Estonia waits for fruits of freedom: Grim economic reality has overtaken hope, Adrian Bridge writes from Tallinn

KATRIN METSAMART was not quite sure why all the blue, black and white flags had come out in force in the streets of Tallinn. 'I think it is something to do with that putsch in Moscow last year,' she said, quickly returning to her coffee. 'But it doesn't mean anything to me anyway. As far as I am concerned, life has not got any better since then and many things are a lot worse.'

Given the number of anniversaries currently sweeping the Baltic states, Ms Metsamart could perhaps be forgiven for not knowing that last Thursday's display of flags here marked exactly one year of Estonian independence.

Yesterday, it was the turn of Riga, the Latvian capital, which broke its ties with Moscow just three days later. At the same time, representatives from all three Baltic states were observing an altogether more sombre occasion: the 53rd annivesary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 23 August 1939 which consigned them to Soviet domination.

Yesterday also marked exactly three years to the day since some 600,000 Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians called for their freedom by forming an astonishing human chain that stretched 360 miles from Tallinn on the Baltic Sea through to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, in the south.

'What high hopes we had,' said Maie Kaara, a veteran of the human chain and one of the hundreds of thousands of Estonians who then regularly gathered at vast rallies in Tallinn to sing - literally - for their political freedom. 'A lot of us thought independence would be the answer to all our problems,' she said. 'But of course it has not been so simple. And now many are bitter.'

Among those most embittered are the growing numbers of unemployed, forced out of their jobs as a result of a collapsing economic system, and pensioners, struggling to subsist on a meagre monthly allowance of 200 kroons ( pounds 8.50) and forced to turn to previously unheard-of soup kitchens and to watch helplessly as prices shoot up towards Western levels.

Inflation, which earlier this year reached 87 per cent in Estonia, is also the main grouse of the young and many of those still in work, tantalised by visions of Carlsberg beer and Panasonic hi-fi in the countless Western-style shops that have sprouted in Tallinn.

'I feel almost ill seeing all these things but not being able to buy them,' said Eva, a student. 'We have been turned into beggars in our own country. It is deeply humiliating and it is almost enough to make you think that maybe socialism was not so bad.'

But while discontent was undoubtedly strong, and even rising, very few seriously lament the passing of the old Soviet order or hanker after its return in any form. Indeed, when Estonians go to the polls next month in the first proper elections to be held in the Baltic states since they gained independence, many are expected to vote for an even faster pace of economic reform to replace the relatively softly-softly approach adopted to date.

'People are moaning like hell, but in the end they realise there is only one direction we can take,' said Tarmu Tammerk, editor of the leading English-language weekly, the Baltic Independent. 'There is a greater awareness now that the next two to three years will be very painful. But deep down, people think that the situation will ultimately improve.'

Although the election campaign has so far been conspicuous mainly by its absence, the main battle lines have already been drawn. On the one side, the Fatherland alliance, an amalgamation of right-of-centre parties, is calling for the speedy introduction of market reforms and a drastic realignment of the country's economy towards Western markets. On the other, the Popular Front, a loose coalition of centre parties emerging from the country's former protest movement, favours the retention of most state subsidies and an extensive social welfare network.

In addition, other groupings expected to gain representation in the Riigikogu (parliament) include the Moderates (who are calling for an immediate increase in pensions), the Estonian National Independence Party (whose demands include the return of former Estonian territories which are now part of Russia) and the bizarrely-named Safe Home Alliance made up primarily of 'reformed' Communists such as President Arnold Ruutel and accused of seeking to maintain the old system of privileges).

Preoccupied with the daily struggle for existence and seemingly disillusioned with politics, many Estonians are expected not to bother casting their votes on 20 September.