Oudekki Loone of the Centre Party (Keskerakond) has stated that money from a restitution fund for those who lost property during the Soviet era was not to be allocated to churches, and voted in favour of halting the reading of a bill aimed at doing just that and championed by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas.
Speaking in the social media comments section of an article originally from Estonian daily Postimees yesterday, Ms. Loone, who is joined by five other Centre MPs in opposition to her own Centre Party leader, said that '"The government is entitled to do the things that they have promised at elections and for which they have received a mandate from the people, or which clearly arise from that mandate."
"One of the explicit mandates of the Centre Party is to put right the injustice that has been inflicted on forced tenants," she said referring to the people who had to vacate their dwellings as part of the reversion of properties to their pre-1940 owners following Estonian independence at the beginning of the 1990s.
Loone went on to say that 'abundantly' financing churches from the ownership reform reserve, which was not set out in the Centre party's election manifesto and which would tap into the reserve that might be used for other causes, is in no way consistent with the mandate that the fund was set up for.
"Utilising the use of the ownership reform reserve for the financing of churches and heritage conservation on an arbitrary basis will simply make it the government's backup contingency reserve, and forced tenants will very likely have to relinquish all hope, no matter whether or not [there is to be a] a register [of those who were forced to relinquish property]," she said.
The Economic Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu had decided to amend the draft legislation to enable all churches to seek money from the Ownership Reform Reserve Fund, it was announced on Monday.
Issue used for internal Centre Party wrangling?
Ms. Loone rejected speculation in the Postimees article that the Centre Party is trying to contain the so-called Edgar Savisaar camp within its ranks, including Loone, by putting off until next year the decision about the places of individual candidates on the party's ticket for the March 2019 general elections.
''This talk about places on the list of candidates is far-fetched intrigue. We are just doing our work," she said. She added that the coalition government of the Centre Party, Social Democrats (SDE) and Pro Patria (formerly IRL) is the best that can come out of the present makeup of the Estonian parliament (Riigikogu).
Postimees had reported in its Friday edition that the six votes given by Centre MPs in favour of cutting short the second reading of the bill is a clear message to Prime Minister Jüri Ratas that if the opinion of the Savisaar camp within the party is not taken into account, the dissidents will quit the party and thus destroy the government from inside.
Bill cuts across party divisions
According to Postimees, Ratas was obviously embarrassed about the outcome of the vote given coalition partner Pro Patria's close relationship with the church, particularly the Lutheran church in Estonia, and the importance that that party attaches to the bill.
Regardless of this, the Prime Minister managed to assuage Oudekki Loone's fears and those of the other five Centre MPs, leaving Pro Patria members seemingly disappointed with the opposition Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE), who voted against the bill despite being known to also be canvassing the 'christian' vote such as it is in Estonia.
The Centre Party MPs who voted against the bill -- Peeter Ernits, Olga Ivanova, Heimar Lenk, Oudekki Loone, Marika Tuus-Laul and Vladimir Velman -- explained to Mr Ratas, both Prime Minister and Party Chariman, that they just were not able to vote for money being taken for churches from the ownership reform reserve when no money has hitherto been given to forced tenants.
According to Heimar Lenk, the party has stood up for the rights of forced tenants for nearly 30 years and they intend to continue to do so for the forseeable future.
"There will be no compromise on this, and this may end with us taking seats in the 'window row' too. The Prime Minister knows this well," Lenk said referring to the seats reserved for non-aligned MPs in the Estonian legislative chamber.
Lenk described the establishment of a register of forced tenants in the near future with a view to eventually paying a compensation to these people as being crucial.
"Forced tenants number around 75,000–100,000, and they usually vote for the Centre Party. The Centre Party should thus stick to some of its old principles at least," Lenk told Postimees.
MPs from Centre and EKRE are not the only ones who have spoken in opposition to the bill. Hanno Pevkur of the Reform Party (Reformierakond) was another who wanted to remind members at the Riigikogu that the fund was principally set up to help those individuals who had forcibly lost their property.
''I'm sure noone in the hall opposes the giving of money to churches,'' he said, but noted that this shouldn't be done by subverting the current legal framework on the issue.
''If the government coalition has a desire to donate money to the churches, then it is necessary to find a legal way, not to twist the existing law," he said.
In practise the churches and property in question would primarily concern the longer-established Evangelical Lutheran Church of Estonia, as well as the Eastern Orthodox churches, most of which are aligned to the Moscow Patriarchy, with some others to the Constantinople Patriarchy.
The Catholic church in Estonia had been able to procure reconstruction funds from Tallinn City Government for its Cathedral in Vene Street early on this year.
Editor: Andrew Whyte
Source: BNS/ERR Uudised