Development of Estonia’s Administrative-territorial Division and Organisation since 1990s (Part II)

The 1990s brought little success in terms of the administrative-territorial organisation. As a matter of fact five local governments were divided into a number of self-government units in 1993 and eight pairs of local governments merged in 1996-1999. There are many reasons for such lack of success. The very desire of the people for democracy was the principal factor against establishing larger local governments at the time. In reality, the very opposite objective was desired and also worked to attain pursuant to decisions taken by the Riigikogu. Prior to 1995 when the Territory of Estonia Administrative Division Act was adopted, merging local governments was not even possible without a specific decision taken by the Riigikogu. Until 1998, the merging procedure could take place only simultaneously with regular local elections. Thus, the first voluntary mergers took place only in October 1996 when the rural municipality of Halinga and the town of Pärnu-Jaagupi merged. An amendment adopted in February 1998 provided merging also between two consecutive local elections. Only the rural municipality of Abja-Paluoja and the city of Abja-Paluoja took advantage of the amendment in the autumn of the same year. At the same time, the issue of the term of office of the council elected between two consecutive local elections was raised. The Constitution provided that the term of office of the local council was three years. In order to avoid further confusion, the provisions providing local government mergers between two consecutive local elections were revoked. It was enacted again with an amendment to Article 156 of the Constitution only in 2003.

At the municipal election in 1999, the rural municipality of Antsla and the city of Antsla merged; so did the rural municipality of Kaarma and the city of Kuressaare, the rural municipality of Karksi and the city of Karksi-Nuia, the rural municipality of Lihula and the city of Lihula, the rural municipality of Pühajärve and the city of Otepää, and the rural municipalities of Vihula and Võsu (a town).

In 2002, additional eleven local governments emerged; local governments mostly merged in pairs (the rural municipality of Anija and the town of Kehra; the rural municipalities of Kohila and Kohila (a town); the rural municipality of Rapla and the city of Rapla; the rural municipality of Räpina and the city of Räpina) but there was an exception of three local governments merging – the town of Märjamaa and the rural municipalities of Märjamaa and Loodna. By the autumn of 2002, there were 247 local governments in Estonia, including 205 rural municipalities and 42 cities. After the local election on 20 October 2002, 241 local governments remained – 39 cities and 202 rural municipalities.

The number of local governments decreased by 14 – by six cities and eight rural municipalities - after the local election on 16 October 2005. The following local governments merged:

  • the city of Tamsalu and the rural municipality of Tamsalu (into the rural municipality of Tamsalu);
  • the city of Tapa, the rural municipalities of Lehtse and Saksi (into the rural municipality of Tapa);
  • the city of Jõhvi and the rural municipality of Jõhvi (into the rural municipality of Jõhvi);
  • the rural municipalities of Avanduse and Väike-Maarja (into the rural municipality of Väike-Maarja);
  • the city of Suure-Jaani, the rural municipalities of Olustvere, Suure-Jaani and Vastemõisa (into the rural municipality of Suure-Jaani);
  • the city of Kilingi-Nõmme, the rural municipalities of Saarde and Tali (into the rural municipality of Saarde);
  • the rural municipalities of Kuusalu and Loksa (into the rural municipality of Kuusalu);
  • the city of Türi, the rural municipalities of Kabala, Oisu and Türi (into the rural municipality of Türi).

The mergers of 2005 caused changes to the borders of counties as well since the rural municipality of Lehtse, formerly in Järva County now is in Lääne-Viru County. There have been problems with the former rural municipality of Kabala as the hinterland of Võhma being in Järva County while Võhma is in Viljandi County.

After the local election in 2005, there were 227 local governments left in Estonia – 194 rural municipalities and 33 cities. There are 47 cities as settlements since 14 cities are located within rural municipalities (without their own local council, government and mayor). The population of 4/5 of the local governments is less than 2,500 while only a quarter of the total population of the country resides there (Table 2).

Estonian rural municipalities and cities in terms of population (data as of 2004) in late 2005
Elanike arv vallas või linnas
Number of rural municipalities and cities
% of total population of Estonia
Over 250 000 1396 375
100 001 - 250 000 1101 2977,5
50 001 - 100 000 167 355
10 001 - 50 000   
12243 10318,0
5 001 - 10 000
31198 87014,7
2 501 - 5 000 44156 001
1 001 - 2 500
165 148
Up to 1000 3222 519
2271 351 069100

Table 2

Comparing our local self-government with that of other countries is interesting and significant from the point of view of planning the administrative reform. It is relatively easy to compare the size of local governments (average population of areas). Admittedly the average size of local governments in Europe varies. The average population of local governments in Sweden is 30,000 while in France it is merely 1,600. In Finland, the average population of local governments (including cities) is 11,600. In August 2005, the radical plan to reform the Finnish local self-government and services was presented to the public. It is considered expedient to reduce the number of rural municipalities and cities in Finland from about current 450 to 20 (the current number of local government co-operation regions). The average population of local governments (rural municipalities and cities) both in Estonia and the European Union as a whole is quite similar - 5,500-6,000 people.

Despite the previously stated fact, the administrative-territorial organisation of Estonia needs changing. The average population of Estonian rural municipalities is less than 2,500 people and, in spite of mergers, there are still inexpedient units where the centrally located settlement is separated from its hinterland in administrative terms. However, one must be objective when preparing and carrying out the administrative-territorial reform. The often expressed opinion that decreasing the number of rural municipalities would result in retrenchment of resources in terms of the number of local officials and administrative costs is misleading. Those approximately one hundred local governments that could merge due to their small size and other factors employ only about a thousand local officials and part of them would also be needed in the local government established as a result of merging. But then their work load and responsibility would increase as would their salary.

The Government or a local council can initiate changes in the administrative-territorial organisation. However, pursuant to the Constitution and the European Charter of Local Self-government, the borders of local governments cannot be changed without hearing the opinion of the said local governments. Generally, a local opinion poll is conducted on border issues. The Government takes decisions on changing the administrative-territorial organisation at the local self-government level.

Details about this article