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Kõlvart’s rise to Center Party stardom may change Estonian politics

Tallinn deputy mayor Mihhail Kõlvart has replaced Edgar Savisaar as the Center Party's superstar with Estonia's Russian-speaking electorate.
Tallinn deputy mayor Mihhail Kõlvart has replaced Edgar Savisaar as the Center Party's superstar with Estonia's Russian-speaking electorate. Source: (Siim Lõvi /ERR)

With former Center Party chairman Edgar Savisaar being pushed out of Estonian politics, and deputy mayor Mihhail Kõlvart getting more than 24,000 personal votes in the 2017 elections, a group is finally getting more attention again that was ignored by all but one party for more than ten years: the Russian speaking voters.

Following the Bronze Soldier Riots in 2007, the Reform Party, the Social Demcorats, the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), and later on also the Free Party categorically refused to work with the Center Party as long as it was Savisaar who dominated it.

Among other things this created a very practical option for election campaigns. As in the aftermath of the riots the Center Party was identified as in essence the “Russian” element in Estonian politics, it became an effective strategy especially for the conservative parties to pit themselves against Savisaar, and to make e.g. voting for the Reform Party the supposed only way to keep the Center Party and implicitly the obscurely defined “Russian” interests out of power.

That Estonian politics isn’t entirely over this mindset became clear over the last few weeks, when in the Tallinn campaign the Reform Party, despite several of its candidates arguing for more integration and better chances for the Russian-speaking people, took the same approach again. IRL wasn’t much different, making corruption under the already fading dominance of Savisaar’s wing of the Tallinn Center Party its main issue.

As daily Eesti Päevaleht wrote in its Wednesday editorial (link in Estonian), the emergence of Mihhail Kõlvart as the Center Party’s new star with the Russian-speaking electorate and Savisaar’s crash from tens of thousands of personal votes in the Lasnamäe district in the previous election to just a few thousand in this year’s creates the possibility of what the paper calls “a new age” of Estonian politics.

That Lasnamäe existed typically occurred to the other parties about six months before an election, if at all, the paper wrote. After Savisaar’s forced exit, as Center Party chairman, as mayor of Tallinn, and now as the party’s main vote magnet with the Russian speakers, there was a unique opportunity now for the other parties to start talking to the Russian electorate.

The Center Party has been preparing itself for a new political landscape for a while, if carefully. Before Sunday’s elections, they didn’t know how far they could go with their increasing rejection of Savisaar. Now that they know that they don’t depend on him anymore for the decisive 20,000 to 30,000 votes in Tallinn’s Lasnamäe district, they are even discussing putting an end to their agreement with him, and are reviewing their decision to keep him on as the party’s “history advisor”.

At the moment, they are the only ones putting any effort worth mentioning into talking to the Russian-speaking voters, but that could change.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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