Transformation of society and internal migration: the case of Estonia.

Mare Ainsaar

Tartu University Dep. Public Administration and Social Policy

Tiigi 78 Tartu 50410

tel (+3727) 375 936

fax: (+3727) 430 541


Development of Estonian settlement system has followed the general trends of urbanisation, contraurbanisation, and reurbanisation, typical of many countries.

Starting from the 1960s we can divide the urbanisation history in Estonia into three periods.

1. 1960-1983 - urbanisation and concentration of settlement on all levels of urban-rural hierarchy due to external immigration and rural-urban migration.

2. 1983-1990 - net migration turn and the increase of rural population due to urban-rural movement. Slow decrease of overall migration capacity.

3. 1990-1995 - negative net external migration, new flows of internal migration influenced by the economical changes.

Although the migration pattern has been rather similar to migration flows in other developed countries the background of changes was rather different. During the first years of migration turn-round in the 1980s (analogous to 1970s in western countries) the most important role was played by central planning of economy and service sector what was supported by restrictions on immigration into the large cities and worsening housing conditions in towns (Kuddo 1988, Marksoo 1988).

The peculiarities of non-market economy influenced the development of Estonian regional processes up to the end of 1980s. In the early 1990s deep changes shook all spheres of life. Transformation from socialism to a market economy started. This process was characterized not only by the explosive growth of private businesses, but also unemployment, a drop of GNP and insecurity about the future. First signs of changes were obvious already in 1990, but transformation is still in progress in the late 1990s.

The speed of economic reforms and weak social protection programmes during last years enable to expect strong and more clear signs of changes in migration patterns in Estonia. Main particularities of change in Estonia are:

1. Speed of economic changes.

2. Extremely liberal wage policy and weak social protection mechanisms have led to sharp differences in incomes

3. Small size of the country makes it possible to follow the process especially distinctly. The average size of independent local statistical units is about 3000 persons.

4. The importance of the topic of regional policy on political and government level. In 1994 a plan for regional development was elaborated by the government and some steps have been taken for its implementation (Jä rve and others, 1995), although the practical results are quite vague.

Growing regional and social differences in society should theoretically reinforce migration. Hypothesis about the rise of the significance of jobs and unemployment as factors of migration and the decline of the role of housing conditions was stated at the beginning of study.

The paper will analyse changes in society and their impact on the migration patterns during the period 1989-1994. Main attention is focused on the economic and social changes and their influence on internal migration. Demographic changes, housing, increasing income gap and the relationship between unemployment and migration are more thoroughly discussed.

Official statistics and the results of Labour Survey, Living Conditions Survey are used to analyse internal migration trends in 1989-1994. Considering that official statistics cannot be trusted always, sociological surveys have become the best source of information about internal movement of people.



Musil (1993) has concluded that the main differences of internal migration factors of market and non-market economies were the absence of normal impact of market mechanisms (price of land, unemployment , free development of entrepreneurship) on the regional development and the more influential efforts of governments in equalising social and living conditions in non-market economies.

The idea about social equality was one of the main tasks of the socialist system. In conditions where almost all property belonged to the state, salaries and prices were fixed and unified, education at all levels was paid by the government and secondary education was obligatory, there existed comparatively small differences among different social groups , but toward the end of the 1980s these differences were on the increase.

A shortage of housing was one of the main reasons of migration during the Soviet period, although in some regions there were more specific causes. For examle Saaremaa - a picturesque island - had one of the highest internal net migrations during the 1980s.

From the point of view of migration it is important to stress growing differences between incomes in rural and urban areas, between men and women, in different sectors of the economy. (banking, agriculture, manufacturing, transportation ). The poorest people in Estonia have 12-13 times lower incomes than the richest one. Differences in incomes between the richest and poorest local municipalities are more than five times.

Welfare has dual meaning in migration studies. On the one side large differences encourage migration streams from poorest areas to those which are better off. At the same time poverty may create new barriers for moving.


Figure 1 Growth of regional differences

According to classical macro theories of migration geographical differences are among the main factors of population movement. Quite equal incomes of different professions did not create large differentiation for migrating to different social groups because of more equal barriers for migration before 1990. Due to rather unified salaries, structural differentiation of regions influenced the average regional income level rather weakly.

The ending of subsidizing of agriculture and uneven pace of setting up private businesses led to increasing regional differences in incomes and unemployment during the last years and that process is continuing.

In 1995 average income in Tallinn exceeded twice that in south-eastern Estonia. The economic situation in some regions and for some groups of people is so unfavourable that they are not able to seek information and to change the place of residence only because of the traffic costs in Estonia at the present time.

Better off are towns and areas where traditionalism begins to crumble as well as regions where (local) loan facilities with supporting financial institutions spring up. Three main types of regions with different level of development can be distinguished in Estonia

1. The capital city area with extremely rapid growth.

2. Areas of heavy industry and former Soviet military bases in need of profound restructuring .

3. Impoverished regions mainly engaged in primary fields of the economy (agriculture, fishing, forestry).

4. Eastern and southern peripheral border regions (border with Russian and Latvia).

5. Islands and the western coast of Estonia (recreation regions) (Järve and others, 1995).

Economic development in Estonia started from Tallinn and was followed by the other cities, with a sufficient critical number of residents, significant service resources or successfully operating export enterprises. Strong centres also have strong hinterlands. In the larger cities (Tallinn, Tartu, and Pärnu), the demographic, income and even labour situation of the hinterland municipalities are better than average. The hinterlands near large cities are also clearly doing very well. These are the areas from where people commute daily, which were built mainly in the 1980s when movement to the suburbs took place (Kerge, 1996).



Last years of Estonian development brought great shock in population development. During six latest years (1989-1995) Estonia has lost 6 % of its population compared with pre-transition time. 85% of the loss has been mainly the result of emigration and 25% of negative natural increase. Although most of the emigrants were urban inhabitants the overall decrease of urban settlement was smaller than that of the rural population ( see also Table ).

Table 1. Migration and natural movement 1989-1995

Year Emig-ration Immi-gration Net mig-ration Births Deaths CBR CDR Total change































































A steady loss of population started with a steep drop in immigration in 1990 as a result of implementation of immigration quotas. The negative net migration was followed by a drop in the natural growth. In 1991 sharp fall of fertility began. At the same time number of deaths rose as a result of natural population ageing process. Overall decrease of population has been generally the result of increasing outmigration, but the reproductive behaviour of Estonian families have dramatically changed as well. The TFR has dropped from 2.21 in 1989 to 1.3 in 1995. Behind so drastical changes have been mainly political, economic and social conditions.

According to the official statistics internal migration has decreased since the middle of 1980s. The number of arrivals to cities and towns has quickly decreased. The registered change of place of residence between towns and also from the rural areas to towns has decreased. The number of arrivals to rural areas has changes much less, but the decrease is still noticeable here as well. Against the background of the general fall one can see an abrupt rise in the number of persons who were signed in rural areas in 1992 (Internal…., 1995) (Figure).

At the same time Labour Force Survey revealed increasing numbers on internal migrants during 1989-1995.

Figure 2 Capacity of migration from 1953 up to 1995. Remarks: 1992 only external migration, 1995 on the base of first half of a year



Before interpreting these results, several changes in collection and processing of data must be taken into account.

1) The absence of a law of accounting the population by place of residence has caused a situation where many young people who have left their parents’ home in search of work, new place of residence or for studies, do not register their change of address.

2) In earlier years students who changed their place of residence temporarily were signed out of their place of residence and then registered at their place of study. Since the issuing of Estonian passports, when only the permanent place of residence is noted , most students, who change the place of residence for study period, have been left out from the migration data (Migration…., 1996). Analysis of migration age structure supports this version.

3) Age specific migration rates revealed that the growth of internal migration has mainly taken place on account of the decrease of non-registered changes of the place of residence of 15-34-year-old males and 15-29-year-old females (Internal….., 1995).

Some non-official statistics indicate that large numbers of new settlers in Tallinn have not registered their residence there. Surveys from rural counties let us assume, that the fault of official statistics may be from 10% up to 30% on countryside, depending on location of municipality.

One plausible explanation for the growth of rural population is the rise of taxes for heating and hot water. Obviously a sharp increase of movement to rural areas in 1992 and 1993 is partly a result of changes in the order of payment for utilities. Most outmigrants were registered from large towns Tallinn and Tartu. In 1992 and 1993 the balance of internal migration in Tallinn and Tartu was largely negative, while in rural areas immigration rose at the same time noticeably (Fig. 1).

Overall loss of population and net migration has been closely determined by the number of emigrants. Emigration has been mainly dependent on geographical distribution of non-Estonian population and has no connection with internal migration, economic and age structure indicators in communities.

The analysis of age structure (percentage of population in retirement age ) and employment ( employment rate and average per capita income ) data of all rural municipal units in Estonia proved that net internal migration has a strong negative correlation with unemployment rate, positive relationship with average income and population age distribution. The lower the unemployment and higher incomes, the higher are the numbers of leavers. Municipalities with older population structure had higher immigration rates. Older municipalities were at the same time units with higher average incomes and lower unemployment rates.

At the same time internal migration rate (net migration per inhabitant) has no statistically significant relationship with unemployment and income level although the relationship with age structure remained. Hypothesis about the relationship between internal migration and the location of municipal units was checked as well, but preliminary results did not reveal any relationship between the location and internal migration.

Two explanations of relationship between ageing of population and positive internal migration are plausible:

1. As a result of land restitution new families have moved to rural areas. The age structure of rural communities is mainly the result of migration processes of the past 10 years. The peripheral areas have the oldest population. At the same time those areas have plenty of free housing and are often suitable for tourism industry.

2. The second plausible explanation is the low reliability of official statistics

Sociological findings contradict the official statistics about the positive net migration to cities during 1989-1994.



The emergence of big differences in incomes at regional as well as individual level enabled to advance the hypothesis about the rise of the importance of occupational migration, especially among the proferssionals.

Better educated people, with higher incomes and middle class status tend to migrate more often than others. This phenomenon is explained mainly by larger freedom and possibilities of migrants (Hartshone, 1992) and it seems essentially true in case of longer distances of migration when workplace is changed simultaneously with living place (Johnson, Salt, Wood, 1974; Long, 1988; Fielding, 1989; Linnemann & Graves, 1983). For the lower status groups migration is more expensive: they have less information about available alternatives (Jones, 1990) and the search for alternatives demands a lot of time and money.

The results of two large-scale surveys, conducted in 1994 and 1995, proved the importance of job related reasons in internal migration (Table 2). Such reasons are most significant for single persons. According to the Living Conditions survey more than half of single persons changed their place of residence just because of better job opportunities somewhere else. The availability of job clearly affects the migration. Towns with lower unemployment rate (like the capital city) had fewe outward movers because of job reasons while in small cities and towns where the employment situation was very tight, there were far more outward than inward movers.

But somewhat surprisingly there appeared to be no relationship between education and a desire to migrate, although persons with little education were less likely to move than the others.

Although some findings suggest that people with higher educational attainment indicated a greater willingness to migrate, most result seem to be more dependent on life-cycle changes than general trends. About 17% of respondents with a secondary education were ready to move if unemployed and about one third of university educated people were prepared to do the same (Helemäe and others, 1996).



Unemployment is a comparatively new phenomenon in post-Communist countries. The lack of official unemployment raised the importance of other migration reasons and diminished the job related one in Soviet time. In reality structural unemployment was a reason of migration of woman and certain professional groups from rural regions. The official policy was to guarantee jobs for all people and big attempts were made to create new workplaces and a lack of job was rarely a reason for migrating in 1960s until the 1990s.

In 1995 the official rate of unemployment and job seeking was about 5% in Estonia, but it varied from 3% in Tallinn up to 16% in Võru county. An analysis of unemployment in rural municipalities shows that lower unemployment rates are accompanied by higher average salaries. But this correlation is not universal (Helemä e and others, 1996).

The influence of unemployment on the migration is complicated and not uniform but may rise the mobility up to twice (see: Herzog, Schlottmann, Boem, 1933).

Our survey of living conditions showed that 48% of the unemployed would like to change their place of residence in hope of getting a job. There appears to be a link between the desire to migrate and regional level of unemployment. The findings of the longitudinal study "The life paths of a generation", more than two fifths of the respondents in comparatively secure employment regions (Harjumaa) were ready to move if they became unemployed. On the other hand, in the regions with high unemployment levels (Võrumaa, Põlvamaa, Valgamaa), only 10% of the respondents felt the same (Helemä e and others, 1996).

The statistics paint a bleak picture. Present migration patterns improve the chances of finding work mostly for people living in regions that already offer a relatively better chance to find employment, due to the regions' lower unemployment rates as well as the proximity of larger towns. At the same time, people living in the borderlands with high unemployment rates find themselves trapped: the chances of finding a job locally are much slimmer than in other regions, and the long distances from the centres makes it difficult to migrate when it is highly unlikely that a job could be found (Helemäe and others, 1996).



People's behaviour is strongly influenced by their subjective sense of contentment. Living conditions or the opportunity to obtain an apartment were an important reason for migration in the communist period. The impact of apartment-related factors on migration has decreased lately, but discontent with living conditions remains an important reason for moving.

The role of housing in migration can be illustrated with the fact that young people moved primarily to areas where housing and opportunities for further improvement of living conditions were available. So the more capable young labour concentrated primarily in areas where enterprises were wealthy enough to provide better-quality housing, often in the form of a single family dwelling, or to guarantee income opportunities (the possibility of unofficial, extra work was especially valued in the 1980s;Kerge, 1996).

As a result of those processes the highest concentration of residents of entrepreneurial age can be found in the suburban areas of large cities or some county centres, as well as in the territories of formerly successful, large, collective and state farms, where extensive construction of housing took place in the 1980s (Kerge, 1996).

Migration was partially affected by the privatization of the housing stock. The aim of the housing reform was to transfer the state and municipal property to private hands. First signs of the end of the reform are visible only at the end of 1995. At the same time building of new houses has decreased noticeably and lack of apartments became more obvious during 1989-1994. The situation was a little alleviated because of negative outmigration during the past years.

According to the Living Conditions Survey most people improve their living conditions primarily by changing the existing apartment for another or by purchasing a new one. Rural dwellers in most cases build a house or extend the existing living space and only very few plan to move to another village or town for improving living conditions.

Up to now improving of one’s housing conditions has remained an important motive of migration. According to Labour Survey 19% of all respondents during 1989-1994 moved for this reason. Living Conditions Survey revealed, that migration due to housing is frequantly accompanied by family reasons. More than half (57%) of divorced persons would like to migrate because of the apartment became too expensive. People unsatisfied with their current apartment also expressed intentions to migrate.

The main obstacle to mobility of the working force is undoubtdly the absence of new living places. This concers particularly people living in the borderlands where there does not exist any housing market yet. It should be stressed that the prices of housing differ widely by region, being up to ten times higher in big cities and in the neighbouring regions – just in those places where the chances of finding a job are better.


Previous state-controlled economy has disappeared and most of the rights and obligation have been delegated to the local governments who are more dependent on local resources, contacts, and entrepreneurship. Differences in rents and land price have not affected the migration yet.



In the beginning of 1990s radical economic and social changes in East European countries created new preconditions for migration.

It can be can conclude that before 1990 settlement and migration occurred mostly in conditions where the government planned and regulated everything and the market played only a minor role. Although Champion (1991) considers regional planning one of the important reasons of migration in West-European countries, it seams to be less important than in socialist countries, where the goals of equalisation of social and living conditions by regions were one of the main tasks of the governments (Musil, 1993).

After 1990 there have emerged new tendencies that are mainly due to unequal regional development.

Negative external migration and natural decrease were first reactions to rapid economic and social changes. Internal migration decreased steadily since the 1980s

The fall of internal migration can partly be a result of changes in official registration system. Starting from 1992 official statistics has showed the increase of rural population as a result of internal migration. At the same time internal migration rate (net migration per inhabitant) has no statistically significant relationship with unemployment and income in the outflow areas although the relationship with age structure was significant.

The results of two major surveys, conducted in 1994 and 1995, proved the leading importance of job related reasons in internal migration. Ihe findings revealed that a motivation to find a better job leads to migrate mostly single persons.

The availability of jobs clearly affects the development of communities. Cities with low unemployment rate, like the capital city, had fewer movers because of job security, while the residents of small towns with modest employment outlooks were far more likely to migrate.

General trends.

- Unemployment does influence the migration. According to Living Conditions Survey about 48% of unemployed people would like to change their place of residence in hope of getting a job .

- Surprisingly, there seems to be no relationship between education and a desire to migrate, although persons with the lowest educational attainment had a bit fewer plans to move than the rest of the respondents.

Although some findings suggests that people with higher educational attainment were more prepared to this result seems to be more dependent on life-cycles than unemployment.

Housing conditions have remained an important motive of migration. According to Labour Survey nearly one fifth of all moves during 1989-1994 were made because of improvement of housing. Living Conditions Survey revealed that such migration is usually connected with family factors. More than half (57%) of divorced persons would like to migrate because of too expensive apartment.

In the future less developed regions are likely to lose more inhabitants to the most advanced areas that will further inhibit the development of rural territories, particularly in the south and east of the country. To avoid further deteriorationn of living conditions and the loss of population in these areas, central and local authorities should take all necessary steps for finding possible sourcec for developing so called bordelands.




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