Back to the future

  • 2001-09-27
The Brazauskas syndrome hit Estonia's electoral college on the evening of Sept. 21, when it voted in Arnold Ruutel as Estonia's second post-Soviet president.

There's nothing peculiar about this, though. President Lennart Meri once said Estonia needed a better specialist on relations with Russia. So here's one. Comrade Ruutel will try his best to represent Estonia on the international political arena to the east as well as the west.

Or maybe not. Ruutel will have to pass a TOEFL English language test first.

He can't speak any English as his fluent English-speaking counterparts Vaira Vike-Freiberga in Latvia and Valdas Adamkus in Lithuania can. Ruutel speaks Russian, Estonian and German and, some would argue, in that order.

His predecessor Meri, a novelist, anthropologist and film director, speaks six languages, English included.

Further comparisons are not really justified, and that makes the whole picture even duller. So let's quit the comparisons and try to make a pastry out of the feces (sitast saia teha) as the Estonians would say.

Trained as an agronomist, Ruutel was the chairman of Estonia's Supreme Soviet legislature when the country regained independence from Moscow in 1991. He was also a prominent member of the Estonian Communist Party's central committee.

He undoubtedly did a lot to prevent bloodshed in those tumultuous years from 1989 to 1991, as other Estonian politicians like Meri and Edgar Savisaar prepared to declare independence.

But while Ruutel may have been a reasonable choice for president of Estonia 10 years ago - as Brazauskas was for Lithuania - he will have a lot to do to prove he is a worthy successor to the much-loved Meri.

After last week's elections ended, sarcastically-minded Estonians phoned their friends and congratulated them in Russian. But that's an overstatement. The president does not have much power.

And the fact is that many Estonians are happy. But for the much-disliked ruling right-wing triumvirate, the election was a bitter lesson. As Postimees wrote, the event proved to the government that a "different Estonia" exists outside Tallinn, and that there is life in rural areas.

How long will it take Ruutel to wash away his old image and relinquish past issues?

Maybe Ruutel will prove to be just as adequate a president as he was a Communist Party leader. But he'll have a hard time getting on with anti-communists in the government.