Direct Democracy in the Baltic States

Institutions, Procedures and Practice in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

by Evren Somer (Volume editor)
©2015 Monographs 192 Pages


Over the last decades, provisions for direct democracy have increasingly been added to new constitutions around the world, including in the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Using a comparative legal approach, this book identifies a large set of direct democratic instruments in the Baltics that are being activated either automatically, by public authorities or by the citizens. Although direct democracy should empower the people to share state power and to take political decisions over the heads of their representatives, the results of its practical use between 1991 and 2014 do not confirm these assumptions. Besides informal aspects there are many procedural obstacles in each country that restrict not only the use of such tools but also the chance that the referendum will pass.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Outline
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • I. Introduction
  • II. Definition and classification of direct democracy
  • A. Popular sovereignty through referendums
  • B. Mechanisms of direct democracy and veto player
  • 1. Initiator of referendums
  • a) Referendums required by the constitution
  • b) Referendums from above
  • c) Citizen-initiated referendums
  • (a) Citizens’ facultative referendum
  • (b) Citizens’ initiatives
  • (c) Recall
  • (d) Agenda initiative
  • 2. The character of referendums
  • 3. The intention of referendums
  • 4. The normative level of referendums
  • C. Constraints on mechanism of direct democracy
  • III. The legal framework and practice of direct democracy in Estonia
  • A. Direct democratic instruments in Estonia
  • 1. Referendums required by the constitution
  • a) The mandatory constitutional referendum
  • 2. Referendums from above
  • a) The parliamentary constitutional plebiscite
  • b) The parliamentary plebiscite for other draft acts and national issues
  • 3. Citizen-initiated referendums
  • a) Initiative rights in the Constitution of 1920
  • b) The ‘collective adresses to Riigikogu’
  • 4. The legal assessment of referendums
  • B. Estonian direct democracy in practice
  • 1. The referendum of 3 March 1991 on Estonia’s independence
  • 2. The referendum of 28 June 1992 on the constitution
  • 3. The referendum of 28 June 1992 on voting rights for those who did not yet have citizenship status
  • 4. The referendum of 14 September 2003 on the accession to the European Union
  • 5. Rejected draft acts in the Estonian parliament
  • C. Explanations for the Estonian practice
  • 1. Legal constraints
  • 2. Informal constraints
  • IV. The legal framework and practice of direct democracy in Latvia
  • A. Direct democratic instruments in Latvia
  • 1. Referendums required by the constitution
  • a) The mandatory constitutional referendum
  • b) The mandatory referendum on EU Membership
  • 2. Referendums from above
  • a) The parliamentary plebiscite for substantial changes in EU membership
  • b) The semi-plebiscite on repealing a law
  • c) The presidential plebiscite on recalling parliament
  • 3. Citizen-initiated referendums
  • a) The citizens’ constitutional initiative
  • b) The citizens’ legislative initiative
  • (a) A two-stage signature collection (until 2015)
  • (b) A one round signature collection (in force as of 2015)
  • (c) A quasi-indirect initiative procedure
  • c) The citizens’ initiative on recalling parliament
  • 4. The legal assessment of citizens’ initiatives
  • B. Latvian direct democracy in practice
  • 1. The referendum of 3 March 1991 on Latvia’s independence
  • 2. The referendum of 3 October 1998 on the repeal of the facilitated naturalisation amendment
  • 3. The referendum of 13 November 1999 on the repeal of the pension system reform amendment
  • 4. The referendum of 21 September 2003 on accession to the European Union
  • 5. The referendum of 7 July 2007 on the repeal of amendments to the law on state security services
  • 6. The referendum of 7 July 2007 on the repeal of amendments to the law on state security authorities
  • 7. The referendum of 2 August 2008 on the dissolution of parliament by popular vote
  • 8. The referendum of 23 August 2008 on a limited increase of public pensions
  • 9. The referendum of 23 July 2011 on the early dissolution of the Saeima
  • 10. The referendum of 18 February 2012 on Russian as the second official language
  • 11. Proposed and adopted initiatives without holding referendums
  • 12. Initiatives without sufficient signatures
  • 13. Pending Initiatives
  • C. Explanations for the Latvian practice
  • 1. Legal constraints
  • 2. Informal constraints
  • V. The legal framework and practice of direct democracy in Lithuania
  • A. Direct democratic instruments in Lithuania
  • 1. Referendums required by constitution
  • a) The mandatory constitutional referendum
  • b) The mandatory referendum on the Constitutional Act
  • c) The mandatory referendum on participation in an International Organisation
  • d) The procedure of referendums required by the constitution
  • 2. Referendums from above
  • a) The parliamentary constitutional plebiscite
  • b) The parliamentary plebiscite on other issues, laws and provisions
  • 3. Citizen-initiated referendums
  • a) The citizens’ facultative referendum
  • b) The citizens’ constitutional initiative
  • c) The citizens’ initiative on laws and other issues
  • d) The citizens’ consultative initiative
  • e) Procedures of citizens’ initiatives
  • f) The citizens’ agenda initiative: something between a referendum and petition
  • 4. The legal assessment of citizens’ initiatives
  • B. Lithuanian direct democracy in practice
  • 1. The referendum of 9 February 1991 on Lithuania’s independence
  • 2. The referendum of 23 May 1992 on the restoration of the presidential institution
  • 3. The referendum of 14 June 1992 on the withdrawal of Soviet troops
  • 4. The referendum of 25 October 1992 on the constitution
  • 5. The referendum of 27 August 1994 on the law revoking privatisation I–VIII
  • 6. The referendum of 20 October 1996 on the compensation for lost assets prior to 1990
  • 7. The referendum of 20 October 1996 on parliamentary elections on the second Sunday of April every four years
  • 8. The referendum of 20 October 1996 on the reduction of parliamentary seats from 141 to 111
  • 9. The referendum of 20 October 1996 on social spending
  • 10. The referendum of 10 November 1996 on the purchase of agricultural land by certain legal bodies
  • 11. The referendum of 10 and 11 May 2003 on the accession to the European Union
  • 12. The consultative referendum of 12 October 2008 on the service extension for the nuclear power plant ‘Ignalina’
  • 13. The consultative referendum of 14 October 2012 on building a new nuclear power plant ‘Visaginas’
  • 14. The referendum of 29 June 2014 regarding the amendment of articles 9, 47 and 147 of the constitution
  • 15. Popular initiatives without sufficient signatures
  • C. Explanations for the Lithuanian practice
  • 1. Legal constraints
  • 2. Informal constraints
  • VI. The quality of direct democracy in the Baltic states
  • A. A comparison of use and success of Baltic referendums
  • B. Policy change through referendums
  • C. Quality of direct democracy
  • 1. Quality in Estonia
  • 2. Quality in Latvia
  • 3. Quality in Lithuania
  • 4. The most striking variation between the Baltic states
  • D. More than instruments
  • VII. Conclusions
  • A. Rich in instruments, moderate in use, poor in performance
  • B. A better design for a better balance
  • VIII. References
  • Books and Journals
  • Newspapers
  • The Economist
  • Neue Zürcher Zeitung
  • New York Times, The
  • Official Documents
  • EU
  • Estonia
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Switzerland
  • Series Index

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When I embarked on the research project that resulted in the present volume, I did not expect to find such a wide range of direct democratic instruments in the Baltic states, and in Latvia and Lithuania in particular. This relative ignorance on my side might, in part, be attributed to the existing literature on the subject – or rather the lack thereof. While there are some studies on direct democracy, they either do not address direct democracy in the Baltic republics at all or in a superficial manner. But apart from this dearth of research, the limited use made of these instruments so far has also contributed to their relative obscurity. The Baltic States are comparatively young democracies that became independent (once more) when throwing off Soviet rule at the beginning of the 1990s. It seems that considerable time is required for citizens to get used to direct legislation.

In order to make a reasoned comparison of direct democracy in three republics, this book not only investigates the legal basis of each direct democratic institution, but also addresses the practical experiences of referendums held between 1991 and 2014. By discussing each referendum, the study examines both the development of direct democracy and as well as its functioning respectively dysfunctioning in each country.

The preparation of this study on Direct Democracy in the Baltic States would have been impossible without the help of many friends and colleagues. First, my gratitude is extended to Prof. Dr. Andreas Auer and Prof. Dr. Herbert Küpper, who encouraged me to pursue this project. In addition, I would particularly like to thank Dr. Uwe Serdült, Dr. Jonathan Wheatley and Dr. Lorenz Langer from the c2d-team for their valuable comments on the manuscript and highly useful suggestions. I would also like to acknowledge the helpful support from Arne Koitmäe of the Elections Department Chancellery of the Riigikogu of Estonia, Vita Briže of the Central Election Commission of Latvia and Kristina Ivanauskaitė-Pettinari of the Central Electoral Commission of Lithuania. I am especially indebted to them for having offered me also linguistic support since I do not speak any of the languages of the Baltic states. Further, I would like to express my gratitude to my partner Mischa for his valuable assistance, visual illustrations, infographics and particularly for his patience during the entire time. And finally I would like to thank the Centre for Research on Direct Democracy Aarau (c2d) and the Institut für Osteuroparecht München (IOR). Without their generous financial support this book would not have been possible.

Zurich, 30 October 2014

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I. Introduction

Within the last decades there has been a considerable rise in the use of direct democratic institutions around the world and provisions for direct democracy have increasingly been added to the constitutions of new or re-established democracies.1 Such an increase in the importance of direct democracy has also been seen in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.2

Indeed, the three neighbour countries do not refer to the same ethnic group nor should they be treated as a unity. However, apart from their geographical location along the Baltic Sea, they share many properties and experiences with each other that were decisive in solidifying their common Baltic identity.3 For centuries they were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later the Russian Empire. In the aftermath of World War I and the breakup of the Russian, Ottoman and Habsburg empires, they became parliamentary democracies supplemented by different institutions of direct democracy. However, as in other European countries, Baltic democracies proved too fragile. In the context of divided societies, weak institutions and poor economies, they lasted only for a short time. In each country, crises paved the way for authoritarian regimes.4 Until the Soviet occupation in 1940 and 1944, none of these three countries seized the opportunity to return to democratic politics.5 With the Soviet incorporation, the Baltic states had become constituent republics within the Soviet Confederation for over fifty years (1940–1991) and thus subject to the Soviet Union’s ideological discourse. Not nationality, but class was the source of legitimacy for all government decisions relating to political and economic life.6 At the end of the communist era, all three countries marched towards democracy together and in each country ← 17 | 18 → referendums were an essential tool in carrying this transition through peacefully. In 1991 and in the immediate post-independence period, referendums did not only pave the way for independence but they also served to restore the statehood of the Baltic states and to re-establish national identities. In Estonia and Latvia, however, this entailed excluding very sizeable Russian-speaking minorities. At present, around a quarter of Estonia’s people and 27 percent of Latvia’s are native Russian-speakers. The number of native Russian-speakers is, however, much lower in Lithuania. It stands at 6 percent of the population.7

Today, all three countries have attained membership in the NATO and the European Union. But twenty years after the fall of Communism, their democracies are relatively young and in the process of becoming consolidated.8 Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are still exposed to Russian pressure, for historic, geographic, linguistic and economic reasons. Furthermore, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the continuing Ukrainian crisis the Baltic trio feels increasingly uneasy and vulnerable.9 As some referendums also illustrate, Baltic emotions are occasionally driven by fears of assimilation by Russia.

Currently, in addition to parliamentary mechanisms, there is indeed a large set of direct democratic instruments available to the citizens of the Baltic states, and within the last two decades, they have been variously applied at national level. Despite this, experience with direct democracy and its institutions is comparatively limited in the Baltic context. Nevertheless, considering their historical past, we must say that democracy has been more of an exception than a rule in each country. As such, compared to Western democracies, these three countries have relatively little experience with democracy at all. Regarding direct democracy at local level neither the constitution nor legislation provide for local or regional referendums. There might be opinion polls on decisions made by local governments or meetings to discuss administrative issues or topics ← 18 | 19 → concerning territorial planning.10 In May 2009 and June 2012 there were two initiative launches on introducing the initiative right for local referendums in each administrative unit in Lithuania. However, the proponents of the proposal were not able to collect the minimum number of required signatures within the given time frame.11

Of the referendums held between 1991 and 2014, only a small number succeeded; the majority were ineffective in bringing about policy changes. For the most part, referendums had been implemented by political parties to promote their particular interests. The literature on referendums in the Baltic states provides some possible explanations for such kinds of uses and the success of referendums.12 But in many cases, a confusing classification of referendums has been used and less attention has been paid to the institutions regulating direct democracy in the Baltic states. It should be known that the notion of a referendum can cover diverse phenomenon within a direct democracy. Depending on who can frame the question and who can trigger the process of popular decision, the character and democratic quality of a referendum can vary widely.13

By taking such facts into account, this book presents a systematic comparative analysis of Baltic direct democracy from a legal perspective by specifying the political actors controlling these. It further pays attention to specific rules determining the procedures and practices of referendums and gives some possible explanations by comparing them. It has to be stressed that the present work does not aim to cover all historical events that may have shaped the current state of direct democracy in the Baltic republics. Nor does it try to explain its functioning by considering the socio-cultural aspects prevalent during the last 25 years or so. Rather, the book aims at bringing direct democratic institutions to light by classifying them systematically. It further attempts to examine formal shortcomings which are prevailing in the respective referendum mechanism, and makes some possible proposals that could contribute to better working. Thus, the book will hopefully serve as a useful starting point to scholars interested in conducting further research on direct democracy in those post-Soviet countries.

In order to meet the book’s objective, a theoretical conceptualisation of direct democracy and of its three mechanisms – required, top-down, bottom-up – in combination with the veto player model14 is first needed (chapter II). Following ← 19 | 20 → this conceptualisation, a systematic legal framework of all current direct democratic institutions at national level and their practical use from 1991 to 2014 is provided for each of the three Baltic states. Here, possible causes of variation in the use and success of referendums are also discussed (chapters III, IV and V). Furthermore, to better understand the performance of direct democracy, the book makes a comparison of referendums held in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. By using the situation in Switzerland as a kind of quality control, chapter VI provides a comparative assessment of the quality of direct democracy in each Baltic state. The book ends with some concluding remarks in chapter VII.

1 BUTLER/RANNEY, Growing Use; QVORTRUP, Continued Growth; LEDUC, Politics of Direct Democracy; AUER/BÜTZER, Direct Democracy; AUER, National Referendums; PALLINGER et al., Direct Democracy; KAUFMANN/WATERS; ALTMAN; HUG/TSEBELIS; SERDÜLT/WELP; EWERT, Potentiale; NEUMANN/RENGER.


3 KASEKAMP, History, p. IX.

4 Ruled by ANTANAS SMETONA in Lithuania, KARLIS ULMANIS in Latvia and KONSTANTIN PÄTS in Estonia; see KOMÁROMI, Popular law-making, p. 72f.

5 DUVOLD, Making Sense, p. 150; EVERT, Potentiale, p. 49f.; for more history see KASEKAMP, History; TAUBER, Geschichte, pp. 17–33; ROZENVALDS, Baltische Staaten, pp. 55–74.

6 MOLE, pp. 81–119; see also HOFFMANN, Baltikum pp. 309–327; ROZENVALDS, Baltische Staaten, p. 59f.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
Referendum Plebiszit direkte Demokratie
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 192 pp., 5 tables, 5 graphs

Biographical notes

Evren Somer (Volume editor)

Evren Somer is a researcher at the Centre for Research on Direct Democracy, a department of the Centre for Democracy Studies Aarau (Switzerland). His research focuses mainly on direct democracy in Switzerland and the Baltic States.


Title: Direct Democracy in the Baltic States
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