Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 175

On September 21, a special electoral college elected Arnold Ruutel as head of state for a five-year term. Ruutel, 73, succeeds President Lennart Meri, 72, whose second term of office expires in October, and who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third. There are Estonians who feel that the country may incur an “image problem” because of Ruutel’s “communist past.” Such a tag, however, is unwarranted, because Ruutel’s political record since the late 1980s speaks for itself. In televised remarks to the country yesterday, Ruutel pledged to be a consensus president and to seek to anchor Estonia firmly to the West.

This presidential election was fought especially hard. Five rounds of balloting were necessary: three in parliament in August and two in the electoral college on September 21. Under the constitution, the electoral college is convened if three parliamentary rounds of balloting fail to produce a winner. The college consists of all the 101 members of parliament and 266 delegates of municipalities and districts. In the second round in that college, Ruutel received 186 votes; 184 were the minimum necessary.

Ruutel is honorary chairman of the left-of-center People’s Union, an opposition party, formed through the unification of Rural Union and the Country People’s Party, both of which had taken part in coalition governments during the 1990s. People’s Union’s and Ruutel’s voters are primarily those employed in agriculture and related occupations, as well as elderly urban Estonians. Ruutel’s personal popularity, however, considerably exceeds the party’s on the basis of his service as chairman of parliament during the national liberation period of 1988-1992.

Ruutel had two right-wing competitors in the electoral college. These were the incumbent (since 1995) chairman of parliament, Toomas Savi of the Reform Party, and parliamentary deputy Peeter Tulviste of the Pro Patria Union, who is also a psychology professor and former rector of Tartu University, and had the unofficial support of Meri in this election. Savi and Tulviste garnered ninety and eighty-nine votes, respectively, in the electoral college. Their two parties, along with the Moderates, are partners in the current coalition government. Although the parties were unable to designate a joint candidate, and rallied behind Savi only belatedly in the fifth balloting, the coalition’s unity has not been affected. The three parties hold, between them, an absolute majority of parliamentary seats. It was the provincial delegates who tipped the scale in Ruutel’s favor in the electoral college.

The new president, born in 1928 on Saaremaa island, is a trained agronomist. During the Soviet period he served as rector of Estonia’s Agricultural University in 1967-77, as deputy chairman of the Estonian SSR’s Council of Ministers, responsible for agriculture, in 1978-83, and as chairman of the ESSR Supreme Soviet’s Presidium from 1983 until the end of Soviet rule. In that capacity, Ruutel sided with the national liberation movement from 1988 on, broke with the communist party and was instrumental in shepherding through the legislation that led to the restoration of Estonia’s independence. In 1992 he ably negotiated with Russia the withdrawal of troops from Estonia.

Ruutel lost to Meri the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. As vice chairman of Estonia’s parliament during part of the 1990s, Ruutel made a mark for himself when holding the rotating chairmanship of the Baltic Assembly, an interparliamentary body of the three Baltic states. Although largely symbolic, this assembly retains some of the moral aura it gained during the early 1990s. Ruutel continues to articulate the theme of Baltic solidarity, as he has in his first statements as president.

Under Estonia’s constitution, the president has limited powers. These include the power to veto laws, to initiate constitutional amendments and to nominate the prime minister and other top officials. The president is commander in chief of the armed forces and chairs the national defense council. Ruutel brings to the post a reputation for consensus-seeking and for ability to consult and delegate. According to his published CV, Ruutel speaks German but has only a passive knowledge of English.

The new president is committed to pursuing the top national priorities of joining NATO and the European Union. In his acceptance speech, Ruutel recalled how, ten years ago, the small nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania “succeeded in influencing the processes that changed life on one-fifth of the planet”–that is, they set in motion the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Baltic entry into NATO and the EU would only be a natural corollary to that process (BNS, ETA, Estonian television and radio, September 19-24).