Problems arise when countries lack courage

  • 2004-09-15
  • Interview by Aleksei Gunter
Mart Laar is one of the few Baltic politicians who doesn't need an introduction. His name is synonymous with the independence movement and the arduous economic reforms of the 1990s in Estonia, and for that reason he carries the necessary clout to have his opinions published in The Wall Street Journal and other major publications.

A renowned historian with a degree from Tartu University, Laar, 44, became one of Europe's youngest prime ministers ever in 1992. Last year he resigned his chairmanship of the Pro Patria Union after its defeat in the general elections, but he remains an MP and a force to be reckoned with in Estonian politics.

Let's begin with the freshest issue 's namely, the controversy around the Lihula monument. If you were prime minister now, how would you have acted in this affair?
If I were prime minister Estonia would not have come to this situation. The government had had many opportunities to avoid this situation, which was easily predictable. It's no secret that I turned the attention of leading politicians from the ruling coalition to this emerging situation and recommended certain actions, which they either did not accept or did not follow. And this is why we have the situation that we have.
I have also recommended that the prime minister apologize to the freedom fighters for what has happened. The leaders of Estonia's political parties will meet to discuss the problems that have come after the removal of the monument 's I mean the wave of cemetery vandalism that has really given Estonia foreign political problems. If the Lihula monument itself was relatively unknown in Europe, then news about the post-removal reaction has definitely reached Europe and does not provide any positive publicity for Estonia.
One idea is to make a commission of freedom fighters, not politicians, that would clearly say what monuments should be opened in Estonia, and where. Yet I do not see such a commission being drafted.
There is the Cooperation Chamber 's it is competent to make such decisions 's but the government did not use it to solve those problems and will not be using it now.

Do you agree that there must be a monument to the freedom fighters in Estonia?
Certainly. A number of smaller monuments commemorating the 1944 battles already exist. Those were opened during my Cabinet term. What has been missing was a central memorial to the 60th anniversary 's not a gravestone but a monument to all the men who died for Estonia in 1944.

What impact will the monument's removal have on the government?
The authority of the government and the prime minister [Juhan Parts 's ed.] has been severely damaged, and it is difficult to say whether it can be restored. One of the indicators of the people's reaction is the prime minister's Web site. So far a reaction that fierce has been seen in Estonia only once: in 1995, in connection with Prime Minister Tiit Vahi's apartment scandal, which forced him to step down for losing the people's trust.

How can Estonia better explain its history to the world, which is accustomed to thinking that the ideology defeated in WWII should be forgotten?
The Finns have managed to do that extremely well. They have no problems with marking battlefields or mass graves or anything. Learning from Finland's experience is a task that is not as impossible as it may seem. Finland has always been following one point of view. The Finns had made it clear that the men who fought for Finland are heroes of that land.
If a country has one solid position, there will be no problems. The problems start when a country doesn't have a position or lacks the courage to say it aloud. Or, like now in Estonia, when the government thinks it is does not have to take the responsibility to make things clear.

Can Pro Patria Union win the support of those who supported Res Publica?
Today the program that was proclaimed by [the ruling party 's ed.] Res Publica is actually being carried out by the Pro Patria Union. Res Publica, instead of pursuing its initial program goals, is now advocating the liberal economic values of the Reform Party.

Do you think Estonia could have a two-party system like in the U.S.A.?
I agree there can be fewer parties. I doubt a little the two-party system may emerge. At least, it didn't happen anywhere in the Nordic countries. The individualistic Nordic nature probably wants to have more parties.

Estonia is going for the same type of school reform as in Latvia 's the deadline here being 2007. Should Estonia correct its school reform strategy in any way taking into account Latvia's experience?
No, this is of no consideration. I am expecting the Pro Patria Union to call for the government to give a clear signal that there will be no corrections. Latvia has brought itself trouble by giving hesitant and unclear signals at certain times, and the situation there got better after the Latvian government began behaving with praiseworthy resolve. In order to avoid illusions on the possible delay of this reform I think the government must bind itself politically to this, and that will be the only way to actually carry out this reform.
The main issues are the actual preparations 's those posed a problem for Latvia 's and those should be done properly. Estonia has got enough time to do that. Estonia should learn from the Latvian school reform program.

Do you think there could arise the same type of school reform opposition in Estonia?
Behind that Latvian NGO [Headquarters for the Defense of Russian Schools, or Shtab 's ed.] stands one force not really from inside Latvia, and that means there could be an attempt to create the same organization in Estonia. We will see whether this succeeds. Such protest movements do not emerge from inside the country, but from outside. We have the same background system. Like I said, such movements appear from the outside.

How can you describe the current state of Estonian-Russian relations, and where are they going?
Like I've said previously, Estonian-Russian relations have never been as good as they are now. Because usually we had either been conquered by Russia or occupied or at war, so now relations are very good. Our joining NATO and the EU has created real preconditions for those relations to improve. At the same time the transition period we are seeing now is extremely restless.
Russia probably saw the EU as the Soviet Union, where small nations did not have a say on major questions. By now it's clear that the Baltic states' options for participating in EU affairs and, for example, in shaping the EU's foreign policy are quite real. The European Parliament actually welcomes the Baltic states' expertise regarding Russia.
It seems that Russia has at some point become afraid regarding that expertise and unleashed the propaganda attack aimed at discrediting the Baltic states in Europe. It [the attack] was obviously a preventive measure. I think this will pass, and Russia will understand that the more realistic EU policy toward Russia is, the better it will be for Russia.
I think Russia can be sure that the EU is interested in a stable and democratic Russia near its borders. Otherwise, there will be problems, and nobody is interested in problems. Neither are we. The advice we give Europe on Russia is the best for Russia.

What about the recent troubles with Russia, such as the visa denial to the Estonian culture attache in Moscow and the veterinary certificate problems?
I think this is a part of Russia's nervous reaction to the fact that the Baltics are gaining influential positions in those organizations [NATO and the EU]. Apparently it's a psychological barrier. It will certainly pass.

Will Estonia be able to preserve its favorable tax environment despite pressure from France and Germany?
Estonia, fortunately, is not alone in this struggle. Taking into account the total isolation France experienced at the recent meeting of finance ministers, we are on the side of the majority. It's a rather good position; I do not see any danger. There's obviously some fear among some of the politicians in the Old Europe. We cannot categorize countrywise here. The German government has one opinion on tax issues, but the opposition there 's the quite influential Christian Democrats 's has a totally different position.
There is certain anxiety because the new member states come up with competition, but I think it is favorable for the whole of Europe.