27 февраля 2015 14:47

Estonians vote amid heightened security concerns over Russia


Prime Minister of Estonia Taavi Roivas. ©RIA Novosti Prime Minister of Estonia Taavi Roivas. ©RIA Novosti

 Estonia's centre-left coalition is poised to return to power Sunday in an election marked by nerves in the NATO member over the military resurgence of Russia, and a pro-Kremlin party backed by a sizeable Russian minority, AFP reports.

 Estonia's centre-left coalition is poised to return to power Sunday in an election marked by nerves in the NATO member over the military resurgence of Russia, and a pro-Kremlin party backed by a sizeable Russian minority, AFP reports.

Moscow's annexation of Crimea last year and its meddling in eastern Ukraine has galvanised the EU including this eurozone member of 1.3 million people, a quarter of whom are ethnic-Russian.

Military manoeuvres by Moscow on Estonia's border days ahead of the vote are further stoking deep concerns in Europe that the Kremlin could attempt to destabilise countries which were in its orbit during Soviet times.

"The current security situation will stay with us for a long period of time," Reform party Prime Minister Taavi Roivas said about Europe's worst standoff with Russia since the Cold War.

"This is not just bad weather, this is climate change."

The 35-year-old premier, the EU's youngest, is part of a chorus of Baltic leaders demanding more NATO troops, hardware and extra air patrols to counter Moscow's heightened military overtures in the vulnerable region.

   'The nervousness is palpable' 

 NATO has responded with plans to boost defences on its eastern flank with a spearhead force of 5,000 troops and command centres in six formerly communist members, including one in Estonia.

"The nervousness among the public is palpable," Estonian political analyst Ahto Lobjakas told AFP.

"I'm rather worried about the potential threat from Russia," Katrin, a teacher from the capital Tallinn told AFP, declining to provide a surname.

"The way Russia has actually started a war in Ukraine leaves no doubts about their ambition" to restore regional hegemony, she added, revealing that her vote will go to a staunchly pro-European party.

Backed mainly by ethnic Russians, the opposition Centre could top the vote but, lacking coalition partners, analysts expect a return of the Reform-Social Democrat coalition buttressed in the 101-seat parliament by the conservative IRL. Roivas is tipped to return as prime minister.

Opinion polls show the pro-Kremlin Centre party leading with 27 percent support ahead of Roivas's centre-right Reform with 22 percent and its Social Democrat coalition partners with 18 percent. The IRL commands 16 percent, with six smaller parties also running.

Centre leader Edgar Savisaar lost the trust of many Estonians last year when he controversially visited Moscow and pledged his support for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

The current Tallinn mayor was Estonia's first premier after independence from the USSR in 1991.

   'Nothing serious' 

 In Estonia's Narva region, perched on its eastern border with Russia, ninety percent of the 60,000 residents are ethnic-Russian.

Few there echo the fear of Moscow held by those living further west.

"How can Russia pose a threat to NATO?...Are they all nuts? NATO has 28 countries," Yevgenia, an ethnic Russian pensioner who declined to provide her last name, told AFP.

"We (ethnic-Russians) have no influence, my vote is worthless, so why should I bother to cast a ballot?" she told AFP.

"We were promised living standards like in Finland, but each year it gets worse and more people have to pick over landfills to live," she said of the Narva region among the poorest in the EU.

Joblessness here runs at nine percent, two percent over the national average.

"In my opinion national security is blown up by the press, it's nothing serious, everything is okay, no one is going to attack anyone," 55-year-old Yuri Melnikov told AFP.

Elvira Neimann, a 77-year-old ethnic Russian has lived in Narva since the end of the Second World War in 1945.

"We're all tolerant people, Russia is our friendly neighbour," she told AFP, saying her vote would go to "young people", hinting strongly it would be Roivas.

Bread-and-butter issues, including proposals to introduce a 1,000 euro ($1,131) minimum wage and lower social security premiums, are also hot election topics.

Long a paragon of fiscal responsibility in the EU, which it joined in 2004, Estonia scored 1.8 percent GDP growth in 2014, with a 2.5 percent increase expected this year.

Around thirty percent of voters used a mouse click to cast ballots, thanks to cyber-savvy Estonia's "e-Voting" system in early polling between February 19-25.

Polling stations will be open from 0700 to 1800 GMT Sunday.

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