Estonia’s presidential election tomorrow, September 23, involves more than just a choice between Arnold Ruutel and Toomas Hendrik Ilves. In a more profound sense, this election can decide whether or not a third man, Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar, becomes Estonia’s political and business king-maker for years to come, de-liberalizing the economy in favor or privileged interest groups and building a special relationship with Russia to balance Estonia’s Euro-Atlantic orientation.
Savisaar reckons to achieve those goals by ensuring the el derly Ruutel’s reelection to another five-year term of office as well as a place for the small pro-presidential party, People’s Union, in a governing arrangement with the Center Party. In turn, Ruutel and People’s Union leader Villu Reiljan would use Ruutel’s presidential authority to “guarantee” the Center Party’s hegemony building.
The choice between Ilves, 53, and Ruutel, 78, should be an easy one to make both democratically and on merit. Ilves is the distant front-runner in Estonia’s popularity ratings as well a highly respected international personality. But, under Estonia’s electoral law, the president will be elected by an insufficiently transparent electoral college that offers scope for manipulation. In practice, the electoral college and Estonia itself faces a choice between constitutional government with Ilves and the risks of de facto rule by Savisaar under a figurehead president.
Writing in the September 20 issue of the Center Party’s weekly Kesknadal, Savisaar attacks Ilves for being an Estonian-American; claims sarcastically as well as gratuitously that “NATO would not go into a row with Russia for our sake”; cites German Minister of Foreign Affairs Karl-Walter Steinmeyer — a close associate of the Kremlin-friendly former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder — as urging that Russian interests be catered to (apparently, Savisaar privileges that perspective over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Atlanticism); and raises the specter of clashes between ethnic Russians and Estonians if the latter insist on removing the Red Army monument from Tallinn — as we ll as clashes among Estonians if Ilves supporters hold a planned open-air song festival in the city (BNS, September 20).
The Center Party-People’s Union alliance stipulates that Estonia should withdraw its soldiers from coalition forces in Iraq “at the first opportunity” and that the country can only participate in international operations with United Nations’ approval. This would imply that Estonia would not be free to participate in NATO peacekeeping or common defense operations unless the UN — that is, Russia as well — consents. The agreement strengthens this impression by failing to mention NATO altogether.
The Center Party has actively participated in running Ruutel’s campaign, particularly in its “dirty trick” aspects. Kesknadal and others in that camp have publicly “investigated” the life of Ilves’ octogenarian mother for Jewish origins — an invention that the candidate has not bothered to refute. Ruutel and his close circle have on the whole kept their distance from the negative campaigning, nor have they endorsed the strategic overtures to Russia in Savisaar’s discourse and the Savisaar-Reiljan agreement. However, the president and his advisers have clearly failed to disavow those transgressions and those overtures.
Savisaar has no consistent vision for the country’s future. He is a consummate tactical operator who follows what he perceives to be the prevailing winds. He headed the Popular Front during the heyda y of the liberation movement and served several brief stints as prime minister, internal affairs minister, and economics minister in the last 15 years. Savisaar narrowly averted an end to his political career in the late 1990s when, as internal affairs minister, he used the services of a security firm to bug political rivals. The Center Party is the country’s single largest with a nearly 30% share of the electorate in Estonia’s multi-party system. Savisaar has developed a political and organizational model that rests on fusion of the party with certain favored business circles, strict internal party discipline under Savisaar’s close oversight, predominant influence on Tallinn’s City Hall, and a lock on a substantial share of the Russian vote. The Center Party has signed a cooperation agreement with Russia’s party of power, United Russia.
Both the Center Party and People’s Union aggressively recruit members among mayors and other local officials, offering largesse from ministerial funds controlled by those parties in return for electoral support. The People’s Party constituency is predominantly rural and aging, and the party wields influence in part through Ruutel’s contacts in the milieu of agrarian and administrative officials in the countryside.
The dynamics of this campaign notwithstanding, Ruutel and Ilves can by no means be described as political adversaries, though they come from very different milieus and project contrasting personal images.
Ruutel, once a high official in Soviet Estonia’s agriculture and political nomenklatura, joined the liberation movement in the late 1980s and played a prominent role — along with young movement leaders — in the restoration of Estonia’s independence through parliamentary enactments. His presence in the parliament’s chair for the better part of the 1990s helped reassure sections of society, including many Russians, that Estonia’s independence and aspiration to join NATO and the European Union was good for the country and all social strata. Ruutel became president in 2001 at the age of 73 and served as a figurehead, though often with dignity. However, not speaking any foreign language other than Russian, he is at a disadvantage in representing Estonia internationally.
Ilves, born in Sweden to an Estonian post-war refugee family, grew up in the United States and is widely recognized as a scintillating orator in English. He headed the Estonian broadcasting department at Radio Free Europe, went on to serve as Estonia’s ambassador to the United States, and became the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, steering the country’s policies of accession to NATO and the European Union. Since 2004 Ilves has been the Vice-Chairman of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission and one of the most influential figures in Brussels debates on the EU’s neighborhood policy, energy issues, and policy toward Russia. In recent years he has led Estonia’s politicians in terms of popular rating — a fact that casts some doubt on his detractors’ stereotyping of Ilves as “elitist.” Ilves is a highly knowledgeable spokesman not just for Estonia, but also for Central-Eastern Europe generally in both Washington and Brussels, the workings of which he knows from the inside.
Unless Ruutel’s handlers have their own reasons to think otherwise, Ruutel can now retire in dignity and with full national gratitude for his past services. At this point, Ilves personifies a successfully modernizing Estonia and the country’s obvious best choice.