A raft of 33 draft legislative amendments in response to the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout passed their first reading at the Riigikogu Monday, but met with dismay from opposition party members, who said many of the amends had little to do with the pandemic and much to do with the current government unilaterally infringing democracy in expanding it and its organs' powers.
The bills, referred to in the Estonian media as "cluster drafts" (kobareelnõu), cover a wide range of aspects of the pandemic, its effects and the government's emergency situation, including the following, as reported by BNS.
- Amends, likely to be permanent in nature, related to the laws concerning third country (non-EU/EEA) citizens.
- Data processing changes, including requirements to inform the public about their data being scrutinized.
- Amends allowing judicial proceedings to be conducted remotely (again probably on a permanent basis).
- Changes to basic and high school final exams.
- Some state agencies to get extended competences and powers for the duration of the emergency situation.
- Harmonizing the work of auxiliary police officers (abipolitseiniked), members of the volunteer Defense League (Kaitseliit) and others, with the regular Police and Border Guard Board (PPA).
- Normal service procedures by state agencies to be prolonged or suspended, due to the burden of emergency situation-related tasks, as well as restrictions.
- Changes to net debt limits on local government.
- Extending validity terms of certificates in health and training sectors.
- Relaxing qualification and procedural requirements and deadlines for the above (just for the duration of the emergency situation, according to BNS).
Opposition leaders said that while they understood the need for the restrictions, they also urged not only caution, but also said the current coalition was using the crisis for its own ends and in contravention of democratic principles.
"I had very much hoped that the government would not take advantage of this crisis, but the bill currently being discussed indicates otherwise," said Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas, according to BNS.
"We cannot forget for even a moment during this crisis that Estonia is a parliamentary state. A government assuming additional permanent decision-making powers under the cover of the emergency situation is incompatible with this," she went on.
Kallas also said that restrictions on fair treatment in criminal proceedings or extensive rights in processing sensitive personal data , as well as curtailments of the use of foreign labor were unacceptable.
"We cannot forget that Estonia is a small country with an open economy. Our entrepreneurs need labor, and they also need export markets. Undemocratic and illegal restrictions on foreign labor have nothing to do with the emergency situation," Kallas said, according to ERR's online news in Estonian.
Social Democratic Party (SDE) MP and former leader Jevgeni Ossinovski expressed disappointment that such an important bill turned out to be poorly conceived.
"There are sections here, the necessity of which is questionable or inadequate in managing the crisis," he said, according to BNS, adding that amends not relating to the emergency situation must be removed from the bill.
Ossinovski said his party was willing to propose amendments to the bills.
The government's supplementary budget aimed at combating the coronavirus effects also passed its first reading on Monday night.
Editor: Andrew Whyte