It never ceases to amaze how quickly things can change in politics. One day partners are smiling and chumming it up, the next they can't find anything good to say about one another. In recent months Res Publica and the Reform Party, the two dominant players in Estonia's ruling government, have been flirting with the idea of merging, mainly to perform better in municipal elections. Considering how similar their policies and visions are, combining forces could be a wise political move for the two right-wing forces.
Last week, however, their friendship almost collapsed. Prime Minister Juhan Parts, whose popularity has consistently declined since coming to power in March 2003 (to the point that it is questionable whether Res Publica would win even 5 percent of the vote if elections were held now), surprised everyone by asking Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland to resign after an audit revealed a slew of classified documents had been mishandled 's and in some cases lost 's at the ministry. Parts' decision was a shocker, especially since he apparently consulted no one in the Reform Party, to which Ojuland belongs.
From there events unfolded rapidly. Ojuland balked, Parts appealed, and the president finally decided that the foreign minister had to step down. Though the Reformists bristled, they eventually put things in perspective: They could either drop out of the coalition because of losing one ministry (though they still get to keep the Foreign Ministry portfolio), or stick it out. Why ruin a good thing?
Objectively speaking, Prime Minister Parts may have done the right thing. According to the Security Police reports, the mishandling of the documents occurred during Ojuland's watch, and earlier as well, but in her first public statement on the matter she tried pointing the finger in the other direction and in effect blamed her predecessors for the gross negligence. Had she assumed a degree of personal responsibility, she would probably still be minister. Foreign allies are deeply concerned about the security breaches in the Baltics and will not respond lightly to dozens of ministerial documents that mysteriously vanish. As we have seen in Latvia's current anti-money laundering campaign, the West is prodding the Baltic states to be more accountable.
For Parts, the sacking was a demonstration of force 's something to show the public that the prime minister stands firmly on the moral high ground, that the old campaign promises to establish a sense of propriety in government haven't been forgotten. Whether or not it worked, the ratings will soon show. But the fact that he survived this scandal unscathed is remarkable. Juhan truly is an iceman, and he may very well remain on his feet for his entire term.