Estonia has been tackling the question of regional administrative reform for the past several years; however, the endeavour has been rather futile, as different sides fought for more radical or mild variants of the controversial restructuring of local government.
Critics accused radical-minded reformers of turning back the clock to Soviet-era-style local government divisions and of excessive centralisation—a heavy charge for a country that is known to dislike centralisation. Conversely, others accused mild-minded reformers of squandering an opportunity to make significant change and of pandering to the plethora of local officials in such a small country. There were hints of corruption problems in various local councils as well.
The process must be completed well before the next local elections in the fall of 2002. The election is seen as vital, as it will be the final test before the general elections in the spring of 2003. Thus, the showing in the re-divided local councils is key for momentum going into 2003, and the pressure for how to re-divide the councils will mount as the weeks pass.
A host of problems
The enactment of such regional administrative reform will indeed be difficult and controversial in the near future, as various sides fight to retain or expand their interests. Issues of gerrymandering could erupt among the smaller districts forced to merge in full or in part, in turn brewing tension at the grassroots level of the country's politics.
However, politicians in Tallinn likely noticed various unscientific polls carried out on the Internet showing that urban residents are generally in support of more radical reforms that rural residents do not support. Also, party bigwigs generally do not lose much sleep over the collapse of a small rural council coalition, especially compared to one of the smaller or medium-sized city coalitions.
All this is the result of the decades-long trend of urbanisation in Estonian society, and the political damage for such reforms continues to be felt. However, the threat of some damage remains, thus the most radical versions of reform were discarded.
In the end, there is no way to satisfy everyone when the borders of local administrative districts are redrawn. The cities are likely not to be touched, though some powerful mayors could possibly lobby to "annex" some local units; Tallinn Mayor Jüri Mõis is a proponent of the "Greater Tallinn" idea.
A little gerrymandering
As mentioned earlier, gerrymandering will become a political hot topic, despite the general lack of impact little municipalities—even under the new, smaller scheme—will have on national politics, and all for a sense of pride and political points. How would a village dominated by some opposition party feel if they are incorporated into a larger district dominated by the ruling coalition?
There is also the issue of corruption in local councils. Anecdotal evidence in Estonia indicates that corruption is rife at the local level, compared to the national level, partly because property issues are dealt with locally. Officials in larger cities and towns are generally under more public scrutiny. However, with the collapsing of the number of local divisions, would this also be an opportunity for ambitious small town leaders to expand their fiefdoms?
One possible controversial area of restructuring the local administrative divisions would involve the minorities issue. As non-citizen permanent residents are allowed to vote in local elections, many districts populated by Russian-speaking non-citizens have elected a large numbers of Russian-speaking officials. How would this plan stand up if the ethnic balance is shifted in either direction? How would a district dominated by Russian-speakers feel if suddenly they fall into the minority?
How would a district dominated by ethnic Estonians feel if suddenly they were merged into a Russian-speaking district? Though the chances of such incidents are slim, they represent one of the possible problems of such reform in administrative divisions.
A chance wasted
The opportunity to reform the local administrative division system is a rare one, and this government has chosen to squander the opportunity. Earlier, Minister for Regional Administrative Reform Toivo Asmer called for a radical plan that would drastically shrink the number of local governments.
For good or bad, Estonia is a very small country—destined to be the second smallest in the European Union upon the next enlargement—at 45,227 square kilometres and about 1.44 million people. Looking at those numbers, it is ludicrous to have so many local governments. Almost half of the country's total population lives in the five biggest cities; in other words, just over half the country's population—about 750,000—live in 205 local municipalities and 37 towns.
Local governments, aside from the aforementioned corruption problem, also frequently face liquidity and budgetary problems, since they have to fund local services, such as education. Many municipalities run afoul of tight budgetary policies and fall into debt or even near bankruptcy, waiting for a national bailout.
There is simply no way to seriously monitor the spending practices of 247 local governments with effectiveness, and once every few weeks some scandal or budget crisis erupts in some smaller community. The relationship between central government and local governments is bound to become more complicated as state services and obligations expand with reform and EU integration. Furthermore, a plethora of local units could lead to massive bureaucratic problems and financial disputes for services.
It is indeed too bad that the government chose not to pursue the best administrative reform path. Prime Minister Mart Laar, known for his ability to push through radical plans that are at first unpopular, is apparently soft-stepping his way out of this controversy. The Laar government pushed through a decentralisation plan by moving the Education Ministry to Tartu at the middle of this year, despite the infrastructure and transportation problems.
Perhaps Laar has matured more as a politician than as a reformer, taking the politically advantageous step instead of the chance to make significant reform. Or perhaps it's just politics as usual in Estonia.
Mel Huang, 15 January 2001
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