Government and Politics
Estonia's new era of democratic politics began slowly in the 1990s with the adoption of a new constitution and the formation of stable political groupings. Several mechanisms in the constitution were beginning to function to ensure a balance of power and steady government. Citizenship issues, however, caused tensions among the country's 500,000-strong Russophone population, most of whom had been denied automatic citizenship rights in 1991. Their naturalization and integration into Estonian society remained a significant challenge.
The election in September 1992 of a new parliament, the Riigikogu, and the formal restoration of the Republic of Estonia marked the opening of a new political era. Not only was a new set of deputies elected, but Estonia took a further step in defining its political forces and developing a new political culture. As expected, right-wing parties did best in the electoral poll, promising "to clean house" and offer a fresh beginning after the Soviet era. The contest for the 101-seat Riigikogu yielded a three-party center-right coalition government holding fifty-two seats. The Fatherland Party (Isamaa) led the coalition with thirty seats, the Estonian National Independence Party (Eesti Rahvusliku Sõltumatuse Partei) had ten seats, and the Moderates (Mõõdukad--made up of the Social Democratic Party and the Rural Center Party) had twelve seats. In opposition were the Coalition Party (Koonderakond), the Rural Union (Maaliit), the Estonian Center Party (Eesti Keskerakond), the Royalist Party (Rojalistlik Partei), and the Estonian Citizens Union (Eesti Kodanike Liit). Because noncitizens were not allowed to vote in the election, most of Estonia's Russian population was excluded from the poll. Consequently, the new Riigikogu was 100 percent ethnic Estonian.
The 1992 elections also saw a special contest for the largely ceremonial post of president. Although the new constitution stipulates that the president shall be elected by the parliament, the Constitutional Assembly in early 1992 succumbed to popular pressure and agreed to have the country's first president elected by the people. In the resulting poll, the incumbent chairman of the parliament, Arnold Rüütel, topped the list. But with only 41.8 percent of the vote, he did not muster the majority needed for direct election under the special rules. Although a former communist, Rüütel had been widely admired for his steady, balanced leadership during the independence struggle. Yet, his electoral shortfall was enough to throw the final decision into the Riigikogu, where the runner-up, with 29.5 percent, Isamaa candidate and former foreign minister Lennart Meri, had the advantage. At the parliament's opening session on October 5, Meri defeated Rüütel by a vote of fifty-nine to thirty-one.
In mid-October Mart Laar, the thirty-two-year-old chairman of Isamaa, was appointed prime minister by President Meri. The youngest person ever to hold that post, Laar promised immediately to expand Estonia's free-market reforms and defend Estonian national interests. During his first fourteen months in office, Laar cut tax rates and maintained control over expenditures (see Economy, this ch.). He also posted some foreign policy successes, such as Estonia's admission to the Council of Europe (see Glossary) in May 1993. His cabinet, however, was plagued by inexperience. Four months into office, Laar's choice for economy minister resigned after accusations that he was not up to the job. In January 1993, the defense minister, an émigré Estonian, Hain Rebas, caused a scandal when he allowed some 250 Russian soldiers to enter Estonia just as the country was negotiating their withdrawal with President Yeltsin. In August a mutiny by a handful of Estonian soldiers in western Estonia prompted Rebas to resign altogether. In December 1993, President Meri was obliged to dismiss Minister of Interior Lagle Parek, a longtime dissident during Soviet rule, for several scandals involving her management of ministerial affairs (see National Security, this ch.).
In June 1993, Laar's government suffered its greatest turmoil when a major political crisis erupted over passage of a law meant to regulate the status of noncitizens (mostly Russians) in the country. Russian groups criticized the 1993 Law on Aliens as discriminatory, and for the first time some of Estonia's key Western allies, including the United States, the Scandinavian states, and the European Union, raised objections. The Law on Aliens as originally adopted would have required all noncitizens to reapply for residency permits within two years without any guarantee of acceptance. In July, after President Meri vetoed the law and requested a review of it from the Council of Europe and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE--see Glossary), the Riigikogu agreed to amend the measure and guarantee most noncitizens new permits. The domestic crisis prompted President Meri to establish the Nationalities Roundtable for future discussion of minority affairs. The United States and Sweden immediately supported the roundtable with financial contributions to cover its operating costs. In the ensuing months, the roundtable met several times, but no major decisions were reached.
The results of Estonia's first post-Soviet local elections, held in October 1993, reflected public reaction to the government's series of setbacks and the continuing hardships caused by economic reform. In all the major cities, Isamaa did poorly. Former prime minister Tiit Vähi's Coalition Party was the big winner, especially in Tallinn, where it won eighteen of sixty-four seats. Russian parties also reemerged on the political scene, supported mostly by noncitizen voters, who, under a special constitutional provision, were allowed to vote. In Tallinn the moderate Russian Democratic Movement won eighteen seats. Despite this midterm upset and a continuing decline in public opinion polls, the Laar government later easily survived a vote of no confidence in parliament. In December it succeeded in passing a tax cut as well as a budget for 1994. To shore up the Isamaa-led coalition, in January 1994 four key portfolios in the Council of Ministers (defense, economy, finance, and foreign affairs) were reshuffled. However, the coalition disintegrated in June 1994 after a series of embarrassments, most notably the allegation that the prime minister had been involved in the secret transfer of a large sum of Russian rubles to the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya in 1992. In September 1994, Laar lost a vote of no confidence in the Riigikogu. After President Meri's nomination of Bank of Estonia president Siim Kallas to succeed Laar was rejected, the Riigikogu confirmed Andres Tarand, the outgoing minister of environment, as prime minister in October. Tarand was to serve as a caretaker until the general elections in March 1995.
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