Deadlock over Baltic-German bill postponed

  • 2000-03-02
  • By Brooke Donald
TALLINN – The ruling coalition agreed during an emergency meeting on Feb. 29 of faction leaders and party representatives to postpone the reading of a bill that has stopped the work of Parliament for nearly two weeks.

The relatively insignificant bill that affects approximately 200 Estonians but tugs at the emotions of everyone else brought Parliament to a stand-still, as opposition parties halted the work of lawmakers and ruling coalition leaders refused to back down.

"We reached the agreement that if they stop their obstruction, reading of the bill will be interrupted after discussion of motions for amendments and we will sit down together to discuss substantial matters connected with the issue," Tonu Koiv, deputy chairmain of the Moderates faction, said.

The bill, described by some as the "Baltic-German bill" concerns the restitution of property to Estonians who emigrated to Germany in 1941 and were citizens of Estonia as of June 16, 1940. Adoption of the bill would mean amendments to the property reform law and most likely the eviction of dwellers now residing in the homes previously occupied by the emigres. Vouchers for the property are also being considered to avoid displacement.

The opposition parties claim that the Baltic-Germans have no legal right to the property because of prior compensation by the German government.

However, the ruling three parties say there is no way to be certain that those who fled to Germany at the beginning of World War II have already been compensated. Moreover, the majority of the members of the Moderates, Reform Party and Pro Patria Union, see no legal restrictions to giving the property back, as the current property reform law states that citizens of Estonia prior to occupation should be compensated.

Meanwhile the association of Baltic Germans sent a letter to Parliament saying they have not made claim to the property, nor have they initiated the affair that turned into a parliamentary deadlock.

More significant than the property bill that held up Parliament are the laws that have become casualties of the row.

Opposition leaders imposed what they call a tactic of protraction to delay the vote on the restitution bill and force the ruling parties to amend the law. The opposition kept Parliament overnight on Feb. 16 by submitting motions to drop bills from the session's agenda and taking breaks before each vote.

The same method was employed the following week and 19 bills on the agenda failed to be considered by lawmakers.

"It is bad," said MP Mari-Ann Kelam, of the Pro Patria Union. "We have a very tight timetable for the European Union and everyday we lose is a very serious loss."

Every hour that the lawmakers work overtime is also a big loss for the state. As the parliament members worked into the night on two occasions, over 40,000 kroons were spent by the state, according to Kristen Jusen, a Parliament spokeswoman.

"The government is in urgent need to read some other bills," said MP Sven Mikser, of the opposition Center Party. "They have deadlines for the European Union. This is rather embarrassing for the government."

Which parties, in fact, are humiliated by the disruption is not easily discernible. While the opposition appears to be the instigator of the stand-still in Parliament, it was the government parties that placed the controversial bill on the agenda.

Ivar Tallo of the Moderates said the ruling parties did not expect that this bill would cause such a fuss, but when the Center Party "behaved like it did" memories of World War II came back and it became an emotional issue.

The parties' leaders have met together and with the prime minister on several occasions and have issued statements explaining their resistance to the others' proposals, yet a compromise seemed out of reach until the emergency Tuesday meeting. Until then, each party was desparate to spin public opinion.

"Public opinion is already divided between two different mainstreams of thought, one with the opposition and the other with the ruling parties," said reporter Aet Suvari, who has been covering the event for Eesti Ekspress. "Here it is a bit more complicated because opinion is not only between political ideologies, motionally this issue is very touchy. It has to do with delicate matters."

Center Party members had said that it was up to the ruling parties to make a decision on what to do next, otherwise the deadlock would continue. The Moderates, Reform Party and Pro Patria Union had a couple of different options to end the debate, but were reluctant to implement them. Their options included postponing the bill by taking it off the government agenda, as is now suggested, giving it back to government for consideration and the possibility that changes will be made or attaching the bill to a vote of confidence as a last attempt to push it through Parliament.

The ruling parties, however, were not enthusiastic about any of those solutions as they saw it as backing down to undemocratic behavior by the opposition parties.

"If we back down, then we are only saying that they can do this again," Tallo said before the Feb. 29 meeting. "You don't negotiate with this behavior."

Attaching the restitution bill to a vote of confidence would have committed the government to stepping down if they lost. That risk is usually taken only when the law in question is key to the issues of the ruling coalition, according to members of the governing parties.

"You would hate to tie something this insignificant to a vote of confidence, because in a way it is like giving in to blackmail," Kelam said before the agreement was made. "We need to cure this problem, not just get past the log jam."

However, other ruling coalition MPs argued that a compromise should be made, and perhaps that would mean changing the bill under discussion.

"We need to take the draft back," said Pro Patria Union MP Kalle Jurgenson. "The aim of the draft is not quite clear. This is bad for public opinion about democracy and the state in general."

Reform Party MP, Kalev Kukk, maintains the Estonian Parliament solved this problem back in 1991 when it passed a law that all Estonian citizens by June 16, 1940 are subject to ownership reforms.

"We have to understand our own history. This problem is solved in law," Kukk said.

Parliament should go back to session on March 7, after this week of holiday.