EVEN allowing for snow, the medieval Old Town of Tallinn is unnaturally quiet. The best restaurant, Pegasus, has only one table occupied : your correspondent’s.
Shops are offering colossal discounts, even bigger than the painful spending and wage cuts passing through parliament in its pastel-painted palace on the hill above the city. But Endel Siff, a local businessman, is eager to talk about something else: drug-detection machines. Those made by his firm use advanced laser-fluorescence technology: more accurate, simpler, cheaper and more robust, he says, than the gas-chromatography apparatus in common use so far. Mr Siff’s company, Nar Test, employs 60 people and is expanding fast.
Admittedly, Mr Siff is hardly typical. One of the richest men in Estonia, he has an uncanny sense of timing. He left the lucrative oil-transit business before it was hit by Russian sanctions in 2007. He baled out of his country’s overinflated property market before that bubble burst. He even sold most of his shares.
But he highlights an important point, often lost amid the glum headlines. This is not 1989, when the then-communist states tiptoed back into a capitalist world that for many was bafflingly unfamiliar. The institutions built and the human and financial capital gained during the past 20 years will not disappear overnight. And this is not the 1930s, when the economic slump pushed every country bar the then Czechoslovakia into autocratic rule. That decade ended with Europe’s most destructive war.
Ex-communist countries are more resilient and flexible than countries with happier histories. They have had to be, and it may stand them in good stead now. And though some bits of the economy (and in some countries most bits) may be doing dreadfully badly, the crisis is also a chance to hire newly available workers, find cheap premises and capture markets abandoned by others.