Estonians vote under shadow of resurgent Russia

Stuart Garlick, Mary Sibierski in Warsaw
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Reform leader and outgoing Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas is expected to be tasked with forming a government after the centrist party won 30 seats in the 101-member parliament

Reform leader and outgoing Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas is expected to be tasked with forming a government after the centrist party won 30 seats in the 101-member parliament (AFP Photo/Thierry Charlier)

Tallinn (AFP) - Estonians voted Sunday in an election marked by jitters over a militarily resurgent Russia and a popular pro-Kremlin party, with the security-focused centre-left coalition tipped for another term.

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

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

NATO is countering the moves by boosting defences on Europe's eastern flank with a spearhead force of 5,000 troops and command centres in six formerly communist members of the alliance, including one in Estonia.

"If they (the Russians) come in here, Estonia can't do anything... I'm not sure NATO will help us out," Pyotr Sirotkin, a 25-year-old student at Tallinn University, told AFP as he cast his ballot in the capital.

"Let's hope that it will not go that far. But the situation between the USA and Russia will change totally if the USA comes here and defends us from Russia."

Fresh-faced Prime Minister Taavi Roivas, at 35 the EU's youngest head of government, is expected to hold onto power.

He has joined a chorus of Baltic leaders demanding more NATO troops, hardware and air patrols to counter Moscow's heightened military moves.

Analysts expect Roivas's centrist Reform party to renew its coalition with the Social Democrats, buttressed in the 101-seat parliament by a smaller conservative party.

A TNS Emori opinion poll released Saturday showed Reform leading with 26 percent support, ahead of the pro-Kremlin opposition Centre party with 22 percent and the Social Democrats with 19 percent.

The conservative IRL commanded 16 percent, with six smaller parties also running.

Earlier opinion polls had shown Centre, backed mainly by ethnic Russians, narrowly ahead, but without obvious coalition partners it would be unlikely to govern.

Centre leader Edgar Savisaar, 64, lost the trust of many Estonians last year when he backed Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

A former Communist Party member, the current Tallinn mayor was Estonia's first premier after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

- 'Climate change' -

For Roivas, "the current security situation will stay with us for a long period of time."

"This is not just bad weather, this is climate change." Roivas has said about Europe's worst standoff with Russia since the Cold War.

But some voters are less concerned about the threat posed by Moscow and more focused on bread-and-butter issues.

Hot election topics included proposals to triple the monthly minimum wage to 1,000 euros ($1,131) and lower social security premiums among other measures.

"I believe there are much more important things than worrying about Russia," 18-year-old student Eve Tonisson told AFP as she voted in Viimsi, a town just north of Tallinn.

"Many young people are moving abroad because of higher wages there.... I personally don't think I'm going to stay in Estonia," she said, reflecting a troubling demographic trend in the tiny nation as Estonians leave to search for a better life.

Long a paragon of fiscal responsibility in the EU, which it joined in 2004, Estonia posted 1.8 percent economic growth in 2014, with 2.5 percent expansion expected this year. Joblessness hovered around seven percent last year.

Deep reforms and years of painful austerity paved the way to Estonia's 2011 eurozone entry and few here believe their comparatively poor country should pump out more money to save indebted Greece.

"Greece should be able to handle things themselves now," said Martin Kallikivi, a 29-year-old media employee from Viimsi.

However, like many Estonians, he understands the social toll that austerity can take and the fact that it will be felt for generations.

"For many years government has not been giving enough support for families with children and Estonia's population is decreasing because of that," Kallikivi said.

A record third of the electorate have already voted online and by noon Sunday total turnout tallied at 42 percent.

Polling stations will close at 1800 GMT, with results expected around 2200 GMT.