January – COVID-19, the energy crisis and Russia
As the COVID-19 pandemic headed into its second new year in Estonia, COVID restrictions and testing, the Omicron variant and the impacts of the pandemic on the country’s healthcare system, schools and businesses remained central topics in the news throughout January.
Nearly half of the country’s schools had gone back to full or partial distance learning due to the rapid spread of the new Omicron variant by the second half of the month.
Nonetheless, rapid antigen tests were supplanting mass PCR testing, and Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (Center) said by the end of the month that the country’s COVID restrictions could be phased out in February.
Households, businesses and municipalities all started off the new year still grappling with soaring energy bills after energy prices first started to spike last fall. In a system criticized even by President Alar Karis as unnecessarily clumsy, which required the hiring of extra staff for processing and crashed City of Tallinn websites, local governments began accepting applications for household energy bill support dating back to October.
As the ruling Reform-Center coalition struggled to reach an agreement regarding further measures, electricity sellers, meanwhile, were unilaterally making changes to fixed-price energy contracts and cities and municipalities across the country were literally turning off the lights to try to save on energy costs. The opposition Isamaa organized a protest in front of Stenbock House, calling on the government to address the crisis.
On January 20, the Estonian government did reach an agreement, announcing that the state would compensate electricity prices exceeding €0.12 per kilowatt-hour as well as establish a price cap on natural gas. The opposition Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) likewise protested ongoing high energy prices as well as the government’s mitigation measures.
Beyond Estonia’s borders, Russia commanded much of the West’s attention throughout January as it continued to build up troops along its border with Ukraine and reiterated demands at the NATO-Russia Council held in Brussels on January 12 that NATO stop accepting new members as well as withdraw forces from its eastern flank.
In a foreshadowing of events to come, former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves had urged the EU before the NATO-Russia Council to prepare itself for a possible influx of potentially millions of refugees from Ukraine.
In an appearance on Raadio 2 on January 19, Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Lt. Gen. Martin Herem said he believed it likely that Russia would launch an armed attack on Ukraine soon. That same day, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were authorized by the U.S. to transfer American-made weapons to Ukraine, including Javelin anti-armor missiles from Estonia.
February – Russia launches full-scale invasion of Ukraine
As of the beginning of February, EKRE had surpassed Reform in Norstat’s weekly ratings to become the most popular political party in Estonia, with the support of 24 and 21.6 percent of those polled, respectively. That same week, the nonparliamentary Eesti 200 also saw a party record high of 17 percent support.
Two concurrent protests were held in Tallinn in early February — the anti-vaccine “Freedom Convoy,” which drew drivers from all over the country, as well as a second, against COVID-related restrictions, organized by the Foundation for the Protection of the Family and Tradition (SAPTK).
COVID certificates, meanwhile, were deemed more likely to be abolished in March at earliest.
On February 10, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania lodged an appeal with the OSCE over the “extraordinary movement” of troops and equipment from Russia to Belarus for unscheduled military exercises. That same week, Estonia began warning against travel to Ukraine and urging Estonian citizens to leave the country.
Meanwhile, further from home, Estonian skier Kelly Sildaru won the bronze at the 2022 Beijing Olympics in the women’s freeski slopestyle event.
By mid-February, Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service said that Russia was prepared for war, and EFIS Director General Mikk Marran specified that Russian troops were located 50 kilometers from the Ukrainian border and showing no signs of moving away from it.
Estonian president and prime minister made clear that Estonia would never accept the Russian Federation’s recognition of the two so-called “republics” in question, and that should Russia go through with it, strong EU sanctions had to follow this “serious escalation.”
The Estonian president stressed in a statement that Estonia supports Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and remains committed to the policy of non-recognition of the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories.
Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the early morning hours of February 24, on Estonia’s Independence Day.
Even as celebrations and observations marking the occasion went on largely as planned, including a sunrise flag-raising ceremony at Pikk Hermann, an Independence Day parade in Tallinn’s Freedom Square and a presidential reception in the evening, Estonian leaders and legislators were swift to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine, trigger NATO’s Article 4, launch a security crisis information page online as well as allocate €200,000 in emergency aid for displaced Ukrainians.
Widespread responses continued into the coming days, including Estonian regulators banning the broadcasting of one Belarusian and four Russian TV channels, supermarket chains removing products of Russian origin from store shelves, Estonia dispatching further weapons aid to Ukraine, the arrival of more allied troops and equipment in Estonia and arranging for Ukrainian citizens with expiring Estonian residency permits to be allowed to remain in the country for the time being.
That Saturday, tens of thousands of people gathered at Tallinn’s Freedom Square to protest in solidarity with Ukraine; residents of Narva and members of Estonia’s Belarusian community demonstrated as well.
Germany and Finland also granted Estonia sought-after permission to send weapons they’d originally provided to Estonia to Ukraine.
According to officials, Estonia estimated at the time that it could accommodate up to 2,000 refugees from Ukraine. The first began to arrive in Estonia the night of the 28th.
March – Ukraine aid, refugee numbers keep growing
On the first day of March, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg arrived in Estonia, where he met with Estonian leaders before delivering a joint press conference with Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
As ERR journalists on the ground in Ukraine reported that Russian troops were indiscriminately targeting civilians there, Estonia worked to allocate €1.3 million as well as change COVID-related travel restrictions to facilitate the arrival of refugees from Ukraine.
The country’s first major refugee reception center was opened at Niine 2 in Tallinn, as Estonian schools and kindergartens worked to prepare spots for arriving refugee children, estimated to account for some 40 percent of arrivals from Ukraine.
In an appearance on Vikerraadio’s “Reporteritund,” representatives of several NGOs explained that while Estonia as a state had more resources at its disposal, NGOs were significantly swifter and more nimble in reacting and responding immediately to provide and organize aid efforts, ranging from dispatching humanitarian and medical donations to Ukraine to transporting busloads of refugees from the Ukrainian-Polish border to Estonia.
By early March, Estonian donations to Ukraine had already neared the €6 million mark, and Estonian ministry officials revised their estimated capacity for receiving refugees from Ukraine to 10,000.
The University of Tartu, Estonia’s oldest and flagship university, decided to restrict applications from Russian and Belarusian students going forward, a move met with mixed reactions but nonetheless a lead other universities in the country would consider following.
By mid-March, more than 25,000 refugees from Ukraine had arrived in Estonia, and local governments had begun requesting additional support for them.
In the second half of the month, the mayor of Tallinn visited Ukraine, as did the speakers of the Baltic countries’ national parliaments.
Minister of Education and Research Liina Kersna (Reform) first brought up that a new school specifically for Ukrainian refugee children would likely be needed in Tallinn.
The Education Ministry also launched a new educator hotline dedicated to providing advice regarding war-related topics, and the already bilingual Estonian-Russian school psychologist hotline expanded its services to include Ukrainian-language hours.
Toward the end of the month, the Estonian government approved a €600 million defense funding package and continued negotiations for the use of a cruise ship for providing temporary accommodations for incoming refugees.
As of the end of the month, Estonia’s mask mandate had yet to be dropped.
April – War in Ukraine continues to dominate the headlines
April began with Belgium handing over control of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission at Ämari Air Base to the French Air and Space Force. “There is a war going on in Europe, and your four-month tour here will no doubt be full of challenges,” Brig. Gen. Rauno Sirk of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) said.
A day later, Estonia lifted the requirement to wear facemasks in public in order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus as it entered the “yellow zone” of the government’s risk matrix.
However, the headlines naturally continued to be dominated by events in Ukraine. As evidence came to light of war crimes committed by Russian troops in Bucha and Irpin, Estonian President Alar Karis and Prime Minister Kaja Kallas were among the most prominent in calling for the perpetrators to be held responsible.
As new waves of Ukrainian refugees began arriving in Estonia via Russia, the state stepped up its efforts to find enough suitable accommodation to host them.
April was also characterized by people from all walks of Estonian society stepping up to help Ukraine. From sending IT equipment and donating blood, to making camouflage nets for Ukrainian soldiers serving on the front-line.
Meanwhile, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) began revoking visas for people displaying symbols in support of Russia’s war, including the “Z” and “V” as well as the St. George’s ribbon.
Russian citizens based in Estonia also staged the first of several anti-war protests outside the Russian Embassy in Tallinn.
May – Kallas urges European leaders to stop calling Putin
As April made way for May, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas presented an €800 million war budget to the Riigikogu. “With this additional budget, we will make Estonia stronger and give the people of Estonia a greater sense of security – we will be able to cope with the altered security situation,” Kallas said.
Highlighting the important role of culture in times of war, the annual Tallinn Music Week festival was adapted to include a full program of concerts and other cultural events in Narva. “Estonia will not be divided and Narva is where the EU starts,” said the festival’s lead organizer Helen Sildna.
While May 9 commemorations passed relatively peacefully in Estonia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website was temporarily disrupted by a cyberattack.
Amid claims that members of the Center Party were agitating for the ruling coalition to break up, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas called on them to “man up” and bring a motion of no-confidence against her. “I do not want to break up this government, and I have done nothing to break it up,” Kallas said.
During the annual Lennart Meri Conference, which took place in Tallinn in Mid-May, security issues were high on the agenda. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas urged to stop calling Vladimir Putin. “If everybody is constantly calling him, he doesn’t get the message that he’s isolated. So, if we want to get the message through that actually ‘you are isolated’, don’t call him – there’s no point,” she said.
Meanwhile, Estonia finished a respectable thirteenth in the Eurovision Song Contest, with the song “Hope” performed by Stefan. The contest was won by Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra.
Estonia also became the first Baltic country to be featured in the Michelin guide, as two of the country’s restaurants were awarded prestigious Michelin stars.
In sports, legendary Estonian goalkeeper Mart Poom was voted the most valuable player of the 2000s by English club Derby County. Poom made 146 appearances for the club from 1997 to 2003.
A Barbie doll made in the likeness of freestyle skier Kelly Sildaru was unveiled. “It’s an honor to be a role model that inspires little girls to be involved in sports and not give up when they encounter obstacles,” said Sildaru, upon becoming the first Estonian to be immortalized as the iconic toy.
June – Prime minister dismisses the Center Party from the coalition
June brought a heatwave, particularly in the latter part of the month, prompting the weather service to issue a warning both over the heat and ensuing thunderstorms.
Nonetheless it turned out sunny for the annual Victory Day (Võidupühapäev) parade on June 23, this year held in Kuressaare, Saaremaa’s capital, and for Midsummer’s day (Jaanipäev) the next day.
In sport, Martin Rump became the first ever Estonian to race in the prestigious Le Mans 24-Hour race.
Anett Kontaveit rose to number two in the world, while this rising tide also saw Estonia’s’ other star player, Kaia Kanepi, reenter the top 40 after several years’ absence.
The dominant themes in June were, however, politics, defense and security, both at home and internationally.
In the first case, mounting pressure on the Reform/Center coalition continued as the cracks started to show. Ostensibly beginning with a difference of opinion over changes to the law on family benefits, the brickbats started to fly in both directions and from the parties’ respective chief whips, as well as from Center’s leader.
This culminated in Prime Minister Kaja Kallas dismissing all seven Center Party ministers from office, on June 3.
The development came so quickly that outgoing foreign minister and former diplomat Eva-Maria Liimets found out about the news while still on an official visit to Canada.
Another Center minister who did not come from a political background and was, it could be fairly said, “induced” into taking on the post in January 2021 was former police chief Kristian Jaani, who now had to find a new job.
Reform found themselves in a minority government, with 34 Riigikogu seats and seven ministers, plus the prime minister. The seven ministers had to double-up on portfolios vacated by Center’s departure.
What happened next remains the subject of speculation, with the prime minister laying a decision for calling a snap election at the president’s door, and the inevitable calls for Kallas’ resignation from some quarters.
Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise insisted there was no constitutional crisis in Estonia, however.
In the end, the usual coalition talks began.
Several potential combinations were thrown out there, but ultimately the prime minister opted to try to recreate the Reform/Isamaa/SDE alignment, in office 2015-2016, under Taavi Rõivas.
Center conceded after a snub from Isamaa, and the negotiations started mid-month, lasting through to mid-July.
One Reform minister who did not make it, however, was education minister Liina Kersna. While she survived a no-confidence vote earlier on in the month, following allegations over irregularities in the procurement of coronavirus vaccines for schools, the opening of criminal proceedings over the matter led to her resignation at month-end.
On the international stage, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continued to dominate.
Against the backdrop of a Russian military helicopter making an incursion into Estonian airspace, EU-level talks on Putin remained “heated”, the prime minister said.
Kallas also met German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and paid a visit to Number 10 Downing Street for talks with Boris Johnson as well.
Kallas was seemingly left on the doorstep by the U.K. premier, though this was most likely because he was that day facing a vote of no-confidence himself, meaning avoiding the press pack was the prudent thing to do.
All of this pointed towards the long-awaited NATO Madrid Summit, at month’s end, with Estonia going into the meeting with a clear picture of what it wanted, and coming away with a deal not to be sniffed at either – as the alliance agreed to set up a brigade-sized formation in the country, along with a command structure one up from that, at divisional level.
On the home front, Tartu got its first public emergency shelter signage, as did Tallinn.
Another first for Estonia’s second city was the Pride Parade held there.
July – New Reform/Isamaa/SDE coalition takes office
July marked 100 years of U.S.-Estonian diplomatic relations, which President Alar Karis described as “stronger than ever.” As if to underscore this, a contingent of U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II’s arrived at Ämari Air Base, as part of NATO’s air shielding mission.
While traditionally a quiet month on the news front in Estonia, July 2022 saw the entry into office of the new Reform/Isamaa/SDE coalition. As noted the latter two parties had been in opposition until that point; Reform had been in office alone since early June.
Six of the new ministers had no prior governmental experience, though some old faces returned, including Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa, foreign minister and deputy prime minister). Kaja Kallas (Reform) stayed on as prime minster.
A coalition agreement was signed mid-month, and the first government sitting took place a few days later.
Since a general election is due in March 2023, the new lineup became something of a stop-gap administration, and the third in a little over three years.
Inflation continued to soar in Estonia, rising to nearly 23 percent in July, the highest in the Eurozone and coinciding with all-time record electricity prices. Prices continued to rise to nearly 25 percent the following month, and were expected by some experts to do so into 2023.
August – Narva tank removed, relocated
The hottest August for a century was posted as temperatures, particularly in the second half of the month, broke the 30-degrees mark and the skies remained clear, making the annual presidential reception on Restoration of Independence Day, August 20, a particularly sunny one.
The month’s biggest story, however, was the fate of the Narva tank.
The tank, a genuine T-34 Soviet-era model, churned out in vast quantities in World War II and well beyond, had been sited on a plinth just outside Narva, on Estonia’s eastern border, for decades.
The changed security situation put it, and the many other Soviet memorials, monuments and other relics in Estonia, back under the spotlight.
Crowds gathered amid growing calls for its prompt removal, while President Alar Karis said the tank would be more suited to spending its latter days in a museum – which proved indeed its fate.
Controversy revolved around who was responsible for removing the piece. Under Estonian law at the time, since the monument site contained no human remains, its status should have been the responsibility of local government.
While the city government in Narva did initially say that it would remove the tank, politically this proved too thorny of an issue, in this majority Russian-speaking town.
With no one in the mood for a repeat of the April 2007 “Bronze Soldier” riots, the state stepped in and removed the tank, intact, from its pedestal and relocated it to the National War Museum in Viimsi – all in the space of one day, August 16.
Minor disturbances were reported in and near Narva during this process, though the project to divest Estonia of this unwelcome reminder of a lengthy and repressive occupation was accompanied by cyberattacks, likely of Russian origin.
Across Estonia, Soviet memorials big and small were dealt with in the same way, though sites containing sets of human remains, often in large numbers, were treated much more gingerly.
Neighboring Latvia, too, knocked down a major edifice which had graced central Riga since the Soviet era.
From the somber to the everyday, Estonia got its first ever full-scale IKEA, located just outside Tallinn, which opened on August 25, ending many months’ anticipation.
September – Tallinn hosts first ever WTA250 tennis tournament
The significance of another key Estonian ally, the U.K., became apparent via two separate story arcs coming in the first month of autumn.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II, who celebrated 70 years on the throne earlier in the year, was met with heartfelt sympathies from Estonia’s leadership.
The British Embassy in Tallinn opened a book of condolences, and President Alar Karis attended the state funeral at Westminster Abbey, on September 19.
Later in the month, British media reports that the number of U.K. troops in Estonia were to halve by year-end were met with concern. In fact, an Agile Task Force based in-country following the NATO Madrid Summit in June, was as its name suggests intended to be deployed when and where needed, while the outgoing existing enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup at Tapa remained in Estonia for several months after its successor unit had arrived.
Britain’s armed forces minister, James Heappey, had also been on an official visit to Estonia in late August.
A large-scale military mobilization in Russia prompted defense chiefs in Estonia to revisit the situation with their own reservists, with the aim being to triple personnel levels in 2023, while service terms are extended.
Around two-thirds of those called up for a snap reservists’ exercise did so.
The end of the month saw the inaugural Tallinn WTA250 tournament take place, and after much preparation and politicking since the competition was provisionally announced early in the year.
Both of Estonia’s star players took part in their home event: Anett Kontaveit, who reached the near-pinnacle ranking of second in the world this season, and veteran Kaia Kanepi, who reentered the top 30 for the first time in several years.
The pair ended up meeting each other in the semi-final for an all-Estonian affair which Kontaveit won. Ultimately, Barbara Krejcikova lifted the trophy.
Estonia’s lesser-known players in the competition were Elena Malõgina, Maileen Nuudi and Katriin Saar, who normally compete on the ITF circuit and who also got their first ever taste of a WTA tournament, while the event attracted top international stars Jill Teichmann and Alla Tomljanvic, as well as Krejcikova, and top Latvian player Jelena Ostapenko.
Ukrainian twins Nadiia and Lyudmyla Kichenok won the doubles.
October – Estonia’s borrowing reaches new level, Riigikogu declares Russian administration terrorist regime
Effects of Russia’s mobilization continued to unfold in October, alongside worries in the border city of Narva about possible Russian counter-sanctions. Some 700,000 citizens were believed to have left Russia. Estonian politicians warned against opening borders to Russian men dodging the draft.
U.S. military funding (FMF) for Estonia came to €140.5 million in 2022.
The government borrowed more than initially reported to cover costs, with the bond issue eventually fetching €1 billion at a draconian annual rate of 4 percent. The finance ministry worriedly reported that many investors were moving away from Baltic bonds, with PM Kaja Kallas describing it as an unfortunate surprise for everyone.
Traffic in Tallinn had to factor in Pronksi tänav repairs starting in October.
Estonia’s newest political party, an offshoot of Isamaa’s Parempoolsed in-house group, was officially registered.
Lauri Hussar was elected to chair the non-parliamentary Eesti 200 party instead of Kristina Kallas later in the month.
After weeks of speculation, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications reported that the regional FSRU will be moored in Inkoo, Finland instead of Estonia.
Head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Estonia condemned Russia’s Ukraine invasion after prompted to do so by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. However, not everyone was convinced of the metropolitan’s sincerity.
The Riigikogu declared the Russian Federation a terrorist regime.
The opposition EKRE party unsuccessfully challenged Keit Pentus-Rosimannus’ nomination as Estonia’s next European Court of Auditors representative, with Annely Akkermann taking over as finance minister.
The justice and culture ministries reached an agreement on how to handle Soviet monuments in Estonia. Removal of Soviet monuments continued.
Estonian rally driver Ott Tänak revealed he would leave Hyundai once the 2022 season ends. Tänak finished the 2022 season in second place. In December, Tänak confirmed that he will join the M-Sport Ford WRC team for the 2023 season.
Reform Party MP Marko Mihkelson became embroiled in a scandal involving pictures of naked children. He later resigned as head of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee.
November – Nursipalu Training Area expansion, Soviet monuments controversy raise pulses
Eesti Energia expanded the universal electricity price service to micro and small businesses.
The government approved a bill to remove Soviet insignia from public places. The initiative sparked fierce criticism from historians and other scholars, which in turn drew a comment from Minister of Justice Lea Danison-Järg.
The government approved legislation to strip third country nationals of the right to own a gun.
Eastern Estonian businessman suspected of corruption offenses Nikolai Ossipenko was taken into custody.
The U.K. pledged to station helicopters and fighter jets in Estonia in 2023 in the wake of news that the British battlegroup would leave Estonia.
Reform said it was willing to back legislation to remove the local elections voting right of Russian and Belarusian citizens in Estonia but not those of other foreign countries. Eesti 200 was also on board. EKRE maintained this needs to concern all third-country residents.
Plans to expand the Nursipalu Training Area created a fair bit of controversy in November, with property owners lambasting the initiative.
Legislation was proposed to push stricter language proficiency requirements on food couriers working in Estonia.
Estonians started feeling the effects of inflation and the energy crisis as the real estate market and borrowing in general slowed. Inflation remained high, with the consumer price index up 21 percent on year in November and food prices contributing the most therein.
December – Estonia ups defense spending as Saaremaa suffers weather-related blackouts
Estonian parties signified the need to considerably ramp up defense spending to 3-6 percent of GDP. Estonia signed a contract to procure HIMARS multiple rocket systems from the U.S. The Americans also pledged to station a HIMARS platoon and infantry company in Estonia.
PM Kaja Kallas joined others in Estonia in criticizing remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron and warned that current talk of peace with Russia was dangerous.
In an unexpected about-turn, Estonia’s transmission system operator Elering said that Estonia will need to retain oil shale power plants for strategic reserve capacity, which surprised former and outgoing Eesti Energia chiefs. In related news, repeated outages saw the Auvere Power Plant builder pay Eesti Energia €130 million in fines.
The Riigikogu passed legislation to hike benefits for large families and reform the care homes system in December. However, President Alar Karis refused to promulgate the law, sending it back to the parliament. After some debate in the Riigikogu, the bill was amended to address the president’s concerns of constitutionality and passed again on December 28.
In Saaremaa, 6,000 households were left without power mid-December as snow and freezing rain fell on exposed medium-voltage lines, which was immediately followed by the arrival of Snowstorm Birgit. This caused some households to go a week without power in Saaremaa, with the local government scrambling to offer relief. The aftermath of the storm saw Tallinn fine street maintenance partners €270,000 over poor snow removal.
The government approved a bill to gradually switch all schools in Estonia to teaching in the official language.
After nearly a year of delays, the Paxlovid coronavirus drug finally arrived in Estonia, restarting the debate over whether Covid should be reclassified as a regular seasonal virus.
The end of December saw natural gas and electricity prices drop below €80 and €90 per megawatt-hour respectively. The price of gas reached as high as €330/MWh, while the market price of electricity even hit €4,000 for a few hours in August.
Re-independent Estonia’s first prime minister, Center Party founder and long-time Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar passed away at the age of 72.
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