Definitions of Administrative-territorial Division and Organisation

First, the difference between the terms administrative-territorial division and administrative-territorial organisation needs to be explained since they are often used incorrectly or even as synonyms. According to the Territory of Estonia Administrative Division Act adopted in 1995

  • The administrative division of the territory is the division of the territory of Estonia into counties, rural municipalities and cities;
  • Administrative-territorial organisation is the division of the territory of Estonia into administrative units that are units based on administrative division, the status, name and boundaries of which are determined by law and other legislation, and in the territory of which state administration or self-governmental administration is carried out.

Thus, speaking or writing about reducing the number of rural municipalities by X or X times means changing the administrative-territorial organisation. Using the term “changing or reform of the administrative-territorial division” requires abolishing of counties, rural municipalities or cities as administrative-territorial units. Rural municipalities and cities, however, are mentioned in the Constitution and, thus, the Constitution should previously be amended.

Districts can be established in rural municipalities or cities. Cities, towns, small towns and villages are settlements in Estonia. Villages are rural settlements, the rest are urban settlements. With that small towns have been considered urban settlements according to a Government regulation only since 1996. A city which is an administrative unit is also a settlement within the same boundaries. A city may be divided into urban regions.

Striving towards rational administrative-territorial organisation has been a wish of the mankind for millennia. In ancient Rome, the rational size for a city was considered to be 5,040 citizens corresponding to about 30,000 residents. The principle was that everybody new everybody. Yet, this is the most conservative field of public administration. The first radical administrative-territorial reform encompassing the whole region was carried out on the territory of Estonia in the 1890s when the number of rural municipalities established within the boundaries of manorial estates was reduced from about a thousand to four hundred.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the objective was formulated in the Republic of Estonia to merge the rural municipalities with population less than 2,000 residents since administrative costs constituted more than a half of their revenue. The reform was carries out only on 1 April 1938 when the number of rural municipalities was reduced from 365 to 248 plus 33 cities. The following criteria were established: the rural municipality is of the right size, if, considering the given number of tasks, it is capable of performing the tasks in the best possible manner and in the most practical way while being accessible to the public, and if its maintenance is the cheapest. Eduard Krepp, one of the economic analysts involved in carrying out the reform, wrote in 1938: “… theoretical calculations have shown that rural municipalities with 2,000-3,000 residents are optimal at the stage of our present economic development and under our existing traffic and transport conditions.” Another reform ideologist Edgar Kant, later to become the rector of Tartu University, observed that “reforming communal local governments has always and everywhere been one of the most difficult governance issues”.

Throwing the administrative-territorial division and organisation of the occupied territory into confusion and, thus, destroying the communal identity is one of the most successful tactics of perpetuating an occupation. This was done in the Estonian SSR when the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of 26 September 1950 replaced the 248 rural municipalities and 12 counties existing since the late 1930s by 641 village soviets and 39 districts. Later the number was reduced since it was understood, especially in the case of village soviets, that the territory had been too comminuted. Already in 1955, there was but a half of the initial number of village soviets left in Estonia – 320. By the late 1980s, the number of village soviets was reduced to 192. The number of districts was reduced to 15 by the mid-1960s (corresponds to the current number of counties).

Various names of administrative-territorial units have been used in Estonia throughout the history (bishoprics, voivodeships etc). For nine months in 1952-1953, there were three oblasts in Estonia. However, rather soon it was understood that complete unification with the Soviet system was not practical. From the modern perspective the county, the rural municipality and the city as well as the parish and the town are worth mentioning.

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