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Estonia’s new government: how opposition came to power

The recent weeks have brought the Estonian political elite as drastic changes as the recent presidential election did, when a dark horse Kersti Kaljulaid left behind the prominent candidates for president. Government reshuffles followed the presidential election. Eventually, Party of Reforms that seemed an all-mighty political party yet not so long ago has found itself in the opposition camp, as the Centrists that had not been in the ruling coalition for a decade has headed the Cabinet. What triggered such changes was the Centrist Party’s refusal from its founder and once irreplaceable leader Edgar Savisaar. It was the price they had to pay to join the ruling coalition.

Overthrowing Founding Father

One of present-day Estonia’s founding fathers, Edgar Savisaar used to anger officials for its independent views often running contrary to the “mainstream.” Savisaar never feared from urging good-neighbored relations with Russia, despite the overwhelming majority of anti-Russian politicians. As a result, last year, he was stripped of his post of Tallinn Mayor facing corruption allegations. Savisaar was the leader of the second largest faction in the parliament that of course strived to join the ruling coalition and get ministerial posts. However, the Centrists were let understand that it is impossible unless they get rid of Savisaar. This triggered serious opposition to Savisaar inside his party too. Mailis Reps, a member of the Party Board, said “politically, Edgar doesn’t matter anymore” and promised that the Centrist Party would become an influential political force soon and get out of isolation.

Yet, Savisaar still had supporters. He has never caved in to the political mainstream throughout his political career. “Mailis and I are in some sense Savisaar’s students, but it appears to me that we attended different lessons. Edgar has never taught me to threaten, change door locks or make demonstrative punishments,” says Yana Toom, a European parliamentarian from Estonia. However, many Centrists do not want to see Toom in their party because of her “dissidence” and the recent visit to Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad.

In October, Prime Minister of Estonia Taavi Rõivas said to enter the government the Centrist Party needed to get rid of Edgar Savisaar and Yana Toom, abandon the “enrooted corruption” and take an extremely anti-Russian stance, like the other Estonian parties did. In his words, the current coalition is quite efficient and it will retain power until the next elections in 2019.

Instead, the coalition collapsed a few weeks later and Rõivas was replaced by a Centrist. However, quite dramatic events happened before that. On November 6, the Centrist Party convened to elect its new chairman. Savisaar did not run as a candidate, as he felt that his positions weakened dramatically. One of the leaders of the anti-Savisaar wing, vice speaker of the parliament Jüri Ratas won the voting enlisting the support of 654 of 1002 votes. His key rival Yana Toom received 348 votes. After election, Ratas appointed his supporters Mailis Reps and Kadri Simson as vice chairs of the party. Then he called for establishment of the new government without the Party of Reforms. Then, a few days later, the Centrist Party, the right-wing Nationalist Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, and the Social-Democratic Party of Estonia announced talks to form a new coalition.

Overthrow of the “baby prime minister”

Leaders of the political parties came out with a joint statement wherein they said the country stopped developing and needs new approaches. They declared the major goals of the next Cabinet, such as to help the country overcome economic stagnation, upgrade security, improve living standards and ensure demographic growth. On November 9, the youngest ever Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas (37) faced a vote of non-confidence from 63 parliamentarians. Another 28 supported the prime minister. The people welcomed the vote of non-confidence to the prime minister whose approval rating was very low. On the same day, they agreed on the basics of the new coalition government and harried to assure their foreign partners that they will change nothing in the country’s foreign policy. They pledged to observe the existing principles in the security and foreign policy, the partner and allied relations with NATO and EU as Estonia’s security guarantee, as well as to provide at least 2% of GDP to the defense sector.

Human rights defender Sergey Seredenko commented the developments in Estonia saying the Party of Reforms that have influence in the security services will return to power after the new coalition fails to suggest anything new. However, this is just a hypothesis so far…

Another well-known representative of the Russian community of Estonia Andrey Zarenkov believes that the vote of non-confidence to the prime minister could be organized by Siim Kallas’s camp, as retaliation for his defeat in the presidential election. Kallas blames for his failure the Party of Reforms that nominated it and, as he claims, did not support him properly during the campaign. Rõivas and Kallas even had heated arguments over that. Andrey Zarenkov believes that Rõivas signed his verdict when at his suggestion the law-enforcement sued influential Estonian businesspersons over corruption. “He is not a good politician. He is not a leader, but he is an honest person. The people like him have no place in politics,” Zarenkov says.

Spoils system

Thus, President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid entrusted Jüri Ratas, who was an oppositionist yet not so long ago, to form the new government. They started to distribute the ministerial positions. The Centrist Party received four ministerial posts: Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson, Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps, Minister of Rural Affairs Martin Repinski, and Minister of Public Administration Mihhail Korb. SDP received five posts: Minister of Health and Labour Jevgeni Ossinovski, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser, Minister of the Interior Andres Anvelt, Minister of Culture Indrek Saar, Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Urve Palo. Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) received the rest five posts: Minister of Defense Margus Tsahkna, Minister of Finance Sven Sester, Minister of Social Protection Kaia Iva, Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu, and Minister of the Environment Marko Pomerants.

It is noteworthy that members of the new Cabinet immediately started dispelling the rumors that their government is allegedly pro-Russian. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas even expressed hope that such rumors damaging Estonia’s image would not occur in foreign media. Furthermore, during hearings at Riigikogu (parliament of Estonia), Ratas even said “Russia has occupied Crimea.” In his words, the agreement between the Centrist Party of Estonia and Russia’s United Rossia Party had been frozen long ago and is not essential for the Centrists.

Yet, the overwhelming majority of the Centrist Party’s voters is the Russian speaking population of Estonia, who were disappointed at such statements by the prime minister. Dmitry Linter, a public figure, says the Estonian prime minister’s statement was a message to Moscow. “How will Moscow react to this? Will they again pretend that nothing is happening?” Linter says adding that nothing will change for the Russian citizens of Estonia, as the coalition agreement envisages no improvements for the local Russian schools and the Russians having no citizenship of Estonia, and there is no condemnation of the glorification of the Nazi. Instead, Linter says, there is condemnation of Russia over Crimea and there is a policy of a NATO follower.

However, Linter is not absolutely right, as the coalition members have promised to allow some preparatory-schools in Tallinn and in the northeast of the country to resume education in Russian on condition that their students pass the graduation exam on the Estonian language for the highest C1 category.

He is leaving to be back again…

The scenario being discussed behind the scenes now appears to be a real nightmare for the Centrists. They say Savisaar may remove his supporters from the party and form his own list by the next elections. Such scenario is quite possible considering the Savisaar’s approval rating. Recently he commented the result of the U.S. election. Savisaar wrote on social media that Trump had won despite the fact that his own party had been against him. “Even President Bush announced that he didn’t vote for Trump. At times, it seemed everyone was against him. Just like he was some kind of pariah. But the people were with him, and the people voted and made him the winner. Again, we see the fact confirmed that you don’t need anything more than the love of the people, and everything can be done and anything is possible,” Savisaar wrote. “And just think how much money and resources were on Clinton’s side! Billionaires George Soros and Michael Bloomberg were behind her. Conclusion: A lot of money isn’t always enough. You can’t buy elections, you can’t win elections if the people aren’t on your side,” Savisaar concluded.

If what is said is true, the Centrists tried their best to keep Savisaar in the party. Political expert Peeter Taim recalls that after his election as party chairman Jüri Ratas said in an interview that he sees Edgar Savisaar as honorable chairman of the Centrist Party. The political expert is sure that Ratas pined hopes with the votes of Savisaar’s supporters. “Recently mass media have reported that the party spends 20,000 euro on Savisaar. I think they are ready to spend even 40,000 euro just to keep him in the party, as they are afraid of ‘Savisaar’s list’ to emerge,” Peeter Taim says.

Later, it turned out that the Centrists are not ready to spend so much for their leader. In an interview on television, Jüri Ratas said the party’s budget is not big enough to continue paying the rent of the car for Savisaar, the salary of his driver and to buy fuel. He said all the deals of the Party, including of Savisaar, with lawyers were suspended too. In October, Secretary General of the Centrist Party Jaak Aab confirmed the information that the party spent 170,000 euro on lawyers in the current year, with nearly half of that amount being spent on the defense of Savisaar, who has to disclaim corruption accusations now. Ratas called it senseless now to offer Savisaar the post of the honorable chairman of the party, as it is impossible to either contact the former prime minister by phone or meet with him.

Many already former supporters of the Centrist Party were indignant at how some functionaries that vowed allegiance to Savisaar have betrayed him and joined Ratas. These accusations were addressed among others to Chief Editor of Tallinn-based Stolitsa news portal Alexander Chaplygin, who was Savisaar’s devotee yet not so long ago. They say Chaplygin even said that “Russia occupied Crimea” though the editor denies these reports.

Activist Vladislav Pyalling says the Centrist Party has regularly ignored the interests of Russian voters and now it has betrayed its leader for short-term success. “The Party of Centrists is doomed to lose Tallinn, the trust of its voters, and to answer for all the mistakes of Rõivas’ government,” Pyalling says.

A well-known lawyer Andrey Vesterinen is sure that the Centrists try to use the “Russian card” within the interests, pretending that they are protecting the rights of the Russian speaking population in Estonia. “Many naively think the Centrists are a life-line for the Russians of Estonia. It is simply silly. People think so for lack of alternative (a party that would really protect the interests of Russians) to the Centrist Party that is, in fact, not interested in doing that,” the lawyer says.

One can draw a conclusion from all this that Savisaar is a very influential political figure and even leaving political field he triggered a chain of events that have fully changed the political map of Estonia. Knowing Savisaar, one can foresee that he is not leaving the political field forever.

Vyacheslav Samoylov

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