• 2006-08-16

cartoon by Jevgenijs Cheksters

The 11th hour agreement between the Center Party and the People's Union to support the re-election of President Arnold Ruutel is not the least surprising. Estonia-watchers had been predicting exactly that for weeks in the lead-up to the Aug. 28 presidential ballot. The parties have been unabashedly flirting in public and hinting that they would cooperate in backing a single presidential candidate. Their deal will essentially rob the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament) of the chance to elect the next head of state and transfer that function to an electoral college made up of national and regional politicians, many of whom are members of the center-left Center Party and People's Union.

In short, it's a repeat of 2001, when Arnold Ruutel, Estonia's last Soviet leader, managed a dramatic comeback and took over the presidency from the much-revered Lennart Meri. (At the time, even Meri expressed his dissatisfaction with the election of Ruutel, whose popular support was minimal.) Despite all the efforts of Estonian parties to avoid this scenario and find a common candidate that would garner 66 votes in Parliament, the Centrists and People's Union decided to take matters in their own hands. Again, anyone who knows the true nature of Center leader Edgar Savisaar should not be the least surprised.

It's a rotten development. Neither the Center Party nor the People's Union represent the will of the Estonian people, nor do they as a combined force. Their candidate, Arnold Ruutel, is 78-years-old and a lackluster statesman. Compared with his Baltic counterparts Vaira Vike-Freiberga (one of the world's great stateswomen) and Valdas Adamkus (a key mediator in Ukraine's Orange Revolution), he is a non-figure. It's not that Ruutel has done a bad job as president; it's that he hasn't done an outstanding one. Estonia, recently selected as the free country in the world by one western survey, needs a more dynamic, high-profile, inspiring head of state.

But the absurdity doesn't stop there. As part of their bilateral agreement, Savisaar and Villu Reiljan, head of the People's Union and Ruutel sycophant number one, want to redefine government in Estonia. As Savisaar explained, the two parties "stand against the concept of the thin state." In other words, the Centrists and People's Union want to tax and spend. If given the chance, Reiljan would abrogate the country's budget surplus and begin compiling deficits. In their agreement the two parties, which will try to capture a majority in the legislature in next March's elections, also spoke about altering the country's flat tax. (Estonia was the first country in the world to introduce one.) This was met by strong criticism from Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, a coalition partner.

Once again, "Rhino" Savisaar, who conducted parallel negotiations with leading parties to shortlist presidential candidates, has shown that he is less interested in the development of Estonia than with his own selfish, partisan interests. (Psychologically this puts him in the same odious league as Latvia's Aivars Lembergs and Lithuania's Viktor Uspaskich.) As always, he wanted to show himself the kingmaker, that he is the court of final appeal. But for many Estonians, and non-Estonians too, he has come off looking like the narrow-minded fool.