As the coronavirus crisis continues, the Estonian government is replacing high-level officials and leaders of non-partisan state institutions with party apparachiks.

“Cadres are everything,” Stalin once said. The Estonian government has learned this lesson well. As the coronavirus crisis continues, and headlines are focused on falling infections and rising unemployment rates, the state has been making personnel changes.

From the boards of foundations distributing EU grants to the Estonian Public Broadcasting, people with sometimes dubious credentials, but close ties to the ruling moderate-left Centre party, the conservative Pro Patria, and far-right EKRE, have been stepping up.

These appointments have been roundly criticised by the media and parts of civil society; their consequences will unfold over years.

The politicisation of state-owned institutions

An investigation by the daily Eesti Päevaleht revealed that since assuming power, the current coalition has replaced 111 board members, and 28 of those have replaced a non-partisan expert with a political operative.

These reshufflings have been concentrated overwhelmingly in institutions that control significant sums of money, often from EU sources: Enterprise Estonia, which supports exporting industries, FDI and tourism, principally from EU funds, Rural Development Foundation, which distributes loans and various EU grants to the agricultural sector, and KredEx, which distributes state-backed loans to enterprises, housing co-ops and homeowners.

As EPL journalists noted, the politicisation of state-owned institutions in Estonia has a long history. In 2015 and 2016 a number of scandals broke revealing instances of corruption and bribery in a number of state-run enterprises involving businessmen close to the then-ruling Liberal Reform party (currently in opposition).

This led to a tightening of the rules on appointments to state-run enterprises. With that venue closed, the current coalition seems to have grant agencies in their sights.

The story is more complicated when it comes to institutions of the independent press and of civil society. Here, the Centre Party has reiterated its commitment to an open society and to minority rights in particular. The junior partners, Pro Patria and EKRE, in particular, have been drawing from the Orbán-Trump playbook.

Over the years, they have portrayed the media as left-liberal ideologues, and civil society organisations as Euroglobalist infiltrators, with particular hostility towards organisations advocating for LGBTQ rights and for refugees.

Here, the fate of many organisations depends on which ministerial “fiefdoms” their funding sources fall under. For those organisations, for example, who are funded via various programs under the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Social Affairs, both held by the Centre Party, life goes on pretty much as usual. Organisations who rely on the Ministry of the Interior, held by EKRE, are in a tougher spot.

A raised eyebrow

Particularly concerning is the new composition of the Estonian Public Broadcasting’s Board, which consists of members nominated by each party represented in Parliament, plus a number of “experts”.

Many commentators raised an eyebrow when one of the experts named to Board included an EKRE-adjacent pundit known for particularly vitriolic criticism of the media’s “liberal bias” and whose claim to expertise in public broadcasting puzzled many – he is a scholar of Assyriology at Tartu University. What the consequences of this appointment are will become apparent when the board elects a new CEO for the organisation in 2022.

Finally, most concerning for civil society organisations is the reshuffling of the leadership in the National Foundation of Civil Society (NFCS). The budget of Foundation – some two to three million euros – pales in comparison to those that distribute EU grants, but it funds some of the central activities of civil society, including the annual Festival of Opinion Culture, the Let’s Do It clean-up day, the NULA incubator for socially transformative NGO-s and social enterprises and others.

Last year, the minister of population, Riina Solman (Pro Patria), whose Ministry of the Interior oversees NFCS, decided that the office of the Foundation should be relocated from the capital Tallinn to the small town of Viljandi in Southern Estonia, as part of a broader initiative of supporting regional development.

This move was widely opposed by the employees of NFCS, only one of whom was willing to relocate. Chairman of the board Alari Rammo similarly condemned the proposal, calling the reasoning unserious, given that a small organisation like NFCS would not meaningfully contribute to regional policy.

Minister Solman, in turn, moved to recall Rammo from his post, and man the board of the NFCS with appointees loyal to Pro Patria. By and large, the new appointees hail from NGO-s focused on pronatalism, family values, and church-related organisations.

Given that the civil society sector has been previously criticised by Solman and other conservatives for focusing overly on advocacy on behalf of refugees and LGBTQ issues, it is hard to read this as anything other than a conservative power grab.

These power struggles were widely reported in the media, but their consequences will take some time to manifest. They will also be difficult to reverse, as board appointments generally last longer than an electoral cycle.

As the coming economic contraction dries up membership dues, charitable giving, and other alternative sources of revenue for civil society organisations, they will be ever more dependent on the support of foundations such as NFCS. For many smaller organisations, decisions made over grant funding can be a matter of life and death.

It remains to be seen whether the new appointees can make those decisions responsibly.



This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. An Estonian version will be available on Vikerkaar.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Editor at the publically funded cultural monthly Vikerkaar, partner journal of the Eurozine network. He holds academic posts at the University of Southern California and the University of Oxford.

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