TALLINN - A government minister has expressed hope that in several decades the number of Estonians living throughout the world could reach 1.5 million and that a program for compatriots could facilitate the dream.
Minister of Education and Research Tonis Lukas, speaking at a conference on Nov. 12, said that the goal was realistic if Estonians living abroad maintained their heritage and language skills.
"The compatriots program is part of the foundation for this idea," said Lukas. "The guarantee could be that Estonians living abroad did not forget their roots, so that they become carriers of Estonian language and culture."
Given Estonia's declining population it is natural that instead of bringing in strangers from other countries one would invite ethnic Estonians to return to their homeland, Lukas said.
"It is clear that not everyone who has left will come back, but to those who come we need to prove that they are awaited," the minister said.
He said it was necessary to improve the quality of higher education at home so that fewer young people would feel the need to leave the country for a university diploma. Conditions need to be established so that scientists and researchers would also want to stay and work in Estonia, Lukas said.
Lukas also suggested that the worldwide Estonian festival, ESTO, should be held exclusively in Estonia since only the Baltic state could truly unite Estonians throughout the world.
The next world Estonian festival was initially due to be held in Britain, yet after the withdrawal of several organizers the festival was adjourned and a different country was chosen.
Under current plans the next ESTO will take place in Munster, Germany, in 2009.
The first world festival of exile Estonians was held in Toronto, Canada in 1972. The festival has since been held in various countries where ethnic Estonian communities live, with the last gathering taking place in the Latvian capital Riga in 2004.
Estonia's population has been declining rapidly since the fall of the Soviet Union, though in recent years the country has made strides in reversing the trend through incentives for parents who have babies.
According to Statistics Estonia, the population in Estonia on Jan. 1, 2007 was 1.342 million, down 0.2 percent over 2006. As of October, some 921,000 were native Estonians.