Estonian counties had actually worked abroad and could therefore be absent for a significant period of time.

Figure 1.2.1. Regional polarisation in Estonia: population change and distribution of national GDP by county in 1995 and 2017

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