TALLINN - Center Party Chairman Edgar Savisaar upset both a coalition partner and the opposition when he voiced his brash opinion of Estonia's social development model and the disparity between the have and have-nots. "Tallinn looks good indeed, but there are areas in Estonia that are badly lagging in terms of development and where poverty rules," Savisaar was quoted as saying during a meeting with Irish Ambassador Noel Kilkenny on April 28.
"In the course of the reforms, the gap between the poor and the rich kept growing, and it is only in recent years that we've gained some degree of control over that process," he said. The minister of economy and communications said that Estonia had paid a high price for reforms, and would have to invest even more for further success.
"While Ireland's success is based on organized cooperation between different layers of society, in Estonia it has been achieved partially at the expense of those who are weak," Savisaar told Kilkenny, adding that, to some degree, Estonia's weak trade unions contributed to its success.
Savisaar, who is economy minister in the current government, is seen by some as an outsider in this year's presidential race, even though his name has not been put on any official lists.
His words drew a torrent of response from what are considered to be the most pro-market parties, including the Reformists, who share power with the Centrists in the government.
Reform Party General Secretary Kristen Michal dismissed Savisaar's words as "deliberately unpatriotic," adding that they didn't reflect present-day reality in the country. "Savisaar may need to be reminded that our wage increase came as a result of economic growth, not economic growth at the expense of pensions," he said.
Michal condemned the minister's behaviour, saying that only politicians of "less developed countries" take the opportunity to complain about their nation in the presence of foreign diplomats. Savisaar's words brought shame to his position as an EU member state minister, he added.
The opposition Res Publica was even more vociferous. MP Taavi Veskimagi said Savisaar was tearing the rift in society further apart and that "a more cohesive society cannot be built with the help of accusations."
"His regrets about the economic reforms that have been carried out in Estonia are astounding," Veskimagi said. "In combination with the government's policy of nationalizing the railway and threats directed at foreign investors, his words send a clear international signal that foreign capital is no longer welcome here, and that under Savisaar's government Estonia is seeking to reverse several of the policies that have brought it success."
The Res Public member pointed out that Savisaar had failed to mention those Estonians working round the clock to create new businesses and improve the nation's employment. These individuals, he reminded, have increased the riches available in Estonia for redistribution.
"The worries of such people are alien to Savisaar because they are not voters of the Center Party," Veskimagi, who is former finance minister, said. "For Savisaar it is not a problem to one day share the fruit of economic growth and the next day abuse it, distributing the money into pensions, family allowances and employment allowances."
Veskimagi said that, if it were not for the economic reforms carried out in Estonia, much of the country would still be suffering.
"Had Estonia chosen a Russia-centered, post-Socialist development model, both wages and pensions would be much lower now, and Estonia's success would have never materialized," the opposition party leader said.
Savisaar has been castigated at home for befriending Russia's United Russia party, a pro-Kremlin force that dominates the lower house of Parliament.
The Irish ambassador, however, pointed out that stratification in society was also a problem for Ireland in the 1980s, as Dublin's wealth grew quickly in contrast with the nation's rural poverty. He said that Ireland's unemployment was extremely high as well, he added.
Veskimagi argued that Savisaar hadn't quite understood the Irish model. "A realistic and pro-business tax environment, investments in education and science and conceiving a policy supporting families have to be our tasks, not looking back nostalgically for a post-Soviet economic model," he said