ERR News looks back at 2019 in Estonia
The last year of the 2010s has almost drawn to a close, and turned out to be as eventful a year in Estonia as it has been elsewhere.
It was a year of two elections, with the Centre Party/EKRE/Isamaa coalition entering office even as the Reform Party had won the most seats at the general election in March, but with Social Democratic Party (SDE) candidate Marina Kaljurand sweeping all before her at the European elections in May.
The coalition, the prime minister, Jüri Ratas (Centre), and one party in particular, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), were seldom away from the headlines for more than a few days at a time, with three EKRE ministers having to step down between late April and late November. However, the government got its excise duty and pensions reforms passed, though drew a blank with pharmacy reform.
Clashes between the president and the government were also not a rare occurence, though Estonia managed to get a two-year stint on the UN Security Council from 2020, scored highest in Europe in the PISA school tests, and got its first ever WRC rally champion in Ott Tänak.
The Laulupidu - the Song and Dance Festival, which takes place every five years, fell in July, just a year after the country celebrated its 100th birthday, and a new film version of a literary classic, "Truth and Justice", smashed domestic box office records, while Hollywood came to Estonia as well, with director Christopher Nolan filming scenes for an upcoming movie, "Tenet", on the streets of Tallinn.
The ERR News team has picked some of the top stories from 2019 to reminisce, or in some cases commiserate, over.
One of Estonia's newest political parties, Estonia 200, starts off the year in hot water over a teaser ad campaign at a Tallinn tramstop. The initial posters read "Estonians here" and "Russians here", in both languages, and were later replaced by Estonia 200 adverts. While the intention behind the campaign was to draw attention to the issue of a segregated society, it is met with widespread condemnation from both inside and outside Estonia, with then-interior minister Katri Raik (SDE) likening the move to Germany under the Nazis.
Commenting on the incident, the Russian embassy in Tallinn also claims the posters are redolent of apartheid-era South Africa.
The campaign is widely thought to have cost Estonia 200 seats at its very first election; the party polled just under the five percent threshold required for seats, at the general election less than two months later, whereas towards the end of 2018 it had polled above that figure according to some surveys.
Meanwhile, the population of Estonia is reported to have grown again, albeit by a small margin, of a little over 4,600, with the population standing at 1,323,820 on 1 January 2019, according to Statistics Estonia.
A report by Swedish public broadcaster SVT links Swedbank in Estonia to the Danske money laundering case. Billions of euros in potentially illicit funds are later found to have passed through the bank's portals, adding to the €230 billion thought to have passed through Danske Estonia, in the period 2007-2015. Later on in the year, billions in potentially illicit funds are also found to have passed through the other large Scandinavian bank with an Estonian presence, SEB.
"Truth and Justice," a movie based on the eponymous series of novels ("Tõde ja Õigus" in Estonian) by Anton Hansen Tammsaare, sets a box office opening weekend record with a total cinema attendance of over 50,000.
Estonian skiers Karel Tammjärv and Andreas Veerpalu are detained at the World Championships in Seefeld, Austria, in late February. Investigations later bring one more Estonian skier, Algo Kärp, several more from other countries, and two coaches, Andrus Veerpalu, the father of Andreas, and Mati Alaver, under suspicion.
All five of the above are later banned from competition for four years by the international ski governing authority; the main individual who facilitated much of the doping substances, German national Mark Schmidt, is also arrested.
Alaver is later stripped of his state awards, and in November is sentenced to a one-year suspended prison sentence, with an eighteen-month probation period, by an Estonian court.
March is dominated by the general election and its aftermath.
The Reform Party wins the election, picking up 34 seats after decisively winning the e-vote as well as its paper equivalent.
However, the celebrations are short-lived, as the party and its leader, Kaja Kallas, find themselves unable to find enough potential coalition partners. While they later join up with the Social Democratic Party (SDE) which has 10 seats, and this lineup is indeed nominated by President Kersti Kaljulaid as the new government, it lacks the key 51 seats or more at the 101-seat Riigikogu needed to be voted into office.
The Free Party loses all of its six seats, and as noted, Estonia 200 narrowly misses out on getting its first MPs, while Richness of Life and the Green Party are too far behind to have any chances of being represented at parliament.
Second placed party Centre (26 seats) meanwhile, goes off into negotiations with the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE, 19 seats) and Isamaa (12 seats)...
Centre-EKRE-Isamaa coalition formed
On April 8, the Centre Party, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa signs a coalition agreement that grants them a combined 56-seat majority in the 101-seat Riigikogu.
After Kaja Kallas fails to receive a mandate in an April 15 Riigikogu vote to form the next government, the task is officially passed on by President Kersti Kaljulaid to runner-up Centre Party chairman Jüri Ratas.
Ratas' second coalition government is sworn into office on April 29. It is, however, accompanied by scandal right off the bat, as the morning his cabinet was to be sworn in, weekly Eesti Ekspress published an article accusing Marti Kuusik, EKRE's new minister of foreign trade and information technology, of domestic violence against his wife.
Kuusik, who is later formally charged by the Prosecutor's Office for the same, resigned the next day amid one of just many scandals to come involving members of Ratas' second government, some of which would gain attention in the international media and many of which would prompt the head of government, and even the head of state, to issue an apology.
Kaljulaid meets Putin
On April 18, President Kersti Kaljulaid flies to the Russian capital to attend the opening of the renovated Estonian Embassy in Moscow. The embassy reception is followed by a historic meeting between Kaljulaid and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin.
During their meeting, Putin comments that an absence of contacts between neighboring countries is not normal, and Kaljulaid proposes that the EU-Russian cooperation program be updated.
While Estonian political scientist Karmo Tüür finds that the meeting is perhaps significant on the level of bilateral relations, he adds that overall it is no great breakthrough. Nonetheless, Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevicius calls on Estonia to better coordinate its actions as well as exercise caution in dialogue with Moscow.
Kaljulaid later defends her decision to meet with Putin, saying in an interview on ETV's Välisilm that Estonia's job is to join those EU member states whose leaders have visited Moscow, as well as not leave discussions on difficult topics up to other countries.
The Estonian head of state would later invite Putin to Estonia to attend the VIII World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples in Tartu next June, a move similarly met with mixed reactions.
Prior to Kaljulaid's visit, the last time a sitting president of Estonia had visited the Russian Federation was in 2011, when President Toomas Hendrik Ilves attended the re-consecration of the Estonian Lutheran St. John's Church in St. Petersburg.
European Parliament elections won by Reform, Kaljurand
Less than two months after the Riigikogu elections, the European Parliament elections are likewise won by the Reform Party, now a member of the opposition on the national level.
Social Democrat Marina Kaljurand wins more votes than any other single candidate by a significant margin, earning SDE an additional mandate.
Elected are Marina Kaljurand (SDE), Andrus Ansip (Reform), Urmas Paet (Reform), Yana Toom (Centre), Jaak Madison (EKRE), and Sven Mikser (SDE). This also marked EKRE's debut in the European Parliament.
In 2018, the Riigikogu passes amendments that would allow for the election of a 7th MEP following Brexit. The U.K.'s exit from the EU has been delayed several times, however, leaving the fate of the potential 7th seat in limbo.
Plan to cut alcohol duties announced as R&D funding frozen
On May 27, the Estonian government reaches an agreement in principle on the 2020-2023 state budget strategy and the 2020 state budget bill. The 2020 state budget includes a freeze on research and development (R&D) funding, despite an agreement being signed in December 2018 pegging R&D spending to Estonia's GDP.
The same day, a bill is introduced in the Riigikogu on behalf of the ruling coalition that would slash the alcohol excise duty rate on hard liquor, beer and cider by 25 percent, on July 1.
Reactions to both decisions are swift. Latvia, the target of Estonia's increased cross-border alcohol trade, announces it would respond to Estonia's excise duty rate decrease with a cut of its own. Finland quickly follows in promising a response of its own as well.
Estonian university rectors, who convene for a crisis meeting the next day, are likewise quick to react to the planned R&D funding freeze, calling the government's decision "extremely depressing" and a threat to higher education in Estonia.
Even President Kersti Kaljulaid expresses frustration and disappointment over the decision, asking in a statement what a politician's word is worth and warning that when researchers lose faith in Estonia, they would go elsewhre.
Beyond penning several critical opinion pieces, university students, researchers and staff also mobilized once again to protest in Tallinn and Tartu, bearing signs criticizing the government for prioritizing lowering the price of alcohol over research funding and carrying funeral wreaths and grave candles for what was dubbed the "Funeral for Research".
Estonia wins seat on UN Security Council
In a second-round vote at UN Headquarters in New York on June 7, Estonia wins the Eastern European group's non-permanent seat for 2020-2021 on the UN Security Council, clinching the vote over Romania.
Estonia is elected alongside Vietnam (Asia-Pacific), Tunisia (Africa), Niger (Africa) and St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Latin America and Caribbean).
Elections for the other five non-permanent seats on the council will be held this year, for the 2021-2022 period.
President Kersti Kaljulaid, who campaigned heavily ahead of the vote, calls the win a historical event for Estonia, while other Estonian leaders highlighting the great responsibility entrusted to Estonia with this seat.
The other non-permanent members to serve alongside Estonia this year include Belgium (Western Europe and Others), the Dominican Republic (Latin America and Caribbean), Germany (Western European and Others) and Indonesia (Asia-Pacific). Permanent members of the UNSC are China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.
Queen Margrethe II of Denmark visits Estonia
On June 15, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark arrives in Estonia for a two-day official visit.
The Queen arrives aboard the HDMY Dannebrog, met on Tallinn Bay by President Kersti Kaljulaid aboard the S/Y Admiral Bellingshausen, which would soon depart for an expedition to Antarctica.
June 15 marks the 800th anniversary of the date when, according to legend, the Dannebrog, the red and white flag of Denmark, fell from the heavens during the Battle of Lyndanisse in modern-day Tallinn.
The Danish queen visits Tallinn to take part in various celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the Danish flag, the 135th anniversary of the Estonian flag, Estonia's centennial as well as continued Estonian-Danish relations.
The government lowers excise duty on alcohol by 25 percent as EKRE makes good on one of its most popular election promises. Successive hikes in excise duties in Estonia had, critics say, led to a large amount of custom from Estonia and even Finland traveling to Latvian border towns such as Valka or Ainaži (Estonian: Heinaste) to stock up on cheaper alcohol, to the detriment of Estonia's economy as a whole.
The double-jubilee XXVII Song and XX Dance Festival "My Fatherland is My Love" ("Minu Arm" in Estonian) brings tens of thousands of singers, dancers and musicians to Tallinn for days of rehearsals, four days of performances and a parade for all performers. ERR covers the jubilee festival in Estonian, Russian and English, with several of the public broadcaster's Estonian- and Russian-language TV channels and radio stations as well as ERR broadcasting parts or all of the festival live.
After much bureaucratic red tape to get through, filming of the upcoming Christopher Nolan-directed thriller "Tenet" finally gets underway through July, on Laagna tee in Lasnamäe, at the Linnahall, and on Pärnu maantee. Filming brings a bit of glamor to the Estonian capital with Nolan, and stars Robert Pattinson and John David Washington, all spotted in the capital. The movie comes out next year.
A government crisis erupts when an attempt by EKRE to sack police chief Elmar Vaher over claims that Vaher had made concerning layoffs at the PPA was overruled by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas. Martin Helme, who is finance minister and acting on behalf of his father, interior minister Mart, who is still on vacaction when the scandal broke, later apologizes for acting unilaterally.
According to daily Postimees, researchers at the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance at Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech) submitted false information to the European Commission, artificially inflating Taltech's working hours, and money paid as wages to individuals who did not participate in the project.
Tartu wins its bid to be Estonia's European Capital of Culture in 2024. The two cities competing for the bid were Tartu, Estonia's second largest city, and Narva.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas survives a no-confidence motion from the opposition on August 30. The vote, brought to the Riigikogu in an extraordinary sitting by the opposition Reform Party, received only 40 votes in support and 55 against.
Kadri Simson (Centre) clinches the European Commission's energy portfolio on September 10, to be made responsible for the EU's energy sector. Simson previously told ERR that von der Leyen had promised her an economic affairs portfolio, which Simson would have preferred because she was responsible for these issues when she was Minister of Economic Affairs in the previous government.
The Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) confirm to ERR that the body of former Danske Bank CEO Aivar Rehe has been found on September 25. According to ERR's information, Rehe's body was found in his own backyard, with no suspicious circumstances at play.
Archaeologists discover fragments of about a hundred Viking swords, the largest find of Viking swords in Estonia to date, in northern Estonia.
The fragments were found in two closely located sites in a coastal area of north Estonia, in the territory of the ancient Estonian county of Ravala, late last autumn.
Kadri Simson is given the go-ahead to become a commissioner by the European Parliament's Committee on Industry and Energy (ITRE) after a three-hour question and answer session.
The government endorses Estonia's position on the European long-term vision called "A Clean Planet for All," which sees Estonia supporting setting 2050 as the target year for achieving climate neutrality across the EU.
Controversial Foreign Trade and Information Technology Minister Kert Kingo submits her resignation to Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, after being accused of misleading the government about appointing a new advisor. During her term as minister, Kingo faced criticism for, among other things, shunning foreign travel in a role which requires it, refusing to use English as a working language in international meetings, using a Huawei smartphone despite security concerns, and dodging government press conferences.
An internal inquiry into the misuse of funds at Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech) finds violations of the university's rules, but no evidence of fraud.
Figures released by Statistics Estonia showed the gender pay gap is present across all areas of the country's economy and ranges from between 32.2 percent to 1.9 percent.
Estonia's first piece of asphalt made from plastic finds use in Tallinn. A trial section 75 meters long and 3 meters wide is laid on Narva mnt, on the sidewalk in front of the Chinese Embassy, as part of the Reidi tee development. It is the first of its kind in Northern and Eastern Europe.
Estonian have become more tolerant of sexual minorities over the last four years, according to a Eurobarometer poll, but are still below the EU average.
Nearly 32,000 customers are left without electricity following storms which ravage much of western and southern Estonia. The storm called into question the country's ability to deal with future natural disasters. While the total number of customers affected by blackouts stood at around 60,000 on the day the storm struck, principally in South Estonia, this figure is soon reduced, although several thousand are still power-less a few days later. Another storm on Wednesday, December 18, leaves over 30,000 similarly without power, though most are back on line by the Friday.
In sport, Magnus Kirt clinches silver in the javelin at the world athletics championships in Doha, while decathlete Maicel Uibo had already done the same a few days before, a celebration made all the greater by his wife, Shaunae Miller-Uibo, winning silver in the 400 meters.
Ott Tänak becomes WRC world champion with Toyota with one race to go in the season, at Rally Catalunya (in the event the season finale in Australia was cancelled due to forest fires). He then promptly goes off to join Hyundai for next season.
Interior Minister Mart Helme tells a Finnish newspaper that Estonia, along with Latvia and Lithuania, is planning a plan B to NATO in case its collective defense fails. This is denied by the Minister of Defence, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and widely condemned by every political party in Estonia. Helme says he has been misinterpreted. The journalist who carries out the interview releases the recording, showing this was not true.
Minister of Rural Affairs Mart Järvik (EKRE) is removed from his position after an inquiry found he exceeded his powers. An official, Illar Lemetti, who reported Järvik's activities is also removed from his position and receives an apology from President Kersti Kaljuliad. Lemetti says he plans to take the state to court over the decision.
Support for the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) falls to a year-low in November of 14.5 percent. In December, it falls several more percentage points after several scandals.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets with President Kersti Kaljulaid during a one-day visit to Estonia, his first to the country. The two heads of state visit the e-Estonia Briefing Centre and discuss plans for cooperation.
Five years after the launching of the E-residency program, its founder says the project has become part of Estonia's soft power. Siim Sikkut estimates the scheme has brought €31 million to Estonia. "This side of soft power has been surprisingly bigger than we thought," he says. More than 10,000 companies have been opened by e-residents since the scheme started.
Several e-services are down for several days after rats damage an underground cable in Harju County. The damage means the state portal eesti.ee, services provided by the health insurance fund (EHIF) including issuing digital prescriptions, and several other e-services provided by the State Information System Agency (RIA) are not working.
On November 28, the cornerstone of the first structure to be built on the Rail Baltic mainline, the Saustinõmme viaduct, is laid, marking the start of the fast rail link in Estonia. It is hoped the line will be completed by 2026.
The Veterinary and Food Board (VTA) orders fish processing company M.V.Wool to halt production at its Harku plant after a listeria outbreak. The company claimed the ruling was made without evidence.
Sanctions against the Kremlin propaganda channel Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) effectively force the Russian state-controlled media portal Sputnik to move out of its rental space in Tallinn, as Estonian banks do not accept Sputnik salary payments.
In December, Estonia is revealed to be the European leader in the OECD's PISA international education test system. The country is the highest placed European country in all three categories for the first time ever.
After spending a large part of the year trying to introduce changes aimed at putting pharmacists in charge of pharmacies rather than chains, the government scraps reform plans. The government has less difficulty getting its bill to make the so-called second pillar of the Estonian pension scheme made optional rather than mandatory; it passes its first Riigikogu reading early in the month, despite opposition from the central bank and the IMF.
After a decade of planning and construction, the Balticconnector gas pipeline between Estonia and Finland opens on December 11. The pipeline will enable the opening-up of the gas markets of Finland and Estonia and their integration with the rest of Europe on January 1, 2020. The presidents of Finland and Estonia open the pipeline in a joint live-streamed ceremony in both countries.
Interior Minister Mart Helme (EKRE) criticizes the newly-formed Finnish coalition which is headed by Sanna Marin, 34, the world's youngest prime minister. Helme says the new government is incapable of leading the country and expressed disbelieve that a former "salesgirl" was now in charge of Finland. His outburst leads President Kersti Kaljulaid to personally apologize to the President of Finland Sauli Niinistö, and catches the attention of the international media. Helme also apologizes, but blames the media. A failed vote of no-confidence against Mart Helme led by the opposition sees coalition partner Isamaa abstain from voting.
Data released by the Tax and Customs board shows half as many people in 2019 were living on less than the minimum wage of €540 compared to 2014. Five years ago nearly 30 percent of people in Estonia earned a monthly income of up to €540, making this the largest income group in the country. Today, this has dropped to 15 percent.
Scandal-plagued fish processing plant M.V.Wool starts laying off employees following an injunction issued by the Veterinary and Food Board (VTA) which suspended work at the company.
All three Baltic countries receive an early Christmas present when the U.S. announces on December 23 that $175 million (USD) will be earmarked for military cooperation and the development of air defenses in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania next year.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson pays a surprise, at least for most people, visit to Estonia just before Christmas, meeting his counterpart Jüri Ratas, not for the first time, and visiting the NATO base at Tapa, whose battlegroup is British-led. Johnson had previously been to Estonia as defence minister, and even has some Estonian roots...
In the unlikely event that anything else noteworthy happens in the next thirty-three hours, that is it for 2019 - be sure to check back with us in January to see what 2020 brings.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski, Aili Vahtla, Andrew Whyte, Helen Wright,