Nerves over Russia overshadow Estonian election
Estonians vote Sunday in an election marked by nerves in the vulnerable NATO member over a militarily resurgent Russia and a popular pro-Kremlin party, but opinion polls suggest the centre-left coalition is poised to return to power.
Moscow’s annexation of Crimea last year and its meddling in eastern Ukraine has galvanised the EU including this eurozone member of 1.3 million people, a quarter of whom are ethnic-Russian.
Military manoeuvres by Moscow on Estonia’s border days ahead of the vote are further stoking deep concerns in Europe that the Kremlin could attempt to destabilise countries that were in its orbit during Soviet times.
Prime Minister Taavi Roivas, at 35 the EU’s youngest head of government, is tipped to hold onto power.
Analysts expect his centrist Reform party to renew its coalition with the Social Democrats, buttressed in the 101-seat parliament by a smaller conservative party.
A TNS Emor opinion poll released on the election eve Saturday showed Reform leading with a forecast 26 percent of the vote, ahead of the pro-Kremlin opposition Centre party with 22 percent and the Social Democrats with 19 percent.
The conservative IRL commanded 16 percent, with six smaller parties also running.
Earlier opinion polls had showed Centre, backed mainly by ethnic Russians, narrowly ahead. But lacking coalition partners would make it unlikely to govern.
Russia’s former world chess champion and staunch Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov took to Facebook this week to express his “personal concern” over the Centre party’s popularity.
Centre leader Edgar Savisaar lost the trust of many Estonians last year when he pledged his support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
A former Communist Party member, the current Tallinn mayor was Estonia’s first premier after independence from the USSR in 1991.
– ‘Climate change’ –
“The current security situation will stay with us for a long period of time,” Roivas has said about Europe’s worst standoff with Russia since the Cold War.
“This is not just bad weather, this is climate change.”
He is part of a chorus of Baltic leaders demanding more NATO troops, hardware and extra air patrols to counter Moscow’s heightened military overtures.
NATO will boost defences on its eastern flank with a spearhead force of 5,000 troops and command centres in six formerly communist members, including one in Estonia.
“I’m rather worried about the potential threat from Russia,” said Katrin, a teacher from the capital Tallinn who declined to provide a surname but said she supported a pro-European party.
But on Estonia’s eastern border with Russia, voters are more sanguine about the threat posed by Moscow.
“How can Russia pose a threat to NATO?.. Are they all nuts? NATO has 28 countries,” Yevgenia, an ethnic Russian pensioner who declined to provide her surname, told AFP.
“We were promised living standards like in Finland, but each year it gets worse and more people have to pick over landfills to live,” she said of the city of Narva, among the poorest in the EU, where ninety percent of the 60,000 residents are ethnic-Russian.
Bread-and-butter issues, including proposals to triple the minimum wage to 1,000 euros a month ($1,131) and lower social security premiums, are also hot election topics.
Long a paragon of fiscal responsibility in the EU, which it joined in 2004, Estonia scored 1.8 percent GDP growth in 2014, with a 2.5 percent increase expected this year.
A record 33 percent of voters used a mouse click to cast ballots, thanks to cyber-savvy Estonia’s “e-Voting” system in early polling between February 19-25.
Polling stations open from 0700 to 1800 GMT Sunday.