PM, ruling coalition survive crisis

  • 2005-02-16
  • By Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - Juhan Parts successfully survived an attempt by coalition allies to squeeze him out of the prime minister's chair after President Arnold Ruutel supported his decision to sack Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland.

At a meeting on Feb. 14 Parts and Reform Party Chairman Andrus Ansip agreed that the coalition must continue as before, despite Ansip's previous calls that the Reformists would only stay on board if Parts stepped down.

Ansip told reporters that the senior coalition partner also reassured him that key promises made by the Reformists, such as decreasing income-tax rates and keeping the parental allowance intact, would be kept.

According to reports, Ansip caved in after being reassured that the prime minister would not dismiss another minister without first discussing it with coalition partners.

Ansip and other Reform Party members were irate that Parts, from Res Publica, had fired Kristiina Ojuland without consulting them. Ojuland is a talented politician and, having served as foreign minister during Estonia's accession to NATO and the European Union, is well-respected abroad.

Confronted with the Reformists' indignation and Ojuland's refusal to hand in her resignation, Parts stuck to his guns and appealed to President Ruutel, who backed the prime minister.

In accordance to the coalition agreement, the Reform Party has the right to nominate Ojuland's replacement, but it had yet to name one before The Baltic Times went to press. Party leaders have confirmed they would not submit Ojuland again as a candidate for the vacant position.

Explaining the change of heart, Ansip, who is the economy minister, said he reassessed Ojuland's dismissal after having studied the Security Police report. The report contains an overview of the faults in the Foreign Ministry's work, the most severe being the poor handling of dozens of sensitive and classified documents from 1996 to 2004. Ojuland has headed the ministry since 2002.

The head of the Reformists noted, however, that Ojuland neither misplaced nor mishandled any of the documents under question.

Ago Uudelepp, advisor to the People's Union faction in Parliament, said the party supported removing the foreign minister.

"After getting acquainted with the Security Police materials the party agreed that removing Ojuland was justified. The materials clearly point out that the foreign affairs minister must accept political responsibility and resign," he said.

He added that representatives of the People's Union met with the Reformists and Res Publica leaders during the last week's confrontation, but did not take sides. "Partnership in the coalition is based on communicating with each other, and from this point of view one may definitely find faults in the actions of our partners," said Uudelepp.

He added that the climate in the coalition has improved as the original emotional outbursts have subsided.

"Of course, we cannot say problems in the coalition will never occur again because we are dealing with three distinctively individual parties. But it is quite probable that finding and approving a new foreign affairs minister will not cause a new quarrel," the advisor said.

Still, permanent damage might have been made. Meelis Atonen, deputy chairman of the Reform Party, unleashed a wave of bitter criticism onto Parts last week, even going so far as to demand the prime minister's resignation.

Res Publica secretary General Ott Lumi called Atonen's verbal attacks on the prime minister's party "hysterical statements" and "ultra-naïve," adding that they were harmful for relations between the two parties, which last year were close to merging.

"Changing the foreign affairs minister was the only possible and statesmanlike step for the prime minister in this situation," said Lumi. "It was the foreign affairs minister who had to go because of the problems, not the whole government."

The criticism stung especially for Parts, who told reporters on Feb. 14 that he expected an explanation from the Reformists.

"We could do with certain explanations concerning some statements and articles, which are certainly not part of cultured behavior," he said. "These statements were inflexible, and the accusations were mainly in the prime minister's address. This is an absolute lie, because the prime minister saved the face of the Estonian state."

Other Reformists were tamer in their criticism of Parts. Reform faction leader Jaanus Mannik said, "In our opinion, the prime minister should be a better team player." He added that the Finance Ministry, which is in Res Publica's control, has exceeded its authority and was a source of discontent among coalition partners.

Last week several top Reformists called for other parties represented in Parliament to consider the possibility of extraordinary elections.

Political analysts, however, said this scenario would be unacceptable for many parties due to lack of extra funds. Money on hand must be used first for local elections, scheduled for autumn 2005.