By Samuel Kramer
(FPRI) — In the September 2023 Center Party leadership elections, members chose Tallinn Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart over former Health Minister Tanel Kiik as party chair. Center Party rose to prominence in the 1990s by forging a coalition of disaffected citizens, Russophones in particular. Since 2019, a string of election defeats and scandals have prompted the party leadership to re-evaluate its strategy. The Russian-speaking Kõlvart’s victory suggests that the Center Party is refocusing on Russophone voters, its main constituents, by melding social conservatism and syncretic economic policy. This article outlines Center’s rise to power, its tumultuous tenure on Toompea Hill leading to a swift fall from grace, as well as a future direction for Estonia’s oldest political party.
Foundations of Success
The Center Party’s existence in the Estonian political firmament is remarkable for its longevity. Kõlvart is only the third Center Party leader. Edgar Savisaar founded the party in 1991 on the basis of the pro-perestroika Popular Front of Estonia. After resigning as the country’s first post-communist prime minister in early 1992, he railed against his successors’ free-market reforms, forging a coalition of the dissatisfied. Between 1995 and 2023, Center consistently earned high vote shares in Estonia’s parliamentary elections. It garnered particular attention from exurban residents, who resented the economic advantages marketization brought the cities. Savisaar also cooperated with the country’s Russophone minority, promising to preserve the Russian language’s status in public life if elected. The party became a major opposition force by drawing from both ethnic Estonians and Russophones unhappy with privatization, uniting them around common resentments. In the late 1990s, it gained majorities on the Narva and Tallinn city councils.
Center’s long stints in power presented opportunities for graft. Indeed, Savisaar was charged with corruption in 2015. The same year, Jüri Ratas replaced Savisaar as Center Party head. The new leader’s background differed from Savisaar’s. While Savisaar served as a Communist Party functionary for decades, Ratas’ father, Rein, belonged to the pro-independence Congress of Estonia, joining the Center Party only in 1999. The younger Ratas’s views reflected his father’s outlook: He sought to forge Center into a mainstream party of government. When Jüri Ratas became prime minister in 2016, he emphasized his commitment to Estonia’s Euro-Atlantic alliances and proposed a progressive tax system. His moderate policies proved sufficiently popular to elicit admiration from abroad — Oxford Analytica praised Ratas’ statements as “a model of restraint.” At home in Estonia, the party’s shift to the middle frustrated long-time Russophone politicians: Yana Toom, long one of Center’s most popular candidates in the country’s Russophone-majority east, sparredwith Ratas, even proposing a separate electoral list for the Tallinn city council elections. “We are campaigning on those topics which became passé for the Centrists,” she announced at a press conference barely a year after Ratas took office. While the proposed second list never materialized, it hung darkly over Center’s unity.
Stagnation and Defeats
Center faced further dilemmas in 2019. After that year’s parliamentary elections resulted in a deadlocked parliament, Ratas agreed to form a tripartite coalition with the conservative Isamaa and far-right EKRE parties. Both parties largely campaigned among ethnic Estonians and promoted free market economics alongside ethnic nationalism. EKRE’s radical reputation damaged Ratas’ relationship with his multi-ethnic electoral base. The Russophone wing, fearing the new coalition would undo the policies favoring them, balked. Toom and her then-ally Kõlvart disagreed with the coalition’s composition, but did not impede its formation. When asked, Toom described EKRE as “a party growing out of — how to put this politely — the fears of Estonians.”
Moreover, the restrictive migration policies EKRE implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated the small farmers who comprised Center’s other electoral pillar. Center Party Health Minister Tanel Kiik’s softer approach to tackling the outbreak also hurt the coalition’s popularity. Although the economy fell only by 1.2%in the final quarter of 2020, the following year Estonia experienced the largest consumer price increase nationwide since 2018. Public dissatisfaction increased: 60% of Estonians surveyed disapproved of Kiik’s performance in early 2021. The final blow came in January 2021, when the Center Party-controlled Tallinn municipal government was implicated in a loan provision scandal with lender KredEx. Despite being cleared of wrongdoing, Ratas resigned and Center joined a coalition government led by the Reform Party’s Kaja Kallas.
Forming a coalition with the Reform Party further strained Center’s overall popularity. This new government lasted less than a year, breaking apart on June 3, 2022, when Prime Minister Kaja Kallas invited Isamaa and the Social Democrats to form a new government. The Reform and Center parties disagreed on how to counter inflation and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Center’s traditionally pro-Moscow sympathies were incompatible with the Estonian public’s support for Ukrainian self-defence, and economic populism was anathema to the free-market Reform Party. A further reason for the coalition’s collapse potentially lay in the Center Party’s continuing scandals. Its former education minister, Mailis Reps, was tried for embezzlement. Ongoing litigation over Reps’ case, which began in 2020, feeds media scrutiny of the party’s inner workings. Moreover, Center lost some urban strongholds in northeastern Estonia after the 2021 local elections. This defeat signalled the party’s weakness, providing the Reform Party a pretext for creating a new coalition. The Center Party’s ouster was followed by its rout in the March 2023 parliamentary elections, where Center lost almost half of its seats, mostly in Ida-Viru County (where Narva is located). The party’s most recent reversal appeared fatal.
The Center Party’s 2023 leadership contest displayed a party reeling from five years of turbulent coalition governments and electoral losses. Ratas’ plan to move the Center Party to the political middle and become a supra-ethnic party of power foundered on the party leadership’s scandals. Center’s next leader faced a choice: double down on redefining the party ideology, or rely increasingly on its current voter base.
Kõlvart’s Election and the Return of the “Russians”
The short and sharp 2023 leadership election campaign served as a referendum on Ratas’ leadership. The Ratas-Kõlvart divide spilled over from personalities into worldviews. As prime minister, Ratas hewed to a pro-Atlantic foreign policy. Kõlvart faces criticism for participation in the Bronze Soldier controversy and accusations of insufficient support for Ukraine. In the 2023 leadership election, Ratas lobbied heavily for Kiik, who served in both Center Party and Reform Party-led coalitions. “The party needs a new breath of life and a person who can unite and lead the party forward, who can work together inside and outside the party, and who is a credible candidate for prime minister,” Ratas explained in a subtle critique of two-term Tallinn mayor Kõlvart. Kiik thus positioned himself as Center’s young, mediagenic face. Kõlvart represented the party’s longstanding Russophone supporters, concentrated in the capital’s outlying districts and eastern Estonia.
Kõlvart responded to this challenge by attacking the party’s indecisiveness, implicitly targeting Ratas’ policies. The main problem facing Center, he explained, was that “the Center Party failed to convey to its voters in a precise and understandable way what our ideology is and for whom and what [we are acting].” In this mindset, the party needed to take deliberate, if sometimes controversial, positions to be noticed. Kõlvart reasoned, “What is needed is really serious structural change, and that needs to be addressed. It has to be recognized that change is needed.” The Ratas-era structures had to go. Concrete policies, he added, would also foster a loyal electorate. “It is possible to unite people through clear messages. Once you have people behind you, financial support will follow. It is simple mathematics,” statedKõlvart, suggesting his leadership would reinvigorate the party. The effort paid off: At the September 2023 Center Party meeting, Kõlvart won with 543 votes to Kiik’s 489.
Upon winning, Kõlvart immediately installed his allies in the party leadership: Anneli Ott became general secretary, while Yana Toom, Lauri Laats, Jaan Toots and Jaak Aab became vice-chairs. Rather than resisting change, the opposition retreated: As of mid-September, some 40 people resigned their Center Party membership following the leadership change. Ratas’ influence ended, Center is indisputably Kõlvart’s party now. The question arises what Kõlvart’s tenure means for Estonia’s political future.
What Kõlvart Stands For and What He May Do
Kõlvart’s views are at odds with the Estonian political consensus. He vocally advocates for retaining Russian-language schools instead of transitioning to Estonian-only education. Unlike the governing coalition, which proposed free-marketpolicies to curb galloping inflation, Kõlvart’s Tallinn mayoralty provides subsidies for housing, urban development and sports. Regarding Center’s position on the political spectrum, Kõlvart ally Vadim Belobrovtsev noted that the party’s defeats under Ratas made an ideological refashioning critical. “We need to come to a common denominator,” he added, citing the dissonance between Center party constituents’ opposition to changes in Russian-language schooling and Ratas’ support for education reforms. However, Kõlvart’s anti-establishmentarianism has limits. He opposed working with the far-right EKRE party after the 2019 parliamentary election, and currently governs in coalition with the Center-left Social Democratic Party. The Tallinn mayor clearly aspires to national leadership, and his appeal for change reaches a receptive audience.
Support for the Center Party under Kõlvart’s leadership could come from familiar quarters: dissatisfied urban Russian-speakers. Before 2019, the Center Party drew from both Russophone and ethnic Estonian voters. Following its coalition with EKRE, some Russophones and ethnic Estonian party members departed. This became evident in the 2021 local elections, where Center lost control of the Narva mayoralty and had to form a coalition with the Social Democratic Party to retain power in Tallinn. Despite declining Russophone vote share in the last few years, Center remains the community’s primary choice. January 2023 heralded modest revival, with 51% of Russophones voting for Center. However, this was a far cry from 2015, when Center commanded 70-80% of the Russian-speaking electorate. Center’s core voters are also concentrated in Tallinn: In the 2021 local elections, two of the party’s top three vote-getters hailed from the capital. In contrast to the Tallinn-area resurgence, regaining votes in Ida-Viru County remains unlikely. On Sept. 12, the Narva City Council backed a Center-led vote of no confidence against Social Democratic mayor Katri Raik. Center thus regained power after its humiliating 2021 loss. Nonetheless, local journalist Erik Gamzejev observed, “The Center Party no longer has strong leaders in Narva.” Kõlvart acknowledged critics’ claims that he did not “have a grasp of what is happening in Narva.” The mere fact that Kõlvart felt obliged to respond indicates political turbulence in the party’s Ida-Viru County branch. Having secured its position in the capital, the post-Ratas Center Party will need to spread its message nationwide to stay competitive.
Center’s path to government leadership remains unlikely, though it retains a crucial role in Estonian political life. In the two most recent polls, conducted by Norstat and Turu-uuringute AS, Center comes in third place after Reform and EKRE. However, these reports noted “a continued trend for a fall in support for the three coalition parties as a whole.” Most importantly, the Turu-uuringute survey concluded that while other opposition parties increased, EKRE, the second-largest parliamentary party, “saw a fall from 24% in August, to 20% [in September].” The combined trends of opposition stalemate and government losses makes a cross-ideological coalition inevitable. Center’s support in forming the government thus becomes invaluable. The EKRE leadership already sent out feelers, with chair Martin Helme commenting, “Members of the Center Party rejected the so-called Ratas liberal route … the Center Party, I believe, will become more conservative regarding various matters as a result.” EKRE leadership evidently envisions a populist EKRE-Center coalition united around social conservatism and opposition to the Reform Party. Indeed, despite his stated disagreement with EKRE, Kõlvart shares some of its policy views, notably scepticism of e-voting. Nonetheless, Kõlvart’s municipal coalition partner Jevgeni Ossinovski opined, “It’s a bit too early to make predictions at the moment … the question now is how — how will he manage to get the whole party to work.” To become politically viable, Center will need to show its membership and the Estonian public it possesses ideological and organizational coherence.
Kõlvart’s victory conveys a change in the Center Party’s approach to policymaking. The party’s long-time leadership sought to join the political mainstream; however, their reputation was discredited by defeats and scandals. Under new leadership, the party modified its strategy by recruiting more Russophones through populist, potentially confrontational, rhetoric. Kõlvart’s election and mandate for change reflects a broader shift in Estonian politics. Opposition parties are increasingly turning to protest and extra-parliamentary maneuvers to attract attention. Estonian society is likewise changing. The Russophone minority, one of Center’s bulwarks, has gradually lost its privileged cultural position. In Estonia’s shifting political environment, parties face a choice: Expand their electoral pool or confine it to their most loyal voters. Center tried broadening its support base. After years of setbacks, it is retrenching with a dependable electorate until it rediscovers its niche.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
About the author: Samuel Kramer is a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews and a former Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Tartu.
Source: This article was published by FPRI