Estonians abroad may think that the recent local/municipal elections in Estonia have only minor ramifications on power politics in the country. After all, it is not as if the mayors of Toronto or Halifax have real clout when it comes to federal politics. Toronto Mayor Miller’s foreign policy views or visits abroad have little effect on Ottawa’s actions, and Miller’s traditional electoral base is hardly a homogenous unit. However, Tallinn’s mayor and Centre party head Edgar Savisaar, who runs a Tammany Hall from his city hall power base, wields a disconcertingly heavy hammer. Although his opponents in the local elections focussed on the corruption rife in Tallinn and the Centre party it was for naught. Tallinn’s city government has an annual budget of around 7 billion crowns, which is only 10% of the national total, but in reality Savisaar borrows, and in fact much, much more money passes through commerce.
The following is a compilation of thoughts from Estonians living in Eesti answering questions from abroad, gathered from a lengthy email stream.
In Estonia, unfortunately, the results of this month’s elections indicate clearly that the country remains divided between loyalist Estonians and ethnic Russians. As one observer noted, these elections were fundamentally a question of raw power. It is important to note here that holding Estonian citizenship is not necessary for voting in local elections – resident status suffices.
Although there is a positive indicator to consider – apathy was not an issue, voter participation, a key sign of a healthy functioning democracy, was this year, at 60.3% of eligible electors the highest since 1993 – the negative far outweighs this result. And this is the fact that even as Estonians went to the polls in droves, so did Russians. Actually, "Russian speakers" is not a useful term. Russians and specific nationalities is more useful. Ukrainians and Georgians are often "Russian speakers" for convenience sake, but are on a different page. It is more complex than "Russian speakers and Estonians." Everyone turned out in record numbers partly because of the economy, but in Northern Estonia and Northeastern Estonia, these were also very much ethnically driven elections.
There is an eerie historical connection. 70 years separate two events: October 18, 1939 was the day that Red Army troops came across the border and entered Estonia after Tallinn had been coerced to enter into a mutual assistance pact with Stalin. October 18, 2009 was also a watershed day. An inflection point, when it was revealed to the Estonian public that their votes - despite a concerted effort - are and will remain insufficient to carry Tallinn under the current arrangement. Essentially the same thing happened in Riga not so long ago.
The Centre party posted resounding victories in areas where Russian speakers make up a large percentage of the polity. This is a fact that must have been viewed with pleasure in Moscow – a city where Savisaar is a frequent official visitor. It must also be stressed that the Centre party has strong links with the Medvedev-Putin United Russia party. Moscow must be pleased that not only is Tallinn’s municipal assembly controlled by a Centre majority, but that Narva and Eastern Virumaa are also in Savisaar’s hands. Control of Tallinn and Narva will not be regained unless foreign aliens are denied the right to vote at the local level.
Tartu, Estonia’s cultural capital and second largest city as well as Southern Estonia and Western Estonia remained in the hands of Estonian parties.
Estonia’s federal or nation-level political system has the Riigikogu - parliament- given the first shot at choosing the President. However, as history has shown attaining consensus in a multi-party parliament is far from simple; the threshold is thus high. President Ilves did not gain majority Riigikogu support but had to be confirmed by the next level, the Electoral Board. Which in turn is based largely on municipalities and local governments. Hence non-citizens have a disproportionate influence in electing the president. Ilves is up for reelection in a couple of years and at present the chances for reelection are not favourable as the trend is towards “Russian power” as demonstrated by Savisaar’s power base.
The Riigikogu is, for the present, in the hands of Estonians. However, since the events of the spring of 2007, with the relocation of the Bronze Soldier resulting in riots, galvanizing ethnic Russians, combined with inclusive policies and non-favourable demographic trends the number of Russian voters expressing their dissatisfaction at the municipal polls has increased. This increase in activity is bound to have an impact, however gradual, at the general election level.
Savisaar is making no bones about his affinities, appealing as only a populist can to the lowest common denominator, reducing the election to “us versus them.” Them being in this case the Reform and IRL centre-right. In Tallinn’s Lasnamäe district, heavily populated by ethnic Russians, Savisaar put up billboards saying "No Pasaran", clearly siding with the Russians in the “Bronze Soldier/Liberator Statue” issue. And by doing so Savisaar clearly sided on the Kremlin-sponsored revision of Baltic history, which has the full force of the Russian government and desinformatsiya apparatus behind it. (No Pasaran - Spanish Civil War code talk for “Stop the fascists”.) These were essentially not elections about local issues (garbage and communications) in Tallinn and Northern Estonia. They were about raw ethnic power. And lack of work resulting from the recession was factored in.
A two party system looms
Not only does the Centre party have a majority at Tallinn’s municipal assembly but they are engaged in coalition talks with Social Democrats – who to date have been allied only with Estonian national loyalist parties. A SD-Centre marriage will create a dominant New Leftist bloc in the nation’s capital with the resulting shift to the Left. Within a few days of the local election results being made public Savisaar also made overtures to Rahvaliit, the party of former President Arnold Rüütel, who was a high level Soviet functionary. Rahvaliit, the agrarian party, has been down on its luck recently, and it will most likely be absorbed into Centre party in due time. Thus contributing to an even stronger “Centre Left” party.
Observers have been speculating about the eventual outcome of these possible realignments. Effectiveness measures have been noted as one reason for the possibility of the emergence of a two party system. However, as long as the two main centre-right parties, the governing Reform and Isamaa Res Publica Union have their identity mapped out, their merger seems remote. The Greens are unlikely to fade into irrelevance. But Edgar Savisaar’s success may just force the Estonian parties to reach the conclusion that not being united works to their detriment. But will the reality of “Russian Power” in Estonia force Estonians to unite into one party, to combat Centre’s disproportionate influence? This remains to be seen, but must be a concern for Estonian politicians. And for the nation, as having a multiplicity of world views is a benefit in a healthy polity, rather than a typically polarized two-party system much like in the USA (or, as is effectively developing in Canada.)
Estonians raised abroad but living in Estonia have raised concerns through blogs and emails that the Estonian press is not adequately mirroring the actual situation. As one email noted, “Estonian media are not straightforward and the "clear text" as the Germans say, is often not sent. There is no truly independent Estonian media. I mean it. Everyone is embedded if you will, and as always, the media slant to the left. The disappointment and the worry of the typical Estonian is palpable, but the media does not articulate this outright. Many messages are implicit and others are not articulated at all.”
Another email said that “ a friend of mine wrote the day before last, not knowing anything of this thread of ours nor these developments, and said that if he were I, he would be scouting exit strategies from Estonia by land, sea or air. A friend of old called the evening the election results were being made public, and said she and the children are leaving Eesti in the Spring. That is the degree of sense of discomfort here.”
The writer continued: “mostly I would urge Estonians abroad - especially the remnants of the former exile community - to do a sobriety check and look the reality of the situation in the face.” Further, “we are now adapting to the gray reality and literally making contingency plans.”
Finally, as this emailer noted, “describing problems is ‘easy’. Describing the ideal situation is ‘easy’. Devising and implementing the ‘how do we get there’ and '‘how do we reengage politically’ is where the väliseesti body politic needs a brainstorming session.”
Ramifications of Estonia’s local elections