Meri becomes star of Swiss symposium

  • 2001-05-24
  • Aleksei Gunter
ST.GALLEN - About 600 businessmen and politicians, 250 students and the world's press descended on St. Gallen, Switzerland, a quiet city of barely 80,000, between May 17 and 19. The International Students Committee has been arranging its own symposium for over three decades, and the event is getting more and more impressive year by year. This time, Estonian President Lennart Meri was there to pick up the event's major prize.

This is rapidly becoming Europe's number one place to meet the key figures of world policy and business. The slogan of the 31st ISC symposium reads, "Where the leaders of today meet the leaders of tomorrow." Indeed. Where else can a student heading for his or her first MBA discuss brand power head to head with Nestle's CEO, or have a private chat with the chief economist of Banca di Roma?

The official subject of the symposium, "The New Balance of Power," could embrace political, economic or philosophic matters. But the annual event is mostly focused on business.

Panel discussions during the day and international buffets in the evenings introduced a variety of business, cultural and gastronomic passions of the participants. Symposium is, after all, the ancient Greek word for a philosophical booze party.

As Frederick Kempe, editor and associate publisher of The Wall Street Journal Europe, noticed while opening the May 19 morning session, the very notion of a new balance of power obtained a fresh feel after the improvised international cocktails of the previous night.

The conference was state-of-the-art, featuring some often irritatingly advanced technological gadgets. SpotMe was a handy device not unlike a personal digital assistant on a hand-held computer, containing a complete list of the symposium's participants with photos, the event's schedule, and a radar detecting every participant within about a 30-meter radius.

According to the symposium's organizing team, the gadget was meant to make contact between participants more convenient. And there was no better way to find out who was in the toilet cubicle next to yours.

One of the features of SpotMe that proved to be most controversial was the way it locked onto a particular person by beeping and vibrating his SpotMe machine when both seeker and target were within radius.

Nevertheless, an option deftly called Magic Hood, which made a SpotMe holder "unspottable," also existed. Meri seemed to be using the option permanently, because even when he was in sight he was not on the radar screen.

The Max Schmidheiny Foundation, which was established in 1979, awarded Meri its Freedom Prize for his contributions in making Estonia a top-level democracy. Schmideheiny, who died in 1991, was a Swiss businessman involved in banking and construction and, in the second half of his life, charity work and the public sector. His son Stephan handed the award to Meri.

According to the foundation's articles of association, every year it honors two people or institutions who have contributed to the maintenance and further development of a free social and economic order.

Previous winners include Nokia CEO Jorma Ollila, European Commission President Romano Prodi, and several well-respected organizations such as Transparency International and The Economist magazine.

Outstanding political, scientific and business initiatives and deeds improving individual freedom and responsibility are considered for the award. The prize has the impressive monetary value of 100,000 Swiss francs ($66,666) per winner, which slightly exceeds 1 million Estonian kroons and makes about 20 average salaries in Switzerland, or over three year's wages of President Meri.

Indian IT pioneer Narayana Murthy, whose software production company Infosys Technologies has created several thousand jobs in India, became this year's second Freedom Prize winner.

In the overcrowded foyer of St. Gallen University after giving a speech called "The Role of Small Nations in Europe," Meri told The Baltic Times he had not expected to get the prize. "Prizes always come unexpectedly," he said.

The speech itself, presented in Meri's perfect German, mostly sounded like a promotional release for a brand called The Republic of Estonia, with added Cinderella value.

Starting with the geographical location of Estonia, it also included the country's much-discussed achievements in the IT sphere, European Union and NATO accession talks, EU-driven exports and, naturally, the conquering of Eurovision 2001.

Meri said he had decided to dedicate about a quarter of his speech to a general presentation of Estonia after one of the organizers of the symposium had asked him the previous evening how much Estonia depended on Russia.

"I told him Estonia depends on Russia less than Switzerland does, and I also dedicated two and a half hours to a more thorough discussion with him this morning," said Meri.

His speech inspired a few questions from the audience. Moses Anoh Ekra, a student and tax consultant from Canada, was the first to break the silence after the storm of applause that followed Meri's final words. He asked the president's opinion on Russian minority issues in the context of Estonia's readiness to join the EU.

"I am very proud that those Russians who decided to stay in Estonia (after the restoration of independence) have become loyal citizens," said Meri, also pointing out that the minorities in Estonia have cultural autonomy.

"As a small country, Estonia has made something that has so far been impossible to achieve in Europe. We are protecting those who came to occupy us," said Meri.

Nevertheless, the president failed to mention that the Estonian state program for basic education in Russian will wind up by 2007, according to a law approved in the Riigikogu, the Estonian parliament, several years ago.

Another question from the audience considered what she called Russia's rage at Estonia's attempts to join NATO. President Meri briefly explained that the situation has changed a lot since the times of the Iron Curtain, mentioning that for modern strategic weapons there is no longer an advantage in getting a base as close as possible to a rival's territory.

"Security is something we understand and appreciate. This security is not directed against Russia, though," said Meri.

The willingness of some Russian politicians to have powerful armed forces at the border with this NATO candidate recalled the political cartoons of the 1920s, and is "something quite out of date."

"Estonia will never attack Russia," concluded Meri, playing the typical jester of a self-confident and experienced politician, causing a ripple of laughter through the audience.

Questions of sustainable development could have been the subtitle of the symposium, judging by the number of discussions dedicated to it.

Perhaps the most vivid and spectacular keynote panel discussion, and the highlight of the entire event, involved Thilo Bode, former chief director of Greenpeace and Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, CEO at the food giant Nestle, who crossed swords in a tense debate that made Kempe, the moderator, look like Larry King on air with Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton.

Bode, who started his Greenpeace career as an ordinary activist, began his attack with what he called the negligence of big power corporations toward scarce water resources.

However, his accusations passed the well-balanced, confident Nestle chief executive by. Brabeck-Letmathe was armed with more than enough counter arguments that seemed to reassure this largely business-oriented audience that Nestle was a corporation that followed the rules of sustainable development.

"We built our first waste water treatment facility for our plants in 1936, when there was no Greenpeace, and nobody forced us to do so," said Brabeck-Letmathe.

Bode posed a question that was rather rhetorical and eventually remained unanswered. "What kind of economic growth can (the people of the world) afford to preserve nature?" he said when asked to comment on the idea that only economic growth is a sufficient tool for sidelining more money for environmental issues.

"The concept of first getting rich and cleaning up later is a wrong one. Should we be giving nature a price tag because only corporations would value it?"