Estonia's New Government Denies Pro-Russia Stance
Eestlased Eestis 23 Nov 2016  EWR
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Despite disclaimers, the coalition’s credentials are under scrutiny because of the Center Party’s past ties with United Russia. 21 November 2016
The political shake-up in Estonia caused by a change in the Center Party’s leadership continues. In a development virtually impossible to predict just a few weeks ago, Estonia's parliament, the Riigikogu, voted in a new government led by the Center Party, with the left-leaning Social Democrats and the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) party as partners.

This hodgepodge coalition emerged largely because of the rise of Jüri Ratas, the new leader of the Center Party, who was appointed chairman of the party this month, replacing Edgar Savisaar.

Savisaar headed the Center Party for over 20 years and has been popular with Estonia's Russian-speaking population. None of the parties in parliament, however, had been willing to work with the Center Party since Savisaar opposed the removal of the “Bronze Soldier” in 2007, a Soviet-era monument, according to ERR, the public broadcaster.

The coalition talks began after the fall of the previous government earlier this month, and international media were quick to deem the prospective government pro-Russian, and to see Estonia as another country following a recent trend of Kremlin-friendly parties gaining power across Central and Eastern Europe.

The allegations of close ties stem from the 2004 cooperation protocol that the Center Party signed with United Russia, the dominant ruling party in Russia. The agreement foresees improving mutual relationships among party members and forming interparty committees in the fields of culture and education.

But Prime Minister-elect Ratas has stressed that the agreement has never been put into practice. “The situation will not change until Kremlin returns to respecting international law,” Ratas was quoted by The New York Times as saying.

Ratas announced that Estonia's foreign and security policy will follow the course set by the previous government, and continue to support sanctions imposed on Russia for its role in the Ukraine conflict, as well as devoting 2 percent of GDP or more to NATO defense spending, writes Reuters.

In an interview with the newspaper Postimees, IRL's deputy chairman Marko Mihkelson also confirmed that the new government will not be pro-Russian and should not be seen as such, despite the central role of the Center Party.

While Ratas does not intend to revoke the cooperation protocol with United Russia, the change of the party's leadership clearly created new opportunities to run the country.

As EER put it, “the recent election of Jüri Ratas as party chairman changed not only the Center Party, but the political situation in Estonia, pushing the Reform Party out of government after 17 years.”

The new government of Estonia will take office this Thursday.

• While Ratas may be more acceptable to the other parties than Savisaar, the 38 year-old is hardly new blood. According to EER, he joined the Center Party in 2002 and then served as Savisaar’s economic policy advisor when the Savisaar was mayor of Talinn. Ratas soon became deputy mayor and then served as mayor himself from 2005-7.

• Estonia's former Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas lost a confidence vote earlier this month, blamed for indecisiveness and the stagnating economy. Rõivas had served as the head of the government for over two years.

• The new coalition holds 56 seats in the 101-seat parliament. The Free Party, the Reform Party, and the Estonian Conservative People’s Party form the opposition.

• About a quarter of Estonia's 1.3 million inhabitants speak Russian as their first language. The Center Party was the second most popular party in the last parliament elections, after the Reform Party.

• The new coalition plans extensive reforms concerning tax policy. Among other incentives, the new government wants to significantly increase the income tax exemption rate, reduce corporate income tax, and introduce a new bank tax.

(Compiled by Liga Rudzite)
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