Ex-communist to lead Estonia to Europe

  • 2001-09-27
  • Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - There have been gasps of surprise and groans of indignation right across the Baltic states as the national electoral college elected the last Soviet ruler of Estonia, Arnold Ruutel, to be its next president on the evening of Sept. 21.

Ruutel, 73, received 186 votes out of the 366 possible, confidently defeating Parliamentary Speaker Toomas Savi, Tartu City Council Chairman Peeter Tulviste and Peeter Kreitzberg form the large opposition Center Party, who won 155, 89 and 72 votes respectively.

It was Savi, 58, who managed to carry the fight into the final round, while Tulviste and Kreitzberg bowed out of the race after the first session.

Two invalid ballots and 23 blank ones were not enough to influence the outcome.

Views on the result were mixed. Tulviste complained that as president, Ruutel would hamper foreign policy, but because of his popularity in the less well-off provinces he might be able to achieve certain domestic policy goals.

Ruutel quickly confirmed after his victory that he saw no reason to change his country's top foreign policy priorities of joining the EU and NATO. His pre-election program also made this clear.

Indeed, it is being said that the choice of Ruutel for president is a good one. "I'm sure Ruutel can explain to ordinary people why it's good to join the EU much better than anyone else can," conceded Tulviste.

The outcome is a painful lesson for the right-wing ruling coalition of the Moderates, Pro Patria Union and the Reform Party, said Prime Minister Mart Laar, a Pro Patria member, after the result had been digested, on Sept. 24. But, he added, it would not increase tensions within the ruling trio, which were already strained after their failure to agree on a common presidential candidate.

"More likely the result of the elections will draw the alliance closer together if there emerges an external force to rally against. But we definitely don't intend to close ranks against the incoming president. On the contrary, we'll continue to work well hand-in-hand with the president in a businesslike manner," said Laar.

The second round, held after the first Parliament-only vote drew no result, began on Aug. 27. The electoral college consisted of 100 MPs and 266 local government representatives from around the country. The 101st MP was ill.

Ruutel chose not to take part in the first round vote, knowing that his chances would be much improved with stronger support coming from the municipalities.

It was the third time Ruutel had run for the presidency. In 1992 and 1994, Meri was his main rival. In a short victory speech, Ruutel thanked the voters for their trust and support.

"Estonia is a great country," he said. "It's so wonderful we managed to change the (communist) processes that once influenced one-fifth of the planet. It's an honor to be president of such a great country."

He also promised to do all he could to improve the dialogue between the people and the state, currently in a weak condition, and bring the two closer together.As for the turbulent relationship with Russia, Ruutel claimed Estonia should stick to its national interests and positions regardless of its neighbor's superior power. The new president, who takes over the office from the charismatic and enormously popular Lennart Meri on Oct. 8, announced on Sept. 24 that he is resigning his present post of honorary chairman of the left-wing People's Union party.

In an interview to the Maaleht weekly on Sept. 20, Meri warned the Estonian people about electing a president with a communist past, saying this would automatically send a negative message to the world.

"We must completely understand that the Communist Party as a whole, as a system, as the fist of power, was a pillar of evil," Meri told the paper.

The youth sections of the Moderates and Pro Patria Union announced two weeks ago that they would prefer to see a man with a clean past in the presidential hot seat.

Many will be asking the question, then, why the last runners in the presidential race, Ruutel and Savi, were members of the Communist Party.

"Based on the outcome, the international community will wonder whether Estonia is maintaining the democratic course of a European country or if it is making a stupid communist U-turn," said Meri in his interview.

Meanwhile, Estonia's burgeoning online media keep mocking Ruutel's wife Ingrid that she does not correspond to everyone's idea of a first lady. In a poll opened at the Delfi Internet portal, most contributors agreed that there could be no worse choice.

Mrs. Ruutel, 55, enthusiastically studies and tirelessly promotes Estonian folk culture. She heads the National Folklore Council, and commonly accompanies her husband to functions wearing the national costume, which many in Estonia find unbearably old-fashioned.