President Alar Karis has declined to promulgate a law which would have called for the removal of a variety of Soviet-era features, such as details on buildings (see picture) and in other public spaces, calling the legislation unconstitutional on the grounds of insufficiently clear wording.
The law passed at the parliament on February 15, as one of the XIV Riigikogu's last significant actions, and which made amendments to the Estonian Building Code and Planning Act.
These amendments were largely sponsored by the Isamaa party, which is not a part of the prime minister's plans for a new coalition, as announced Tuesday morning in the aftermath of Sunday's Riigikogu election.
The president was exercising his constitutional right to decline to give assent to an act, and said that: "Section 1(1) of the adopted law is legally unclear ,and therefore contradicts Section 13(2) of the Constitution."
The president was not opposed to the principle of removing such features from the public space per se, adding: "This is a legitimate goal, but the prohibited facilities are defined in the law using expressions that cannot be given an unambiguous meaning, even within conventional methods of interpretation."
The president noted that the law's explanatory memorandum aims to prohibit the installation of, and remove from public space existing examples of, features that violate society's sense of justice or which pose a threat to national security, adding that while it is clear that the focus of the legislation is primarily those related to the activities of the Soviet government: "However, the ban itself is worded much more broadly. In such a situation, the implementer of the legislation's provisions has to make assumptions about what was actually meant, despite the failed wording."
The principle of legal clarity requires a law be sufficiently clear and comprehensible, so as to enable everyone to anticipate the actions of the state and to adjust their actions accordingly, the president noted.
Section 1 subsection 1 of the law as passed by the Riigikogu states: "The publicly visible part of a building, as well as a publicly displayed monument, sculpture, memorial and other such facility must not incite hatred, or support or justify the activities of an occupation regime ,or an act of aggression, genocide, crime against humanity or war crime."
The Riigkogu's own legal and analysis department had concurred, that the definition of a building which does not meet the requirements in this area is not clear, hence the law being unconstitutional.
The process of removing blatantly obvious paeans to the Soviet occupation of Estonia took on a new pace following Russia's invasion of Ukraine from February 2022, while being mindful of the backlash which followed the removal and relocation of a Soviet era memorial in Tallinn, back in 2007. This work as included the disinterring and reinterring of large numbers of human remains – a matter for the state – as well as the removal and relocation of a Soviet-era tank, which had been sited just outside Narva. The latter case should have been one for local government, but after this fudged the issue, the state stepped in, and transported the tank to the national war museum in Viimsi, in the space of a day.
Michal: New Riigikogu should make bill clearer
Reform MP Kristen Michal, chair of the outgoing composition of the Riigikogu's Economic Affairs Committee, said that the president's decision to veto the law was expected.
"I believe it's only logical that the composition elected now discusses this again," Michal said. "My recommendation would be to discuss it again, not pass it again in its current form. I believe it can be written more clearly, but how long that will take — that will be demonstrated by the new makeup already."
He pointed out that it's currently already possible under the Law Enforcement Act to remove monuments posing a risk to public order, such as the so-called Narva tank — which was removed from its location on the left bank of the Narva River under government orders last August.
"But some sort of regulation is probably needed for the future that indicates what to do if a building or structure arises with which people start glorifying or justifying various war crimes or occupation," he acknowledged. "That's why this regulation is necessary; the question is how quickly it should come about, and whether it should come about with precisely such nuances. I think legislation can always be improved."
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Urmet Kook, Aili Vahtla