Local Self-government in Estonia prior to Independence

Throughout the centuries, European cities have had extensive rights. Tallinn was chartered with the Lübeck Rights in 1248; later on, the Lübeck Rights were granted to Narva and Rakvere. Some cities in southern and central Estonia such as Tartu, Uus-Pärnu, Haapsalu, Paide and Viljandi were chartered with the Hamburg Rights, also known as the Riga Rights since the law reached the area via Riga. Yet, those Rights guaranteed class based self-government where managing the city affairs (forming the City Council – Est. raad) was in the hands of certain social strata (merchants, house owners etc). Administration largely depended on whether Estonia was under Germany, Denmark, Poland, Sweden or Russia. We can speak about self-government at the county level only from the 19th century onward; it was one of the outcomes of democratization of Europe.

Community management in Europe (that also spread to the New World) acquired a drastically different aspect when absolutism began to be replaced by the republican form of government after the French Revolution. A question of principle needed an answer – what are the responsibilities of the central level and the local level? It was often emphasised that nation states had a longer tradition of local autonomy. Jacques Guillaume Thouret (1746-1794) said when addressing the French National Assembly in 1790 that there are
1) communal affairs that are in essence characteristic of municipal administration and
2) affairs management of which is delegated to local government bodies by the state; thus, to a great extent, he paved the way for contemporary theories of local self-government.

One of the principal objectives of the early 19th century political development in Europe, incl. the objective of revolutions, was gaining the right to self-government. In Estonia and Livonia, the population of rural areas (peasants) could start exercising self-government to a certain extent only after the adoption of the agrarian reform laws in 1816 and 1819. The word vald (Eng. rural municipality) had already been in use for a couple of centuries but, following the example of the Finnish language, probably meant power, violence (of estate owners). Rural municipalities were originally established by manorial estates.

Essentially only the 1866 Rural Municipality Act enabled also the Estonian and Livonian peasants to have a say in local affairs. The community started electing the local council, the local executive board and the mayor, and since then we can talk about local self-government in Estonia that is based on modern principles. In 1877, the Lübeck Rights became invalid on the territory of the present-day Estonia and the 1870 Cities Act was enacted; pursuant to the Act, dumas were elected that preceded city councils (Est. linnavolikogu). Especially important from the point of view of Estonia’s independence was the local election in Tallinn in 1904 when Estonians won the majority in Tallinn City Council for the first time in history and could start running the future capital city of the country. 37 Estonians, 19 Germans and 4 Russians were elected to the 60-member City Council; the Estonians and the Russians formed a coalition since the majority of 2/3 was required to pass more important decisions. Also Konstantin Päts, Jaan Poska, Jaan Teemant, Otto Strandmann and others later to become the founders of the Republic of Estonia and well-known politicians were among those elected to the City Council.

Even earlier, at the local election in 1901, Estonians had won the majority of seats in Valga City Council and had elected the first ever mayor of Estonian nationality. It is quite certain that Estonians gained independence in 1918 largely due to the long tradition of self-government. Anton Uesson, a long-time mayor of Tallinn (1920-1934) and the Chair of the Board of the Association of Estonian Cities (1920-1940) wrote in 1938: “… strong local governments are the principal precondition for establishing a state. And as it turned out later, local governments were of pivotal importance in mobilising the people during the first days of establishing the state of Estonia.” Local governments, by the way, played also a role of utmost importance when Estonia restored its independence.

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