Civic leaders feel sense of contentment

  • 2004-08-19
  • By Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - Hannes Astok is dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. His hair is dyed orange, and he needs a shave. Against the backdrop of Wilde's, a popular local pub, he fits in nicely - almost too nicely for the town's deputy mayor.

Then again, in a town as progressive and laid-back as Tartu - which has a population of 100,000 and is stereotypically known as "the university town" or "the cultural capital" - Astok's appearance should come as no surprise.
"It is definitely correct that Tartu is a university town with a vivid character. It may seem quiet here now, but believe me, from September it will be turbulent," says Astok while sipping a soda. "On the other hand, Tartu is a university town in the sense of the influence of spin-off companies emerging from Tartu University's scientific base. This has been the trend in recent years."
To be sure, Estonia's genome project, which seeks to gather a DNA data base that would represent a large part of the population, is based in Tartu.
Astok (see picture below) says it is unlikely there will be any significant changes in the city's business environment in the near future. The old-fashioned, labor-intensive industry has faded, and the industry that is currently flourishing is quite modern and does not require numerous staff.
And with unemployment in Tartu county at around 2 percent, the lowest in Estonia, Astok says that any new industries moving to Tartu would find it difficult to find staff.
This is one of the reasons why city officials want to build on the city's university-friendly environment. "Another aspect of city development is leisure - free-time options for everybody. I think this concept is getting into shape pretty well," says Astok, adding that civic leaders are pleased with the development.
News last week about Tartu's net population growth for five months in a row immediately gave rise to jokes about the effect of the recent electricity blackout in the city had on the reproductive pattern of the town residents.
In all seriousness, the growth in the number of newborn babies in Tartu is a fact, and it is due to the municipality's attractive "baby-incentive program" in effect since 1997. In accordance with the program, the municipality issues a lump-sum child-allowance for mothers - originally 5,000 kroons (320 euros), it was recently raised to 7,000 kroons - possibly the highest in the country.
"I think the allowance helps keep the town attractive to young people. Of course, a family does not have a baby just to receive 5,000 kroons, but this support makes people think where to settle," Astok reflects.
Getting the allowance, as one would expect for Estonia, is a matter of logging onto the Internet. Indeed, there is about a dozen e-services that Tartu residents can access through the municipal Web site or via X-tee, the national portal for e-services.
"Estonia is not that kind of a country, and Tartu is not that kind of a town - where citizens have to often encounter the government. We do not make people write pointless applications or spend time in an official's office," says Astok.
Tartu welcomes some 300,000 - 400,000 tourists annually, with the recently built aquapark being the central magnet. The city has no late-night restrictions on alcohol sales, though when walking in the historical downtown one will probably find just one liquor shop - a stark comparison to Tallinn's Old Town, where there's practically a liquor store every 100 meters.
But in terms of public safety, many recall the incidents - a group of teenagers who dubbed themselves skinheads openly insulted black and Asian foreigners - that shocked Tartu residents several years ago.
"There were some young men who thought they were skinheads. They are gone now - I think they've just grown up," says Astok.
Tartu's cooperation with neighbors on the other side of Lake Peipus, the Pskov region, leaves much to be desired. The two municipalities first talked about restoring the once popular Pskov-Tartu ferry line about five years ago, though little progress has been made.
"I think the Estonian side had everything done two years ago. But even though the main facilities are ready in Pskov, it is probably the lack of political will in Moscow that is hampering the project," says Astok.
"Five years ago we thought we needed that ferry line badly to attract more tourists, who would then have an opportunity to take a one-day trip to Pskov. Today I would say it is Pskov who needs this tourist flow and the potential revenue from it," he stresses. "The town of Pskov desperately needs that tourist money."