• 2001-08-30
So, Estonia is getting a new president in September.

The jolly bunch of smart, sophisticated and multilingual Baltic presidents will have to greet a newcomer, and say good-bye to their unofficial leader, outgoing President Lennart Meri.

Meri, who has represented his country since 1992, has always enjoyed unfailing public support. Sharp-minded and witty, he always managed to persuade world leaders to listen. In fact, Meri has been Estonia's best ambassador to the rest of the world, pushing the Estonian message through various audiences with great success. He had always found the right words, the right joke or appropriate irony to convey his message or keep annoying journalists at bay.

If the greatest thanks for Estonia's fast reform process and rapid success should go to its first, young and reform-minded government, headed by the then 32-year-old Mart Laar, their most steadfast advocate has been Meri. In the early years of Baltic independence, Meri's perfect language skills were standing out in front of his Baltic colleagues' clumsy or non-existent English, conveying Estonia's message loud and clear. "The president is a symbol to the world," Meri told AP in one of his last interviews as a president. "Every country must have a face, a voice , and a way of speaking, and a way of making jokes."

Now Latvia and Lithuania have measured up, electing Western-educated strong personalities as presidents, but the first impression very often is also the final one.

So, while Estonia's political parties split over presidential candidates, Meri goes to Paris to open an exhibition of Estonian paintings, an extravaganza so typical of him.

But he believes his legacy will be the standard he set in office.

"I'm convinced every Estonian president will be better than the previous one," he said.

Let's hope this statement will turn out to be true. Otherwise, the neighboring Latvians are rubbing their hands already in joy, as their president, Canadian-Latvian Vaira Vike-Freiberga, would inevitably become the dominant figure in the trio, whichever candidate wins the Estonian presidential election.

Estonia now, Meri says, is a "normal, boring country." He, at 72, may look for some place more exciting. Usually, political figures his scale are hunted by international organizations to represent them on international missions. It won't be a surprise to see Meri as one of them.