Sudden collapse of Estonian coalition opens door to ethnic Russian party

Sudden collapse of Estonian coalition opens door to ethnic Russian party
Roivas appears to have little chance of saving his fractious coalition
By bne IntelliNews November 8, 2016

Estonia's three-party rainbow coalition found itself on the verge of collapse late on November 7. The sudden breakdown, sparked by the junior partners in the fractious administration, appears to have been triggered by a change of leadership in the opposition Centre Party, offering a route for the ethnic Russian party to head a new government.

The apparent collapse of the coalition - which took some weeks to assemble in April last year - came as the Social Democratic Party (SDE) and liberal-conservative Pro Patria and Res Public Union (IRL) questioned the leadership of Prime Minister Taavi Roivas, leader of the centrist Reform Party. The surprise development is also likely to test President Kersti Kaljulaid, a political novice voted into the position a month ago following a long standoff amongst parliamentary parties.

Both junior parties demanded Roivas - who has led the country since early 2014 with an enthusiastically pro-Western outlook, especially concerning Nato - resign. Officials from the centre-right Reform Party, which has been in government in some capacity since 1999, said they will meet early on November 8 to discuss the issue.

Meanwhile, the opposition has called for a vote of confidence, likely to take place on November 9 if Roivas does not depart. Reform holds 30 of the 101 seats in parliament, and cannot win without support.

However, it seems unlikely developments will get that far. For their part, the junior partners blasted Roivas for a lack of fresh ideas to stem emigration and develop the economy. IRL said there is no longer trust between coalition partners, while SDE pointed to Roivas’ unwillingness to take on issues including health care, education, and the reduction of tax burden. 

“The Reform Party, after more than a decade in power, had run out of ideas, and was holding on to ideas that had expired,” SDE chairman Jewgeni Ossinovski said in a statement.

In from the cold

Centre Party, long the country's second largest but blocked from power by others in a reflection of the tense relations with Russia, claims it has been approached by both IRL and SDE to discuss a possible coalition. The government collapse comes just a couple of days after Juri Ratas was elected leader of Centre. The party enjoys the support of Estonia’s Russian minority, which makes up around 25% of the 1.3mn population.

The young new chairman replaces Edgar Savisaar, a controversial institution in Estonian politics since the fall of the Soviet Union. Savisaar's image as close to Moscow has seen Centre Party - which controls 27 seats in parliament - kept at arm's length, but the other parties now appear ready to work with Ratas after over 15 years of domination by Reform.

Center Party has been in vague talks with all parties - including Reform - for months, Ratas claimed to ETV on the evening of November 7. He also sought to distance his party from Moscow, and especially its cooperation agreement with United Russia, President Vladimir Putin's ruling party.

Relations have cooled off over a number of years, Ratas said, according to ERR. “What’s clear is that as long as bilateral relations are as bad as they are today, there will be no contacts and no cooperation of any kind,” the Centre Party leader insisted.

The rise of geopolitical tension in the region over recent years only makes the likely accession of the ethnic Russian party more sensitive. However, there appears little risk that any new government would signficantly change Estonia’s pro-Western and pro-Nato course. A coalition featuring SDE and IRL with Centre would control 56 seats in parliament.

The potential formation of a new government is also an early test for Kaljulaid, an EU auditor until last month, when she replaced the feisty Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The US-born Ilves worked tirelessly and effectively in recent years to warn of the dangers posed by Moscow's revived imperial ambitions. Nevertheless, the inexperienced new head of state now looks likely to be responsible for nominating Centre Party to lead the next government.