Local Self-government in Republic of Estonia in 1918-1940

With the decree of the Russian Provisional Government of 5 July 1917 on administration and temporary organisation of self-government in the province of Estonia, Estonia was turned into a determinate autonomous administrative unit the borders of which coincided with the area inhabited by Estonians. The right to issue local legislation of general application i.e. regulations made Estonia and its people an autonomous entity where the formal authority of the Russian state was almost nonexistent. Thus, it is possible to assert that Estonia achieved independence at the local self-government level earlier than at the state level.

Drafting and adopting Estonia’s own legislation regulating local self-government to replace the formerly valid legislation of the Russian empire was on the agenda ever since independence of the Republic of Estonia was declared. Chapter VII of the 1920 Constitution regulated local self-government.

There are two significant characteristics of the 1920 Constitution that entitle us to speak about local self-government. First, there was the directly elected local council and, second, the right to impose local taxes. In the following years, only minor amendments were introduced to Estonian legislation; for example, new local election acts were adopted. The most drastic step was taken in 1933 when a constitutional amendment was adopted abolishing the second level local self-government. That amendment was of such significance that the Constitution of 1920 with the 1933 amendment changing the Constitution but from the legal point of view is sometimes called the second Constitution of Estonia.

The counties, contrary to relatively weak rural municipalities and cities (the population of Tallinn was three times smaller than today), represented potential opposition to the central government and this was the case throughout the so-called “Silent Era”. Thus, the motion to abolish counties was made not with the purpose of improving the local self-government system and making it more efficient but with the purpose of eliminating political rivalry. It took 20 years to adopt the legislation regulating local self-government, although introducing it had been the objective since the first years of independence. In 1937, the Rural Municipality Act was adopted, and in 1938, the City and County Acts followed. A new Constitution of 1938 had also been adopted establishing local self-government at the second (county) level, although, true enough, consisting of the authorised representatives of the first level, according to the County Act.

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