Estonia's political merry-go-round

  • 2002-03-07
  • Toomas Aarand Orav
Sometimes you have to do the hard things more than once, just to make sure you've really done them. For Estonia, ending the Mart Laar era might be one of those hard things. But he just might be coming around again.

Given Laar's strong international standing, the move surprised pundits. But in hindsight, the demise of the governing three-party coalition in January was inevitable, if not wholly desirable.

Despite the success of its economic program, Laar's government was plagued by real and imagined scandals. The event that probably signaled the end was the presidential election last fall. Neither the coalition nor Laar's own party could rally behind a single candidate.

Much to the prime minister's embarrassment, ex-communist leader Arnold Ruutel took up residence in the presidential palace at Kadriorg.

With his leadership under attack, it was hardly surprising that Laar resigned when his coalition partners in the Reform Party allied themselves with the rival Center Party in a power shift in the Tallinn City Council. Laar justified his decision saying coalition infighting was hurting Estonia's prospects for EU and NATO membership. He saw only one option: self-sacrifice.

Should we believe Laar's claim to martyrdom? It's doubtful. It is hard to accept that a serious reversal was coming to a country where politicians' support for European integration is near unanimous. The Economist only recently called Estonia Europe's "star pupil."

Laar's decision was a strange one. His Pro Patria Union (along with their kissing cousins in the Moderate Party) had hoped their coalition with the Reform Party would become the first in Estonia's democratic history to complete a mandate.

They had spent three years implementing a series of difficult reforms, such as a pension scheme and making sacrifices in the name of European integration. Now they expected the political rewards. They could afford to spend on social programs and NATO would deliver good news.

Why then would a practical politician meekly give up this advantage? Especially to his ideological rival and arch nemesis Edgar Savisaar, the populist leader of Center Party.

Perhaps Laar recalled that a quirk of Estonia's political culture is that voters have never returned an incumbent government to power. With an election looming early next year, it's easy to guess what Mart Laar the historian is betting on.

It's unlikely that Laar consciously chose this strategy. The situation has forced it on him. But he does have a slim chance of success. Unlike his previous exit from power, Laar retains leadership of his party and a solid partnership with the Moderates. He now has a year to quietly mend relationships.

More importantly, the new Center-Reform coalition will face immense public pressure.

The circus of scandal and partisan politics has turned Estonia's voters against government in general. Now Edgar Savisaar, a leading architect in fanning distrust, must assume some of the responsibility for leadership. It seems unlikely that a marriage of convenience between two opportunistic and ideologically distant parties can quickly repair confidence in the Parliament. It is likely that a public already expecting scandals and a media eager to supply them will frustrate this new government just as it has every previous government.

Whether by default or design, Mart Laar could return to power next year. This fact has little to do with any particularly good qualities of Laar, his party or his policies. His opportunity is the product of positioning and timing. Should it come to pass, it would be an unfortunate commentary on the state of democratic politics in Estonia.