GRATEFUL: Supporters of the bill place flowers in gratitude outside the Estonian Riigikogu on October 9.
TALLINN - On Thursday October 9, members of the Estonian Riigikogu voted to legalise civil partnerships for both heterosexual and same-sex couples in a move that has proved divisive to many both within and outside the country’s borders.
The bill had taken years to get to this point, first being drafted for voting in the Estonian parliament back in 2011. But it was far from a landslide victory for the bill’s supporters, passing by 40 votes to 38 with 23 MPs abstaining or absent.
Yet regardless of the margin that this law passed with, it will come into effect on January 1, 2016, and will guarantee that all cohabiting couples, regardless of orientation, may register their partnership and receive legal protection and rights..
This issue proved divisive with the Estonian populace, however, with a recent survey by polling agency TNS Emor in August showing that 34 percent of Estonians backed the bill while 58 percent were against it.
Meanwhile gay rights activists have lauded the outcome of the vote. One such campaigner, Lisette Kampus, a spokesperson for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights group SEKU stated, “It sends a message to a group of people that this country values you as much as everybody else,” she said in an interview with the UK The Independent.
“You are no less, no more – you are Estonian and we value you and your family.”
The Baltic Times conducted our own survey of the Estonian public’s feelings regarding the passing of this bill - when asked, the majority of respondents (60 percent) highlighted that they were not in favour of the legislation. One member of the public went on to state that there was a feeling of discontent with the Estonian parliament’s apparent willingness to ignore public opinion
Change, or a continuing trend?
Estonia is not a newbie in its attempts to set the trend in terms of being proactive in reforming social or political policy. In her interview with the UK Independent, Lisette Kampus also gave an interesting insight into the state of how she sees the socio-political leaning of the Estonian public, stating, “Society has been transforming at a very quick pace… Mentally, we want to belong in Scandinavia and share those same liberal values – homophobia is one of the scales by which you can measure how tolerant and open society is.”
This statement at its most general level - that socially and politically Estonia is closer to its Scandinavian cousins than its Baltic neighbours - has been echoed by many who have watched the progress of the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1993. Since then the country has joined NATO; the European Union; and also adopted the European Single Currency as part of the Euro Zone. Changes continue apace, and regardless of public satisfaction levels with this particular issue, it is clear that generally speaking Estonia is a country that is keen to commemorate its Eastern links, all the while creating and celebrating closer Western ones. The introduction of more liberal social policy is a hallmark of this ongoing strategy.
In a move that heads in an opposite direction, another former Soviet satellite state is passing increasingly anti-gay laws. Since 1998 Kyrgyzstan has legalised relationships between same-sex couples within its borders. However, in recent weeks this has seemingly been repealed to include the outlawing of, “a positive attitude toward non-traditional sexual relations…”
It is unclear at this point whether Estonia’s Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania, will follow suit with the legislation passed in the Riigikogu. Traditionally these countries are less liberal-minded than their northern counterpart. However Latvia’s latest statistics show that last year, 53% of first-born children, and 44.6% of all newborns, were born outside of marriage, making legal protection for unmarried couples a crucial question.
Historians measuring the progress of former Soviet states as they have strived to find their way since resuming their sovereign status would be at odds to adequately define what has led to this drastic difference of opinion and stance.
However, what is clear is that with this move the Estonian government is overwhelmingly positioning itself to continue its march toward a liberal, cohesive, all-embracing society, no matter how divisive the issue may be with its public.
With additional reporting contributed by Laura Kenins