TALLINN - Controversy surrounding Justice Minister Ken-Marti Vaher's anti-corruption program has brought the government to the edge of collapse.
Two of three ruling parties, including the Reform Party and the People's Union demanded that Vaher, a Res Publica member, resign on grounds that his anti-corruption measures were unprofessional and even corrupt.
As of March 15 when The Baltic Times went to press, the survival of PM Juhan Parts' government was uncertain. The People's Union and the Reform Party gathered 49 signatures to initiate a no-confidence vote on Vaher in Parliament, far surpassing the 21 needed.
The move to remove the Res Publica minister comes just weeks after Parts went out on a limb and sacked Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland, a member of the Reform Party. That decision almost cost Parts his government and, according to analysts, left the three-party coalition vulnerable to further infighting.
The vote on Vaher will most likely take place on March 16, as the prime minister refused to dismiss Vaher. While Parts told the Postimees daily that he would step down along with the whole Cabinet if Vaher were removed, Reform Party chairman Andrus Ansip said he had no qualms about carrying on without the justice minister.
Meanwhile, Edgar Savisaar, chairman of the leading opposition Center Party, on March 15 invited the People's Union and the Social Democratic Party to discuss the creation of a new, center-left ruling coalition. Ivari Padar, chairman of the Social Democrats, accepted the offer.
Savisaar was also quick to refute rumors that the no-confidence vote was in any was connected to the change of power in Tallinn. The Center Party did not clearly indicate whether it would support the no-confidence vote on Vaher.
"We want to know if there will be just a no-confidence vote [to one minister] or if there is a plan to arrange fresh elections," said Savisaar.
The Center Party is still the most popular in Estonia, according to the Emor pollster, which certainly makes new elections a promising prospect for the Centrists.
The present governmental crisis, probably the most serious since spring 2003, began last week when the public learned about this year's anti-corruption program, prepared and approved by the Justice Ministry.
The program contained so-called "indicators" 's the number of criminal cases scheduled for court. Such examples included 63 corruption cases for local municipality officials, while many more were neatly distributed across Estonia's counties.
Critics of the program pointed out that such goals were contradictory to the ideals of a democratic society, and labeled the indicators "Stalin-like measures."
Reform Party leaders demanded Vaher's resignation, arguing that the anti-corruption program reminded Estonians of the set-up and trials practiced during Stalin's totalitarian rule.
Even Interior Minister Leivo from the People's Union blamed Vaher for his improper approach to the anti-corruption program.
Siim Kiisler, chairman of Res Publica parliament faction, played the devil's advocate, arguing that the Reformists and the People's Union should first listen to the justice minister rather than jump to conclusions.
Kiisler said that if Res Publica's partners were really interested in fighting corruption, they should support the bill on letting the State Audit Office check the work of local municipalities at the government session on March 17.
In defense of the program, Vaher said that the indicators were based on earlier statistics and operative information gathered by police. He added that the use of such indicators was common in other countries.
"As chairman of the repressed victims commission, I know repression, authoritarian and non-democratic regimes very well. Thus comparing the justice system of Estonia, which is an EU member, to Stalinism is pure cynicism," said Vaher.
According to the Justice Ministry, the indicators derived from the Criminal Policy development plan, approved by Parliament. The idea has reportedly been discussed by five other governmental institutions, including the Ministry of the Interior.
Anu Adra, spokeswoman for the Estonian Police Department, said that although the police do not have a crime-solving plan, "they consider the corruption indicators as a part of a work-evaluation system."