Estonia is a country rich in islands: more than 1500 islands and islets lie on its Baltic coasts and in Lake Peipus. Generally they lie quite close to the mainland. However, the vast majority of these islands are tiny (under 100 km2) with a negligible population size and only two of these, Saaremaa together with Muhu and Hiiumaa together with Kassari, connected by causeways, exceed 1000 km2. Saaremaa and Hiiumaa are regional authorities (counties).
Nearly 40 of these islands have been inhabited for hundreds of years. Before World War II, Estonia´s islands were home to 78,000 people including 6 islands with approx 3000 inhabitants populated mainly by ethnic Swedes and an island in Lake Peipus (Piirissaar) populated mainly by ethnic Russians.
Some historical data
1934 – 78 000 inhabitants on the islands, incl 6 islands populated mainly by ethnic Swedes: (Naissaar/Nargö, Suur and Väike Pakri / Stora and Lilla Rågö, Osmussaar / Odensholm, Vormsi /Ormsö and Ruhnu / Runö) and an island in Lake Peipus, Piirissaar, populated mainly by ethnic Russians;
1940 – occupation of Estonia by Soviet troops as a consequence of Molotov–Rippentrop pact, Soviet military basis are established on many islands;
1944 – after deportation and emigration islands have lost almost half of their population (all approx 3000 ethnic Swedes + Estonians);
1945 – 1991 Islands’ life regulated by rules of Soviet army and border guard;
Since 1992 – Rapid transition to market economy: free market prices have replaced fixed-priced goods and services – difficulties for small insular societies in adjustment to these changes.
Today, the total population of the islands is considerably less. According to the Estonian Population Register, at present the total number of people living on the Estonian 20 inhabited islands stands at approximately 48,000, amounting to roughly 3,7% of the national total. The actual number of permanent (year round) islands´ population is estimated to be up to 10% smaller than indicated in the official records. In order to enjoy a travel/ferry fare concession granted to small island residents, or to express their solidarity with and support to a local municipality/community, numerous summer islanders have registered their island homes to be their permanent or usual residence even if they do not live there permanently. As a rule, islands tend to be scarcely populated with an average population density of a maximum of 12 people per sq/km. However, there is one exception – the island of Kihnu whose population density is 39 people per sq/km.
There can be followed the tendency to populate again the uninhabited previous military islands (Naissaar, Osmussaar, Pakri islands).
On the national level there have been implemented some supporting activities for island communities:
Islands’ Development Programme (1996 – 2004);
Permanently Inhabited Small Islands Act (entered into force in 2004);
Small Islands’ Programme (2011 -…)
A special small islands commission headed by the Ministry of Regional Affairs is established;
A state programme supporting the cultural heritage of islands has been launched;
A position of an island watchers has been created on a number of small islands;
The national programmes aiming to support the cultural activity and traditional life style of Kihnu and Manija people was started in 2007 ( the UNESCO Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity of Kihnu Cultural Space was proclaimed in 2003).
Association of Estonian Islands (EIA) www.saared.ee, was established in 1992
The main purpose of the EIA is to promote development and sustainable populations on the Estonian islands.