The Jamestown Foundation
Eurasia Daily Monitor
March 9, 2006
Vladimir Socor

Pro-Western, pro-market parties won a convincing victory in Estonia’s March 4 parliamentary elections, despite Moscow’s efforts to prevent such an outcome. This election’s political ramifications — like those of Estonia’s elections in the early and mid-1990s — transcend the country’s confines. A decade ago, election winners turned Estonia into the most successful among the countries navigating the transition toward the market economy and Western institutions. Estonia’s March 4 election helped bring to the fore Russia’s problem of coming to terms with the legacy of Soviet crimes — an unresolved issue no less salient than the long-resolved issue of Germany coming to terms with Nazi crimes.

Russia’s attitude toward its Soviet legacy and the occupation of Estonia was a prominent issue in this electoral campaign, albeit not the central issue, not at the expense of socio-economic issues, and certainly not for the first time in Estonia’s political debates. However, the emphasis has recently grown stronger in response to the official trend in Russia toward identification with the Soviet heritage amid implicit or explicit denial of Soviet crimes.

Since the last election in 2003, Estonia has recorded consistently high GDP growth (11% in 2006), turning the problem of unemployment into one of a net labor deficit, which poses a different set of dilemmas. It has become one of Europe’s pioneering countries in terms of generalized use of the Internet, innovation (Estonia is the home of Skype), and e-governance, with growing use of electronic voting. However, lagging development of rural areas and under-funding of the health care and education systems were major issues in this campaign, as they will be for the new government. Demographic stagnation remains a source of national anxiety.

Right-wing, free-market-advocating parties obtained 50 seats and their allies 10 seats in the 101-seat parliament. The right-liberal, pro-business Reform Party, led by the incumbent Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, will hold 31 seats. The right-conservative Alliance of Pro Patria Union and Res Publica, led by former prime minister Mart Laar — who had pushed through the preceding decade’s reforms — will hold 19 seats. These parties’ ally, the Social Democrat Party — seen as close to its former leader, recently elected president Toomas Ilves (see EDM, September 22, 26, 2006) — has now re-entered parliament and will hold 10 seats.

The president has announced that he is nominating Ansip to form the new government, likely to consist of those three parties. This will end the tension-filled two-year cohabitation of the Reform Party with the left-leaning Center Party in the incumbent government. The Green Party, a new entrant to parliament with six seats, has expressed interest in joining the likely new coalition.

The programs of Reform, Pro Patria/Res Publica, and the Social Democrats overlap on the essentials, but differ in their nuances. They all support low taxation of business, high incentives for investors, free trade, early accession to the euro currency zone, and concentrating state investment toward education, public health, and environmental protection. They also call for a pro-family policy to increase the population and preserve the identity of the small Estonian nation.

The Center Party led by incumbent Economics and Communications Minister Edgar Savisaar is second strongest with 29 seats in the newly elected parliament, narrowly short of its goal to lead the new government. Moscow regards this party as a “healthy force” in Estonian politics. The party’s atrophying ally, People’s Union, based on local officialdom in the countryside, will hold six seats.

With this election the Center Party has completed its transformation into a left-leaning populist force. It moved accordingly to capture most of the local Russian vote while retaining much of its traditional support among Estonian urban pensioners and rural voters in poorer areas. The party’s campaign called for steep progressive taxation of incomes, public-sector wage increases by more than 20% annually, and other inflationary spending proposals. The Center Party introduced politically targeted patronage by ministries under its control, aggressive recruitment of public-sector employees, rent-generating arrangements with favorite businessmen, and highly personalized decision-making by Savisaar.

Savisaar positioned himself as Moscow’s political partner in Estonia and signed a cooperation agreement with the United Russia party of power. Moscow obliged by urging Estonia’s Russian voters to support Savisaar, which they largely did. The goal was to lift the Center Party into first place and capture the prime-ministership for Savisaar, then to form a new coalition government more to Moscow’s liking.

This election (as that of 2003) pulverized Estonia’s Russian parties, all three of which totaled this time some 2% of the votes cast countrywide and some 3% in heavily Russian-populated districts. The leader of the leading Russian party (1% country-wide) complained that Russia’s First Baltic Television Channel and a galaxy of Moscow politicians had been guiding Estonia’s Russian voters to back the Center Party.

Assured of such support in advance, Savisaar declined to form a bloc with the Russian parties, thus amassing those votes for his party, but not enough to reach the top. Voter turnout in Russian-inhabited districts was considerably lower (e.g., 52% in the Ida-Viru county around Narva) compared to the countrywide turnout of 61% and probably a two-thirds turnout among ethnic Estonian voters.

Moscow officials assail Estonia for withholding the right to vote from Russian residents who lack citizenship status or hold Russian citizenship. As Federation Council chairman Sergei Mironov remarked, “If 200,000 non-citizen [residents] had been able to vote, the election’s outcome would have been totally different” (Interfax, March 5). Such comments reflect the goal to change Estonia’s (and also Latvia’s) election outcomes and policies by demanding an automatic, blanket grant of citizenship to those residents. This strategy in itself vindicates Estonia’s (and Latvia’s) existing policies of naturalization at a measured pace that the political system can accommodate.

In the elections’ wake, some Russian officials such as Konstantin Kosachev and Mikhail Margelov, chairmen respectively of the Duma’s and Federation Council’s international affairs committees, openly demand that the Center Party be included in Estonia’s new government — “in consideration of Russia-Estonia relations” as Kosachev put it. Otherwise, Mironov warns the pro-Western parties, “the people of Estonia will sooner or later remove these gentlemen [from government]” (Interfax, March 5).

In that context, issues of national identity and recent history inevitably affected Estonia’s electoral strategy. Early in the campaign, the Reform and Pro Patria/Res Publica parties pushed through legislation authorizing the relocation of remaining Soviet monuments from conspicuous public places (see EDM, January 12), but President Ilves later returned that law to parliament for reconsideration over apparent technicalities. Those parties also pushed through a law by which the anniversary of the Soviet “liberation” of Tallinn (September 22, 1944) becomes the Day of Estonia’s Fight for Liberation, honoring all those who resisted the occupation during the war and the ensuing years.

That law came into effect on March 1, along with amendments to the language law that the same parties pushed through. The amendments strengthen the Language Inspectorate’s authority to test the Estonian language competency that is legally required for specified categories of employees. While Moscow and some local Russians protest, many have in the course of time successfully passed the Estonian language test.

These developments did not change Moscow’s political behavior toward Estonia for the worse. That behavior continued as accustomed, pretending to see a “rebirth of fascism” there, and calling in vain on the European Union and other international organizations to criticize Estonia and change its laws. In the elections’ aftermath, Moscow seems to be considering two possible options. One, suggested by Russian parliamentary leaders, aims to influence the composition and policies of the new Estonian government by working with the “healthy forces.” The other option, publicly recommended by the Kremlin-affiliated consultants Gleb Pavlovsky and Sergei Markov, suggests writing off the Center Party as unable to deliver and agitating as before against Estonia within Russia and at the international level.