mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
the tyranny of the plurality
An Electoral Close Shave for Estonia

NATO can breath a sigh of relief. In the recent Estonian elections, the ruling Reform Party led by 35-year-old, pro-Western Taavi Rõivas kept control, upsetting the expectations of pollsters, who predicted a win for the Kremlin-allied Centre Party. In large part due to Estonia’s large ethnic Russian population, the latter took very nearly a full quarter of the votes, trailing the eventual winner by less than three percent. The FT reports on just how close this NATO member nation was to electing a government that doesn’t seem to disapprove of Putin’s actions in Ukraine:

The Reform party, which has provided Estonia’s prime minister for the past decade, topped the polls with 27.7 per cent, slightly down from 2011. Centre received 24.8 per cent, up from 2011, while the Social Democrats, Reform’s partner in the current coalition, took 15.2 per cent.

Mr Rõivas has ruled out working with the Centre party because of its links with the Kremlin and the seeming failure of Edgar Savisaar, its leader to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea and creeping invasion of eastern Ukraine.

“Silver medal shouldn’t be a disappointment for anyone,” said Mr Savisaar, according to a report by Baltic News Service. “A party that represents so many in Estonia can’t be shunned or forced to be silent.”

Mr Savisaar, who is also mayor of Tallinn, the capital, received more votes than any other candidate.

The current coalition of Reform and the Social Democrats will need the support of at least one more party if it is to continue in government, pointing to complicated negotiations ahead.

A little less than 25 percent of the vote may not seem that threatening a number, but the Centre Party is by some measure the most cohesive and organized political body in Estonia, and its near-miss in this election shows that it is well within striking distance of forming a pro-Russia government within NATO’s boundaries next time an election rolls around. With Putin greedily eyeing former Soviet territory, that could spell trouble.

While on the one hand this election is a reminder that Estonia has a substantial Russian minority that commands a large if not definitive share of the popular vote, on the other it is also a reminder that Estonia is a legitimate democracy. And, had the Centre Party won, it may not have meant an open (or secret) invitation for Putin. There is at least anecdotal evidence that there may be little appetite among the Russian minority for actually rejoining Russia.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Brett Champion

    There already are pro-Russia governments within NATO’s boundaries. Perhaps not as pro-Russia as the Center Party is, but I would hardly count on either Syriza in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary if it came to a confrontation with Russia.

    • gabrielsyme

      Jobbik is, thankfully, not in government. Hungary’s government is sympathetic to Russia, though.

      • Brett Champion

        Of course, I meant Fidesz. 😉

  • Andrew Allison

    It appears to me that the important take-away is, “A party that represents so many in Estonia can’t be shunned or forced to be silent.” Much as the West may deplore the fact, thanks to history, there are large pro-Russian constituencies in the Baltic countries and elsewhere. The, sometimes slender majority, democratic governments are, like it or not, faced with the problem of representing all their people, i.e., navigating a path between representation and preventing subversion.

    • Jane Rand

      That’s very true in general terms and I think represents believes of majority of the Estonians and their current government. Opposing Russian aggression in Ukraine, on the other hand, is something that in their view can not be compromised upon. I must add that Putin’s policies, being pro russian minorities on the face of it, have a huge negative impact by both alienating ethnic Russians against other nations and by making other nations suspicious and distrustful towards Russian minority.

  • Felix Keverich

    The problem with ‘mainstream’ parties in the Baltic states is that pretty much all of them are right wing and virulently anti-Russian! The result is Russian voters herded into ghetto. Estonia could use a genuine left-wing party, which both ethnic Estonians and Russians could support.

    • Tom

      I can’t imagine why the Baltic states would be anti-Russian–it must be neofascism! It surely has nothing to do with being invaded in 1940 by the Soviet Union, or having their people deported, or the Russians treating the Baltic peoples like dirt.
      Go soak your head.

      • Kevin

        The Russian minority in Estonia may be getting a raw deal, but their cozying up to the Kremlin will lead to them getting all the sympathy the Sudeten Germans got and for the same reason. I would contrast their approach with that of the Nisei Japanese Americans whose loyalty and service to their adopted homeland in very trying circumstances helped lead to huge changes in the way they were treated in subsequent years.

        • Tom


          • Felix Keverich

            There is no comparison. ‘Nisei’ made a choice immigrate and become Americans, but Narva is an ancient Russian town, which due to a fluke of history became part of a sovereign Estonia. You can’t expect that people of Narva will become Estonian patriots right away.

            The same dinamics apply to Latvia, East Ukraine, Nothern Kazakhstan etc.

          • Tom

            Narva is an ancient Russian town founded by Danes, developed by the Livionian Order, briefly held by Russia, further developed by the Swedes, and finally taken by Russia in 1704.
            Furthermore, after World War II, the original Estonian inhabitants were forbidden to return, and were replaced by the current Russian population, in order to provide a reliable industrial workforce for the Soviet Union.
            Fluke of history my foot.

          • Felix Keverich

            “Narva is an ancient Russian town founded by Danes, developed by the Livionian Order, briefly held by Russia, further developed by the Swedes, and finally taken by Russia in 1704.”

            Take note: not a single mention of Estonians in this sentence. )))

          • Tom

            Snark, lucky man. Snark.

          • Jane Rand

            No wonder. Estonia has not had much of a statehood in its history. Even its capital was founded by Danes. It doesn’t make it Russian either.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service