REVIEW #9: Local Government Reform in Estonia

Having restored its independence in 1991, the Republic of Estonia has been one of the most successful reform countries in Eastern Europe. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a number of liberal reforms were implemented quickly, which consisted in the breaking up of national monopolies, the establishment of the rule of law, privatization, and the establishment of the capitalist rules of the game.

The transition from the socialist planned economy to a market economy was very complicated and painful for many, but it proved to be the correct decision after a short number of years. Estonia became a rapidly developing, open, and Western-minded Nordic country. The e-government model and the digital society of Estonia are also an example for many developed countries in the West nowadays.

However, there was one area where there had yet been no success in carrying out the necessary changes over 25 years: the local government reform. During two decades, six attempts had been made to carry out the local government reform, but all the attempts had failed.

Estonia, with its population of merely 1.3 million, was fragmented into 213 local governments of extremely varying size and capability. Against the background of that stagnated local government model, creeping centralization took place, and the role of the state in the shaping of social processes and public services was gradually increasing.

At the same time, the petrified local government structure did not consider the rapid demographic changes that had taken place in society, such as the ageing of the population and urbanization. This article sheds light on the governance in Estonia, the role of local governments, and on how local government reform was finally implemented in 2016–2017.

The Role of Local Governments in Estonia

Local governments have played a very important role in the formation of the independent Estonian state, both at the beginning of the 20th century and in the restoration of its independence in 1991. In the last century, local level elections were the first elections to produce the Estonian politicians and statesmen.

Local governments have been important shapers of identity and hotbeds of democracy throughout history. It may be said with a slight reservation that already when Estonia was still in the Soviet Union the first almost free elections were held in 1989 at the local level. The central power of Moscow was already weakened, and the freedom movement gained momentum. Moscow was unable to control all the local candidates, thus local governments have played an important role in the establishment of the independence of Estonia and therefore are important to many people. Exactly in the same way, the Estonian local government leaders attach great importance to the European Charter of Local Self-Governments that emphasizes the autonomy of local governments and the importance of making decisions for oneself.

The political model of state management in Estonia is relatively simple. After all, a small country cannot afford a complicated and costly system. We have only one national level – parliamentary elections. Besides, there is only one local level – local council elections every four years. There are fifteen counties in Estonia, but they are mainly of historical and cultural importance. The county governments had very little administrative power and were finally closed on January 1, 2018. No elections are held at the county level as a part of the national administration.

Fragmentation of Local Governments

When the independence of the Republic of Estonia was restored in 1991, more than 250 local governments were born, including rural municipalities and cities with a long history, as well as units that had emerged within the boundaries of the rural councils dating back to the time of occupation. Over the course of twenty years, about thirty local governments who merged with their neighbors voluntarily disappeared from the map.


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