TALLINN - If the cozy relationship displayed this week between Center Party chief Edgar Savisaar and People's Union leader Vilju Reiljan is any indication, the Estonian presidency is a fait accompli, and incumbent Arnold Ruutel will soon become the benefactor of their geniality. On Aug. 1 the two politicians 's who represent two-thirds of the current ruling coalition 's held a lengthy meeting at the Grand Meriton Hotel, where they may have decided upon the nation's next head of state.
As if to demonstrate their weight, the center-leftist duo shook hands and grinned broadly for television cameras once their tete-a-tete was over. Though the two were opaque about specific agreements, that said the two parties' cooperation had moved a step forward.
Reiljan, an avid supporter of the incumbent president, seems convinced that Ruutel will remain in office.
"It was positive, and we will meet again on August 7," Reiljan, who is environment minister, told The Baltic Times of his meeting with Savisaar.
"I believe that we will sign an agreement to work with the Center Party. I believe that Arnold Ruutel is in a very strong position. The People's Union and the Center Party have between 80 and 100 percent support of the Estonian people."
The two parties have often worked closely and even joined forces to help decide the last presidential election and its key issues, such as the privatization of power plants. So if on Aug. 28 Parliament proves unable to muster the 67 votes required to elect a president, the decision will pass to an electoral college made up of MPs and regional officials, where the center-left Center Party and People's Union are strong.
Reiljan went to the Aug. 1 meeting authorized by his party board to sign a defining agreement with the Centrists on the spot.
But Savisaar, as always, is maneuvering slyly 's and seems to be on two different teams at once. While engaging with the People's Union, he also held meetings with Ene Ergma, the scientist-turned-Res Publica politician who has emerged as a leading presidential challenger.
After meeting with Ergma on July 31, Savisaar, who is economy minister, told reporters that she was a strong candidate because of her long working relationship with members of the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament).
"It helps if you have worked for years with members of Parliament. Ilves hasn't had that opportunity," Savisaar said, referring to Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the second finalist in the presidential race as selected by a working group of leading parliamentary parties.
"Ergma would certainly have very attentive followers among Center Party electors, as would Ilves or Ruutel," he said.
Ergma emerged from the meeting sounding upbeat but not triumphant, telling reporters she had given Center Party leaders a clear idea of her views.
"It was a very interesting discussion," Ergma said. "There were very many people present, which shows the Center Party is taking the matter seriouslyâ€¦ I have already reached a good position after I was left to run against Ilves."
Ergma, who is the deputy speaker of Parliament, faced questions about whether Estonia was ready to have a female president. She reiterated that Aug. 28 would answer that question once and for all.
Savisaar said the Centrists' involvement with the five-party roundtable was a positive step forward toward achieving parliamentary cooperation, even if it did not result in the election of a president through the parliament. "It is a serious thing that Parliament has been busy for months looking for a candidate," Savisaar said.
"In the next two or three months, regardless of whether the elections are concluded in Parliament or the electoral college, the electorate will get a good president," he said.
Despite the apparent power he is now wielding in deciding who will become the nation's next president, Savisaar said he is not a contender.
Meanwhile, leading presidential contender Ilves was also put to the test by Centrists last week, who examined the Social Democrat in a two-hour no-question-barred session.
"Ilves answered (our questions) correctly and matter-of-factly," Ain Seppik, a Centrist MP, was quoted by BNS as saying. He said board members were interested in Ilves' views on domestic and foreign policy, as well as citizenship policy, relations with neighbors and privatization problems.
"Another thing we liked was that Ilves absolutely did not share Prime Minister (Andrus) Ansip's view that the monument at Tonismagi should be removed at once."
In Seppik's words, it is difficult to gauge people's world view, but on the whole Ilves' answers to board members' questions did not leave a negative impression. "But he has expressed different views in the press," he observed.
Ilves, currently a member of the European Parliament, described his meeting with members of the Center Party as an intense cross-examination in which no question remained unanswered. "I guess it was a good thing to get together after a long while," he said.
In the past the Social Democrats (formerly the Moderates) and the Centrists have been at odds.
Ilves said that shades of prejudice could be seen in some of the questions. Commenting Seppik's approval of Ilves' views on the controversial WWII monument, Ilves remarked that his position on issues related to the monument has not changed.
"I believe the government should make a proactive effort to change the meaning of the monument," he said. "I, for my part, have suggested the meaning of the monument should be changed so that it could no longer be seen as glorification of the institution of Soviet power but on the contrary as a symbol of Estonia's subjugation."