Estonians vote under shadow of resurgent Russia
Estonians voted yesterday in an election marked by jitters over a militarily resurgent Russia and a popular pro-Kremlin party, with the security conscious centre-left coalition tipped for a return to power.
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 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 its 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 graduate 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 USA and Russia will change totally if the USA comes here and defends us from Russia."
Prime Minister Taavi Roivas, at 35 the EU's youngest head of government, is tipped 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 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.
"The current security situation will stay with us for a long period of time," Roivas has said about Europe's worst standoff with Russia since the Cold War.
"This is not just bad weather, this is climate change."
But on Estonia's eastern border with Russia, voters are more sanguine about the threat posed by Moscow.
"How can Russia pose a threat to NATO?... Are they all nuts? NATO has 28 countries," an ethnic Russian pensioner who gave her name only as Yevgenia 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 destitute city of Narva, 90 percent of whose 60,000 residents are ethnic Russian.
Bread-and-butter issues, including proposals to triple the monthly minimum wage to 1,000 euros ($1,131) and lower social security premiums, are 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.
Deep reform and austerity paved the way to Estonia's 2011 eurozone entry, and now few here believe its members should pump out more money to save indebted Greece.
"We have to help our own people first," a customer service agent in his 30s told AFP in Tallinn.
"I would like to see the government change, definitely. So far they haven't done much to help poorer people."
A record third of the electorate have already voted online.
Polling stations will close at 1800 GMT, with results expected around 2100 GMT.