TALLINN - The opposition Center Party lost another high profile member as one of its MPs, Arnold Kimber, officially resigned from the political group on Jan. 6. Though he retains his parliamentary seat and will remain within the Center Party's faction for the time being, his break with the Centrists is the latest in a series of departures that critics point to as a sign of growing dissatisfaction within party ranks.
This dissatisfaction could, in time, reshape the nation's left-leaning parties.
Kimber is the ninth MP to break with the Center Party in as many months. In May, the party lost eight of its 28 seats when several of its prominent MPs split from the faction to form their own group, later named the Social Liberals. Their rift with Center leadership can be traced to the party congress in August 2003, when Chairman Edgar Savisaar refused to take a pro-EU stance in the run-up to the country's EU referendum.
Kimber said that his own frustration with the party began with the same issue but finally culminated when Savisaar signed a cooperation agreement with United Russia, a pro-Kremlin party that dominates Russian politics, last month. "I decided that I had had enough, and I couldn't continue," he said.
Peeter Kreitzberg, a key figure among the breakaway Social Liberals, said he wasn't surprised at Kimber's decision to quit the party.
"I think that there are a few other persons in Parliament thinking about possibly leaving the Center Party, but many of them are very tightly linked to Mr. Savisaar and [for career reasons] they will stay. But actually in personal communications many of them [said] they are very unsatisfied with the leadership in this party," he said.
Similar erosion in the Central Party's dominance of Tallinn's City Council, including three defections from party ranks, contributed to Savisaar's being ousted from his position as mayor in October.
"The party is sinking deeper and deeper into isolation," said Social Liberal Chairman Sven Mikser. "I think that it's still very tightly controlled by Savisaar personally, and he is no longer able to actually perceive reality adequately."
Apart from the stance on EU and the agreement with United Russia, major complaints against the Center Party by former members include Savisaar's inability to cooperate with other political factions, which keeps the party out of the decision-making process, as well as his authoritarian and often confrontational way of managing affairs.
Vilja Savisaar, chairman of the Center Party's faction in Parliament, downplayed the significance of the MPs' departure and denied that there was any general negativity in party ranks. "We cannot talk about dissatisfaction," she told The Baltic Times, "Each person has his own reason for leaving."
She added that in the last year, while around 150 people had left the party, 500 new members had joined. She also defended what others saw as an inability to compromise with other parties as unwillingness to abandon political ideals for the sake of gaining power.
She may be right to do so. Despite the high-profile departures, the Center Party has not lost popularity among its voters. According to Jaanika Hammal, project manager for pollster TNS Emor, the party's support is holding steady in the 13 percent - 16 percent range.
Nor is isolation necessarily in the cards. Sociologist Juhan Kivirahk from the Faktum research group speculated that, given the Central Party's current turnover and its cozy relations with Russia, it could evolve into a populist Russian party that would garner considerable support in local elections (where noncitizens are allowed to vote). Then if Edgar Savisaar makes good on his promise to boost citizenship for Russian-speaking minorities, he could gain more control at the national level.
Meanwhile, the Social Liberals, whose ideology is similar to that of the Center Party, are hoping to become an alternative force on the left of the political spectrum. Though they are not currently a party or even, technically, a faction, they act as a bloc that wields some power in the 101-seat Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament).
"We are eight people - a group bigger than the two smallest factions in the Parliament - so we are definitely a force that other political groups will have to reckon with," said Mikser.
The eight are looking to survive into the 2007 general elections either by forming a new party or by joining an existing party.
Mikser said that it was much too early to comment on the likelihood of either, but Kivirahk doubted, in today's political climate, a new party would be able to garner the 5 percent vote needed to be represented in the legislature.
He suggested an alternative.
"I think the Social Democrats are also a rising party, and maybe if these Social Liberals, who have split from the Center Party, join the Social Democrats, they will be a real alternative to the Center Party," he said.
Vilja Savisaar, however, was not concerned that the Social Liberals would create any serious competition for her party. "Yes, they take some members of the Center Party, but not our votes," she said.