Silver Tambur: Who governs Tallinn?
The news that Estonian opposition leader Edgar Savisaar has been suspended from his post as Mayor of Tallinn, following the bribery allegations against him, have left many people wondering who is in charge of the Estonian capital from now on.
Although mayoral position was considered too lightweight for the former prime minister Savisaar, the Center Party leader has managed to create a sort of principality of its own in Tallinn, all made possible by the party’s absolute majority in the city council – 46 out of 79 members.
Savisaar-led City Government has introduced free public transport, municipal housing and founded a municipal bank recently – all very different steps from the state government policies which have been dominated by the liberal Reform Party and conservative IRL for the last 10 years.
It is widespread assumption in Estonia that the Reform Party is in charge in the country and the Center Party in Tallinn. But Tallinn matters – over half of the Estonian GDP is created here and over 30 percent of the country's total population lives in the capital. In fact, it looks a bit like a state within a state.
Savisaar first became Tallinn mayor in 2001 and held the position until 2004, when Res Publica Party (which later merged with Isamaaliit to form IRL) managed to remove him after vote of no confidence, which involved persuading some Center Party members to switch sides.
Savisaar then held a Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications position – his last ministerial post – in Andrus Ansip’s first government. But after Ansip decided to ditch the Center Party, following the Parliament elections in 2007, Savisaar returned to local government. His party had managed to win an absolute majority in the municipality for the first time in 2005 – largely due to the overwhelming popularity of Center Party among Russian speaking voters – and assuming the mayoral position was a formality for Savisaar. He served until Wednesday this week.
In 2005-2007, the rising star of Center Party, Jüri Ratas was a mayor, and many saw Ratas as Savisaar's potential heir to the party leadership. Yet Savisaar refused to make way for a younger generation and a lot has happened since then. Although Ratas became an MP and the deputy speaker of Parliament – a position he still holds – it is widely accepted now that Kadri Simson, the Center Party’s deputy leader, is the most likely successor of Savisaar, should he eventually decide to retire.
Unlike Ratas, who is considered to be a political heavyweight, the man who is in charge of Tallinn this time around, is largely unknown to public – nor has he ever commanded much support from the Center Party electorate.
While Savisaar is suspended, his former deputy Taavi Aas (49) has been made de jure mayor.
Aas, with an educational background in agriculture, has been serving as Deputy Mayor of Tallinn since 2005. Before that he managed Põltsamaa Dairy Cooperative, an obscure rural enterprise in the middle of the country.
While the Center Party has in the past succeeded in make the unlikeliest of candidates into political stars, Aas is definitely not one of them.
He first became candidate for the Parliament in 2003, but gathered just 171 votes. Unlike many others, his vote tally has actually declined ever since: 170 in 2007, 157 in 2011, and 156 in 2015.
So it is fair to say that Aas, albeit well-spoken and friendly in public, is not popular by the Center Party standards – for comparison, Savisaar attracted over 25,000 votes in last elections, Jüri Ratas almost 8,000, and Kadri Simson almost 6,000.
Yet, Aas is officially in charge of Tallinn. His appointment indicates clearly that de facto Mayor of Tallinn is still Edgar Savisaar and the Center Party hopes to come out unscathed from the bribery allegations. Until a definitive court ruling, the capital of Estonia will be managed from Hundisilma farm* at the Vihula Parish, 100 kilometers from Tallinn.
* Edgar Savisaar's residence.
Silver Tambur is the editor-in-chief of ERR News.