The age of enlightenment in Estonia

[ANALIZĂ Buletin Nr. 7] Kevin TAMMEARU |


A text message on election night in 2019 paved the way to a government with a far-right coalition partner. It was a short message: “Are you sleeping?” sent by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas who had just lost the election. He was not ready to give up his seat. The winners of the election, the Reform Party under the leadership of Kaja Kallas, were invited by the President to form a government, but with little success – there was already a different deal in the works. And they were not part of it.


Instead, the Center Party formed a coalition with two partners: a conservative party (Fatherland) who had performed relatively poorly in the elections and a far-right populist party that had gained a significant increase in parliament seats. The leader of the far-right party (Conservative People’s Party) at the time, Mart Helme, was the recipient of that text message.

For nearly two years the government went from one scandal to another[1][2][3]. At some point it even seemed that one scandal was solved by having another come up. Most of these were as a result of what members the Conservative People’s Party and their ministers did or said. At times this was addressed towards Estonia’s allies and serious enough for the President to convene the national defense council[4].

This experiment allowed the far-right party to bend what was considered socially acceptable political discourse and stress-tested the strength of Estonia’s democratic institutions. They were strong enough to withhold this pressure and to a degree had their part in closing this chapter[5] and bringing forward a new enlightenment era in Estonia.

On January 12th this year the Internal Security Service and the Public Prosecutor’s Office notified the public of an ongoing investigation and suspicion that placed the Center Party and 5 other individuals in a corruption case. Among those people were also Center Party’s secretary general and the advisor to the Minister of Finance. The Minister of Finance was from the Conservative People’s Party and had become chairman of the party when his father stood down from the position.

Jüri Ratas resigned the next morning. That same night the leader of the Conservative People’s Party received a text message. Their show was over.


It was time for Estonia to return to the main program[6]. That of being an open, forward looking, forward thinking country that has strong relationships with its partners and a focus on developing its core strengths. This will undoubtedly be a challenge, with the nation still healing from some of the open wounds the previous government left, not to mention the countless scars.

So here came a second chance for Kaja Kallas and the Reform Party[7] to form a coalition. The experience of forming a government the last time was still a vivid memory in the eye of the public and the party[8], which meant they had to play their cards just right.

Interestingly, this also meant a second chance for the Center Party[9], as the coalition talks went forward between these two parties. Two historic adversaries (and members of the same European party, ALDE) that had jointly shared the responsibility of governance only once before. This was nearly two decades ago and was led by Siim Kallas, father of Kaja Kallas and founder of the Reform Party.

The Reform Party and this new coalition will undoubtedly have to fight issues related to corruption. Jüri Ratas, the prime minister stepping down, was not part of the coalition talks and the head of the talks for Center Party, Mailis Reps, is not part of the newly formed government. She also recently stepped down[10] with the shadow of corruption cast over her.

These will be challenging years ahead, with the main decision-makers from Center Party not assuming minister positions. But the real challenge is elsewhere. There is a looming health crisis, a resulting economic crisis and a nation that needs its social fabric restored.


With a lot at stake, the coalition went forward with a relatively vaguely worded agreement[11], but with a cabinet that boasts Estonia’s first female prime minister, highest number of female ministers[12] and a drive to put the country back on track. Political analysts and commentators do not expect a lot of significant reforms from this coalition[13] that has been dubbed as a crisis-government.

However, one could would argue that returning to Estonia’s former path (although with its own issues), to a constructive political discourse and to transparent decision-making is a significant reform in itself. That is, if the point of comparison is that of the previous coalition.

A lot of contrast between the outgoing and incoming government even with one of the parties continuing. And while the coalition agreement[14] is considered ambiguous, there are already signs of reform in thinking about international relations, digital transformation, climate change and of course, pandemic relief.


Looking at the coalition agreement and some of the more recent statements, its evident that digital transformation is again a strategic element across all areas. After all, it is the digital transformation that enabled Estonia to become e-Estonia[15], a digital republic that shows the way and gives advice and direction to countries big or small.

As such, the prime minister stated that proactive and events-based services are at the top of the agenda. Proactive services[16] here in a simplified way refer to public service design by which the service is initiated by the public sector, rather than the person. An example is that when a citizen’s drivers license is about to expire, the motor vehicle’s agency sends a reminder about this to the citizen. Same thing with passports and ID-cards.

A more complex case is with child support that the state provides from birth to adolescence. A proactive service here means that the parents would not have to fill applications, rather the state already suggests that they are eligible to this support. This government will see a continuation (hopefully even an amplification) of a wider process that’s already been ongoing for several decades.

There is now also strong support to a policy by which at least 1% of the GDP is allocated to research and development and a focus on private sector innovation.


A stronger turn of tone is however seen in climate policy and energy with a move towards renewables, climate and carbon neutrality. A significant challenge however lies within a state in North-East of Estonia, Ida-Virumaa. The biggest employers and economic contributors there are oil shale miners and energy producers.

With an ambition to stop producing oil shale power by 2035 and using oil shale entirely in the energy sector by 2040, the region is looking at large-scale changes in its underlying economy and, if executed poorly, a lot of resentment from the locals. The region also happens to be a main stronghold for the Center Party.


In foreign policy and international relations, the Reform Party has historically prioritized membership in international organizations such as the EU, UN, NATO, OECD, OSCE and a close relationship to western countries. The coalition agreement strongly states that this direction will continue with focus on working within the EU and NATO. But even more, it underlines the importance of transatlantic ties and the relationship with the US.

There is also a positive notion towards the relationship between Estonia and Moldova, as the agreement gives way to more attention in the support of Eastern Partnership countries. Specifically supporting the establishment of free and democratic societies with strong institutions.

While it’s clear that Kaja Kallas has significant challenges ahead of her, there is a rejuvenated feeling of confidence and a general good will towards her ability to lead the country through this bumpy road. There is once again hope for meaningful and positive change in the country.

Kaja Kallas (on the right) and her government appointed to office by the President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid (on the left). Photo: Ken Mürk/ERR

[1] Estonian World, “Estonia’s populist interior minister: the “Reds” attempt to liquidate Finland

[2] Estonian World, “Estonian far-right minister resigns after a day in office

[3] Estonian World, “A member of the Estonian Public Broadcasting’s board calls TV hosts “sodomites”

[4] ERR, Estonian Public Broadcasting, “President convening defense council Monday to discuss US-Estonian relations

[5] ERR, “Jüri Ratas resigns as prime minister following loan scandal

[6] Financial Times, “Estonia set to have new government led by first female PM

[7] ERR, “President to ask Reform leader Kaja Kallas to form new coalition

[8] ERR, “Political analyst: We could see a repeat of 2019

[9] Estonian World, “Estonia has a serial criminal party in the government – again

[10] ERR, “Mailis Reps steps down as education minister

[11] ERR, “Kallas: Coalition agreement will be general

[12] Estonian World, “Kaja Kallas becomes Estonia’s first female prime minister

[13] ERR, “Analyst: Great reforms not expected from new government

[14] ERR, “Coalition agreement: Center-Reform government 2021-2023

[15] The New Yorker, “Estonia, The Digital Republic

[16] e-Estonia, “Proactive governance enhances service delivery in Estonia

Acest material a fost elaborat în cadrul proiectului The Best Way: Periodic Bulletin finanţat de către Fundaţia Friedrich Naumann pentru Libertate (FNF). Opiniile și concluziile exprimate în prezentul material le aparţin autorilor și experţilor și nu reflextă în mod necesar poziţia finanţatorului. Preluarea elementelor de text, imagine, tabele sau grafice se va face cu citarea sursei, respectiv LID Moldova, încorporând hyperlink-ul aferent.