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ERR News end-of-year review 2023

Baltic Pride 2023 in Tallinn, Saturday, June 10, 2023.
Baltic Pride 2023 in Tallinn, Saturday, June 10, 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi / ERR

As 2023 reaches its final days, ERR News sums up the most important and interesting events of the last year, month-by-month.

January – Security dominates public discussions

Edgar Savissare's funeral; was held on January 5, 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Former prime minister, founder of the Center Party, and longtime influential politician Edgar Savisaar's funeral was the first big political event of the year.

The number of Ukrainian refugees leaving Estonia surpassed those arriving for the first time since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion in March 2022 and public support remained high for helping refugees. While Russian interest in Estonian citizenship spiked, more than doubling on year.

Preparations to secure NATO's eastern flank continued, as the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) demonstrated HIMARS at Tapa, received 400 Swedish Carl-Gustaf M4 grenade launchers, and purchased 12 K9 self-propelled howitzers from South Korea. The U.K. defense minister visited Tapa. Shopping malls were marked up as public shelters. Baltic ministers also called for a new defense plan at the upcoming NATO summit. Soviet war grave markers started to be replaced with "neutral" black and white plaques.

HIMARS on display at Tapa Military Base on January 6, 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Estonia told the Russian embassy in Tallinn to reduce its staff. Later in the month, Russia expelled the Estonian ambassador.

Data showed that in 2022 Estonia's birth rate dropped to the lowest in 100 years, a subject that was much discussed over the year.

Estonian director Anna Hints was welcomed home with bouquets and sauna whisks after receiving a directing award at the Sundance Film Festival for "Smoke Sauna Sisterhood".

Political parties started gearing up for the Rigiikogu elections in March. Analysts predicted security and the economy would be the key issues. Rewatch ERR News' video interviews with party leaders here.

February – Election campaigning heats up as the economy cools down

Eesti 200 and Reform election posters. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The month was dominated by political campaigning and debates as the March 5 election drew near. Experts said there were few differences between party election campaigns. EKRE denied a Politico article that speculated on links between itself and Russia's Wagner Group.

A worsening economic outlook was in the background. Startups found it harder to raise funds and experts predicted a slowdown in the ICT sector. Supermarkets reported customers buying more discounted foodfood prices rose considerably on-year.

The annual Independence Day military parade was held in Tallinn. This year it was attended by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. At a press conference, von der Leyen said the EU would jointly procure ammunition for Ukraine, a scheme suggested by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform).

Kaja Kallas, Ursula von der Leyen, Jens Stoltenberg, and Hanno Pevkur at the Defense Forces parade, February 24, 2023. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Experts discussed what lessons have been learned from the full-scale invasion which started a year ago. The following day a captured Russian T-72 tank went on display in Tallinn.

New U.S. Ambassador to Estonia George P. Kent gave his first interview to ERR discussing Russia, Ukraine, and the U.S. Estonia had been without a U.S. ambassador for over four years until his arrival.

The polls opened at the end of the month for the Riigikogu election and more than 60,000 ballots were cast on the first day of advanced voting.

March – Elections, elections, elections

Reform's election night party. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

March was dominated by the elections and its fallout.

Reform won a landslide victory, while EKRE's outcome was worse than expected. Eesti 200 crossed the 5 percent threshold and entered the parliament for the first time. New turnout and e-voting records were set. Thirty women were elected – another new record.

EKRE attempted to contest the e-voting results of the election but gave up.

Coalition negotiations started between Reform, Eesti 200, and the Social Democrats and included legalizing same-sex marriage. They aimed to sign an agreement at the start of April.

Coalition negotiations between Reform, SDE and Eesti 200 started at Stenbock House on March 8, 2023. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Estonian politicians congratulated Finland on finalizing its bid to join NATO. Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) called for the annulment of the NATO-Russia Founding Act as cooperation with the country is "out of the question."

A funeral was held for the first Estonian known to have died fighting for Ukraine, Ivo Jurak, in Kyiv.

Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart (Center) said the capital will not give up its free public transport policy even though expenses have rapidly increased.

April – Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition entered office

Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition take office, April 17, 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Reform, Eesti 200 and SDE entered office after signing a coalition agreement. Four members were first-time ministers; eight ministers were men and five were women. A new Ministry of Climate was also announced.

New tax hikes would have been too unpopular to talk about pre-election, the prime minister said, though the coalition deal included a 2 percentage-point VAT hike, forecast to yield €220 million. A planned car tax was another surprise.

€200 per month was to be shaved off large families' benefits, a policy sponsored by Isamaa, now in opposition.

Pronski tänav roadworks in progress. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

A long summer of disruption in central Tallinn started as several infrastructure projects coincided, including a tramline extension to the ferry harbor.

Famed actor John Malkovich (The Glass Menagerie, Empire of the Sun, In the Line of Fire) visited Estonia.

May – Riigikogu filibustering got underway

King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia's trip to Tartu, Thursday, May 4, 2023. Source: Raigo Pajula / Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia

The Estonian Competition Authority rejected Ryanair's airport fee appeal, though the carrier continued to fly to and from Tallinn Airport.

Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia took the train from Tallinn to Tartu, while on official visit to Estonia.

The government extended the defense forces' general conscription term to 11 months across the board, from eight months in most cases.

Johanna-Maria Lehtme. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

An overnight Riigikogu filibuster set the tone at parliament for the rest of 2023, prompting the head of state to call for a resolution to the stalemate.

Johanna-Maria Lehtme, elected to the Riigikogu with Eesti 200, stepped down following embezzlement allegations at an NGO she headed, set up to aid Ukraine.

A medieval shipwreck discovered in Tallinn continued to confound the experts.

A dry spring and cold start to summer led to poor harvests through the summer and into fall, including potatoes, onions and even honey, and prompted the government to declare an emergency situation in agriculture.

June – Same-sex marriage legalized in Estonia

Baltic Pride 2023 in Tallinn, Saturday, June 10, 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi / ERR

Midsummer in Estonia passed off with the usual military parade for Victory Day (June 23), this time in Viljandi.

The longest days of the year coincided with the historic passage of a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Estonia, the first Baltic state, and only the second CEE nation after Slovenia, to do so.

Victory Day Parade in Viljandi, June 23, 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

The development was not without its critics, however, some of whom said the bill was steamrolled through the legislature.

59 public figures sent an open letter defending "traditional" marriage.

Elsewhere, Russia declared one of ERR's correspondents a "foreign agent."

July – Estonia headed to Vilnius NATO summit with clear goals

NATO summit in Vilnius. Source: Jürgen Randma/riigikantselei

The XIII Youth Song Festival "Püha on maa" took place at the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn and attracted an estimated 90,000 people, plus over 400,000 who watched on TV.

The Song Festival Grounds also hosted two major concerts later in summer as Depeche Mode and The Weeknd both appeared.

Traffic problems concertgoers from Latvia and Lithuania had going home prompted Estonian authorities to ask their Latvian counterparts what they intended to do about a dilapidated bridge.

The Weeknd appeared at the Tallinna lauluväljak in summer 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Also in Lithuania, the Vilnius NATO summit provided a focal point for potential Ukrainian membership, a key Estonian goal going into the summit and which found support from across the alliance.

Estonia's top tennis player of all time, Anett Kontaveit, saw her 13-year professional career end in defeat in Wimbledon round two. Her testimonial match against Ons Jabeur was set to take place later on in the year, in Tallinn.

August – 'Eastern transport scandal' dominated headlines

The Estonian national flag which recently returned from 275 days in earth orbit with the ISS. Source: Social Media

SpaceX took the Estonian flag into orbit for the first time.

Controversy over a personal data infringement committed by the University of Tartu was soon eclipsed by a story that soon became rather euphemistically known in the Estonian media as the "Eastern transport scandal."

President Alar Karis asked Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) to provide a more detailed explanation over reports a company part-owned by her spouse, Arvo Hallik, had continued to make deliveries of Estonian-made components to Russia.

The prime minister initially distanced herself, saying she had "nothing to hide," but as information came to light on the destination of part of a major loan she issued her husband, and its connection to the related companies, it put greater pressure on the premier, as did growing international media interest.

Kaja Kallas speaking to ERR in August 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Kallas told the international media she was the subject of a "witch hunt," and would be staying put, would weather the storm of any no-confidence motion brought by the opposition, and would even be seeking reelection as Reform Party leader (all of these things came true, as of year-end).

After holding out, the prime minister did eventually appear before the Riigikogu's anti-corruption committee to answer questions.

While much attention focused on Kallas, who had held a consistent line on not doing business with Russia after the 2022 invasion began, the company her husband was linked to was just one of over 300 in Estonia engaged in similar activity at the time the story first broke.

September – Ban on Russian-registered cars entering Estonia

People and cars waiting to cross into Russia at the Koidula border checkpoint in Setomaa, Southeastern Estonia. September 1, 2023. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

Estonia signed a contract to purchase German-made (infrared imaging system tail/thrust vector-controlled) (IRIS-T) SLM medium-range air defense systems.

A ban on Russian-registered cars entering Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania saw Finland and Poland follow suit.

The proposed car tax on Estonian-registered vehicles, however, remained unpopular, as did a decision to close Estonia's consulates on the U.S. East and West coasts, from 2024.

President Alar Karis and friends presenting World Cleanup Day at the UN. Source: Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia.

Brighter news included, metaphorically, over 54,000 people taking part in World Cleanup Day in Estonia alone – culminating in the UN naming it an official day – and, literally, a spectacular showing from the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.

September 2023 was Estonia's warmest September in recorded history. The nationwide average ambient temperature stood at 15.6 degrees Celsius, considerably higher than previous years.

October – Broken pipelines and budget negotiations

Damage to the Balticconnector pipeline. Source: Finnish Border Guard

The gas pipeline Balticonnector, running between Finland and Estonia, and two communication cables between Estonia, Sweden, and Finland were damaged at the start of the month. Authorities said evidence suggested the damage was "man made." An anchor for the Chinese ship Newnew Polar bear was found by the pipeline.

Budget discussions started and it passed the first reading at the end of the month. The opposition parties said it was confusing, lacked transparency, and hindered economic development. EKRE wanted to obstruct the bill and force extraordinary elections, but Isamaa and Center did not back the plan.

Estonia's biggest education union started salary negotiations with the national conciliator after the government did not agree to raise the average teacher's salary by 11 percent. Teachers held a protest outside the Riigikogu.

Margus Tsahkna in Zhytomyr oblast, Ukraine at the reopening of the Malyn Bridge on October 3, 2023. Source: Maksym Fedyshyn

The attack by Hamas in Israel, which killed over 1,000 people, dominated the global news cycle. Estonia sent aid to both Israel and Palestine, while Estonian politicians also fought to keep Ukraine on the agenda.

A bridge in Ukraine, rebuilt with Estonian funding and support, was reopened. An Estonian-funded kindergarten was reopened earlier in the summer.

November – Border closures and OSCE vetoes

Estonian-Russian border. Source: Dmitri Fedotkin/ERR

Finland closed its eastern border with Russia after hundreds of asylum seekers without documents were allowed to try and enter the country. Estonian authorities were concerned the situation would spread here, but after two incidents the border remained quiet.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs advised people to completely avoid traveling to Russia in case the border is suddenly closed.

Estonia's bid for the 2024 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was vetoed by Russia and Belarus. Minister of Foreign Affairs Margus Tsahkna (Eesti 200) called the move "blackmail." Malta will hold the role instead.

The warning strike at Kiili High School, Harju County. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Educators held a warning strike across Estonia. Teachers were offered a 4.3 percent pay rise, which the union rejected.

Kaja Kallas said she was open to being NATO's next leader.

EKRE continued to obstruct the Riigikogu.

The winter's first snowfall took place in the middle of the month.

December – Teachers' strike and Oscar shortlists

Border construction in South-Eastern Estonia. Autor/allikas: Leevi Lillemäe/ERR

Estonia's biggest education union called a strike for January 22 after salary negotiations with the government and national conciliator failed. The strike has no end date.

Poland's security chief said NATO's Eastern Flank has three years to prepare for Russian attack.

The Ministry of Interior said Estonia's eastern border will be completed by the end of 2025.

A still from "Eeva". Source: Kaader filmist

Former Prime Minister Andrus Ansip (Reform) called for Kaja Kallas to be replaced as party leader.

To end the year on a positive note, the government approved a new 2,000-hectare nature reserve, two Estonian animations were shortlisted for the Oscars, and preparations in Tartu are underway for the city's turn as European Capital of Culture 2024.

We hope you have enjoyed this end-of-year review. Some themes will of course continue into 2024. You can read more on this here.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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