Radical administrative reform for Estonia?

  • 2000-10-05
  • Jaclyn M. Sindrich
TALLINN - A radical new administrative reform plan seems to have left Estonia's local and national leaders divided - or maybe just bewildered, although the plan's name, "15+5," implies the simplicity of elementary math.

The brainchild of Regional Affairs Minister Toivo Asmer, 15+5 is aimed at streamlining bureaucracy and consolidating the tiny country's enormous number of local governments.

But some question whether the plan goes too far in its apparent "bigger is better" game plan.

In the Soviet era, Estonia was split into three districts - Parnu, Tallinn and Tartu - but after independence, the political map quickly grew more complicated, ballooning to 247 self-governing regions, most of which are small and dot Estonia's more sparsely populated regions.

The reform proposal aims to shave that down to just five city governments - Tallinn, Parnu, Narva, Tartu and Kohtla-Jarve - and 15 county governments.

"If there will be such single-level local governments, it is very radical compared with any country in the world," commented Vaino Sarnet, head of the public administration bureau for the State Chancellery.

Sarnet admitted that the capacity and effectiveness of existing local governments is low, and reform is inevitable. But the outcome right now is difficult to predict, he said.

If implemented, Asmar's plan would imply cutting the number of employees. Some 3,500 officials are expected to be affected. Asmer said that even that number couldn't be pinned down because the present system is so muddled.

"Nobody in Estonia can say now how many officials work in those 247 self-governments, not even the State Chancellery or other top officials," he told the business daily Aripaev. Asmer added that 15+5 would help to distribute resources more effectively.

By October, local governments have to present their projects to their respective county governments for merging with other local entities. The counties must then do an overview of the plans and submit them to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which must report to the government on the proposals by Dec. 1.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs also has its own plan for administrative reform, which would divide Estonia into about 60 municipalities. The larger number of self-governments is considered a more conservative approach to reform, said Aap Nelgas, counselor to the Ministry of Regional Affairs.

Nelgas suggested the government's task will not be an easy one. The counties' proposals are bound to clash. Municipalities being merged into the same governing bodies, he conceded, may outwardly cause a conflict of interest.

"But we think unity is in the interests of economic development," he said.

Right now, the budgets are too small among the 247 self-governments. With 15+5, there would be a larger, more unified pool from which to draw, and cutbacks in administrative costs would leave more money for social welfare programs, he said.

But some worry that the voices of some of the more remote towns, many of which are already struggling to be heard, may become shut out altogether. "Many local governments say that there will be less democracy," said Sarnet. "It is a common and famed dispute."

Nonetheless, the dispute is real. Kristina Reinsalu, spokeswoman for the Ida-Virumaa county government, said that analysis on the reform has been lacking, and big changes don't seem plausible in the foreseeable future for her northeastern Estonian administration. Even if an attempt is made to do so, she argued, it may lead to a dead end.

"Discussing such kinds of reform in all counties and sub-counties will take so long, that the state will just cancel the reform," she said. "The heads of the sub-counties will argue about who will be the boss. I do not believe the state will carry out such a radical reform."

Toomas Sepp, city secretary of the Tallinn city government, pointed out that many laws will also have to be changed if 15+5 is to become a reality.

"I think we need reform, but the question is, how deeply do we need it?" he said. Sepp said that it was too early to know for sure if Asmar's plan was the answer. "But I think we are moving in the right direction."