Today a hundred years ago the Estonian Provincial Assembly (also called the Maapäev) declared itself the supreme power in Estonia. President of the Riigikogu and Estonia's longest-serving parliamentarian, Eiki Nestor, talks about the century that has passed, and how it affects what is happening in the Riigikogu today.
On Nov. 28, 1917, the first parliamentary assembly, even before the declaration of Estonia's independence in early 1918, affirmed Estonia's autonomy and declared itself the supreme power. With this step, it de jure established Estonia's independence from the Russian Empire, even if a few more weeks would pass before the Estonian Declaration of Independence.
President of the Riigikogu Eiki Nestor (SDE) took the time on Monday to talk to ERR News about the meaning of the decision back then, the events that have become history since, and explains the basic assumptions and convictions behind the way the Estonian state works today.
ERR News: The Estonian parliament, the Riigikogu, is the country's most important political institution. How is the spirit of Estonia's first parliamentary assembly, the 1917 Maapäev, still alive today?
Eiki Nestor: In my Tuesday speech I'm saying that every people has its own history, its own life that starts at some point. On Nov. 28 we celebrate our official act of self-determination, but in the sense of the state you could say that it was the actual beginning of our biography. There has been disagreement as well whether to celebrate Nov. 28 rather than Feb. 24, now Independence Day.
And the spirit, the desire of the people to be free, that has been around for longer anyway. You couldn't say that it occurred all of a sudden 100 years ago. But what you can say is that the moment was right, that what people had carried with them for a long time got its chance in the circumstances at the time, with the First World War and the weakness and the confusion of the Russian central government.
So I believe that this spirit is still around, the spirit that sees us in this one place on the globe where we keep our language and culture alive, where we look after the Estonian people. We had it before 1917, we have it today, and we'll still have it in 2117.
The Estonian assemblies and parliaments went through emancipation, independence, war, an authoritarian period, occupation, the Singing Revolution, and the accession to the European Union and NATO. They have been at times manipulated, abused, and hijacked. Still, there is almost no criticism of Estonia's system of parliamentary democracy. Why is that?
You could say that back then they came out of a great dictatorship that had lasted for a long time. And back then they clearly thought that a parliamentary system is the right form of government. The Estonian Constituent Assembly had its roots in the Maapäev as well, and appointed the Salvation Committee, which declared Estonia's independence.
In much the same way what happened during the War of Independence as well as the Constituent Assembly all goes back to the Maapäev. And the constitution that eventually grew out of all this was considered one of the most democratic and open constitutions of its time, and perhaps was vulnerable because of this as well.
Today's Constitution, which we adopted in a referendum decades later and celebrated in June this year, includes the lessons learned from the mistakes made then. The most important basic principles in my opinion are that Estonia is a parliamentary democracy, which means that it's the parliament that makes all the biggest and most important decisions, and not someone else, with the president's role being to balance it.
Looking at the last 100 years we've made the experience here that, in today's numbers, 101 people together are less likely to be wrong than a single individual.
Another thing that distinguishes the Riigikogu is the possibility of consensus. You don't see as much strong-arming here as elsewhere, and e.g. last year's presidential election showed that the different parties can find common ground.
Well the consensus in last year's presidential election was rather exceptional, all the other attempts unfortunately ended up going nowhere. But there are two policy areas, for example, where everyone agrees almost without exception, and that is Estonia's defense and foreign policy. Here we have consensus without any bigger political debates.
We may fight over taxes, budgets, benefits, corporate law, whatever issue where people have different views and where this is natural and understandable in a democracy. But our foreign and security policy is based on consensus. There are those with different opinions here as well, but they make up a very small group and have no real influence.
Naturally there's a sad aspect here as well, although it's written into the Constitution and quite logical, and that's the fact that the voters' relationship with those they elect is also defined by the parliament, which means that any love or resentment in politics is for the Riigikogu to bear, not the president or the government.
This is an inevitable fact of life here, but actually a very good thing. If a state is built this way, this means that if there's a debate in society it will translate into a debate in parliament as well. In a presidential system that doesn't need to be the case.
There are those who would like to amend the existing system. Is there a need to change it?
The principle of Estonia as a parliamentary state will definitely remain. There are people here who think that it should be different, for example those who would like the system to be more strongly focused on the president. This is based on the wish of some of the voters to see a single "face" of the state, they see having to deal with a parliament as a downside.
They would like a single person to be responsible. This is easier to understand for some, while the workings of a parliament are more complicated. But I think that this kind of principle won't change here in Estonia. There are certain political forces who would like to see it done that way, that the president should first of all be elected directly, and then a good president of course wants to do good for their people, so the president needs to be given powers, and so on.
And this would then be the single leader of the state, so to say, who takes care of things. Of course there are examples of countries I'm too polite to name here where a few decades ago, there was a parliamentary order that was strong enough that nobody even knew who the president was, but now the whole world knows their president, if only because they're arresting officers, judges, journalists. Anyone who disagrees ends up in prison, and all of it because a single individual wields as much power.
I think Estonia has learned from this kind of thing and won't end up in this trap again.
What does the Riigikogu's future look like, what are the biggest challenges you expect in the next year?
Generally speaking the current Riigikogu is gearing up for its most difficult year. Next year's most important decisions will be made in the first half of the year, while life has taught us that the parties will slow down and rather deal with the upcoming elections (to take place in spring 2019; ed.).
In that sense we have a bit of a bitter half year ahead of us, I would say. And most of what will be going on will have to deal with what's happening in the EU and in NATO.
Compared to a hundred years ago, and also compared to the time when Estonia lost its independence, I think the world has developed a great deal, and sees the cooperation of countries who share the same values as a strength rather than a weakness. And I think the awareness of this will last us a long time, as Estonia can't just disconnect itself from where it is and row over to, say, somewhere between Iceland and Britain.
We are where we are, and our strength lies with our allies. We need to take care of what matters to us, yes, but we also need to understand that this cooperation makes us stronger.
One thing I want to say on the occasion of the Maapäev's anniversary is that we're thinking about the future in much broader terms than just the current Riigikogu. The youngsters who are members of today's Maapäev, who will present their Manifesto on Tuesday, I like to think of them as the Riigikogu's future members. Looking at the content and the spirit of this document as well as their skill in putting it together, I'm convinced that Estonia's future is in good hands.
Thank you for the interview.
Editor: Dario Cavegn