ERR News looks back at 2020 in Estonia

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Social distancing "Stay Healthy!" sign on Tallinn's Reidi Road. Source: Aron Urb/ Stenbock House

ERR News looks back at 2020 which was, if nothing else, an eventful year.

As no one needs reminding, 2020 was dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and its knock-on effects on everyday life and the economy, several EKRE-led scandals and the upcoming marriage referendum.

But other, more positive events also occurred, such as Estonia taking up its first non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The ERR News team has looked back over the top stories of 2020.

January

The year started with Estonia formally commencing its two-year stint as a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Estonia had been awarded the post in June the previous year, and joined Niger, Tunisia, Vietnam and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines as non-permanent members for 2020-2021.

President Kersti Kaljulaid marked the event on New Year's Day by hoisting a UN flag in front of Kadriorg, the president's official residence.

President Kersti Kaljulaid raised the UN flag at Kadriorg for the start of Estonia's term on the UN Security Council. Source: Annika Haas

Foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said at the time that: "The benefits of the UNSC for Estonia go beyond the two years, as it presents us with an opportunity to raise Estonia's profile, expand our circle of communication and add to the professional skills of our diplomats. We can demonstrate that we are a reliable country that is open to compromises and cares about the troubles of others. All this also increases our security."

The UNSC's  main role is to safeguard global peace and security.

Belgium, Germany, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia and South Africa started their second year of non-permanent membership in January. The five permanent members are the U.S. Russia, France, the U.K. and China.

The first week of 2020 also saw applications for residence permits in Estonia exceeding the quota for the year, once again.

Estonia's immigration quota – referring to the number of people permitted to enter Estonia for work and study from non-EU/EEA countries, as well as a few other countries such as the U.S. and Japan – was set at 1,314 for 2020, but by the first week of the year this had already been exceeded by well over 100, with 1,378 applications. The full capacity had similarly been reached at the beginning of 2019; in 2018 it took around half a year to reach that figure.

Meanwhile, international non-profit Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was "extremely concerned" about the situation regarding independent journalism in Estonia, particularly following an editorial exodus at daily Postimees which had started in the previous year. RSF was also concerned about the extent to which Postimees and its associated publications had become a mouthpiece for its business owner, pharmaceuticals, media and entertainment tycoon Margus Linnamäe.

Word Press Freedom Index Rankings 2020. Source: RSF

January also saw growing interest in the spread of the novel coronavirus from beyond the vicinity of Wuhan, China, where it originated. Two Chinese tourists taken to hospital after fears they had contrated COVID-19 proved a false alarm; the first case in neighboring Finland was confirmed just a day earlier. 

February

February saw coronavirus fears snowballing, as concrete cases started to appear. While testing began in late February and initially returned negative results, the first confirmed case in the country was detected on February 26. The individual concerned – a resident returning from a trip to Turkey – did everything right, summoning an ambulance upon arrival in Tallinn on a Lux Express bus from Riga

However, foreign travel and Estonians returning from vacations in highly affected areas, such as northern Italy, soon saw the floodgates open. 

Tallinn Airport started monitoring arrivals from high-risk zones, with the use of thermal cameras initially employed as a way of reading abnormally high body temperatures – later claimed by the Health Board as an ineffective means of detecting COVID-19.

Gates welcoming arrivals at Tallinn Airport, which nonetheless monitored arrivals from Coronavirus at-risk zones. Source: Enterprise Estonia

Estonia's foreign ministry had already halted issuing tourism visas to Chinese nationals early on in February while facilitating the return of at least one Estonian national from the Hubei province of China.

Weather at the end of February in Saku. Spotter's badge to any reader who can identify the pair of birds. Source: Minupilt.err.ee/Katrin Tarand

In other news, February saw record high temperatures in parts of the country, as well as record rainfall figures. As 2020 was a leap year, February gained a day, with close to a dozen babies recording the unusual birth date, as well as Tallinn's marriage registry office experiencing a high through-flow of couples wanting to give their weddings a similarly rare anniversary.

March

March began as February ended, with rapid growth in coronavirus numbers as well as warnings and regulations following in their wake.

While China had been the main at-risk zone in the first couple of months of 2020, by March it was now Italy's turn, with the north of that country becoming the most-infected region globally, and foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu urging Estonian citizens and residents to give it a miss.

By the same token, the minister urged citizens of high-risk nations to not visit Estonia, as the pandemic spread.

Kristiine High School in Tallinn, the first school to be closed after a pupil tested positive for COVID-19. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Estonia's own figures saw tests early on in the month return negative, but with a Tallinn school soon closed as a pupil returning from a ski holiday tested positive. By mid-month, schools nationwide had gone to distance learning, which caused some teething problems with the online platforms being used.

By mid-March, 171 COVID-19 cases had been found in Estonia, and by month-end the figure was close to 700, while over 12,000 people had opened their own sick-notes online, following a measure initiated to relieve the burden on family doctors.

One early, fairly high profile case involved Madis Kallas, then-mayor of Saaremaa, by that time the worst-affected region of the country after a volleyball competition hosted a visiting team from northern Italy.

An impending lock-down prompted one sports retailer to issue mass discounts, attracting crowds and, with it, plenty of criticism, while the first coronavirus-related death in Estonia was reported before month-end.

Coronavirus drive-in testing in Narva, early on in the pandemic.. Source: ERR

The government declared its emergency situation on March 13, reintroduced border controls – with an exemption at the Valga (Estonia)-Valka (Latvia) checkpoint, a recurrent theme through the pandemic – and launched its own coronavirus crisis info page in English, an invaluable resource for those who cannot read Estonian or Russian.

Drive-in testing was launched in Narva and later other locations, while President Kersti Kaljulaid authorized the use of personnel from the voluntary Defense League (Kaitseliit) in patroling and enforcing security on Saaremaa and Muhu.

Ryanair plane on runway. Source: ERR

Travel restrictions saw French and German regions added to at-risk lists, tourism companies canceling trips to northern Italy, and budget airlines Ryanair and airBaltic halting flight links - all a foretaste of how heavily the pandemic was to affect the tourism and travel sectors.

While ferries were still running, they were often over-subscribed, and larger cruise ships were barred from docking at Estonian ports. Finland closed its borders on March 18.

The travel disruptions saw both hundreds of Estonians getting stranded overseas, in some cases taking advantage of specially laid-on ferry links as Poland closed its borders ahead of the Baltic States, and Ukrainian citizens being in the same situation in Estonia – in their case requiring charter flights to get out.

The economic effects of the pandemic were already making themselves known in March, with fuel retailer Alexela laying off close to 100 staff, and registered unemployment jumping from around 4 percent at the beginning of the month to over 6 percent by month-end.

Ott and Janika Tänak being interviewed remotely during the coronavirus spring WRC lull. Source: ERR

Other early ramifications of the pandemic saw the Eurovision Song Contest canceled, with Estonia's entry Uku Suviste given a bye for entry in 2021, a large number of WRC races off the table between February and summer, leaving reigning driver's champion Ott Tänak having to find something else to do, and then-interior minister Mart Helme calling out unnamed opposition politicians for engaging in coronavirus 'fake news'.

What little other news there was in March didn't provide much relief either – one report found that Estonia lagged below the EU average in gender equality.

April

As the emergency situation continued, the Ministry of Finance predicted an 8 percent drop in Estonia's GDP due to knock-on effects of the coronavirus crisis, companies started to make redundancies, over 10,000 employees applied for wage support, millions of pieces of personal protective equipment arrived in Estonia, a volunteer initiative was founded to provide Estonian children with computers for distance learning and the foodbank started a donation drive. Easter church services were moved online.

The government passed the Supplementary budget bill which provided relief measures for workers and businesses. But it also agreed foreign workers who lost their jobs must leave Estonia, even though farmers said they would not be able to replace the lost workers.

In a blow to the government, Finland closed its border to Estonians on April 11 making life more difficult for the thousands of workers who live and work in both countries. Ferry company Tallink started to lay off staff.

The coronavirus situation in Saaremaa started to calm down but the first death of a health care worker from COVID-19 also took place on the island. Patients were moved to the mainland. The government gave the go-ahead to restart scheduled medical treatments and Kuressaare field hospital was packed up at the end of the month.

A 100-year-old patient recovered from COVID-19 at Saaremaa Hospital.

Kuressaare Hospital with the Defense Force's field hospital and coronavirus testing tents outside. Source: Margus Muld/ERR

By the end of the month, unemployment was growing fastest among young people despite the wage support measures. Estonian airline Nordica requested €20 million in state aid and coach company Lux Express discussed doing so too.

In Ida-Viru County, Eesti Energia temporarily shut down operations at the Estonia mine and send approximately 800 miners home after one person tested positive for coronavirus. The disease then started to spread in the county, with care homes and offices closing, after it had managed to avoid the first stages of the initial outbreak. By the middle of the month, over 1,500 jobs had already been lost in the County.

While data from Google and Statistics Estonia at the start of the month showed the emergency situation restrictions were being followed and people had reduced their movements, popular tourist spots such as Käsmu Village were closed after a surge of visitors. The PPA started using drones to enforce the 2+2 rule. A University of Tartu dormitory was also locked down after a party.

Tallinn's Old Town during the emergency situation. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Surveys showed coronavirus awareness was nearly equal among Estonian and Russian speakers and that over 90 percent of citizens support continued COVID-19 restrictions. There were also reports of an increased number of people moving to the countryside and away from city life and keeping chickens as pets grew in popularity.

In other news, the long-discussed pharmacy reform came into effect on April 1 which saw majority ownership of pharmacies transferred to dispensing pharmacists, pensions rose by €45, Estonian skiers Andreas Veerpalu and Karel Tammjärv were found to have used growth hormone for doping purposes and a little-known businesswoman donated €50,000 to the Center party which raised suspicions about where the money had come from.

On April 17, news broke that EKRE would recall Minister of Foreign Trade and Information Technology Kaimar Karu from office. The news came as a surprise although there had been rumors of disagreements between party chairman Mart Helme and Karu. Raul Siem was named as Karu's replacement.

Kaimar Karu at the president's Independence Day 102 reception. Source: Raigo Pajula/ Office of the President

The warmest ever April 7 in Estonia was recorded with the temperature rising to 20.6C at Tiirikoja lake station in Mustvee municipality, Jõgeva County.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas confirmed Estonia would not be leaving the EU's emissions trading system. The government celebrated its first anniversary in office

On April 24, the government extended the emergency situation for two more weeks until May 17.

May

Coronavirus crisis restrictions started to lift at the beginning of the month, people who owned homes in Saaremaa were allowed to visit again, shopping mall and open-air museums reopened with capacity restrictions and flights to Helsinki started as well as to other important capitals. A University of Tartu study said the spread of coronavirus was firmly under control.

In Tallinn, customers were venturing back to the Old Town and many restaurants lowered their prices to cater to locals instead of tourists. A survey showed residents' diligence in preventing the spread of the virus was beginning to fall.

But while restrictions were lifting, job losses were rising especially in the tourism sector and cafes and restaurants were struggling. Wage compensation claims topped 100,000. Churches also protested the measures restricting religious services by ringing their bells. Tallinn Airport said passenger volumes would not recover until 2022. The government approved state aid for Tallink.

On May 17, the emergency situation ended and the majority of restrictions were lifted across the county. Finland partially reopened its borders with Estonia for workers several days earlier and the internal borders of the Baltic states were fully reopened.

New cases of coronavirus dropped to less than 10 a day.

Jaani kirik on Freedom Square. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Farmers were still struggling with the lack of migrant labor and there were concerns about the upcoming strawberry crop, which they said would rot in the fields if no workers could be found to pick produce. EKRE accused the farmers of lying.

Minister of Interior Mart Helme said the Rail Baltic project had been halted thanks to EKRE, something which was denied by the prime minister and other members of the government.

Tallinn was shortlisted for European Green Capital 2022, joining two French cities, Dijon and Grenoble, plus Turin, Italy.

The Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) and Rescue Board launched a major operation in the Haabersti district of Tallinn on May 15 to try and catch two bears which evaded capture.

One of the bears crossing a road in Tallinn's Rocca al Mare district. Source: ERR

The presidents of the three Baltic States issued a statement condemning attempts to misrepresent the events of World War Two on the 75th anniversary of the end of the conflict. Smaller crowds than usual formed on May 9 after the government asked people not to celebrate in public.

Estonia's population increased by 0.3 percent on-year to January 2020, Statistics Estonia reported, continuing a trend from the previous year for a small increase resulting from positive net migration. Estonian citizens returning home made up the largest proportion of immigrants by nationality and saw a net positive for the third year running. At the same time, more EU citizens left Estonia than entered it, for the first time in several years.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania established a "baltic bubble" without travel restrictions to restore free movement. Both Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and President Kersti Kaljulaid visited Saaremaa for the first time since the emergency situation started.

President Kersti Kaljulaid on the "Hommik Anuga" morning show on Mother's Day. Autor/allikas: Kairit Leibold/ERR

On Mother's Day, President Kersti Kaljulaid talked about her role as a parent and grandparent and how the emergency situation has affected her family. She said that her children are her best friends, while she considers herself a relatively useless grandmother.

A bill aimed at disbanding the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) was discussed with the prime minister saying it would lead to improvements in the supervision of party financing. The opposition disagreed.

The government said everyone must be prepared for a second wave of the coronavirus to hit in future.

June

More restrictions, including on travel, bars and restaurants and public events, were lifted in June as new cases of coronavirus continued to fall. The scientific council mulled the idea of removing the 2+2 rule and the University of Tartu's coronavirus monitoring study confirmed the relaxation of the restrictions was justified.

However, redundancies in the tourism sector continued and Tallink said passengers were down by 91 percent on year. 59 percent of companies answering a recent survey said they had required state support during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ministry of Finance agreed to borrow €1.5 billion in bonds. Minister of Finance Martin Helme (EKRE) said the money received from the sale of bonds will be used to finance both the state budget and the supplementary budget adopted in April.

A man shot at several people on the highway near the Lihula Olerex gas station in Lääneranna, Pärnu County at around 10 p.m. on June 6, killing two. The police have the suspect in custody. Lääneranna Municipality Mayor Mikk Pikkmets said the shooting in Lihula is a major blow to the entire nation. 

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda snubbed a meeting of the Baltic presidents in Saaremaa, standing up Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and President of Latvia Egils Levits. Nauseda's spokesperson confirmed he did not attend the meeting due to a lack of common policy on Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant Astravyets. Lithuania wanted the countries to agree to a boycott.

A Black Lives Matter demonstraction took place at Tallinn's Saku Suurhall on June 10. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

A Black Lives Matter solidarity rally took place in the parking lot of Saku Suurhall in Tallinn with many participants taking part in their cars to follow coronavirus social distancing rules. A scaled-down version of Baltic Pride also took place in Tallinn.

June 8 marked 100 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Estonia and Finland, an occasion celebrated jointly in Tallinn and Helsinki on Monday. Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) and Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto symbolically signed a historical document of recognition of diplomatic relations in Tallinn and Helsinki, respectively.

A €600,000 wage support measure for the agricultural sector was launched to help the berry growing sector hire people who have lost their job. Farmers desperately needed labor and the prime minister said borders should reopen as soon as possible for migrants.

The Riigikogu passed a bill to amend the Aliens Act to allow for the creation of a digital nomad visa enabling foreign nationals whose work is not dependent on their location to work in Estonia.

Events in Tallinn celebrating 100 years of Estonian-Finnish diplomatic relations. June 8, 2020. Source: Marko Mumm/Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Flickr

Statistics showed the number of ethnic Estonians living in Estonia increased by 348 due to natural population growth and another 794 due to net migration in 2019. A total of 909,552 ethnic Estonians lived in Estonia as of the beginning of 2020. Alis Tammur, a leading analyst at Statistics Estonia, said Estonians' natural population growth has remained near balanced for the past 12 years.

Minister of Finance Martin Helme (EKRE) said there is no need for additional regulations in the field of gender pay differences while discussing a consultation for European Union member states on measures to increase the transparency of wages. Estonia has the highest gender pay gap in Europe. Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik said Estonia is committed to reducing the gender pay gap

Estonia officially became an associate member of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), a European research organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, which operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world.

Maritime pilot Indrek Sülla got a shock when he spotted dolphins in the waters of Kopli Bay, off the coast of Tallinn. "It was quite the surprising coincidence to see such a thing in my home port," the pilot said. "I know that there have been porpoises here, but there haven't been any dolphins."

Dolphins in Kopli Bay. Source: Indrek Sülla

July

On July 3, the city of Tartu opened a "Car-Free Avenue" public space, with the aim of creating a safe public space offering leisure opportunities and performances that were open until early-August. A similar street was opened in the capital of Latvia, Riga, as well, but all events on Riga's car-free street were eventually canceled due to the heightened risk of COVID-19 spread.

Tartu's Car-Free Avenue. Source: Maanus Kullamaa

111 members of the coalition Isamaa party founded a union called "Parempoolsed" (Right-wingers) with a manifesto titled "The right-wing choice for Estonia" where they promise to stand up for Western values and right-wing opinions but against extremists in Estonian politics.

A labor crisis kicked off in Estonia in July as the living permits of migrant workers were set to expire on July 31, but sectors such as construction and agriculture - especially strawberry growers - were looking at an impending shortage of workers for high times in August. The coalition eventually U-turned after opposition parties Reform and Social Democrats proposed amendments to the Aliens Act, permitting third country nationals entry to Estonia for work or study.

On July 3, Minister of Finance Martin Helme entered into an agreement with U.S law firm Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan LLP to provide legal services to the Estonian state in international money laundering investigations. An investigative piece published by daily Eesti Päevaleht however claimed that lawyer Louis Freeh - a former FBI director - had represented Russian company Prevezon, which had allegedly laundered around €6 million via the now-defunct Estonian branch of Danske Bank. 

Martin Helme and Louis Freeh at the press conference on July 3. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

The Estonian men's national basketball team defeated traditional basketball powerhouse Lithuania (92:85) and Latvia (84:67) on their way to victory in the Baltic Chain Tournament, an exhibition tournament to celebrate 100 years of Estonian basketball. This marked the first victory for Estonia over the three-time European champion Lithuania since the Restoration of Independence in 1991.

Estonian men's national basketball team posing with the Baltich Chain Tournament title. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Following a Health Board ban of the initial campsite of the Rainbow Gathering 'hippie' festival in Antsla, Võru County, the festival moved to Hargla, Valga County where a makeshift camp was set up in a state forest growing area, leading to the gathering having to relocate a third time to a camping area near Koiva River, near the border of Latvia.

July was a calm month on the coronavirus front, so much so that Prime Minister Jüri Ratas hosted a celebration in the Tallinn Botanic Garden that brought together representatives of fields that assisted the government in resolving the coronavirus emergency situation in spring. In addition, University of Tartu scientists received funding to study sewage to detect another possible wave of COVID-19.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas hosting a celebration for those who helped resolve emergency situation in spring. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

There was a coronavirus scare at the end of the month however, as an irresponsible Tartu citizen, displaying clear symptoms of the coronavirus, managed to visit a spa, nightclub, cinema and various shops in one day, infecting at least 20 people in the coming week.

In total, there were 12,584 COVID-19 tests in Estonia in July with 83 coming back as positive for the novel coronavirus. There were no deaths during the month.

August

After being pushed back several times, Christopher Nolan's "Tenet", partly filmed in Tallinn in the summer of 2019, finally premiered a couple minutes after midnight on August 26. Film-goers eagerly waited in line to see the long-awaited time-bending action-thriller. 

The movie set Estonia's opening weekend box record with 53,194 people going to see the blockbuster in its first week, overtaking "Tõde ja Õigus" from 2019. ETV's "Ringvaade" spoke to John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Nolan himself to hear what the Hollywood stars thought of Estonia and their time on set shooting in the Estonian capital.

Scene from "Tenet" trailer. Source: "Tenet"

On August 4, ERR News, the English-language portal of Estonia's public broadcaster, celebrated its tenth anniversary. During the past decade the portal has covered, among many other news events, three general elections in Estonia, along with two of each of the European, local and presidential elections, official visits from U.S. President Barack Obama, Pope Francis and various members of European royalty, two national song festivals, Estonia's stint as president of the Council of the European Union, the arrival of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Tapa, and of course the coronavirus.

On August 20, Estonia celebrated the Day of Restoration of Independence. President Kersti Kaljulaid hosted a who's who of guests in the Kadriorg Rose Garden on the 29th anniversary of the restoration of independence of Estonia, but she said the annual reception faced possible cancellation right up until the last moment due to complications stemming from the coronavirus. Read the president's speech in its entirety here.

Restoration of Independence Day celebration at Kadriorg Rose Garden. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Elections in Belarus on August 9, widely believed to be tampered with, saw long-time president Alexander Lukashenko stay in power for his sixth term. Many believed opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was the most popular candidate, leading to protests held in Tallinn and Tartu, along with several European cities. The Estonian government eventually approved sanctions against several Belarusian officials suspected to be responsible for the falsification of the Belarusian presidential election results and related violence and human rights abuses from entering Estonia.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu at center, facing camera, taking part in a human chain in support of Belarus in Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

As for the coronavirus, August started off with a continuation of July's Tartu outbreak, eventually leading to eight bars in Tartu closing their doors for a week as a measure towards containing an outbreak in the city. In addition, over half of the crew of Norwegian cargo ship Yara Nauma docked in the city of Sillamäe was confirmed to have the coronavirus. The ship eventually headed to Finland.

On August 18, the government approved rapid testing for individuals entering the country instead of the existing 14-day quarantine period. A coronavirus crisis committee was set up in Ida-Viru County in late-August, tasked with halting the spread of the coronavirus in the county.

In addition, Estonia's coronavirus exposure notification app "HOIA" launched on August 20 and was downloaded by more than 50,000 in its first week of release. ERR News spoke to Priit Tohver, Ministry of Social Affairs adviser in the field of e-services and innovation, to find out how the app does what it does and how you can use it.

In total, there were 30,779 COVID-19 tests in Estonia in August with 323 confirmed back as positive for the coronavirus. There was one death in August.

September

The first ever full-calendar WRC round in Estonia concluded on September 6 with Ott Tänak and Martin Järveoja dominating the 17 stages on South Estonian roads. The pair of Estonians finished ahead of second-place Craig Breen by 22.2 seconds after a great showing over the weekend rally. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas attended the event on September 5 and said the government would support future WRC events in Estonia in the future.

Tänak and Järveoja on the podium after their win at WRC Rally Estonia 2020. Source: Hyundai Motorsport

The release of a documentary investigating the sinking of ferry MS Estonia in 1994 created a shockwave of reactions, the loudest of which was perhaps by Margus Kurm, the head of the government's investigative committee looking into the sinking in 2005-2009, who stated in an interview with ETV's "Pealtnägija" that new scenes of the shipwreck show the ship most likely sank after a collision with a submarine. Kurm's statement was one of many with Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu claiming the discovery of a four-meter hole in the wreck's hull was grounds for a new underwater investigation.

A motion of no confidence initiated by the Riigikogu's opposition parties against the Minister of Finance Martin Helme failed after 45 of the 101 members of the Riigikogu voted in favor of the motion. The motivation for the motion was Helme's agreement with the aforementioned U.S. law firm Freeh, Sporkin & Sullivan LLP and especially head of the firm, Louis Freeh, who is alleged to have previously represented Russian company Prevezon.

Louis Freeh meets with MPs the Riigikogu. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Former national ski coach Mati Alaver's involvement in an international doping fraternity was unveiled in late-September with many court documents made available. Alaver was nicknamed "the general" and had many correspondences with notorious German sports doping doctor Mark Schmidt, who supplied all the necessary paraphernalia and whose own trial in Germany also started in September. Two-time Olympic and world gold medalist Andrus Veerpalu is also involved in the fraternity, as he and Alaver were instrumental in providing blood doping to four skiers over three years.

On September 7, the Ministry of Finance published their economic forecast for the period of 2021-2024. The forecast stated that real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is predicted to grow 4.5 percent next year, with wage growth expected to recover the year after, in 2022. The ministry and finance minister Martin Helme also proposed to cut base spending under the defense budget and to simultaneously borrow €300 million for the acquisition of weapons systems, leading to a disagreement between him and defense minister Jüri Luik, who said national defense spending plans should not be drawn up by improvising and by no means from the cabinet of Martin Helme.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas handed in the state budget for 2021 on September 30. Expenditures are set to amount to approximately €13 billion and revenues at over €11 billion and the government's debt burden will grow to €6.6 billion or 23.6 percent of GDP. An increase in research funding and pensions is also expected, with research funding increased to 1 percent of GDP and will remain there for the four-year budgetary strategy period.

An installation in memory of the tens of thousands of Estonians who fled by sea in 1944 to escape the Red Army was displayed in Tallinn's Freedom Square (Vabaduse väljak) on September 20. The installation, named "The Boat of Tears" (Pisarate paat) featured boats similar to those the Estonians would have used to flee across the Baltic Sea to Sweden and Finland in what is known as the "Great Escape" (Suur Põgenemine). Blue balloons were used to symbolize tears and people and a map of Estonia was marked out on the floor surround by an "iron border".

"The Boat of Tears" remembers the 75,000 who fled from the advancing Red Army in 1944. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Storm Alia hit Estonia on September 17, leading to at least 11,500 households left without power. Northwesterly winds reached up to 20 m/s inland, and up to 23 m/s in the west of the country. In coastal areas and on the islands, gusts hit 28 m/s and 32 m/s on the open sea. Ferry operators Eckerö and Viking Line canceled most of their ferry services between Tallinn and Helsinki for the storm.

More than 30,000 Estonians registered for World Cleanup Day on September 19. The initative, originally created in Estonia as "Teeme ära", saw millions of volunteers registering across the world to clean up areas around their region. The main focus was the problem of discarded cigarette butts.

World Cleanup Day in Lasnamäe. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The calm final weeks of summer for the coronavirus brought along a hangover in September with plenty of new cases of COVID-19, especially among young people ignoring isolation requirements. The Health Board with its so-called corona detectives were still able to manage monitoring all close contacts and infected people, but new daily cases were starting to add up, leading the government to establish a late night alcohol sales ban, still in force at the end of the year. Read ERR News' feature on the ban here.

In total, there were 65,811 COVID-19 tests in Estonia in September with 1,055 confirmed back as positive for the coronavirus. There was one death in September.

October

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas said in early October that a new MS Estonia documentary that aired on Swedish television has brought to light new information which no previous report has addressed and that a new technical investigation is warranted. Minister of the Interior Mart Helme said soon after that raising the ferry's wreck is beyond Estonia's means. Various theories of what happened to cause the ferry to sink surfaced again. The government soon proposed a new investigation to Finland and Sweden.

The hole in the side of MS Estonia. Source: ERR

Estonia officially proposed President Kersti Kaljulaid as a candidate for the post of OECD secretary general.

The Estonian Association of Travel Agents considers suing the state over third country flight bans.

Daily Postimees reported that a decision to temporarily lift charters ban was made for the benefit of Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas. This merited a furious reaction from travel agents that concerned package tours to Turkey which were sold while the window was open for charter flights, only for customers to be told these were canceled when the restriction was reimposed.

Defense Forces took delivery and showcased Estonia's new K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzers.

South Korean-made K9 self-propelled howitzer being tested in Estonia. Source: Janvar Pitelkov/ Ministry of Defense

FIA confirmed Rally Estonia will be included in 2021 WRC calendar. Next year's event will be held in Tartu and Southern Estonia from July 15 to 18.

An analysis concluded that some 15,000 people have lost their job in pandemic layoffs, including at least 3,000 in the tourism sector.

University of Tartu and TalTech said they are planning to reduce the number of free study places and tuition scholarships on offer to students on non-Estonian taught courses to 100 each in the coming years, giving as the main reason stagnation in higher education funding.

The main building at the University of Tartu (TÜ). Source: Andres Tennus/University of Tartu

Prime Minister and leader of the Center Party Jüri Ratas said there is no link between businessman Hillar Teder's donation to his party and the Porto Franco real estate development receiving a support loan from the Center-led government.

The government decided to support Nordica's share capital by €22 million and provide a loan of €8 million to the struggling airline. The government received permission from the European Commission to support Nordica to the amount of €30 million in August. The purpose of the state aid is to help cope with the difficulties caused by the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas condemned Interior Minister Mart Helme's (EKRE) comments to a journalist from Deutsche Welle telling gay people in Estonia to go to Sweden. Leaders of the opposition parties called for Helme's resignation. The coalition council met to discuss the ensuing government crisis but couldn't agree on who is to blame. Conservative People's Party (EKRE) head, Minister of Finance Martin Helme said on the "Esimene stuudio" political debate show that all coalition parties decided to take a step back and plot a course for restoring credible cooperation.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (right) and interior minister Mart Helme at a recent government press conference. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Estonia said it has a preliminary plan in place for coronavirus immunization as recent developments around a coronavirus vaccine have shown promise.

The Reform Party Riigikogu group entered into proceedings a bill to criminalize hate speech.

President Kersti Kaljulaid promulgated a controversial bill to reform the Estonian pension scheme by abolishing the so-called second pillar after her Supreme Court appeal on the law was rejected.

Supreme Court pension reform bill hearing. Source: Supreme Court

The coalition parties agreed to hold a planned marriage referendum in the spring, instead of in November 2021, which would have coincided with local government elections after several days of crisis discussions.

EKRE MP Urmas Reitelmanns ERR comments sparked media outrage. Reitelman, EKRE's representative on ERR's supervisory board, directed homophobic comments at the presenters of ETV current affairs show "Ringvaade" in a social media post he later deleted. EKRE chair Martin Heme tried to downplay the derogatory remarks. Reitelmann later resigned from ERR supervisory board.

Estonian Greens presenred their same-sex marriage petition to the Riigikogu, following the coalition's marriage referendum plan. The petition quickly became the most signed in the Citizen Initiative Portal's history. The non-parliamentary Greens were shocked by the liberal opposition's initial reluctance to jump on the same-sex marriage bandwagon. Estonian Greens and Estonia 200 signed mutual statement for amending the Family Act.

Estonia boasted Europe's lowest coronavirus case rate. The government decided in late October to shorten the COVID-19 quarantine period to 10 days. The daily case rare exploded soon after for a recordbreaking 125 new cases on October 28. The record did not hold for long...

14-day European COVID-19 rates per 100,000 inhabitants. Source: ERR

The coalition proposed initial question options for the marriage referendum that were immediately shot down by legal experts, including former justice chancellor Allar Jõks.

The Health Board expressed concern over growing number of asymptomatic coronavirus patients.

November

In early November, chairman of the opposition Reform Party Kaja Kallas suggested people vote "no" at the upcoming plebiscite over whether marriage should be defined as being between a man and a woman and use it to provide an assessment of the government's work and Conservative People's Party (EKRE) policy. Soon after, SDE formally announced it supports marriage equality.

Estonian citizens who would prefer to see Joe Biden elected U.S. President far outstrip those who would rather see Donald Trump return for a second term, a poll commissioned by ERR revealed.

Non-parliamentary Estonia 200 overtook the Social Democratic Party in the polls for the first time in November. Support for the party continued to grow throughout the month. Estonia 200 rose to second place in popularity according to a Kantar Emor mid-November poll, with an 18 percent increase in support, surpassing both the Center Party and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE). The party's continued rise was reflected in the surveys of all three major pollsters.

Kristina Kallas and Lauri Hussar. Estonia 200's support increased. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas proposed the marriage referendum question of "whether marriage should remain between a man and a woman in Estonia" for the first time in November. The government approved the wording on November 12. The opposition said it will employ obstruction and stalling tactics to fight the bill.

New COVID-19 daily case record of 241. Hospitals set about expanding coronavirus wards as the number of people in need of hospitalization is forecast to keep growing.

Rain Epler was confirmed as Estonia's new environment minister in place of Rene Kokk. The new minister later said he is not convinced climate change is mainly man-made.

Minister of the Interior Mart Helme, Minister of Finance Martin Helme and MEP Jaak Madison (all EKRE) said on their TRE radio talk show that the results of U.S. presidential elections are falsified and Joe Biden becoming president would mark America's decline. Mart Helme described Joe Biden as a "corrupt character." The Helmes' words were characterized as "absurd and inappropriate" by PM Ratas soon after, while President Kersti Kaljulaid convened the Defense Council over the remarks. Mart Helme (EKRE) said on November 9 that he will resign from his post. While the opposition Reform Party also filed a motion of no confidence against EKRE chair Martin Helme, it failed in the Riigikogu. Mart Helme joined the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mart Helme. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

ISP Telia opened its 5G network on November 10 in select areas of Tallinn, Tartu and Pärnu.

The government decided that the 2+2 rule will be reintroduced in enclosed public spaces and wearing a mask will be required for anyone over 12. The requirements took effect Monday, November 16.

The Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) association formed within the Isamaa party said it does not support holding a plebiscite/referendum on the definition of marriage because the association considers it a threat to Estonia's political stability and the country's development.

The Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF) opened at Tallinn's Coca-Cola Plaza.

EKRE MP Alar Laneman officially proposed as candidate to replace Mart Helme as Estonia's interior minister.

Underwater surveys at the wreck of the ferry Estonia will not be started this fall, nor will an investigative committee with an independent chairperson established anytime soon, State Secretary Taimar Peterkop told Postimees.

Former Prosecutor General Lavly Perling revealed she is in talks with the Isamaa Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) in-house group and hasn't ruled out running for them at the local government elections next fall. Prling later told ERR in an interview that she no longer wishes to remain an onlooker to populist roaring.

Former Prosecutor General Lavly Perling. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

A Tallinn hospital's chief of medicine said that at least a partial lockdown is inevitable looking at coronavirus figures.

Education minister Mailis Reps (Center) told ERR that while she is ready to make changes to her work practices following an article on the website of evening paper Õhtuleht that provided evidence her official ministry car had been used for taking her children to and from school or kindergarten, no childcare staff were on the Ministry of Education and Researches' payroll. Reps later said she must do a better job marrying work and family life and eventually resigned in the wake of the scandal to spare her family.

Former Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps. Autor/allikas: Siim Lõvi /ERR

As COVID-19 infection rates continued to increase in Estonia, the government, along with the Health Board and the Ministry of Education and Research, decided to switch all Harju and Ida-Viru county high schools to distance learning by November 30 at the latest.

The Constitutional Committee of the Riigikogu voted against the draft marriage referendum bill on Monday, removing it from the agenda. The chairman of Isamaa said committee member Siim Kiisler, who voted against holding a referendum, will temporarily be replaced so the bill can be put to a vote again.

New restrictions making it obligatory to wear a mask or face-covering in public indoor spaces, extending the 2+2 rule and reducing the maximum number of participants in public events were agreed by the government at an e-session.

Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab (Center) will become the new minister of education replacing Mailis Reps who stepped down last week, the Center Party has proposed. Anneli Ott, member of the Riigikogu's European Union Affairs Committee, will be appointed as the new minister of public administration.

Jaak Aab. Source: Vladislava Snurnikova/ERR

The Prosecutor's Office decided it will not initiate criminal proceedings against journalists from newspaper Õhtuleht after they collected data on the use of former Ministry of Education and Research's Maili Reps' (Center) official car. The prosecution was asked to look into the matter by Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg.

Chief medical officer at the Health Board Arkadi Popov was named Citizen of the Year 2020 at a Citizen's Day recognition event by Minister of Culture Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa).

Hospitals say scheduled treatment disruptions possible as new COVID-19 cases continue to mount.

December

Entertainment venues will have to further reduce their opening hours and shops limit their occupancy rates under new restrictions drawn up to curb the spread of coronavirus, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) said on Thursday.

The government approved an order restricting recreational activities in Ida-Viru County. The restrictions, which apply to indoor hobby education and activities, as well as sport, kick in on Saturday.

Maris Jesse, deputy secretary general at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said regular people will be able to vaccinate themselves against the coronavirus throughout spring but only after frontline workers and risk groups have received their vaccinations first.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) said he will self-quarantine after having been in close contact with a coronavirus carrier. He later tested negative for COVID-19.

Frenchman Sebastien Ogier (Toyota) won the Rally Monza and the title of world champion, ahead of Ott Tänak (Hyundai) in second place who closed the season in third, ahead of Welshman Elfyn Evans (Toyota).

Ott Tänak. Autor/allikas: Hyundai Motorsport

The non-parliamentary Estonia 200 party secured a rating of 18 percent in pollster Kantar Emor's monthly poll in December, good enough to keep its second place in front of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) and Center Party.

The government approved an order for new restrictions in Ida-Viru County and across Estonia to stop the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). The new rules are decided to last until January.

The Riigikogu did not support a proposal by the opposition to reject the marriage referendum bill on Monday and the draft passed its first reading after a four-hour debate. Chairman of junior coalition partner Isamaa Helir-Valdor Seeder told a special episode of ERR's "Otse uudistemajast" webcast that if it proves impossible to convince the opposition to drop stalling tactics, amending the Riigikogu Rules and Procedures Act needs to be considered. Chairman of the Constitutional Committee of the Riigikogu Anti Poolamets (EKRE) said the second reading of the draft marriage referendum is scheduled for January 11.

Voting in progress on the referendum bill's first reading at the Riigikogu on December 14. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the government agreed in principle to support Ida-Viru County, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus, with additional measures worth more than €5 million.

President Kersti Kaljulaid promulgated the 2021 State Budget Act, as well as legislative amendments concerning a pension increase and enabling an increase in the debt burden of municipalities.

The first meeting of the Riigikogu MS Estonia shipwreck support group hosted State Secretary Taimar Peterkop and head of the former investigative committee Margus Kurm. Peterkop told members of the committee about recent developments and differences in legislation of the countries involved. The Estonian, Swedish and Finnish safety investigation authorities later signed a memorandum of understanding which will allow additional investigations into the causes of the sinking of the MS Estonia ferry, which sunk in 1994 killing 852. Sweden said it would seek to lift a ban on inspections of the wreck of the Estonia ferry.

A bill submitted by the opposition Reform Party which would criminalize hate speech was voted down by members of the Riigikogu. The coalition said more urgent issues should be discussed in the middle of a pandemic.

The government decided to extend quarantine restrictions for patients diagnosed with COVID-19 and people in close contact with them until February 1, 2021.

Managers of Estonia's largest hospitals do not believe people will follow social distancing rules during the Christmas holidays and think there will be an increase of people admitted to hospital which will cause cancellations for scheduled treatment at the start of 2021. There are also growing concerns about coronavirus spreading among hospital staff. The government has decided to impose stricter regulations already implemented in Ida-Viru County on the capital and its surrounding county, in the face of rising coronavirus rates. The new restrictions, which include the closure of bars, will be in force after Christmas day itself.

Immunization for COVID-19 started in Estonia when resident doctor at the Kohtla-Järve Medical Center (Kohtla-Järve Tervisemaja) Jelena Rozinko became the first person to be given the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Coronavirus vaccinations for all those who desire it is not feasible by the target date of the end of June 2021, daily Postimees wrote. However, the paper was unable to get concrete information on when and whether delivery rates would be met.

Estonia's first COVID-19 vaccine was given to resident-doctor Jelena Rozinko in Kohtla-Järve in Ida-Viru County on December 27. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

Partial distance learning will continue in Harju and Ida-Viru County although children in grades 1 to 4, 9 and 12 can return to school, Minister for Education and Research Jaak Aab (Center) said on Tuesday.

The two opposition parties, Reform and the Social Democrats (SDE) between them tabled over 9,000 amendments to a bill which would initiate a national referendum on the definition of marriage next April. Reform's leader Kaja Kallas said: "Since our goal is to prevent this planned referendum, which is at the same time meaningless, ridiculous and cruel, we have prepared nearly 3,500 amendments." The bill's progress or otherwise will continue in the new year.

ERR's online news in Estonian carried this gallery of 2020 in pictures as follows.

That's it for 2020, a challenging 12 months for all of us. ERR News looks forward to our readers returning in 2021, to see what that will bring in Estonia and beyond.

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Editor: Helen Wright, Andrew Whyte, Kristjan Kallaste, Marcus Turovski

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