Estonia

Background

Estonian history at a glance

Estonia has historically been under heavy influence of its closest nabours among them Sweden, Denmark, Germany and in particular Russia. Notwithstanding the different formal dominations, the legal system, church, local government and educational system remained heavily influenced by the German language. In the mid-19th century, Estonia was swept by the wave of national awakening that hit Europe, the end of the century was however marked by the initial stages of heavy Russification.

With the collapse of the Russian Empire in World War I, Russia's provisional government granted national autonomy to Estonia. Shortly afterwards German troops invaded the territory and established a Baltic state comprising Estonia and Latvia. As the Germans withdrew, Soviet military troops again invaded the Estonian lands. The Estonian War of Independence (1918-1920) was finalized with the Treaty of Tartu in which Soviet Russia renounced in perpetuity all rights to the territory of Estonia. Significant social, cultural and economic advances were made in the 1920s, including radical land reform. Between 1919 and 1933 Estonia also held five free elections. However, the decline in trade with Russia and the economic depression of the 1930s, combined with the political problems of a divided parliament, caused public dissatisfaction. In March 1934 Prime Minister Päts seized power in a bloodless coup and introduced a period of authoritarian rule. The national assembly (Riigikogu ) and political parties were disbanded, but in 1938 a new constitution was adopted, which provided for a presidential system of government, with a bicameral legislature. In April 1938 Päts was elected President.

Estonia came under Soviet sphere of influence with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, and the following year the country was occupied by Soviet troops that installed a pro-Soviet puppet government. In the period 1941-1944, the country was occupied by the Germans, but Soviet control was restored in 1944 when Estonia became a part of the USSR. Deportations and the flight of Estonians, coupled with an influx of Russians reduced Estonians from 95 percent to 62 percent of the population.

The late 1980s was marked by the creation of new political movements (in particular the Popular Front), and by the Estonian Supreme Soviet's transformation into an authentic regional lawmaking body. In late February and early March 1990 some 580,000 people (excluding those who had migrated to Estonia after the Soviet occupation of 1940 and their descendants) took part in elections to the rival parliament to the Supreme Soviet, the Eesti Kongress. The Congress declared itself the constitutional representative of the Estonian people. The participants adopted resolutions demanding the restoration of Estonian independence and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Estonia. In April 1990 the Supreme Soviet elected Edgar Savisaar, a leader of the Estonian Popular Front (EPF), as prime minister and on 8 May it voted to restore the first five articles of the 1938 Constitution, which described Estonia’s independent status. In mid-May President Gorbachev annulled the republic’s declaration of independence, declaring that it violated the USSR Constitution. In August 1991, in the midst of the anti-Gorbachev coup in the USSR, Estonia declared full independence, and the next month it was recognized by the Soviet government and Western nations. The last Russian troops pulled out of Estonia in August 1994.

Politics in the new era

Estonia is a parliamentary republic where the 101-member parliament is elected for a four-year period. The parliament chooses a president to serve a period of four years, maximum two periods.

The 1992 general election which followed independence produced the five-party "Fatherland Coalition" of conservatives and christian democrats led by Prime Minister Mart Laar. Parliament elected Lennart Meri president. While rapid and consistent reforms placed Estonia among the front runners for EU-membership, its political life after independence was not commensurately stable. Political parties had started to form already in the late 1980s, and in 1992 no less than nine parties won seats in the Estonian National Assembly, the Riigikogu . Party politics were, as in most Central and Eastern European Europe at the time, plagued by low voter confidence, voter volatility and abstentions at elections, coupled with too many parties competing for the support of the electorate. This problem has since been remedied by clever electoral engineering and the introduction of electoral thresholds. After independence the Estonian government was thus characterized by switches between centre-right and centre-left coalitions, which themselves tended to be rather unstable. Scandals having to do with economic affairs paved the way for the retirement of three post-communist governments in the course of just five years (1992-97).

In the fall of 2001 Arnold Rüütel, former Communist Party official, became President of the Republic of Estonia. In January 2002 Prime Minister Laar of the Pro Patria Party stepped down and President Rüütel appointed Siim Kallas, chairman of the Reform Party, the new prime minister. In January 2002 the new government was thus formed from a coalition of the Reform Party and the Centre Party. In 2004 Estonia joined both EU and NATO. In April 2005, President Rüütel nominated Reform Party leader Andrus Ansip as prime minister and asked him to form a new government, the 8th in 12 years. The coalition government thus comprised the Reform Party, the People’s Union and the Centre Party. Estonia still has a considerable share of Russian-speaking population and as of 2001 non-ethnic Estonians constituted about a fifth of the electorate.

The parliamentary election held in March 2007 was the world's first nationwide vote where part of the vote casting was allowed in the form of remote electronic voting via the internet. A total of 30,243 citizens voted via the internet. The Estonian Reform Party of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip emerged as the election's big winner, increasing its parliamentary representation from 19 to 31 and displacing the Centre Party as the country's largest political force. The Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica suffered a major setback, losing sixteen seats with respect to the overall total won by its component parties in 2003.

Sources

Berglund, S., F.H. Aarebrot, H. Vogt and G. Karasimeonov (2001). Challenges to Democracy: Eastern Europe Ten Years after the Collapse of Communism. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Jeffries, Ian (2004). The Countries of the Former Soviet Union at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century: The Baltic and European states in transition. London: Routledge.

Rose, R. and N. Munro (2003). Elections and Parties in New European Democracies. Washington: CQ Press.