Estonia’s Prime Minister Steps Down Below a Cloud

MOSCOW – The Estonian Prime Minister resigned on Wednesday. His coalition government of centrists and right-wing populists was hit by a corruption scandal due to the misuse of state loans to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The departure of Prime Minister Yuri Ratas signaled an unusual attack of political turmoil in a country that joined the European Union and NATO in 2004 and established itself as a bastion of pro-Western stability on Russia’s western border.

It is very unlikely that this direction will change, as the most likely successor to Mr Ratas, leader of the opposition center-right Reform Party, Kaja Kallas, is a firm supporter of the American-led military alliance. Estonia’s President asked Mrs Kallas to form a new government on Wednesday, but it was unclear whether she could get the required votes in parliament.

The outgoing Prime Minister, Mr Ratas, had led the government of the tiny Baltic nation as chairman of the Center Party since 2016, whose strongest support base was a large ethnic Russian population who liked their sometimes left-wing policies.

He resigned after reports that his party was under criminal investigation into a loan from a government agency, KredEx, to a private property project in the port area in Tallinn, Estonia’s Baltic capital. The money should go to companies that have been hard hit by the pandemic.

Mr Ratas denied having knowingly done anything wrong, but said that as party leader he had to take “political responsibility” for any wrongdoing.

One of the suspects in the case is an adviser to Finance Minister Martin Helme, a far-right politician who leads another party in the coalition and who once described his immigration policy as “If you’re black, go back”.

The admission of Mr Helme’s EKRE party into government, which severely damaged Estonia’s liberal image, followed a 2019 election in which Mr Ratas’ Center Party fared badly but managed to stay in power by they formed a coalition with the far right and a rival mainstream Conservative party.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which included Estonia and two other Baltic states, the country has built a strong economy and become one of the most wired and technologically advanced nations in the world.

Unlike neighboring Latvia, which has been hit by a long line of scandals related to its large financial sector, Estonia has a reputation for clean government and financial finances, although this was badly damaged in 2018 when the Estonian branch of Danish Danske Bank was overtaken in an international study of the laundering of billions of dollars.

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