If the recent governmental crisis has revealed anything, it is this: The government is not in crisis at all, but rather actually somewhat in control of the situation. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) emerged no worse for the episode, maintaining a detachment that wrong-footed more than a few people who interpreted it as indecisiveness or even the dreaded “weakness,” whatever that means.
The jostling for position was more about the minor coalition parties, who seemed to have initiated the controversy and, just a week ago — which, despite what they say, is not a long time in politics — seemed implacably opposed. However, it just as much revolved around the two biggest opposition parties, Reform and the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE). In fact, of the two main instigators of the impasse, one (Pro Patria) is in office, and the other (Reform) is not.
None of these three — Pro Patria, Reform or EKRE — seem to have won anything concrete. EKRE has stuck to its consistent line on “globalisation,” “islamification,” etc., and was able to muster a few hundred supporters on Toompea Hill for a demonstration, a bait to which Social Democratic Party (SDE) members rose — of which more later.
At least in this, EKRE has been clearer than Reform, who tried to take a middle stance by motioning appending clarification to the Estonian version of the UN Global Compact for Migration concerning its implementation and reach. However, either you accede to the compact (SDE, Centre), or you reject it (EKRE, Pro Patria). Tinkering with its wording really means you are in the second of those camps but either don’t want to appear thus or are playing for time to bed down a divided party.
Reform not keen on UN compact
Similarly, Reform blows hot and cold on the issue depending on who you speak to. Reform MP Marko Mihkelson, who has skin in the game as chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu, effectively signalled the start of the would-be crisis by asking why the Riigikogu had been kept in the dark about progress on the UN compact. This was back in mid-November, when Kersti Kaljulaid was still going to Marrakesh and the agreement’s text had not quite been translated into Estonian (the translation was published on 16 November). Then MEP Urmas Paet (Reform/ALDE) questioned the fitness of Sven Mikser (SDE) in his — Paet’s — former role as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu (Pro Patria), himself one of the architects of the challenge to the government of which he is a part, had barely started speaking at Monday’s debate on the issue in the Riigikogu before master contrarian Jürgen Ligi (Reform) started hounding him with questions or statements.
Those from Reform enthusiastic about adopting the compact seem a bit thinner on the ground. In fact, none of the parties have been keen on it. Hitherto it had been in the presidential domain, with Kersti Kaljulaid busy in promoting Estonia worldwide and at the UN, work which has partly unravelled.
Even key UN compact supporter SDE, whose ranks include Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser, has followed a very standoffish, mostly legalistic approach to a question which would often engender much more emotion-laden rhetoric elsewhere.
Other than that, it seems a lack of opposition to the compact equates to tacit approval. The fact remains that Reform is a party with enough internal politics, driven by some pretty forceful characters (Ligi, [MP Kristen] Michal, Paet, etc.) to put an exclusive, members-only golf club to shame.
I wouldn’t want the job of party leader. In that light, current Reform chair Kaja Kallas has done just about all she can to maintain equilibrium, but her words on the UN Compact issue are telling; very early on it was a conciliatory position between the Mihkelson line and the Mikser line (the latter stressing that the compact was non-binding). More recently, however, the party voiced its opposition to the Riigikogu vote on the compact. Whilst it may have been right to do so, a lot of the calls came not from Ms Kallas, but from people like Mr Ligi. In the meantime, Ms Kallas said her party would be happy to take over the government, and she was almost kept on standby, with a face-to-face meeting with Kersti Kaljulaid at Kadriorg Palace.
Confusion needed clarity
There has been a huge amount of confusion regarding the roles of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary domestically, together with the role of international law as well as that of the UN, with the president getting involved more directly (she favoured a Riigikogu vote, the very thing Reform opposed).
Various legal experts were wheeled out to support the differing viewpoints. If the benchmark is how well a party navigated its way through the rocks without getting grounded, I would have to say Centre did a better job than Reform, particularly as the latter are in opposition. One co-founder of the Constitution pointed out that the government was not a sacred cow, and was disposable in the interests of the country. Being in opposition should give Reform more leeway to seize advantage in being a clear voice in the disarray. But it did not do so.
Nevertheless, what this sidestepping of the issue has done to Reform’s electoral chances is not clear. It won’t lose that many votes on the UN compact case, not a live issue for most of those who would potentially vote for the yellow party given the ambivalence of anyone who is not outright opposed to the compact as noted — but it doesn’t help it pick up any either.
However, Estonia 200’s platform and its many goodies will attract many in the buffet line of political parties pre-election, causing them to abandon Reform for the as yet untested party, which is likewise led by a woman named Kallas. The Free Party is also circling overhead, with promises of cutting the income tax rate to however low a figure it could come up with.
Kaja Kallas, whilst hugely competent, has some work to do between now and March, in other words.
Despite Toompea showdown, SDE still in the game
Of the governmental parties, the two smaller coalition actors are a little bit easier to read, which doesn’t necessarily make their actions the more edifying for that.
SDE, together with arch-nemesis EKRE with whom it is in competition for a sort of kingmaker role, tends to follow a fairly consistent line within its own domain, and is not easily cowed. However, Monday’s Marvel Comics-esque showdown on Toompea Hill, where the SDE leadership (party chairman Jevgeni Ossinovski, Mikser) milled around with their EKRE counterparts and the latter’s disgruntled core supporters, culminating in an unseemly scuffle, with SDE parliamentary candidate (but not party member) MEP Indrek Tarand being dragged away after hijacking EKRE’s microphone. The whole incident was unnecessary. The eventual outcome, Mr Tarand’s undignified exit, was not planned by the party, and was precipitated by Mr Tarand for reasons best known to him, but the leadership did nothing to restrain him.
Nonetheless, the UN compact episode affirms SDE’s partnership with Centre, rather than weakening it. Compare that with Isamaa/Pro Patria, which staked the most, since it was the instigator, in vehemently opposing the deal and splitting the government. Mr Reinsalu coolly swatted back calls to resign, but again the party’s actions haven’t really given it any real leg up, though the momentum will carry it comfortably above the 5% threshold of votes needed for seats, something it has been hovering around for months.
I believe that Pro Patria’s leadership genuinely opposes the compact, as it has every right to, and is not simply playing devil’s advocate. However, the timing of its opposition suddenly springing up suggests it doesn’t have the initiative; even without the Estonian translation, Pro Patria could have looked into the implications of the deal earlier rather than playing follow-my-leader.
The UN compact debacle is really the formal cause of a pre-Christmas ruck that would have happened anyway; if not this, then it would have been something else. The near-obsession with the government collapsing, which has not happened, Estonia forfeiting its temporary seat on the UN Security Council (which has probably happened), and the president unequivocally pulling out of the Marrakesh meeting all serve to cast the political elite here in a poor light. Estonia’s size means they aren’t too divorced from the people to know that the electorate is starting to get bored of their games; another episode like this too soon could backfire on someone to the benefit of another. Hence why it won’t happen again in 2018.
This week started with the conclusion of the crisis coinciding with the unifying effect of the Kerch Strait incident and a more concrete threat than a muslim takeover. We can thus be certain that it will be quiet between now and the end of the year. We can be equally sure that Estonia, since it was never a part of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, will not face pressures, both real and perceived, affecting successor states in Central-Southeast Europe, regardless of how reluctantly Estonia drags its heels to the table on the UN Compact.
Mr Ratas was able to announce on Wednesday that the compact would not be on the table for a government vote. By passing it on to the Riigikogu, he has been able to preside over a government which remains intact without having to say very much about the compact himself, and let everyone else flap about it.
Where the next discord will originate is harder to tell, but since Russia is in the picture again, it is certainly possible that unresolved issues with the Russian wing of the Centre Party might be the next big test of Mr Ratas’ premiership.
We can also be confident Jüri Ratas will still be Prime Minister after 3 March, though in what sort of a coalition it’s still early to tell. The coalition isn’t big enough for both Reform and Centre as they stand right now, but if the two parties contract quite a bit between now and then, there may still be room for both of them and EKRE’s middle-man role will be moribund, something SDE is looking like filling. The problem is, one of Reform or Centre will have to join SDE as the more junior partner. That would be a hard pill for Reform to swallow; Centre may not have to.