Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Estonia's New Coalition Government

After weeks of negotiations, an agreement on a new coalition government in Estonia was today finally reached. Thus, for the next four years, Estonia will be ruled by a government of Reformists, the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), and the Social Democrats. That is, if the coalition partners will be able to see eye to eye in the long run.

Until now, the track record for Estonian governments has for most part been less than a year in office. Still, the 4 March election results proved an exception from this rule, as the Prime Minister, Andrus Ansip, retained support for staying in office for the first time since Estonia regained independence in 1991. Consequently, the main goal of coalition talks seems to have been to maintain the political stability that the elections formed a basis for.

Still, as previously reported, next to everything seemed up for grabs after the 4 March parliamentary elections. The only clear thing was that Prime Minister Ansip's Reform Party would take the lead in government formation talks. Who the other government coalition partners would be was however unclear. How great an importance that in the end would be given to a broader and more stable government was the great question in Tallinn. Speculations on a grand coalition have been frequent and for long there were many indications in this direction. One obvious result of the coalition now formed is that the Reformists have left out both their old coalition partners in the previous government, namely the Centre Party and the People's Union.

That Edgar Savisaar's Centre Party would not form part of a new government came as no surprise, as Reformists and Centrists had been the main contenders for power during the election campaign. However, also the Estonian People's Union was left out, which may be attributed to its losing almost half its votes in the elections.

Still, this was not a foregone conclusion as also the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), which forms part of the new government coalition, suffered a similar fate. The conservative IRL was previously the biggest opposition party in parliament - the Riigikogu - but what perhaps was decisive for including the IRL was that its election loss was expected in contrast to that of the People's Union. It was also quite clear at an early stage that Reformist coalition-builder Ansip would opt for including the IRL in the new government.

One potential partner that particpated in the race for government power was the Green Party, which entered parliament for the first time by the elections. That this did not become the case was probably due to the same reasons motivating its inclusion: It might have proven quite gullible for the other coalition parties once in government. Consequently, Green Party leader Marek Strandberg characterised the reasons for leaving coalition talks thus: "The current situation reminds us of a school excursion to the Tallinn meat factory, after which the temptation to test the sausage considerably diminishes."

As the Green Party abandoned coalition talks, Prime Minister Ansip was left to broker a deal with the Social Democrats. In the end, it turned out that the Reformists and the IRL would have to pay a high price for winning over the Social Democrats. All in all, the coalition package will be a staggering 47 billion kroons - the equivalent of 3 billion euros - for covering the reforms of the three government partners. Such state expenditures will only add to Estonia's problems of an already precariously overheated economy.

The costly coalition deal has led to massive critique from Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar. The Centrists themselves were heavily criticised during the election campaign for making irresponsible and populist promises of expensive reforms that might topple the Estonian economy. For the Centrists, this might have proven a decisive factor for losing the elections. Thus, Savisaar now argues that "Ansip has chosen the road to Golgotha for the new government." This might well be true, but such a statement also raises the question whether the Centre Party may reach resurrection in the next elections. It is true that Savisaar will only be 61 years old in 2011, but considering his health problems, he might well exit the political stage much earlier. Thus, rumours of his political immortality may be greatly exaggerated. Without Savisaar's dominant and all-exclusive leadership of the Centrists, the party would probably fall apart within weeks, as there is no clear successor, and nobody could shoulder Savisaar's role of constant fighter. Perhaps, there is no wonder that his wife, Vilja Savisaar, takes an increasingly active part in the party's top-level decision-making.

Still, regardless of Savisaar's future, the Centre Party is on the retreat. The Estonian people decisively opted for political stability and continued reform and modernisation to fully integrate with the European Union. Here, the Centrists have little to offer. The great challenge now for the new government is to realise the people's hopes. Regrettably, the costly coalition deal fares ill for the new government's prospects to fulfill the hopes for the brighter future the Estonians so much desire.

Update: Mart Laar on Thursday declared that he will himself not seek inclusion in the new Estonian cabinet. Instead, he will concentrate on developing the new Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) to seek leadership of the unified party. Stepping aside of government duties also gives Laar the opportunity to lead IRL in the 2011 elections without the political burden a cabinet post might have involved.

A surprise in the new cabinet is the inclusion of Jüri Pihl as Minister of the Interior. Pihl has previously headed the Estonian security police (KAPO), and also been Prosecutor General. Until now, Pihl has been unpolitical, but will now represent the Social Democrats in cabinet, which further strengthens the impression of a coming SDE stronghold on Estonian politics. Pihl is widely believed to have close relations with Western structures and has also been close to Aleksander Einseln, former Commander in Chief of the Estonian Armed Forces.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Minsk Opposition Rally Gathers 15,000

This Sunday saw the biggest opposition demonstrations in Minsk since the April protests against the presidential elections last year, prolonging Lukashenka's rule over Belarus. An estimated 15,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the Academy of Sciences to listen to Alyaksandr Milinkevich and other opposition leaders, in commemoration of the first shortlived Belarusian National Republic of 1918.

This time, authorities used milder methods to thwart the demonstrations than the violence seen last year. Thus, some 50 opposition activists throughout Belarus had been arrested prior to the rally, in order to complicate its organisation. The march was also led away from the city centre, and police repeatedly urged people to dissolve the "illegal demonstration." Furthermore, the Lukashenka regime had staged a number of concerts to draw attention away from the opposition rally.

Demonstrations must be seen as a test of oppositional strength and resilience. The opposition has for long been torn by internal struggles and conflicts, which has been skilfully exploited by the Lukashenka regime. With increasingly strained relations to Moscow, Lukashenka has recently signalled rapprochement and dialogue with the West, and here the predominantly western-oriented opposition is once again seen as an obstacle to the president's plans.

Speaking at the rally, former presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, called for political freedom and for the long-term inclusion of Belarus into the European Union. Referring to the international isolation of the Lukashenka regime, Milinkevich said: "We should understand that we are not alone. The democratic world and Europe stand together with us."

As a token of oppositional unity, the demonstration must be seen as a great success. Still, the opposition coalition remains fundamentally divided, and Alyaksandr Kozulin, who came second in last year's presidential elections, is currently serving a 5 1/2 year prision sentence for his political activities. So, as Milinkevich called out to the masses that "We are the majority! We will win!" it is questionable if this is enough to overthrow the Lukashenka regime. As long as the opposition remains divided, majority is not the issue - unity is.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Politkovskaya's Heritage Lives On

Today, public readings of texts by Anna Politkovskaya will be held in 20 countries and 80 places worldwide. With half a year passed since the heinous murder of Russian journalist and regime critic Politkovskaya, she now stands out as an international symbol for the freedom of speech.

This is the second year that the German Peter Weiss Foundation organises international public readings disclosing political lies, and it is intended that 20 March will henceforth serve as an "Anniversary of the Political Lie." Last year's event was dedicated to the lies surrounding the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Weiss Foundation initiative is supported by a number of prominent organisations worldwide, among which are International PEN and Reporters Without Borders. That this year's event is dedicated to the memory of Anna Politkovskaya and the exposed position of journalists in Russia, is a worthy tribute to Politkovskaya's commitment to reveal the truth and expose the abuse of power. Today, her voice is heard worldwide, advocating freedom of speech and an open society.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Russia Silences its Free Voices?

Will the Kremlin's grip on Russian freedom of speech tighten further? This fear has grown stronger in recent days, as president Putin this week decided to merge two state agencies responsible for media and communication. The new superauthority may pose a serious threat to both independent media and a free blogosphere in Russia. The agency will both control the media and the technical means for delivering it.

On 12 March, president Putin signed a decree "On a Federal Monitoring Service in the sphere of mass media, communications, and protection of the cultural heritage." Accordingly, agencies responsible for monitoring media, Rosokhrankultura, and communications, Rossvyaznadzor, are to be merged. The new agency will thus be given the powers to comprehensively monitor both printed and Internet media, increasing possibilities for sanctions against the whole spectre of media coverage. This includes not only electronic media but also the Russian blogosphere, e.g. by keeping records on and intervening against oppositional bloggers.

As it already is, the position of Russian regular media is precarious to say the least. Except murders and mysterious deaths of critical journalists on what must now be regarded a regular basis, it has become everyday business for Russian government and financial interests to impose pressure on various media to sack journalists that will not go with the stream. For example, in 2004, Raf Shakirov was sacked from Izvestiya due to his coverage of Beslan, and last year got an official warning for writing about the Danish Mohammed drawings. These are also some of the voices who have now protested against Putin's new decree.

What is most worrisome with the new agency is that it possesses all means necessary to suppress the freedom of speech exercised in printed media and on the Internet. Thus, the agency will issue and revoke licences for both media publication and technology. Furthermore, the agency will have the resources to also monitor all forms of media, providing it with the tools necessary to quickly intervene whenever information is deemed "unfit" for public consumption.

All in all, this means that previous restrictions on printed and televised media now will be extended to all forms of online media, including the blogosphere. With these powers, the agency may close down servers hosting "inappropriate material," trace individual users - read bloggers - and bring charges against people exercising their freedom of speech, if it contradicts the interests of state.

As traditional media in Russia has been increasingly curtailed in its freedoms during the Putin presidency, the demand for alternative media has drastically increased. Here, the blogosphere has offered the forum for the free exchange of thought and ideas no longer granted the official media. Today, the Russian blogger community is the second largest on the American blog provider LiveJournal, or Живой Журнал (ЖЖ), as it is commonly referred to by Russian bloggers.

Internet has offered people an alternative arena to freely express the diversity of views we normally associate with exercising the unalienable rights of modern society. Now, the Russian government once more turns against the very same constitutional principles that it is set to uphold. In such a Russia, Big Brother watches you: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. The question for the future is: Who will first shout "Down with big brother!"

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Latvia: From President to Film Star?

With only a few months left in office, Latvian president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga might ponder upon her future career. Having failed to become UN Secretary General, she soon enters a new life - possibly as a movie star. Admittedly, this might be a grave exaggeration, as the film in question will be a documentary on Vīķe-Freiberga, and thus probably not a box-office hit.
As a new president will move into Riga castle on 1 July this year - possibly Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete - Vīķe-Freiberga might reflect upon how to assume her rightful role in history books. However, she might not have to think for long, as a documentary film on her life has recently been put into production.

The documentary is to illustrate Vīķe-Freiberga's lifetime achievements against the backdrop of Latvian history from the 1920s. The director, Vilnis Kalnaellis, will have full access to the presidential film and video archives. The "Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga story" will not be opening at theatres before the end of the year, but the film is intended to be launched on the international as well as the domestic market.

However, public expectations might be higher for a potential sequel in four years' time - possibly starring Sandra Kalniete. The fact is that a "Sandra Kalniete story" might prove much more interesting for a movie audience than that of Vīķe-Freiberga.

In 2001, Kalniete published a book about the deportation of her family to Siberia during the Stalin era - With dancing shoes in Siberian snows (Ar balles kurpēm Sibīrijas sniegos). The story of her early life became an international bestseller and Kalniete was awarded several literary prizes for the book. So, one should perhaps keep one's fingers crossed for Kalniete to assume the Latvian presidency this spring - at least if you are a documentary film bum.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

What Government for Estonia?

Defying all odds and opinion polls, the Reform Party stands as victor of Estonia's parliamentary elections this Sunday. Thus, Savisaars populist Centre Party was beaten by a close 1.7% margin. Together, the two reluctant coalition partners now form a majority of votes in the Estonian Parliament - the Riigikogu. It is, however, too early to say if Reformists and Centrists will continue their government cohabitation. In essence, the upcoming government formation may present almost any combination of parties in a coalition cabinet.

Sunday's election results must be characterised as a landslide victory for the Reformist Party, led by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. The party went from 17.7% support (19 seats) in the 2003 parliamentary elections to 27.8% (31 seats) now, thus increasing its support by 10% of the electorate. Thus, the Reformists will dominate the 101 seats' parliament as its single largest party, and Ansip has also been asked to form a new government by President Ilves. Ansip is also the first Estonian Prime Minister to survive an election, and the second Baltic after Latvia's Aigars Kalvītis. This does not necessarily mean that the current government coalition will remain in power. To the contrary, the election campaign has been very tough between the main coalition partners - Reformists and Centrists. Still, it might be a good idea to keep track of reservations at Tallinn restaurant Balthasar in coming days, to see whether a new "garlic coalition" may be reformed.

Concerning Edgar Savisaars Centre Party, it held its ground, and went from 25.4% (28 seats) in 2003 to 26.1% (29 seats) in the current elections. Due to the mentioned antagonism between the Centrists and Reformists during the election campaign, few observers believe that the parties will continue their government cohabitation. Still, together they would form an absolute majority in the Riigikogu, which might partly serve as a convenient solution to governability and partly marginalise the opposition. Despite indications to the contrary, this option should not be too lightly ruled out.

As for the third government coalition partner, the Estonian People's Union, the party remains in parliament, although almost halving its votes from 13% (13 seats) in 2003 to the now 7.1% (6 seats). The People's Union is a populist and nationalist agrarian party. The party, founded by former president Arnold Rüütel, has been in government with both the Reformists and Res Publica (now IRL - cf. below), and was also a coalition partner in the outgoing Ansip cabinet. Consequently, it might prove very convenient for Ansip to form a consistent right-wing government of Reformists, IRL, and the People's Party.

What might, at first sight, appear as the great election loser is the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL). In comparison to 2003, the party went from 31.9% (35 seats) to Sunday's result of merely 17.9% (19 seats). This result was however expected, and IRL actually had a stronger showing than expected. Last spring, the two conservative parties - Pro Patria and Res Publica - merged to unify the conservative electorate, which also made it Estonia's biggest opposition party. However, prior to unification, Juhan Parts' Res Publica government had been ousted, marginalising the party in Estonian politics. In view of this, the unified party's result in Sunday's elections was better than expected, despite the fact that it lost almost half its seats in parliament. Some of this loss may also be attributed to the Christian Democrats, which competed for the same votes as IRL and did not reach the 5% parliamentary threshold. As for IRL's potential for forming part of a new government, Reform Party leader Ansip hinted in this direction before the Sunday elections. However, judging from results, a Reformist-IRL coalition would need a third party to form a workable parliamentary majority. Together, the two parties occupy 50 parliamentary seats, falling below absolute majority by a single seat.

Such a partner might well be the Social Democrats, which also increased its votes from 7% (6 seats) in 2003 to 10.6% (10 seats) now. Prime Minister Ansip has also hinted that a leftist alternative might be preferrable, but whether this might include the Social Democrats or the Centre Party is unclear. Personal animosity between leading Reformists and Social Democrats is a factor that must be calculated with in this context, and in the end this might rule out a Social Democratic role in government.

Another alternative to a non-centrist government is the newcomer to Estonian politics, namely the Green Party. With 7.1% of votes (6 seats) they passed the parliamentary threshold with a wide margin. Speaking for such an alternative would be that a new party might be quite gullible for the other coalition parties once in government. A coalition between Reformists, the People's Union, and the Greens - as well as other combinations - is an unexptected option that might present too tempting an alternative to resist for Ansip.

All in all, next to everything seems up for grabs at the moment. As the obvious government former, Reform Party leader Ansip might choose next to any coalition partners he sees fit, and the few contradictory indications he has made so far only add to the impression of an unpredictable political landscape in the country. Still, the main result of the elections is - as a matter of fact - that relative political stability has been achieved for the first time since Estonia regained independence in 1991. As its neighbour Latvia, Estonia now strengthens the tendency towards a more robust political system in the Baltic States. This, in itself, constitutes a great success, regardless of which parties in the end will form the next government.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Russia: The Death of a Journalist

Another mysterious death of a critical journalist mars Russian media, Kommersant reports. Ivan Safronov, aged 51, was found dead at the entry of his Moscow apartment building on Friday afternoon. Authorities label the death a suicide in lack of other viable explanations. Still, the tragedy remains an enigma to friends, colleagues and family, as Safronov had no obvious reason for committing suicide. This raises questions about foul play.

Ivan Safronov was a relatively well-known security and military reporter for the Russian newspaper Kommersant. As a retired colonel, he had unique insight into the workings of the Russian security community. Safronov was also known as an outspoken critic to influential groups among the so called siloviki. His openness sparked irritation amongst high-ranking security officials, and only the other years the Federal Security Service (FSB), made allegations against him for disclosing state secrets. However, charges were dropped since Safronov had shown that his sources were openly accessible on the Internet.

Concerning the circumstances surrounding Safronov's untimely demise, they are equally simple as enigmatic. As previously stated, the journalist was found dead at the entry of his Moscow apartment building. Apparently, he had fallen from a staircase window on the fifth floor of the house, situated a couple of floors above his own apartment. Left behind him on the landing was a bag of oranges, which only adds to the peculiarity of the case. There were no eyewitnesses to the event, although some students heard a loud thump, as Safronov apparently hit the ground. Calling for an ambulance, the students were rejected with the words: "We can't pick up every drunkard in Moscow on a Friday night."

Then, did anyone push Safronov out of the window? Probably not. He was quite a sturdy man, so throwing him out of a window would have taken at least a couple of people and had probably stired quite some commotion. Also, none of Safronov's neighbours heard anything, and there were no signs of struggle by the third floor window. Still, questions linger on among fellow journalists in both Russia and abroad. Hence, the propensity in the media to cite all circumstances surrounding Safronov's death.

So, should one assume that Safronov fell victim to enemies within the security establishment? As of now, there is no evidence to support this. Still, why Safronov would kill himself, as authorities assume, remains a mystery as there were no indications in this direction prior to his death. So, is the international attention to this case only an attempt to exploit the tragic death of an individual? Perhaps, and perhaps not. The reasons for Safronov's death will probably remain an enigma for posterity to solve. In the meantime, it will be recorded as the death of yet another critical Russian journalist, and thus only add to the image of how exposed the position of media is in current Russia. Let us but hope that this does not serve to obscure the human tragedy of Safronov's death.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Estonia's e-voting Elections

As Estonia is approaching parliamentary elections on Sunday 4 March, it is becoming the first country in the world to use electronic voting over the Internet in national elections. Since the web ballots opened this Monday, more than three percent of the electorate have cast their votes using the Internet. Although this is not more than some 30,000 voters, the introduction of web voting in national elections must be considered a great success.

Estonia is not new to electronic voting. The first proposals were raised already in 2001, but then the President vetoed the decision. Thus, it was not until the 2005 local elections that the system was put to the test. Then, not more than 9,000 people used the Internet for voting. Now, when three days remain till the elections, more than three times the number of voters have chosen electronic voting. For practical reasons though, voting was limited to 26-28 February, presumably coinciding with the time allowed for general preliminary voting. Of these votes, the electronic ones constituted some 19%, which is an impressive figure.

What about practicalities then? It is really quite simple. You need access to the web, a national identification card, and a card reader the cost of 6-7 euro. Then you are set to vote. As many Estonians already are used to filing their income tax declarations in this way, many voters already have everything needed for casting their votes on the Internet.

Then, what if you regret your choice come election day? The principle is simple. Electronic votes are considered preliminary votes, and you simply go to your polling station, withdraw your preliminary - electronic - vote and then cast your vote as usual. It is as easy as that. The question is how many people actually will do that. Experiences of preliminary voting show that only a fraction of votes cast ahead of elections are altered on election day. So, as the system will work nicely when a solid majority is expected, it will probably be questioned when it comes to close elections. Also, as with all preliminary procedures of this kind, allegations of election fraud might possibly be raised. Still, Estonians trust their preliminary voting system - electronic or not.

So, why is it that a small country on the Baltic Sea becomes the first country in the world to allow electronic voting in national elections? Estonia is considered the world's most web-dense country. For young people, using the Internet for daily chores has become a habit. As for e-voting, this is also the group expected to use this opportunity the most - at least judging from the 2005 local elections, when most e-voters were under the age of 35. Whether e-voting will influence election results remains to be seen. The election campaign remains very tough until the last moment, and one should not preclude the possibility that e-voters might miss out on political events in the days remaining till the Sunday elections.