Development of Local Self-government in Estonia prior to and after Restoration of Independence

Re-establishment of local self-government began in the late 1980s. On 8 August 1989, the Supreme Council adopted a decision on carrying out an administrative reform. Pursuant to the Estonian SSR Principles of Self-sufficiency Act and due to the need for transition from the existing administrative system to a self-government-based administrative system, the decision concerned carrying out an administrative reform in 1990-1994 that would cover the following issues:

  1. decentralisation of power to the local self-governmental management level and making a clear distinction between state and self-governmental management;
  2. reorganisation of the territorial administrative structures.

A day after the Berlin wall came down, i.e. on 10 November 1989, the Estonian Supreme Council adopted the law on local self-government being the first legislative body of the former Eastern block to do it. A month later to a day, the first free election to local soviets within two generations took place on the territory of Estonia. The election cannot be considered completely democratic since the citizenship had not been defined and representatives of the occupying army could vote although to a more limited extent than in earlier decades. The military personnel and their families living on the territory of Soviet military units could elect only one representative to the district or independent city soviet where the military unit was located. Contrary to the Soviet democracy, elections could now take place in multi-mandate electoral districts. Pursuant to the law on elections adopted on 8 August 1989, people were allowed to vote only in their local electoral district. Previously valid law stipulated that polling stations be opened at big railway stations and the possibility to vote be guaranteed to people in stations as well as to people from other Soviet republics aboard long-distance passenger trains. We can but guess how the pro-empire forces would have organised unscheduled trains to drive up to Estonia from the cities located in the East from us on the day of the election had the requirements remained unchanged.

It has to be admitted that, from the point of view of local self-government, there are surprisingly many similar characteristics to the establishment of the Republic of Estonia and restoring its independence 70 years later. One of the similarities was the fact that, in the first case, manorial estates and, in the second case, collective farms had to be abolished. The main difference between the two periods of time leading to a similar outcome was mostly the fact that in 1918, it was possible to rely on the existing local governments and functioning market economy whereas upon restoring our independence we had to start from the scratch. “The unknown local official” made an invaluable contribution to the process - those were thousands of politicians and officials in Estonian villages and other settlements; only few of them had first hand experience of the community life during the first independence period let alone knowledge on how the rest of the world had been developing over the previous fifty years. However, their common feature was a strong will to re-establish their democratic state.

And now some facts to illustrate the contribution local officials made to the process of restoring independence. The 1989 decision of the Supreme Council on carrying out the administrative reform and the ensuing activities prepared the ground for the democratic state at the grass root level. The meeting of deputies of all (management) levels held in Tallinn on 2 February 1990 and the declaration of independence adopted at the meeting were of special international significance. Almost 3,500 representatives legally elected by the people clearly and decisively expressed their will opposed by only less than a hundred pro-empire deputies who left the meeting room. Such a declaration made by the deputies was a clearly understandable political signal for all democratic countries; Professor Erik-Juhan Truuväli, later the Chancellor of Justice, compared the declaration in essence with a referendum.

During the dangerous days in August 1991, an action plan was formulated in case the central level institutions of the state – in truth, a state unrecognised only for a few more days – could not function. Authority of the state was then to transfer to the representatives of counties and independent cities due to a then two-level local self-government system. This was, however, not necessary; yet, this was an indication that within less than two years, local governments had become reliable partners for the central government.

In 1989-1993, there was a two-level local self-government system in Estonia. Rural municipalities, small towns and towns constituted the first level, and 15 counties and 6 cities (independent cities) the second level. The two-level local self-government system was re-established here in 1989 also because the first level units were, in general, incapable of taking on all socio-economic responsibilities. The budgets of village soviets, by the way, were determined by institutions above them and they were limited to salary costs of two-three people and some resources for items such as soap, washing powder etc. Only the cities of Tallinn, Kohtla-Järve, Narva, Pärnu, Sillamäe and Tartu simultaneously took on the responsibilities of both the first and second level local governments.

From the very beginning, the aim was to establish strong first level local self-government units and it was achieved through the chosen tactics of the administrative reform. On 6 December 1989, the Presidium of the Supreme Council adopted a decree on establishing a self-governmental administrative system. The decree required local soviets to guarantee transfer to local self-government pursuant to the Local Self-government Principles Act and other legislation of general application. Local soviets were required to work out a socio-economic development plan and local statutes for their rural municipality, town or city for their self-governing status to be recognised; an administrative reform expert committee then assessed the conformity of those documents with the requirements established by the Presidium of the Supreme Council.

Depending on the preparedness of villages, towns and cities to take on the responsibilities of local governments, the Presidium of the Supreme Council granted them the self-governing status on the proposal of the administrative reform expert committee. The certificate is probably in a prominent place on the wall in the office of every administrative unit granted the self-governing status in 1990-1993. The city of Kuressaare and the rural municipality of Muhu were the first to be granted the self-governing status on 1 October 1990. The Government of the Republic granted the self-governing status to the last administrative units in late 1992 and in 1993 since the Supreme Council and its Presidium were abolished after the Constitution was adopted. The expediency of the chosen administrative reform tactics to approach each territorial unit individually was proven by the fact that the Russian military base in Paldiski was not granted the self-governing status since the citizenship had not been defined. As a temporary solution, Paldiski was a city district of Keila in 1993-1996.

The Constitutional Assembly (1991-1992) set up a work group for drafting the chapter regulating local self-government. The provisions of the Estonian Constitution conformed to the principles of the European Charter of Local Self-government ratified by the Riigikogu only two years later on 28 September 1994 since the text of the Charter had been available to the Assembly thanks to our colleagues from Finland. This fact has been of great constitutional and practical importance, for instance when guarding the interests of local governments.

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