Estonia: Seven Down, One to Go

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Surprise drop in Russian minority’s support for EU entry puts a blot on resounding victory for the ‘Yes’ camp.

Estonia became the seventh candidate country to
hold and pass a referendum to join the European Union. Latvians go
to the polls on 20 September.

The vote, held on 14 September, promised few
surprises, as–in contrast to referendums in other accession
countries–a simple majority was enough to produce success for the
‘Yes’ camp. Ultimately, the result was resounding, with
two-thirds of voters (66.9 percent) voting to join the European
Union in May 2004.

The result would have been safe even if a
minimum turnout had been required. Well over half the electorate
(63.4 percent) went to the polling stations. Some said the figure
was low, as opinion polls suggested nearly 70 percent would turn
out and 20 percent of the electorate had already posted by proxy by
polling day. Sociologist Tonis Saarts told the daily Eesti
Paevaleht* that some voters opted not to cast their votes, thinking
the result was a formality. Other commentators argued that
participation was high, as the turnout was five percentage points
higher than in the parliamentary elections.

The real surprise of the referendum, however,
was the unpopularity of the EU among Estonia’s large
Russian-speaking minority. Ida-Virumaa, a largely ethnic-Russian
region, returned the lowest ‘Yes’ vote of the
night–just 57 percent–overturning the notion that the Russian
minority was enthusiastically pro-EU.

Evald Mikkel, who teaches political science at
Tartu University, told TOL that the ‘Yes’ camp’s
frequent reference to Russia as a possible threat may have
contributed to the fall of EU enthusiasm amongst Russian-speakers
in Estonia.

A number of other counties in southern Estonian
and the island of Saaremaa were almost as euroskeptic, with
majorities close to 60 percent, but only in a handful of small
communities did the ‘No’ camp win.

In fact, a hard-line euroskeptic Kalle Kulbok
may cause more of a ripple, as he is challenging the legality of
the vote in the courts. This may delay the announcement of the
official result.

Despite this fly in the ointment, as the
unofficial results became clear on Sunday evening, President Arnold
Ruutel, Prime Minister Juhan Parts, and Parliamentary Speaker Ene
Ergma issued a joint statement welcoming the result and saying that
the Estonian people had had few chances to decide its own destiny
in history.

“Through this referendum, the Estonian
people confirmed their commitment to the common values of
Europe,” they said. “Joining the EU and NATO next year
shows the readiness of the Estonian people to shoulder the
responsibility for the future of this part of the world with other
nations.”

Even the Center Party, a former governing party
that only decided to vote ‘Yes’ late in the campaign,
came out with a strong statement in favor the decision. The EU is
not primarily about a common market, it said, but about European
dignity and values common to all Estonians.

It party, though, signaled that it would voice
its concerns loudly in the EU, saying that “the Center Party
is ready to defend Estonia in Europe and European values in
Estonia.”

Leaders of the ‘No’ campaign made a
similar attempt to re-profile themselves. The Research Center for a
Free Europe, the leading force behind the ‘No’
campaign, said that it would take on board the promises made by the
‘Yes’ campaign–and try to ensure that they were
met.

THE CAMPAIGN

Ivar Raig of the Research Center for a Free
Europe voiced criticism of the conduct of the campaign. Though he
believed that Estonians debated EU accession more deeply than other
candidate countries during the campaign, the campaign “did
not meet the best democrati c standards as funding was completely
unequal, and the media leaned on one side.”

Evald Mikkel from Tartu University also voiced
reservations. The picture painted by the media was “heavily
dominated by government and other public institutions campaigning
for a ‘Yes’ vote.”

The campaign subsumed political life to such a
degree that over the “last few weeks or the past month, other
politically sensitive and possibly relevant questions were somehow
cast aside,” Mikkel said.

The Tax Board, for example, was due to decide in
August whether to order an inquiry into the private financial
dealings of Estonia’s finance minister, Tonis Palts. No
decision was made. The morning after the referendum, normal
political life resumed with the Tax Board saying it had launched an
inquiry.

WHAT WILL CHANGE?

It was probably only natural that the campaign
focused on the changes that people will feel most directly after
the country joins the EU in May 2004. For many younger people and
‘Yes’ voters, the ease of travel proved a very strong
argument.

For the older generation, rising prices were a
particular concern.

In the long run, Estonia will have to wait for
free movement of labor with all EU countries. Most EU members, with
the exception of UK, Denmark and Sweden, have placed a moratorium
on the free labor movement for periods ranging from three to seven
years.

While full integration into the labor market may
be some time away, integration with the euro-zone may come
relatively soon. The Estonian Central Bank believes the euro could
replace the kroon in as early as 2007.

As it is, Estonia looks set to join the European
Union in good shape. For some years now the Estonian economy, like
that of its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, has grown by 5
or more percent annually. Against the backdrop of a global slowdown
and, recession in some places, this has been a stellar performance.
Nonetheless, the Baltic “tigers” still lag far behind
European average income. If Estonia keeps up its present pace, it
could catch up with the rest of the Europe in 15-20 years.


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