TALLINN - The Center Party signed a protocol of intentions with Russia's ruling party United Russia despite intense criticism from right-wing parties at home and an atmosphere of tension between the two countries.
The document, signed by the representatives of the two parties in the National Library in Tallinn on Dec.11, paves the way for a more comprehensive cooperation agreement to be compiled in the future.
Mailis Reps, foreign relations secretary of the Center Party, who signed the document, said the agreement called for the establishment of interparty commissions on education, culture and economy that will include party members, scientists and businesspeople.
The Center Party and United Russia will also exchange information regarding bilateral relations, share public administration experience and develop regional ties and relations between the party members elected to legislative organs.
The protocol comes against the background of Estonia's annoyance with alleged air space violations by Russian aircraft and incessant anti-Estonia propaganda in regards to minority rights. Also, the question whether President Arnold Ruutel will accept President Vladimir Putin's invitation to the Russian Victory Day celebrations in May 2005 is hanging in the air.
The Pro Patria Union, a right-wing opposition party in Parliament along with the Center Party, condemned the protocol and went so far as to arrange a spontaneous, nonsanctioned protest action near the National Library. In a statement released Dec. 11 the party called the protocol "the Savisaar-Putin pact," in reference to the Molotov-Ribbentrop document that sealed the Baltics' fate in 1939.
"At a moment when the democratic world is giving a hand to the people of Ukraine to help reach a free future, Edgar Savisaar authorizes cooperation with the leading Russian political force that has a dark past," reads the Pro Patria statement.
In the opinion of Pro Patria Union leaders, the cooperation protocol shows that the Center Party clearly supports Russia's unfriendly foreign policy regarding Estonia.
Center Party Chairman Edgar Savisaar defended the protocol by telling a party council meeting held on Dec. 11 that cooperation with United Russia, which has a majority of seats in the Duma (lower house of Russia's parliament) would help protect Estonia's interests in Russia.
He said that the critics of the deal tended to forget that for the last 13 years Estonia's foreign policy in regards to Russia has been a failure.
"Since the restoration of independence we cannot point out a single major victory Estonia has had vis-Ã -vis Russia. There is no border treaty, [the first Estonian President Konstantin] Pats' medals are still in Moscow, and Tartu University property is still in Russia," he said.
Savisaar, who visited Moscow in April, added that the Center Party's political rivals have disparaged the deal due to plain envy, as no Estonian party has ever managed to find a serious partner in Russia. He referred to Res Publica's attempt to cooperate with the Union of Right Forces, a democratic party bloc that failed to make it into Russia's Parliament in last year's elections.
Another reason for the criticism, according to Savisaar, is the upcoming local elections. "[Critics] want to take the votes of the Estonians from us by scaring the people with the Russian threat," he said.
Mart Helme, Estonia's former ambassador to Russia, suggested the Centrists, by signing the protocol, were betting on their wide support base among Estonia's ethnic Russians, most of whom will be eligible to vote at the local elections to be held next year.
The United Russia has so far signed five cooperation agreements with various foreign parties, including the Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and one protocol of intentions with the Center Party. The party was formed in late 1999 to consolidate centrist forces in Russia against a possible revanche by the Communist Party. Upon assuming the presidency, Putin used the party to consolidate support across the country and strengthen his system of "managed democracy."
Party officials praised the protocol. "The Center Party is one of the most influential opposition parties in Estonia, which has several representatives of the Russian-speaking minority, including on the leadership level, and the party has a rather constructive position on all issues of interest to us," Valery Bogomolov, first deputy chairman of the party's Duma faction, told the Interfax news agency on Dec. 14.
"Our return visit to Estonia, where we confirmed our interest in the continuation of an open dialogue for the settlement of problems of the Russian-speaking minority, as well as of Russian territories adjacent to Estonia, was a result of these agreements," Bogomolov said.
"These are, above all, issues of speeding up the naturalization process, the teaching of Russian in general schools, protection of rights of the Russian-speaking population, including pensioners," he added.