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The rise, death and rebirth of Eesti 200

The remarkable story of Estonia 200 gives hope to similar political initiatives in the region. Reaching out to the country’s increasingly alienated Russophone community, the party showed maturity and pragmatism.

March 13, 2020 - Samuel Kramer - Articles and Commentary

Old town Tallinn. Photo: Loris Silvio Zecchinato (cc) flickr.com

Four years is a political eternity. Anything can happen while a government is in office. The upstart party Eesti 200 recently discovered this. Polling shows that the party has rebounded from its underwhelming debut in the 2019 Estonian parliamentary elections. Best known for its unique cross-communal education proposal, Eesti 200 has found surer footing by expanding its core base from disillusioned Reform Party supporters to a broader range of frustrated Russian speakers.

Origins: dissension

Eesti 200 began as a political movement bringing together Estonian and Russian-speakers that were frustrated by divisive language politics. Since Estonia’s independence in 1991, Estonian serves as the sole language of the state administration. This has led to the Russian-speaking minority’s complaints of alienation, especially in the educational sphere. The country has ostensibly parallel systems of Russian and Estonian-language education, though the educational attainment gap between the school systems remains considerable, shutting Russophones out of the wider Estonian-language labor market. Per the Estonian language inspectorate, in 2018 “600, or 19 per cent, of a total of 3,200 teachers at Russian general education schools were found to have insufficient Estonian skills,” a gap which harms Russophones’ social integration.

To combat this social divide, Kristina Kallas, the former director of the Russophone-oriented Narva College, co-founded Eesti 200. She aimed to promote a unified school system for Estonophone and Russophone students that would end the current linguistic separation. Referring to the system as “segregation,” Kallas observed that 69 per cent of Estonians work in an ethnically homogenous environment – hardly the incubator for intercommunal harmony. Consequently, the party emphasised radical changes to society. Its manifesto, titled “Winds of Change,” proposed reform of social services and called for more attention to the environment. The party tapped into cross-communal dissatisfaction with politics: Kallas highlighted people’s frustrations, after being elected party chair in November 2018;“the existing parties — which, by the way, have become increasingly more similar to each other — have not inspired me… They have not instilled in me belief in progressive powers, teams or movements that want to lead a 21st century country with new ideas.” Kaljulaid’s criticism suggested that her variant of anti-establishment politics, unlike in other democracies, focused on structural improvements to the system rather than its wholesale replacement.

Eesti 200 reached some voters – namely those dissatisfied with the two main parties in Estonian politics. The party began polling at a respectable 6 per cent and climbed to 7 per cent by December 13, 2018. Importantly, as Eesti 200 gained in the polls, the largest liberal force, the Reform Party, slipped in the polls from 27 to 26 per cent in the same period, below its rival the Centre Party.

The new party arrived to a changed political landscape. From 2002 to 2016, the liberal Reform Party was the indispensable coalition partner, often leading the government. In 2016, Reform lost power after its coalition partners joined with the opposition Centre Party, long seen as a pro-Russian force, to form the government. The new government, however, upheld its predecessor’s market-oriented pro-European agenda. Political scientist Aro Velmet has contended that, “For a short period, many observers thought the Centre Party had turned a corner after an internal purge, which replaced its long-time head Edgar Savisaar with the new, youthful and popular Jüri Ratas, who became the PM.” This optimism cut into the Reform Party’s previous domination of Estonian politics. Like the 2016 election in the United States, the 2019 Estonian elections became a period of political realignment with smaller forces like Eesti 200 reaping the benefits.

The poster affair” and aftermath

Eesti 200’s steady rise was abruptly stopped in early 2019 when it put up an ambitious campaign poster project outside Hobujaama tram station in the capital Tallinn. The posters, roughly translated as “Estonians/Russians only,” attempted to separate Russian-speakers and Estonian-speakers by directing them to their “own” seating. While party officials claimed the purpose was to bring attention to the communities’ separation, the controversy created by the posters backfired: the first poll published after the incident showed Eesti 200 at 2 per cent, well below the electoral threshold. Its initial demographic of Russian-speakers,who were frustrated by the Reform-Centre duopoly and stagnation, were scared off. Stefano Braghiroli, political scientist and director of the European Union – Russia Studies Master’s Program at the University of Tartu explained that the poster campaign “was used against Eesti 200 by Russian media which presented it as if there is/will be a kind of apartheid in Estonia.” The stream of negativity took its toll, and in the March 2019 elections, Eesti 200 earned only 4.4 per cent of the vote. Later in the European elections that June, it won only 3.2 per cent of the vote. The party’s meteoric rise appeared short-lived.

However, Ratas’ new Centre Party-led populist coalition and Reform’s move to the opposition changed the political calculus for Eesti 200 and provided it with an opportunity for reformation as a dissenting voice for Centrists. After Reform won the most seats in March, it needed to form a coalition to govern. Despite the Reform Party leader’s appeal for a unity government, Jüri Ratas refused to consider the offer. Instead, his Centre Party formed a coalition with the far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) and the centre-right Fatherland party. EKRE has a history of anti-Russian sentiment that includes opposing native Russophones and Russian-speaking migrant workers from Ukraine. The fact that the traditionally Russophile Centre Party would ally with a party whose leader called for mass deportations of Russian-speaking Estonians soured the base.

Restoration: Russophone-interest party

Eesti 200 capitalised on the turmoil by reinventing itself as a liberal alternative to an increasingly populist Centre Party. Following the coalition agreement, the Centre Party suffered splits in its parliamentary grouping and voter base as Russophones left for opposition parties. Most notably among those was Raimond Kaljulaid, who quit the party in April 2019 after the coalition was announced and joined the Social Democratic Party in October. Presumably, voters were considering similar shifts in allegiance.

Eesti 200 thus focused on potential Centre Party voters by emphasising not only linguistic issues but also other local concerns. Eesti 200 began campaigning for the end of oil shale use (an event nicknamed Põxit) in heavily Russophone Ida-Viru County, a Centre Party stronghold. Kristina Kallas’s approach to this issue balanced preserving local jobs with excoriating the government for avoiding a solution to the environmentally harmful status quo: “It is clear that it will happen, but considering Ida-Viru County, we cannot rush with this… we cannot focus only on Põxit. We have to focus on the fact that by the time Põxit takes place, we already have something else in its place,” she warned. Kallas also condemned the government’s inaction, noting: “We (Estonia) don’t actually have any plans, steps, visions or even proper discussions in the Riigikogu (Estonian parliament).” In contrast to the poster incident before the 2019 elections, this statement demonstrated concern for ordinary people while staking Eesti 200’s claim as an environmentally progressive party and an opponent of Ratas.

The party’s reorientation on local daily issues along with general dissatisfaction with the Centre-EKRE-Fatherland coalition has paid dividends for Eesti 200. The latest poll from February 20th 2020, shows the party at 14 per cent, above that of the Social Democrats and the Fatherland Party. It is a seismic shift from an anemic 2 per cent of the vote months earlier. Interestingly, Postimees columnist Vyachelsav Ivanov claimed that Eesti 200 took votes from both Centre and Reform. Its novelty allows Eesti 200 to play the role of outsider, critiquing the Ratas government’s approach to Russian-speaking matters while providing a centre-left alternative to Reform.

Eesti 200 entered the political arena hoping to draw Russian-speakers that were tired of a locked-in political system. The year 2019 saw a serious gaffe and electoral defeats. The new decade, however, shows a maturing party modulating its appeal towards regional concerns beyond language politics. As deadlock continues in the Riigikogu, such sensitive pragmatism could be generously rewarded.

Samuel Kramer is a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews. He has a Bachelor’s degree from George Washington University and a Master of Arts from Georgetown University’s Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies. He has experience in the public sector, nonprofit research, and due diligence. Mr. Kramer specialises in minority rights in the post-Soviet space and their intersection with the democratisation process.

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