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Erik Gamzejev: Center Party unable to learn from its Ida-Viru County errors

Erik Gamzejev.
Erik Gamzejev. Source: Matti Kämärä / Põhjarannik

Attempts on the part of the Center Party to overthrow Katri Raik as mayor of Narva after only for months in office show how incapacitated and self-harming the party continues to be in its activities in Ida-Viru County, journalist Erik Gamzejev found, while appearing on Vikerraadio's daily comment.

The Center Party, which governed Narva for over 20 years, was clearly defeated by electoral alliance at the last local elections. Center, which had traditionally won 60-75 percent of the vote at previous local elections, now had to accept results half as small, and the silver medal. Center's members themselves have fragmented, and from its ten members on the council, several have already passed to Katri Raik's group.

Center no longer has any stronger leaders in Narva. Riigikogu MP Mihhail Stalnuhhin remains the most able vote-winner, but his result at the last election (in October 2021 – ed.) was considerably weaker than at previous times.

On the other hand, Tarmo Tammiste, who had led the city of Narva for nearly 20 years, was annihilated – receiving 158 votes, he did not even get elected to the council.

Center does not have any figures in Narva who command authority with the town's residents, yet they still want to gain power. Furthermore, Center HQ continually calls for various combinations of people to man the barricades, including considering a period of secondment for Jaan Tootsi, from Tartu, to the mayorality of Narva.

For that matter, societal hero Martin Repinski and his tempers in Ida-Viru County have been still few. Let us recall the importing of the mayoral candidate from Valga to Jõhvi (in Ida-Viru County-ed.) ended in a fiasco for Center. However, it seems Center does not want to learn from its errors.

A much more serious question is, then, who Center would intend to carry out a coup in Narva with.

There are people in their ranks, and also in the electoral alliance Elagu Narva which is currently in the same boat as them, who have already betrayed the Center Party once. 

In 2018, these later quit the party at the behest of Alexei Voronov, who was convicted of corruption offenses. 

It was an offensive blow when Jüri Ratas, Center's chair – who wants to clean things up – found that deputies suspected of corruption should have their activities as council members suspended.

Because it became clear before the local elections that there noone major with home Center Party could get votes in Narva any more, some of these were recalled back from the party or to the electoral roll. Among others, the former council chairman of the council, Aleksandr Jefimov, was punished under criminal procedure, for fraud.

This again caused internal strife. In the war of words it entered into the repository of folklore that Center's Narva regions' former boss Yana Toom recommended Tarmo Tammiste take a chill pill*. Nevertheless, Toom did not fail to vouch for Tammiste in taking up a position at the economic affairs ministry.

In the run up to the vote of no confidence in the Mayor of Narva last Thursday, Center had been hoping that some of the people on Katri Raik's electoral list who have become bitter or frustrated would now attack them. Take for instance Sergei Gorlatš, an erstwhile reformer charged with vote-buying and awaiting trial, lost his post as city council chair.

It would be incorrect to consider Katri Raik's city government as being irreplaceable, and all her decisions the right ones. But it is obvious that the leadership of Narva needed a change. There is also no doubt that expectations for Katri Raik have been very high. If tangible results do not come quickly, voters will be disappointed, and the opposition will smell out the possibility of an attack.

Nonetheless, the Center Party itself was in power for 20 years. The result? A wage level which is one of the lowest in the country; unemployment and emigration rates among the highest, and a history of corruption which could fill an entire book.

It is worth giving others the opportunity and time to at least try to run the city differently. It is cynical to demand results within four months when things did not start to take root in 20 years. It simply takes time to restructure the previous system of power. In addition, many crises that did not exist before need to be addressed, be they the rise in energy prices, other inflation, or in the reception of war refugees.

At the moment, it is also important that there are only a few within this circle of politicians in Narva who want to organize a coup in the city but who have publicly and clearly condemned Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

These politicians fear that in a border town, where all the Kremlin's propaganda channels justifying Putin's regime are still freely visible thanks to [TV] antennae, they would lose their constituents if they publicly supported Ukraine. 

On the other hand, if the Center Party, led by Jüri Ratas, wants to overthrow the current power structure in Narva from the point of view of security, with such a society, this would deal a devastating blow to its popularity in the rest of Estonia as a boomerang.

Organizing a coup in Narva would further push down the already declining rating of support for Center, and repeat the same story as happened four years ago before the Riigikogu elections (of March 2019 – ed.). 

Then, the Center Party clung to defending the stubborn attitudes of its Minister of Education Mailis Reps over the issue of Kohtla-Järve Gymnasium.

This led to a loss of votes throughout Estonia and the election victory, which had almost been in the bag, slipped through their fingers.

Center could boost its support if it could show itself to the current Narva city government as a "kind helper", but not as a viciously stunned and passive-aggressive enemy. Yes, the Center Party is currently in opposition in Narva, but as a party sharing power at the national level, Narva authorities should be given all possible support at this difficult time.

This would represent generous and statesmanlike behavior which would help Narva and the whole of Estonia alike, and would sooner or later bring its dignified reward to the Center Party. The same applies to all other parties.

*Toom's exact words were "take a lot of catnip"

Erik Gamzejev is editor-in-chief of regional daily Põhjarannik, owned by the Postimees Group, and was talking to ERR's Vikerraadio.

All Vikerraadio daily comment (in Estonian) can be listened to here.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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