Estonia Joins Euro Club as Currency Expands East Into Former Soviet Union

Estonia entered the euro area with “no glitches” in banking and retail, shrugging off the sovereign debt crisis rippling through Europe to extend the currency block into the former Soviet Union.

Wedged between Russia and Latvia on the Baltic Sea, Estonia is the 17th country to switch to the currency. Gross domestic product of 14 billion euros ($19 billion) makes it the second- smallest euro economy after Malta.

“The New Year came exactly like the Estonian central bank and its partners had planned,” deputy central bank Governor Rein Minka told a news conference in Tallinn, the capital, today. “There were no glitches with adopting the euro or with technical systems. The new money reached all the places it was supposed to.”

As Europe grapples with the financial crisis, Estonia may be the last addition to the euro club for several years. Lithuania and Latvia, the next in line, aim to adopt the currency in 2014, while bigger eastern countries have shied away from setting target dates.

“For Estonia, the choice is to be inside the club, among the decision makers, or stay outside of the club,” Prime Minister Andrus Ansip told reporters yesterday in Tallinn, the nation’s capital. “We prefer to act as club members.”

‘Successfully Introduced’

The euro “has been successfully introduced in Estonia,” the European Central Bank said in a statement on its website today.

Automated teller machines and card payments at Estonia’s four largest banks, which account for more than 90 percent of the market, are working “smoothly”, the Estonian central bank and Finance Ministry said in a statement distributed before news conference at 1 p.m. local time.

“It seems the Estonian society is taking to currency changeover calmly,” Riho Unt, the head of the Estonian Banking Association and the chief executive officer of the Estonian unit of Stockholm-based SEB AB, said at the news conference. “There were no queues when we opened offices today. Only about 10,000 transactions have been made at the ATM’s, which is very little, and less than 0.5 percent of euro cash has been withdrawn from teller machines.”

Estonia, with debt estimated by the European Union at 8 percent of GDP for 2010, will be the nation with the most sound fiscal position in a currency bloc plagued by budget woes that forced Greece and Ireland to seek European and International Monetary Fund aid.

‘Difficult Times’

“I hope other countries will notice that we met the euro- entry terms despite difficult times and this will improve Estonia’s reputation,” student Kaspar Nuut, 24, said yesterday in central Tallinn, as crowds gathered for the celebrations featuring a midnight fireworks display. “We would have had to adopt the euro anyway, so better sooner rather than later.”

Estonia’s central bank chief, Andres Lipstok, 53, will join the European Central Bank’s policy-setting council, taking part in his first interest-rate vote on Jan. 13 in Frankfurt.

Some 85 million euro coins featuring a map of Estonia and 12 million bank notes went into circulation today, according to the central bank, starting a two-week phasing out of the national currency, the kroon. One euro buys 15.6466 krooni.

“I definitely support euro adoption as it will make traveling easier when all of Europe has the same currency,” Ivi Normet, a 45-year-old civil servant, said. “I hope it will also benefit other aspects of life in Estonia.”

Western Anchor

The 1.3 million Estonians have little experience of monetary autonomy. In June 1992, less than a year after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Estonia shifted from the Russian ruble to a national currency that it immediately pegged to the German mark. The exchange rate was locked to the euro when the first 11 countries began using it in 1999.

Estonia in 2004 was in the initial wave of eastern European countries to join the EU, seeking a western anchor as an insurance policy against Russia.

“Estonia’s entry means that over 330 million Europeans now carry euro notes and coins in their pockets,” European Commission President Jose Barroso said yesterday in a statement. “It is a strong signal of the attraction and stability that the euro brings.”

Economic growth averaged 7.2 percent between 1995 and the onset of the global financial crisis in 2007. Reliant on foreign investment, Estonia was hit harder than most in the global slump, with the economy shrinking 5.1 percent in 2008 and 13.9 percent in 2009, the sharpest contraction since its transition to a market economy at the beginning of 1990s.

Targets

Estonia’s path to adopting the currency was marred by high inflation. Consumer prices soared 10.6 percent in 2008, missing one of the five economic tests for euro entry. The other targets are for deficits, debt, long-term interest rates and exchange- rate stability.

While the deficit, at 2.8 percent of GDP in 2008, was under the euro’s 3 percent limit, the government kept up the austerity drive. Tax increases, spending cuts and higher dividend collection from state-owned companies whittled the shortfall to an estimated 1 percent in 2010.

Unlike in Latvia or Lithuania, Estonia’s neighbors along the Baltic coast, the belt-tightening didn’t provoke public unrest. Growth rebounded to 2.4 percent in 2010 and will reach 4.4 percent next year, the EU predicts.

Euro Support

“The Estonian government early in the crisis realized that it provides a great window of opportunity,” said Andres Kasekamp, a politics professor at Tartu University. “The austerity and cuts in the public sector were necessary anyhow, but to make it more palatable, the government created a vision that these cuts are in the name of joining the euro.”

Backing for the euro ebbed to 52 percent in December from a record 54 percent in November, according to a government- sponsored poll of 501 people with a margin of error of 4 percent. The decline, stemming from concerns over sovereign debt crisis and nostalgia for the soon-to-be abolished kroon, was still “surprisingly small,” Tea Varrak, the chancellor of the Finance Ministry, said at the news conference today.

By contrast, support for the single currency is plunging in Germany, which designed the euro as the successor to the deutsche mark. Some 49 percent of Germans want to bring back the mark and 41 percent want to keep the euro, according to a Bild newspaper poll last month.

“This really is a coin with two sides,” said Tiiu Braman, a 65-year-old pensioner in Tallinn. “Of course the kroon is very important to us historically and beautiful and so on, but we probably can’t make it without the euro. Still, everyday life will be a bit more complicated for a while.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ott Ummelas in Tallinn at oummelas@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Willy Morris at wmorris@bloomberg.net

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