Russia Fears Mold Estonia Vote as Ruling Party to Keep Power

Estonia’s ruling party is poised to retain power in a ballot on Sunday as concern the conflict in Ukraine will herald similar unrest helps isolate its main challenger.

Prime Minister Taavi Roivas’s Reform Party has as much as 23 percent support, neck and neck with the Center Party, which is backed by more than three quarters of ethnic-Russian voters, the latest polls show. Even if the Center Party wins, potential coalition partners such as the Social Democrats or Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit have ruled out an alliance with it.

The Baltic region, which broke away from Soviet control when communism fell 24 years ago, has been jolted by the Ukraine conflict, the annexation of Crimea and Russian fighter-jet activity on its borders. Concern Vladimir Putin will foment disquiet among ethnic Russians in Estonia, a European Union and NATO member, prompted Reform to add defense pledges to promises of tax cuts.

“The security situation is perceived as very disturbing by the average Estonian,” said Raivo Vetik, a professor at the Institute of Political Science and Governance at Tallinn University. “It will certainly benefit right-wing parties emphasizing nationalist sentiment such as Reform and Isamaa.”

Reform’s coalition with Defense Minister Sven Mikser’s Social Democrats commands 57 votes in the 101-seat parliament and is among Europe’s staunchest advocates of sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. It’s also sought a permanent presence in Estonia for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a source of hostility for the Russian minority of 333,000 people, or a quarter of the population.

‘Estonian-minded Government’

“We don’t share Center Party’s vision on security,” Roivas said on Kuku Radio on Friday in a debate with Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar, the leader of the opposition party who served as premier in 1991-92. “We don’t mind losing a few votes due to that, but we aim for an Estonian-minded government.”

While the government in Tallinn says its NATO membership deters Baltic meddling, EU nations warn that Russia may try. For Estonians, the biggest concern is unrest spilling over from Ukraine, where Putin says Russian speakers need protecting after his ally was ousted as president. Similar anxiety helped decide an October election in neighboring Latvia.

Warplanes, Spy

Incursions and close encounters by Russian warplanes in and around the region have stoked concern about the Kremlin’s intentions. Tensions in Estonia also escalated when the government said one of its security officers was snatched and taken over the border to Moscow last year. Russia said the agent was spying inside its territory.

Reform, which has led coalition governments since 2005, leads Center by 23 percent to 22 percent, a Feb. 4-18 survey by pollster TNS Emor showed. Center is backed by 27 percent of voters, five percentage points more than Reform, according to a Turu-uuringute AS poll covering the same period.

Savisaar hasn’t calmed nerves about his allegiances, questioning opposition to Crimea’s disputed independence referendum. His party, which signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia in 2004, was labeled a security risk by authorities before the 2011 election over potential Russian financing. At the debate on Friday, he said there was “good evidence” of cooperation with the Social Democrats and Isamaa despite their pre-election pledges, which he branded “pretending.”

‘Even More’

“A Cabinet involving Center Party will be Estonian-minded, while a government without Reform Party will be even more Estonian-minded,” Savisaar said. He sidestepped questions on Russia’s role in the Ukrainian conflict.

The economy is less of a headache. While gross domestic product per capita hasn’t returned to pre-2008 crisis levels, growth accelerated to 2.7 percent from a year earlier in the last three months of 2014, the most in seven quarters, on electronics exports and record retail sales.

Public debt is the EU’s lowest and the government has no foreign bonds. Investors can bet on the creditworthiness of Estonia, a euro-area member, using credit-default swaps, which traded at 59 basis points on Thursday, compared with Poland’s 61 and Slovakia’s 48.

Sunday’s election, in which 10 parties are battling to breach parliament’s 5 percent entry barrier, suggests a continuation of the status quo, according to Vello Pettai, head of the Institute of Government and Politics at Tartu University.

“Center-right administrations have ruled more or less constantly since at least 1999,” he said. “People know it won’t change as the Center Party has been declared a pariah.”

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