Estonian Finance Minister’s Perceived Slur Shakes Coalition

Remarks by Estonia’s Finance Minister Juergen Ligi about an ethnic Russian colleague have unsettled the ruling coalition, prompting calls for his resignation four months before parliamentary elections.

Prime Minister Taavi Roivas said yesterday he would seek to resolve the crisis on his return from a European Union summit in Brussels scheduled to end today. Chairman of junior coalition partner Social Democrats and Defense Minister Sven Mikser demanded replacing Ligi, who referred to Education Minister Jevgeni Ossinovski of the Social Democrats as an “immigrant’s son from the pink party” and “rootless” in a Facebook posting.

Ethnic Russians make up a quarter of Estonia’s population and the rift in the eight-month-old coalition underscores divisions deepened by neighboring Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. Insulting compatriots based on their gender, ethnicity or origin is “unacceptable” for Estonian government officials, President Toomas Ilves said on Facebook.

“The issue isn’t even about me personally but clearly in our multicultural society such ethnic labeling is inadmissible, certainly also insulting, not just for me but for a large part of Estonian people,” 28-year-old Ossinovski, the first minister from an ethnic minority since 2003, told the public broadcaster yesterday in an interview.

The Cabinet has taken steps such as simplifying naturalization for children born in Estonia, whose parents aren’t citizens. Still, the government has struggled to reduce distrust toward the Russian minority after the annexation of Crimea by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has vowed to defend Russian speakers in the former Soviet republics.

Russian Grievances

Russia has grievances with Estonia and neighboring Latvia over the treatment of ethnic minorities, who were denied automatic citizenship when the two countries regained independence in 1991, and classified as non-citizens or stateless. Estonia, with 1.3-million people, has 95,000 Russian citizens and 91,000 stateless people, according to government data.

Ligi, 55, who steered Estonia’s public finances out of a record recession in 2009 and enforced austerity to meet terms for euro entry in 2011, is known for controversial statements regarding his political opponents. After publicly apologizing yesterday, he said his comments were “misinterpreted” and unrelated to ethnicity.

In a TV debate on Oct. 22, Ligi and Ossinovski disagreed over whether 50 years of Soviet occupation, which ended in 1991, should mainly be blamed for Estonia still clearly trailing Nordic living standards, a source of growing emigration.

Ligi’s comments were “unacceptable even despite the fact that downplaying the consequences of the Soviet occupation also carries offensive undertones for many Estonians,” Roivas said in a statement yesterday. Roivas initially said Ligi shouldn’t resign after having apologized.

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