The Riigikogu will scrutinize the voting right of Russian citizens

Priit Pullerits
, vanemtoimetaja
Invalid election tickets for municipal elections in Tallinn.
Invalid election tickets for municipal elections in Tallinn. Photo: Eero Vabamägi
  • Three political parties are willing to deprive the aggressor state’s citizens of voting right.
  • The president and the chancellor of justice obstruct Isamaa’s plan.
  • European examples do not support the claim of Estonia discriminating against aliens.

Although the chancellor of justice has expressed the view that Isamaa's desire to revoke the right of foreigners living in Estonia to vote in local elections is rather contrary to the constitution, both the representatives of the Reform Party and EKRE told Postimees that their parties intend to support this bill in the first reading in the Riigikogu tomorrow.

The leader of Isamaa, Helir-Valdor Seeder, one of the eight initiators of the bill in April, said that the current situation is extremely grotesque and also undermines national security, as the citizens of Russia which is waging war against Ukraine and its allies, including, Estonia which provides military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, have the opportunity to participate in the forming of the local political authority here at the municipal level.

“It is our definite wish and will that this bill becomes a law,” said Seeder.

Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise has promised that if the Riigikogu were to make an amendment which leaves so-called third-country citizens, i.e. those who do not have the citizenship of the European Union, without the right to vote in local government council elections, he will probably initiate a constitutional supervision procedure and is ready to send the amendment to the Supreme Court for a final decision.

President Alar Karis addressed a week ago the opening sitting of the Riigikogu's autumn session, stating that it is difficult for him to support the calls for canceling the non-citizens’ right to vote in local elections; he also considered it wrong to incite collective mistrust against large groups of people.

Seeder said that he disagrees with the president on this issue, because at a time when Russian citizens are at war and killing Ukrainian women and children, Russian citizens should not have the right to vote in Estonia.

More Estonia-centered attitude

Mart Võrklaev, the leader of the Reform Party faction, confirmed the Reform Party's principal support for canceling the right to vote in municipal elections of citizens of aggressor countries such as Russia and Belarus.

“We are of the opinion that those people who, while living in Estonia, have tied themselves to the country carrying out the aggression through their citizenship, can be a security threat to Estonia and should not be able to have a say in the governing of their hometown,” said Võrklaev. He added that since voters with Russian citizenship are more densely represented in certain municipalities, such municipalities could be taken over by forces not necessarily loyal to the Estonian government.

The proposed law amendment concerns nearly 140,000 non-citizens living in Estonia, slightly more than half of whom are Russian subjects. In the previous local elections, a little over 57,000 or 41 percent of so-called third-country nationals who had the right to vote went to the polling stations; slightly less than 30,000 of them had Russian passports.

Riigikogu EKRE faction member Jaak Valge, according to whom national conservatives also support the Isamaa bill, said that if the aliens' right to vote in local elections will be revoked, a somewhat more Estonian-centric attitude will be able to prevail in the elected councils. Secondly, he predicted, the law amendment would motivate those citizens of third countries who care about the life of Estonia to apply for Estonian citizenship and learn to speak Estonian at least at an elementary level.

Valge added that if people who have lived in Estonia for a long time have not found it necessary to apply for Estonian citizenship, for which they have to pass an Estonian language exam which has become easier over time and an exam on knowledge of the constitution and citizenship, then such a person need not participate in election in Estonia.

The chairman of the Center faction, Jaanus Karilaid, said that in view of the genocidal scale aggressive war started by Russia against Ukraine and generally the free world, the desire to change the municipal council election law is completely understandable. But he added: “Leaving primary patriotic emotions aside, unfortunately, we have to admit that this is a legally extremely problematic, if not inappropriate, legislative initiative."

Karilaid reasoned that depriving a foreigner who is not a citizen of a European Union member state of the right to vote at the so-called communal level is contrary to the constitution, which does not allow anyone's fundamental rights to be arbitrarily restricted without a compelling reason, not to mention depriving whole groups of people of their fundamental rights. “I cannot imagine legally compelling reasons why, for example, a Slovenian living in the same rural settlement can elect his representative to the council, but, for example, a Serb living next door in the same building does not have this right,” he said. “In my opinion, the rule of law cannot afford such approach.”

The chairman of the Social Democratic Party faction, Indrek Saar, also referred to accordance with the constitution regarding the bill initiated by Isamaa. “In this context, we certainly do not support unconstitutional action,” he said. Last week, Saar promised to discuss with his party colleagues what position they will adopt regarding the bill.

According to Seeder, Isamaa members repeatedly raised the issue of revoking the aliens’ voting right during the coalition negotiations, but the Social Democrats had resolutely opposed it.

Reform party’s representative Võrklaev also acknowledged the legal problem, which may cause the chancellor of justice to check whether the Isamaa bill it is constitutional if it becomes the law. According to him, the fact that the bill concerns citizens of an aggressor country like Russia as well as citizens of countries opposed to aggression, such as Great Britain and the USA, also raises questions.

Prepared for a long struggle

Seeder admitted that the planned law amendment should not harm the interests of the citizens of Estonia's allies; he therefore recommended that the issue should be resolved according to the practice of Spain, according to his knowledge, where citizens of third countries with which Spain has concluded the corresponding bilateral agreements have the right to vote in local elections.

Other objections to the Isamaa bill claim that revoking the aliens’ voting right would be discriminatory. The counterargument has been that in 13 member states of the European Union, such as Latvia, France and Germany, citizens of third countries do not have the right to vote in local elections, and no one considers these countries to be undemocratic or discriminatory because of that.

Seeder further disagrees with the view that the participation of third-country nationals in local elections only affects the solution of local communal problems rather than political issues of the country in general. “If Russian citizens had not had the right to vote locally, the Center Party’s monopoly of power in Tallinn would probably never have happened,” he said. “If there had been coalition governments in Tallinn, the entire political picture of Estonia would probably have been different, because the importance of Tallinn in Estonian politics is huge. This would have changed the power structure of Estonian politics."

Seeder said that if the handling of the Isamaa bill should show that revoking the aliens’ voting right requires changing the constitution, then this long road must be chosen. The question is whether there is enough political support for this, he added.

Seeder expressed hope that the bill will pass the first reading in the Riigikogu tomorrow. The representative of the coalition’s leading party, Võrklaev, predicted the same.