Local Government in Estonia

Author:Angel-Manuel Moreno

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1. Brief historical evolution

Estonia was proclaimed a Republic on February 24, 1918. Until that time, the country had been a part of the Russian Tsarist Empire for over 200 years. Rural municipalities (vald) became institutions of local self-governance in 1816, in the province of Estonia ([c4e][c58][c45][c48][c55][c50][c44][c51][c4a]) and in 1819, in the province of Livonian. These municipalities were originally established as manorial estates, but became more independent in 1866 with the enactment of the Rural Community Government Act. Local councils, executive boards, and mayors were elected, marking the start of what we consider local self-government based on modern principles. Several cities (linn) maintained a tradition of self-governance dating from the Middle Ages (Town Law of Lübeck). In 1877, the Rights of Lübeck were invalidated in the territory which is now Estonia, and in 1870, the Russian Cities Act was enacted.

Following the Decree of the Russian Provisional Government of 5 July 1917 «On administration and temporary organisation of Self-government in the province of Estonia», Estonia became an autonomous administrative unit, the borders of which coincided with the area inhabited by Estonians (including North-Livonia). This legal rule recognised the right to issue local general legislation (i.e. regulations), and provided Estonia and its people with an autonomous entity where the formal authority of the Russian state was almost nonexistent. One might say that Estonia achieved independence at the self-government level earlier than at the state level.

The drafting and adoption of Estonia’s own legislation regulating local self-government to replace the formerly valid legislation of the Russian Empire had been pending since Estonia declared its independence. Chapter VII of the 1920 Constitution regulated local self-government. In later years, only minor amendments were introduced to Estonian legislation, including the adoption of new local election acts. The most drastic change took place in 1933 when a consti-

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tutional amendment was adopted that abolished the second level local self-government. In 1937, the Rural Municipality Act was adopted, followed by the City Act in 1938. A new Constitution was adopted in 1938 that established local self-government at the second (county – [c50][c44][c44][c4e][c52][c51][c47]) level, although, it actually consisted of authorized representatives from the first level.

In 1940, local self-government was basically abolished under Soviet occupation. After half a century of centralised management under the Soviet regime, local self-government revived in 1989. On 8 August 1989, the Estonian Supreme Soviet adopted regulation to initiate administrative reform, which was followed by the Local Self-Government Foundation Act on 10 November of the same year.1Exactly one month later, on 10 December 1989, the first free local self-government council elections in almost 50 years took place. Autonomous decision-making and self-government at the local level had been impossible during the preceding 50 years, so this was the first issue to be addressed. Specific strategic approaches for administrative reform were devised. Re-introduction of local self-government was rapid and successful, despite the gap of two generations.

A significant event in terms of the development of local self-government was the reestablishment of the Association of Estonian Cities (originally established in 1920) and the Association of Rural Municipalities (originally established in 1921), in 1990. The former had already been a member of the International Union of Local Authorities (IULA) during 1925-1940 and renewed its membership in 1995. The Constitutional Assembly (1991-1992) set up a working group to draft the chapter regulating local self-government. The provisions of the Estonian Constitution conformed to the principles of the European Charter of Local Self-Government (ECLSG), which was ratified by the Parliament ([c35][c4c][c4c][c4a][c4c][c4e][c52][c4a][c58]) only two years later, on 28 September 1994.

Today, it is clear that the administrative-territorial organisation of Estonia needs reforms. The average population of Estonian rural municipalities is less than 2,500 people and, despite mergers, there are still instances where a centrally located settlement is detached, administratively speaking, from its outlying areas. The underlying problem involves inadequate cooperation between local self-government units in the field of public services, especially in the metropolitan area.

2. Basic facts and figures

A two-level system of local government existed in Estonia from 1989-1993. Rural municipalities (vald) and cities (linn) constituted the first level, and 15

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counties ([c50][c44][c44][c4e][c52][c51][c47]) and 6 big cities (republican cities, [c59][c44][c45][c44][c55][c4c][c4c][c4e][c4f][c4c][c4e][c58][c03][c44][c4f][c4f][c58][c59][c58][c56][c48][c4a][c44][c03] linn: Tallinn, Tartu, Kohtla-Järve, Narva, Pärnu and Sillamäe), formed the second level. The Local Government Foundation Act (1989) stipulated a single level, local government system. The approaches to administrative reform, i.e. local government reform, provided that first-level administrative units would be granted self-governing status only if they were capable of fulfilling the most significant tasks of local government.

A new, one-level system of local government, still existing today, was introduced in 1994 after years of reform and restructuring of the legal and financial foundation for local government. County administration (maavalitsus) became part of central government and the county governor (maavanem) became a representative of the central government. The Government of the Republic appoints the county governor to the office for a term of five years.

Following the local councils elections in 2009, there are now 226 local government units in Estonia – 193 rural municipalities and 33 cities (Table 1). Cities and rural municipalities may be divided into city district (linnaosa) or a rural municipality district (osavald) with limited rights to self-governance. The competencies of a city or rural municipality district are stated in the statute of the city or rural municipality.

Table 1

Number of rural municipalities and cities by population size categories (1/1/2011)

Population size categories Number of cities/rural municipalities % Population %
Below 1,000 1/39 17.70 29,910 2.19
1,001- 2,000 4/76 35.42 116,112 8.50
2,001-5,000 8/55 27.87 204,239 14.95
5,001-10,000 7/18 11.06 169,303 12.40
10,001-20,000 8/5 5.75 187,280 13.72
20,001-50,000 2/- 0.88 83,518 6.12
50,001-100,00 2/- 0.88 163,198 11.95
Above 100,001 1/- 0.44 411,903 30.17
TOTAL 33*/193 100.00 1,365,463 100.00

* There are, however, 47 cities altogether, since 14 cities are not local self-government units with a local council and a mayor, but simply urban settlements within a rural municipality.

The size of local authorities varies greatly. The average population of 4/5 of local entities is less than 2,500 while only a quarter of the total population of the country resides there. The small size of Estonian local authorities and how this effects their administrative capacity, is one of the hottest problems of local

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government in Estonia. Only 18 cities or rural municipalities (8% of the total figure) have a population of more than 10,000 people and approximately 2/3 of the total population of the country lives in those places. The biggest unit is the capital city, Tallinn, where 30% of the country’s population lives. This figure is one of the highest percentages in Europe (after Iceland and Latvia).

Administrative-territorial reform has been an issue since the country regained its independence, but there has been little headway made. In 1995, there were 254 local government units in Estonia, 28 more than in 2011. On 22 February 1995, the [c35][c4c][c4c][c4a][c4c][c4e][c52][c4a][c58] adopted the Territory of Estonia Administrative Division Act. According to this statute, local councils or the Government of the Republic may initiate changes in the administrative division of the territory of Estonia. At the end of June 2004, the Parliament passed the Promotion of Merger of Local Self-Governments Act to establish the principles and conditions to promote mergers including, the requirements to deliver public services, guidelines for making appropriations for the State Budget in order to cover costs related to the merger, and the principles of compensation to reduce appropriations from the State Budget.

Implementation of the administrative-territorial reform has thus far failed, mainly because the reform has been an issue in itself. There has been a lot of talk about the need to determine the responsibilities of local authorities and to formulate the principles...

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