The 'center' is the safest place to be

  • 2004-08-26
  • Interview by Aleksei Gunter.
With some 7,800 members, the Center Party is the second-largest political organization in Estonia, yet according to polls it continues to enjoy the highest rating. Its indefatigable chairman, Edgar Savisaar, is largely the reason for the party's unyielding popularity. Indeed, he is one of the country's most influential politicians. An author of the Estonian Republic and leader of the People's Front, Savisaar rose to become prime minister and interior minister. He is now the mayor of Tallinn.

This week marks the 15th anniversary of the Baltic Way. Looking back, would you have done anything differently from 1989 to 1992?
Sure, I would have done somethings differently, because people get older and wiser and more experienced. I think that I would have made some of my choices differently now. At the same time, the solutions of principal issues were successful: We regained independence, and at this point I would not change anything. The ideology of the People's Front was actually the only opportunity, and thanks to that we achieved independence. Should we have taken the path of the so-called fundamentalists, we would be facing the same predicament as in Armenia or Moldova.

How would you describe the Center Party and its strategic goals?
The Center Party is a centrist party. It was created much to the pattern of the Nordic countries' centrist parties. We had two options: in Western Europe there are more left-wing or right-wing parties, and in the north - in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark - there are centrist parties in addition to those. We chose the Nordic model, which felt more suitable for Estonia and for our conception of the world. And we have tried to stick to that, which is not really easy. You see, the centrist parties must stay with both the right-wing and the left-wing and keep them all together. This is not easy at all. But we try to walk this traditional Nordic centrist path.

The principal positions of the Center Party and the Social Democrats, the former Moderates, are quite similar on some matters. Do you think those two parties could merge in the future?
If we look at from which parties were the people that joined the Center Party in recent years, we will see that they are mostly former members of the People's Union, from the Moderates and from the Reform Party. Former Res Publica members have started joining us recently.
It seems to me that the differences between the parties are not that distinct now compared to what they were a decade ago. Take the Tallinn city government: Normally social affairs are usually overseen by the Center Party, but now our deputy mayor on social issues is from the Reform Party. At the same time a centrist deputy mayor is dealing with the entrepreneurship issues, which has usually been the reformists' priority.
As to the Moderates, we offered to form a government with them a couple of years ago - in 2001. They did not agree, but I think they have matured since. They have a new chairman and they are more ready for such cooperation now.

Why do you think several MPs left the Center Party faction in the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament)? What did you learn from that case?
They apparently found that they can better satisfy their ambitions outside the Center Party. But I think they were wrong. I think of [Parliamentary Chairman Arturas] Paulauskas' party in Lithuania, the Liberals, when they had a 28-seat faction, and eight people left it. I have heard that they regret it now. We are in the same situation.

The MPs who left the Center Party faction claimed the administration of the party was too authoritarian. Is it really so?
If they ever find a less authoritarian party administration, good luck to them. I think the Center Party is run roughly the same as other Estonian parties. I'm not saying we are better than the others, but certainly we are not worse as far as administration is concerned.

In 1994 you published a book called "The New Politics Coming." Was it any kind of a prophecy for Res Publica?
(Smiles) No, it was not about Res Publica - the word play was just a coincidence. It was rather about developing tolerance. The main point was that we should forgive the Pro Patria Union all the dirty tricks it had done, and that we should proceed democratically together. Today's message of Res Publica is to develop intolerance as a principle.

Do you agree with the opinion of certain local political analysts that Res Publica was a one-time party created to win single elections?
I think the Reform Party and Res Publica imagine that they are now tearing apart the carcass of the Pro Patria Union, and Pro Patria is trying to resist. I don't know. Maybe those who think that Pro Patria has already lived through its era on the Estonian political arena and will not return could be wrong. Pro Patria has one big plus - it managed to resist major crises. This means it is a hardened and a thick-skinned party. I think that other right-wing parties who think they can already share the skin of Pro Patria are being too hasty.

Do you think the current ruling coalition will last until the official end of its term?
I would like to wish them that, but I am not sure about it. The closer the elections are, the more the parties will think about the future and about better solutions for themselves. The coalition term will be coming to an end anyway. And usually it has been that the prime minister's party tries to preserve the coalition, but the other coalition parties try to distance themselves.
I think that it would be good for the opposition if the coalition stayed together and thus exhaust itself fully and show everyone its actual value. In the coalition prior to the former one, Siim Kallas did not wish to go down together with Pro Patria and left the coalition and found a better solution for himself [by forming an alliance with the Center Party - ed.].
As to Pro Patria and the Moderates, they went down and got very few votes at the next elections. How will it go this time, it depends upon the wisdom of the party leaders.

Are the Estonian media objective toward the Center Party?
You see, the Estonian media, compared with that of the other Baltic states, have changed the most in terms of its constitution and personnel. There was a survey that studied German and Estonian journalists. A German journalist was asked what was his task, and he said he was a mediator; he mediates different and sometimes contrasting opinions and positions. Our journalist said that his task was to be a missionary, a missionary that bears a right-wing mission. And so he fought in the name of Pro Patria and Res Publica.
But there is a threat in such work. The reputation of our press is quite low according to the polls. The average person does not trust the media, and it will only get lower with this attitude. The Center Party is not a right-wing party, and of course we are not favored [by the Estonian press].

Different prices have been established for municipal services in Tallinn - for example, the monthly public transport tickets - for registered and nonregistered residents. Is this justified?
I believe it is [justified] because those services are being paid for from the city budget by people who pay their taxes to the city budget. My opinion is that people who not only live in Tallinn but pay taxes to the city of Tallinn must receive discounts from the municipality.

How is cooperation going between Tallinn and Harju county officials regarding the different prices for public transportation?
Talks are being held on various issues - the most important being the creation of a united public transport center. We want to use the city of Helsinki as an example to follow up on this question. We want to create a similar public transport center, and I believe this autumn we will do it.

How good or how bad is Tallinn's financial situation? How have the budget expectations been realized?
In the first half of the year the state fulfilled 44 percent of its [budget] revenues, while Tallinn received 52 percent. In seven months the state got 54 percent - the city got 59 percent of its revenues. It means that the city's revenue flow is significantly better than the Estonian state's.
As to the property sale, from the some 400 million [kroon] (25.9 million euro) plan, about 350 [million kroons] have been fulfilled. It means, the majority of the annual plan has been realized.
Those rumors about the financial difficulties of the city were cooked up by our opposition, and the naive mass media, unfortunately, amplified them. Actually the city's financial situation is significantly better than that of the Estonian state.
There are also problems. The main one is that we have too little financial independence. In EU states the situation is such that state and city funds are shared about 50-50 - I mean, state and local government money. The share of local taxes in Estonia is 2 percent. What independence can we talk about? And that is an issue for all the three Baltic states. Riga Mayor Gundars Bojars some days ago made a proposition to carry out a joint session of Tallinn and Riga city councils on Sept. 28 in Riga to discuss the tax-base issue. We do not accept that the municipal tax base is so small.

But personal income tax goes to the city budget.
You mean the national income tax? Yes, it does, but that depends. For example, we claim that the Tax Board holds some 100 million kroons of our money, and when it'll reach us, we do not know. In other words, we believe that the city must have its own tax base - in general, local governments must have their own tax base - yet not the current 2 percent but at least 20 percent, and it would be much better if it were about half the total. o