Land Policy in Estonia

Establishing New Valuation and Taxation Programs
Ann LeRoyer, September 1, 1995

Like the other New Independent States of Central and Eastern Europe, Estonia is striving to adapt complex social and economic systems to changing conditions. To help Estonian policymakers enhance their understanding of land economics, taxation and related policy issues, the Lincoln Institute has embarked on a far-reaching collaborative education program with the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER).

Of special significance to both institutes is Estonia’s position as one of only a few countries where real estate taxes are applied solely to land, and where buildings and other improvements to land are not taxed. In addition, the country has already made dramatic progress toward establishing a market economy and a system of land taxation based on land value as an incentive for productive use of land and a means of discouraging speculation.

In making the transition to a market economy, Estonian policymakers are constrained by the lack of up-to-date information in the Estonian language on the fiscal and political implications of democratic government or on basic theory and research on land economics. Moreover, as the Estonian Parliament moves the country toward decentralization and land reforms, officials have recognized the need for practical assistance in developing procedures to determine land values and to administer tax assessment and collection systems.

The Lincoln Institute’s Role

For the Lincoln Institute, the current situation offers an opportunity to contribute knowledge about the economics of land markets and taxation based on a broad view of land policy. This approach includes examining the principles expounded by Henry George in his book Progress and Poverty that might be relevant in a country at the early stages of developing land markets.

“Estonia is a model environment for the Lincoln Institute to develop seminars in an economic development framework that analyzes land policy, taxation and valuation,” says Lincoln Institute faculty associate David A. Walker, professor of finance and director of the Center for Business-Government Relations at Georgetown University.

The Institute’s work with Estonia began in September 1993, when senior fellow Joan Youngman and fellow Jane Malme were invited to a conference in Tallinn to discuss the design of a property taxation system. The conference, sponsored and supported by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Danish Ministry of Taxation, was organized by Tambet Tiits, then director of the Estonian National Land Board and responsible for implementing the land assessment project.

Malme and Youngman subsequently invited Tiits to participate as a faculty member in a Lincoln Institute course on the interaction of land policy and taxation. Designed for government officials from Eastern Europe and the New Independent States, the course was presented in cooperation with OECD at their training centers in Copenhagen and Vienna.

In December 1994, a delegation composed of Malme, Youngman, Robert Gilmour, president of AIER, and C. Lowell Harriss, professor of economics, emeritus, at Columbia University, went on a fact-finding mission to explore research and education opportunities in Estonia. They recommended that the Institute organize educational programs in Estonia with Tiits, and in May 1995 Walker and Tiits cochaired an intensive three-day seminar. More than 20 senior level public policymakers attended, representing academia, business, three city governments, and various ministries and agencies of the national government.

The program focused on three key goals: studying the role of land taxation to promote efficient land use and to finance local government; learning about legal and administrative systems that support the development of efficient land markets; and understanding the relationships among land policies, land taxes, and land utilization, and their effective application to the economy of Estonia.

Other Lincoln Institute faculty associates participating in the May program were Gilmour; Roy Kelly, deputy director of the International Tax Program at Harvard University and research associate at Harvard Institute for International Development; Malme; Anders Muller, project manager for the Property Valuation and Tax Management Department for the Ministry of Taxation in Denmark; Jussi Palmu, director of Huoneistomarkkinointi Oi, a leading real estate agency in Finland; and Vincent Renard, director of research of CNRS for the Ecole Polytechnique, Laboratoire d’Econometrie, in Paris, France.

“We are pleased to be working with Tambet Tiits and other business and government leaders in Estonia,” says Lincoln Institute president Ronald L. Smith. “We believe the Institute can provide the kind of expertise their policymakers can use to develop the best approaches to land and tax reform, and to strengthen their ability to establish viable programs in a new and still changing economic climate.”

Primer on Land Issues in Estonia

The most northern of the Baltic States, Estonia has a strong tradition of family farming and land ownership. Unlike many other former Soviet bloc countries, its history included a period of independence from 1920 to 1940. In 1939 an estimated 145,000 small farms dotted the land area of 45,200 sq. km., and only about 30 percent of the population lived in urban areas. By the early 1990s, more than 70 percent lived in cities, with one-third of the country’s 1.6 million people inhabiting the capital of Tallinn.

During 50 years of Soviet rule from 1940 to 1990, Estonia experienced intense industrialization and urbanization, nationalization of land and mineral resources, and consolidation of its small farms into huge agricultural collectives. Demographic losses due to deportations, emigration and World War II reduced the number of farm workers and shifted the remaining population away from the land. Land use patterns and environmental integrity were further compromised by Soviet agricultural policies, causing much of the traditional farm land to become forested and moving farm activity to more marginal grasslands.

Restitution began in 1991 but it has been a slow process. The lack of up-to-date knowledge and technology, coexisting with bureaucratic inefficiencies and past agricultural policies, are challenging the effective use of land. However, new land use legislation and taxation have been created to solve these problems in a democratic way.

In only a few years, Estonia has become one of the most progressive and stable of the New Independent States. It has a high level of education and its people are eager to catch up with the “information age.” Its business and government leaders have established significant monetary reforms and pursued foreign trade and investment with the west, particularly Finland, other Scandinavian countries, and its former primary trading partner, Russia. Through the privatization of state enterprises such as textiles and forest products, and the growth of new private businesses in the service sector, Estonia is rapidly becoming a strong economic force in the region.

Current Research on Land Taxation in Estonia

Attiat F. Ott, Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute for Economic Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts is conducting a research project titled “Land Taxation in the Baltic States: A Proposal for Reform,” with support from the Lincoln Institute. Over the next two years, Ott will conduct an assessment of the land taxation law introduced in 1994 by the Republic of Estonia. This law was developed in conjunction with the privatization and restoration of land to former owners, as stipulated in the 1992 Constitution. During this period of transition, the interrelationship between public ownership and private rights during the transition period is of primary importance. However, as in other countries, the Estonian property rights structure also affects and ensuing patterns of land use and development. These issues are at the core of the first phase of Ott’s research.

In the second phase, Ott will evaluate the land taxation law as an element of Estonia’s new, overall tax structure. The law defines both state and local land taxes using the same bases (sale price or use value of the land), but a different rate of taxation is levied at each level of government. Ott will review the strengths and weaknesses of the existing land tax system as a basis for offering and offer a comprehensive land taxation proposal for Estonia and the other Baltic States. She will incorporate ideas on the use of a site value tax and concerns about the undesirable effects of land speculation, which is occurring such as those occurring in some urban areas of Estonia.

While Ott’s research is directly related to the Institute’s interest in land value taxation, she will also be making methodological contributions as her quantitative work will extend the area of hedonic pricing models from their common application in housing to the area of land valuation.

Additional information in printed newsletter:
Map: Share of Agricultural Land in the Counties of Estonia: 1939, 1955 and 1992. Source: Adapted from Ulo Mander, “Changes of Landscape Structure in Estonia during the Soviet Period,” GeoJournal, May 1994, 33.1, pp 45-54.