Setback for the “Healthy Forces”

Last week, Jamestown’s Vladimir Socor published a thorough analysis of the Estonian election result in which he pointed out that “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.”

From later in the article:

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).

(hat tip: MAK)

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