The Top 10 Stories of 2013
With the clock ticking down on the final hours of 2013, ERR News editors have taken time to recap the year's most important narratives.
Municipal elections, 2013 edition
The October 20 municipal elections, which dominated Estonia's headlines from late summer to mid-autumn, didn't produce much in the way of shakeups. There were, however, further signs that support for the Reform Party had slipped while the Social Democrats made better-than-expected gains in Kuressaare and Narva. The most-watched race - the one for Tallinn - took on a decidedly circus-like tone as supporters of IRL candidate Eerik-Niiles Kross buzzed incumbent mayor Savisaar's press interview with a drone helicopter. All the while, Savisaar put himself in the center ring with a spate of official, city-financed functions, one of which featured an effigy of the mythical Old Man of Ülemiste at the reported cost of 10,000 euros. The race took on an even more bizarre quality when Russia succeeded in getting Kross put on an Interpol watch list on the eve of the elections.
Tallinn launches 'free' public transport
The capital's controversial plan to introduce free public transport for city residents became a reality on January 1. Tallinn's Center Party leadership had touted the move as a big win for the environment as well as a way to help low-income citizenry, while the opposition painted the project as an expensive exercise in buying public favor ahead of the municipal elections. Politics and finances, as it turned out, weren't the only concerns to emerge. In January, just as Tallinners were getting used to touching their personalized, RFID-enabled farecards to electronic readers as they boarded, the Data Inspectorate launched an administrative action against the farecard system, citing worries about the security of personal information. Though the scheme, according to studies, has so far failed to produce any significant reduction in traffic congestion, it did result in a rush of people registering as city residents - about 5,200 in the first 12 weeks of the year - adding millions to the city's allotted share of national income tax revenue.
Reform Party's internal elections and other scandals
The year's most potent political scandal broke at the end of May when the Reform Party's internal elections turned into a farce. Many claimed they did not vote, but e-mails with their preferences for who should lead the party were registered and counted. Why the ruling party in the world's leading country in voting technology decided to organize elections via e-mail remains unclear, but the scandal resulted in the expulsion of MEP Kristiina Ojuland, a former foreign minister who challenged the party's elite. PM Andrus Ansip accused Ojuland of casting 40 email votes on behalf of elderly members. Ojuland denied the charge and, along with a few of the party's heavyweights and the Reform Party's coalition partner IRL, called for new internal elections. Ansip refused and the party's ratings dropped to their lowest since 2005 by November.
Other parties were also dogged by claims of wrongdoing - the Center Party, always surrounded by insinuations and harder evidence regarding graft, was implicated in a patronage scheme where Tallinn city government officials had to tithe a percentage to the party, and worse, a few of the officials didn't seem to understand that this was not quite right. A whistleblower also accused the previously "squeaky clean" Social Democrats of running a financing scheme similar to Reform's. Nor was IRL's slate clean, with blowback from the 2012 residence permits scandal, claims of registering felons as party members, and various criticisms of the the party's two most powerful Cabinet members, the economy minister and interior minister.
Electricity market opens, prices jolt upward
Estonians had long enjoyed electricity prices that were Europe's lowest thanks to state subsidies for the oil shale sector, but on January 1, the electricity market finally opened in the consumer segment. Prices are now determined by trading on a power exchange, akin to a stock market but whose exact workings, it's safe to say, remain a bit arcane to many Estonians. As NGOs armed citizens with information about the changeover and state power company Eesti Energia educated customers on the benefits of continuing to shop with them, many worried about how the less well-off would absorb the jolt. The year's first electricity bills were about one-quarter higher than in the previous month. And after a major spike in June where prices soared temporarily to double that of Finland, it was also unclear how well the market model was working. Latvia and Lithuania are said to be withholding some power from the system, and Estonia won't be connected to Scandinavia until the second undersea Estlink power cable is finished in 2014.
New trains begin service, but is Rail Baltic on track?
Estonian transport took a huge leap forward in 2013, with eleven new trains entering service at the beginning of July. The tender, of which four-fifths was funded by the EU, will see a total of 38 new trains on Estonia's railroads in the coming years. The distinct orange trains have so far been used only on commuter lines in Harju County. They, and their operator Elron, are slated to take over intercity routes from January 1, although Edelaraudtee, a privately owned operator that has serviced the lines until now, has taken the state to court over the early termination of its contract, the size of the compensation and the fact that the new trains were handed to Elron, its state-owned competitor.
The Rail Baltic project, a high-speed rail link that would connect Warsaw with Tallinn, has been gathering, and losing, momentum over the past 12 months. Experts have said that the EU's new seven-year budget has earmarked up to 26 billion euros for the project, but Lithuania's new government has recently shown cold feet, demanding line extensions, with insiders saying the state might not want the line at all.
The reaper comes for the Sickle
The government seemed to play a more energetic role this year in Estonia's quite sizable publicly-funded independent cultural sphere, proposing an extra ministry seat on Estonian Public Broadcasting's board and looking to restructure the format of the National Symphony Orchestra. The one that went beyond mini-scandal was the late fall shakeup at the cultural newspaper Sirp (Sickle), which has arguably been in stagnation but is a respected outlet among intellectuals, often read to cover to cover. After the newspaper failed to find a suitable editor, Culture Minister Rein Lang orchestrated the appointment of an interim editor, the "Generation X writer" Kaur Kender, who clashed with the paper's image. In the end, the government backtracked and Lang ended up resigning, which many cultural intellectuals saw as a victory.
Estonia becomes 41st space nation
On May 7, ESTCube-1, Estonia's first and only satellite, was rocketed into orbit from the Guiana Space Center in South America. Around 100 students and scientists had contributed to the creation of the roughly one-kilogram nanosatellite, which was nearly six years in the making. In early August, just before it was due to begin its main mission of carrying out solar wind experiments, ESTCube-1 came under threat from being destroyed by a collision with space debris. The tiny craft survived and continues to whiz around the Earth at a speed of 7.5 kilometers per second.
Victory for fencers and vindication (of sorts) for Veerpalu
'Doping' and 'medals' were the keywords of the nation's sporting sphere this year. In what was probably the finest 30 minutes in the nation's sporting history, Nikolai Novosjolov won the men's individual epée tournament at the World Fencing Championships, while Julia Beljajeva won the women's event, with both finals taking place in a 30-minute period in August.
Andrus Veerpalu, two-time Olympic gold medalist, was cleared of doping accusations in March. Estonians celebrated as if he had been completely exonerated, but the officials went out of their way to leave doubts hanging. Heiki Nabi also benefited from a ruling by world doping authorities when his World Champion silver medal turned into gold after the Iranian wrestler who defeated him in the final was disqualified for using performance enhancing drugs.
The Estonian national basketball team also merits mention, as they will end a 14-year hiatus from major tournaments in 2015, having qualified for the European Championships in September.
Gains and new worries for national security and defense
Estonia hasn't always run with the "in" crowd when it comes to major trends: in 2011, Estonia joined the euro at a time the currency seemed desperately weak. This year, some might have a bit of buyer's remorse concerning the country's tight transatlantic ties when a powerful government agency in America turned out to be using methods that seemed straight out of Orwell and probably did as much as Watergate to undermine public trust in government. For the most part, Estonia kept diplomatically quiet, and continued to diligently emphasize its US-supported role in cyber defense, into which much moral and physical capital has been poured. There were certainly more cheers than sneers as the EU came aboard on a major cyber security initiative in which Estonia will play a leading role.
With a resurgent Russia taking major steps to modernize its military and pressuring neighboring countries to accept economic policies, the US also still seemed like the only real guarantor of security, despite domestic gridlock and wavering American foreign policy giving the EU a hard run for various futility awards. News about the government shutdown in Washington was everywhere in Estonia even in the runup to the October municipal elections, but was fast becoming a distant memory as NATO held its first exercise on Baltic soil the following month - as important a step as last year's Chicago commitment to a permanent airspace policing program.
Still, 2013 ended on a sour note: November also brought the Vilnius Eastern Partnership debacle, where Russia seemed to outbid the EU for influence with Ukrainian rulers, and as 2013 ended, it's unclear whether or not the populous country will be part of a new Eastern Bloc.
Omar's asylum bid
As far as clout goes, he had less than even rural Estonians in some populist party's wildest dreams of disenfranchisement. But persistence paid off: "Omar," a Pashto translator in his early 20s who'd worked with the Estonian forces in Afghanistan and feared for his safety after withdrawal in 2014, went on a Skype and social media blitz from Kabul, managing to reach many Estonian opinion leaders and politicians in his bid for asylum. Even the president weighed in on the case, as the Foreign Ministry assessed whether he could be given asylum from long distance. In the end, Omar was denied protection. Officials cited various inconsistencies in his story and as ERR News, which first broke the story, itself noted, "Omar's" requests for protection morphed into requests for money as the year wore on. Still, the story raised awareness of the moral consequences of entanglement in Afghanistan, and suggested the war had deeper costs.