Reform Party proposes removing vote from Russian citizens in Estonia

Constituent casting a vote in a polling booth at the October 2021 local government elections.
Constituent casting a vote in a polling booth at the October 2021 local government elections. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

The Reform Party is sounding out support for a bill which would strip Russian and Belarusian citizens resident in Estonia from the vote in local elections in Estonia.

While one of Reform's coalition partners, Isamaa, has already put forward a bill which would do just that and would also apply to other "third country" nationals, the other coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SDE), has called Reform's move electioneering, adding the bill if it passed would present a security threat given the resulting large number of disenfranchised people.

Reform's Riigikogu whip Mart Võrklaev told ERR that party analysis found that an under-process bill from coalition partner Isamaa is not reasonable and would likely require an amendment to the Constitution.

Võrklaev said: "For this reason we drafted a bill which would suspend the right to vote, temporarily, and only for citizens of those countries waging a war of aggression.

"We believe that this is a topic which could be discussed publicly, and with the coalition partners, to look for ways to adopt it as a law together," Võrklaev continued, adding Wednesday evening that he had sent a draft bill and explanatory memorandum to coalition partners by way of introduction, which will be followed by a discussion among the three parties.

The Isamaa bill would take the right to vote in local elections from citizens of ALL third countries, an ill-defined term, but usually taken to refer to non-EU/EEA/Schengen, and often non-NATO nations.

The bill refers to local elections such as the one held in October 2021, where all permanent residents of Estonia could vote regardless of their nationality; general election voting is confined to Estonian citizens, while all EU citizens resident in Estonia can vote in European elections.

Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise stated in September that should the Riigikogu ake away the right to vote in local elections from third-country nationals living permanently in Estonia in the manner and following the rationale proposed in the Isamaa bill, she would most likely initiate a constitutional review procedure at the Riigikogu and, if necessary, at the Supreme Court

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) said that month that there had been no agreement inserted in the Reform/SDE/Isamaa coalition agreement signed in July which would have led to the stripping of voting rights in local government elections from Russian citizens resident in Estonia, in the wake of that country's invasion of Ukraine, and also from citizens of Russia's ally, Belarus.

This would remain the case for the remainder of the XIV Riigikogu's life-span, ie. until the general election on March 5, 2023, though the issue was certain to come up ahead of the elections, Kallas added at the time.

Social Democratic Party (SDE) leader Lauri Läänemets said that the Reform Party bill, which he said he first heard about via an article in weekly Eesti Ekspress (link in Estonian), runs counter to the Constitution even more than Isamaa's bill, while both bills are out of the question in the current coalition.

Läänemets told ERR that: "The main problem with this [Reform Party] bill is that there is a lack of security analysis, as was also the case with the Isamaa bill. I've been mentioning it all the time, looking at the threat assessments that the Internal Security Service and other carry out, on what happens in a situation where we have cities in Ida-Viru County where between half to two-thirds of the inhabitants are stripped of the vote. How are they going to express their feelings? There is no answer to that as yet. This actually presents a major security threat."

"What the Reform Party has proposed now is even more counter to the constitution than what Isamaa has proposed. This coalition will certainly not process it, no matter what initiatives the Reform Party or Isamaa might take," he went on.

Läänemets also said that he sees behind Reform's bill an effort to win ground on the issue, and therefore votes in spring, from Isamaa.

Võrklaev meanwhile said that the bill both informed voters of what his party stands for on the issue, and also in fact addresses, rather than causes, a security threat.

He said: "In order to reduce the threat to the internal and external peace of Estonia, which our republic was created for according to the preamble of our constitution, we hope that we will be able to reach an agreement on how those people who attend the embassy of the Russian Federation to elect Putin will not be able to have a say in local elections in Estonia, to avoid having municipalities which are loyal to another country. However, if this agreement is not met, we are ready to consider asking for a mandate in the elections."

Seder: Reform's initiative same as Isamaa bill

Isamaa leader Helir-Valdor Seeder said he was pleased that Reform had come on board with his party on the idea, adding that it would be quicker for Reform to present amendments to the existing Isamaa bill, rather than to present a rival bill.

Seeder said: "We are open to various solutions and to process them constructively. If someone wants to alter our bill, we are ready for that. What is important is the end-goal. Currently it appears that our draft and the still unknown bill from the Reform Party – the initiative at least – probably have a single goal, and that I am happy about that."

Seeder said he, too, had read about Reform's initiative via the media.

"Now the question is whether the Reform Party is ready to go all the way. Thus far, they have said that if SDE, in the coalition. are not ready to take away the right to vote from Russian citizens, then they are not ready to seek broad-based support in the Riigikogu," adding that this would likely mean the bill from Reform would not eneter into law.

Seeder also said that taking away the right of Russian citizens to vote in Estonian local elections would bolster Estonia's security, given that the Riigikogu had recognized the Russian Federation as a terrorist state, and given that choices in local elections can affect other areas of Estonian democracy – all the way to the election of the head of state, a process which passes to a local electoral college if voting at the Riigikogu proves inconclusive.

Isamaa would amend the Constitution if required, in order to get the bill passed, Seeder added.

Isamaa's bill passed its first Riigikogu reading in late September.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov

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