Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 5

The most successful among the post-Soviet reformer governments, Estonia, is calling it quits after a falling out among the three parties of the ruling coalition. Prime Minister Mart Laar is tendering his resignation today, as was announced on Christmas Eve by Laar’s Pro Patria Union and its coalition partner, the Moderates, led by Foreign Affairs Minister Toomas Ilves.

The move was triggered by the other member of the tripartite coalition, the Reform Party, led by Finance Minister Siim Kallas. Last autumn, it abandoned the tripartite coalition in the Tallinn municipality to form an alliance there with the left-leaning opposition Center Party and some small, also left-leaning Russian groups. Those are unnatural allies to the Reform Party, which is dedicated to free market economics. Its move appears to have been motivated by preelectoral tactics. With parliamentary elections due in 2003, the government’s popularity at an all-time low, that of the opposition Center Party rising to more than 25 percent–considered high for an Estonian party–and public attention increasingly focused on the downside of the unfettered free market economics, the Reform Party apparently decided to abandon the ship of government with a decent interval ahead of the elections.

The election of a left-of-center opposition politician, the highly popular Arnold Ruutel, as president last September had signaled a shift of attitude in society at large, refocusing attention on the groups perceived as disadvantaged in the transition to the free market. Those groups range from urban pensioners to parts of the rural population to self-governing municipalities in the provinces. The latter now clamor for more allocations from the central budget. Two faltering privatization projects–that of the railways and that of the Narva electricity-generating plants–added to intra-coalition strains.

The presidential election also left some unhealed scars on the governing coalition. Each of the parties entered its own candidate in the race, and were never able to rally behind a mutually acceptable candidacy. That helped take the election out of the hands of parliament and put it into the hands of the special electoral college, where agrarian and small-town interests have a larger say, and which ensured Ruutel’s election. While formally of the opposition, Ruutel then and since made clear his total support for the national goals of joining NATO and the European Union and for the policies that the government had pursued to those ends.

The shape of the new government is far from clear. Possibilities include (1) a minority government of the Reform Party and the Center Party, (2) a majority government of those two parties in alliance with the People’s Union–Ruutel’s political home–and the Russian parties, and (3) pre-term elections.

Any of these scenarios may make an issue out of the personality of Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar, whom many perceive as a potentially authoritarian figure, and who was at the center of a Watergate-type scandal in 1995 that forced him to resign as internal affairs minister.

Ideologically, the Reform Party and the Center Party will not find it easy to cohabit in a coalition. The Reform Party, dedicated to classical liberal economics, and representing Estonia in the Liberal International, has for years thwarted the Center Party’s efforts to be admitted to that body. As recently as last week, one of the Reform Party’s leaders, Kristiina Ojuland–who is also a leading figure in the Liberal group at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe–argued that the Center Party opposes liberalism, as understood in its European meaning, which focuses on free market economics. The Center Party in turn complained of being misrepresented by the Reform Party on that score.

The People’s Union attaches top priority to reallocating budget funds in favor of agricultural development and infrastructure in the countryside. On that condition, the party would be prepared to enter a coalition with the Reform and the Center parties. People’s Union leader Vilju Reiljan, however, has expressed strong skepticism that those two larger parties can form a coherent government, in view of their ideological differences.

One Russian party, which calls itself the United People’s Party (UPP), has already been informally offered the Population Ministry in a possible coalition government with the Reform and Center parties. UPP leader Viktor Andreev, however, lost no time demanding, not just more power for his party, but the signing of a coalition agreement that would make the UPP a full-fledged participant in the government’s policy decisions. Andreev and his party have yet to pledge full support for joining NATO, however. Possibly, pre-term elections if held this spring could clear the air of these uncertainties (BNS, ETA, Western news agencies, January 2-7; see the Monitor, September 25, 2001).