No. 20




Local Government as the Basis for a Democratic System of Government

17 December 2009


RiTo No. 20, 2009

  • Arno Almann

    Head of the Department of Law and Public Administration, Estonian Business School

  • Urmas Arumäe

    Lecturer, Department of Law and Public Administration, Estonian Business School

This article provides an analysis of the development of Estonia’s system of local government up to the current time.

The authors recall that the decision made by the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR on 8 August 1989, entitled “The Implementation of Administrative Reform in the Estonian SSR”, was made while Estonia was still part of a totalitarian state (USSR), which was unprecedented, although not so unusual in the Estonia’s historical context. The establishment of Estonian statehood in 1917–1918, while it was still part of tsarist Russia, was also established on the foundation of a well-developed and highly autonomous system of local government. Therefore, it is distinctive of the Estonian state that its independence has been won twice, and each time, the state was established on a functioning system of local government. Local governments in Estonia have been functioning since at least the 12th–13th century and it has only been a nation-state for 90 years (50 years of which comprised occupation by a foreign power). This fact provides an answer to how the Estonians prefer to organize their community life – a preference that no foreign power has succeeded in totally eliminating; and also to why mental opposition exists to reform attempts that would result in the state restricting the autonomy of local governments, or acting in a way that counteracts the interests of local governments.

The principal objective of the reform that was carried out in 1990–1993 was to re-create and develop local democracy to serve as a basis for the establishment of a nation-state, as well as to domestically decentralize national power to management at the local government level. The system of local government created by the reforms of 1990–1994 is basically still functioning today.
Administrative-territorial reform has been spoken about in Estonia for twenty years. The problem is that the reform has constantly been over-politicized and will probably never be realized as a political project. Politicians must fundamentally decide only two things – “what is the desired result?” and “is it achievable?” How it should be done should be a topic for experts, as well as for broad social discussion; goals and time limits must also be set for dealing with this topic.

The authors propose several principles, the implementation of which would guarantee the vitality of the system of local government as the basis for a democratic system of government. They also introduce a report for a committee on administrative-territorial organization that the authors participated in. The committee report should be regarded as a reasoned proposal to society in order to initiate a discussion for carrying out the administrative-territorial reorganization that is required by societal development.

Full article in Estonian