Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 24
8 March 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
There's Something about Meri

Mel Huang

There is certainly something about Estonian President Lennart Meri these days. Already named "European of the Year" and known for his dramatic and thought-provoking speeches, the senior statesman has managed to get Estonians talking again with his recent Independence Day speech. Since the delivery of the 24 February speech at a gala celebration in the Estonia concert hall, newspapers have been inundated with analyses by both journalists and politicians alike concerning its effects on the 7 March general elections.

Of the topics the President discussed, the hottest in the press is certainly his reference on the eve of general elections to 'authoritarian' politicians. Though President Meri obviously did not name names, speculation has been rife. Specifically, President Meri said:

"Also, I would like to warn you of the politicians using authoritarian and undemocratic means. The changing times have sown uncertainty in the minds of people. They seek refuge in strict rule and sweet promises. The authoritarian politicians take advantage of this, but have no real confidence in the people or even their own party members, they are first and foremost driven by their craving for power. Such politicians would make trouble in both the foreign and domestic policy of Estonia. How to recognise them? I will repeat what I said when declaring the elections: "judge the politicians by their deeds, not by their words."

So who exactly is President Meri's target? Before approaching that question, we need to examine the approach of the President towards the upcoming elections. This goes back many years...

Lennart's choice

It was last summer when President Meri hinted to his preference for the coming general elections by noting that the only good government Estonia has had was the one led by then 32-year old Mart Laar. This sent shockwaves throughout the Estonian political world and gave Laar the motivation to reclaim his leadership position in his party, Pro Patria Union.

First, it demonstrated a lack-of-confidence in the government at the time, led by Coalition Party leader Mart Siimann. It was not a very subtle criticism, and it further destabilised the already weak minority government. The only reason it did not collapse was that the elections loomed in a few months and no one wanted to run a caretaker government and doom their popularity before the vote. Little surprise that the Coalition Party took many hits in keeping the government afloat and their popularity sunk below the minimum five per cent threshold.

Second, this was a reconciliation between Meri and former protégé Laar. After the general elections of 1992, Mart Laar was made the youngest prime minister in Europe and soon Lennart Meri became president. As time went on, the young reformer stubbornly pushed ahead the harsh "shock therapy" needed. At the same time, President Meri tried to venture beyond his constitutional roles of ceremonial head-of-state and involved himself in domestic politics. This eventually led to a major rift between Laar and Meri which failed to conclude even when Laar lost a vote of confidence in later 1994 and Meri came close to begging for forgiveness from the Riigikogu during the 1996 presidential elections.

Third, the speech was as close to an endorsement as the president was likely to give. President Meri knows full well that since he was bound by term limits, he cannot run again when his term expires in 2001. Therefore, this gives him an extraordinary amount of power with little accountability to his electors: the parliament (and electoral college). Thus he can affect domestic politics significantly with well-placed speeches and criticisms, as in this very case.

Then again - who is the authoritarian?

Going back to the main question - who is this 'authoritarian' figure President Meri referred? Majority of opinions place the accusation squarely on the leader of the Centre Party, Edgar Savisaar. Not without reason, the former transition-era prime minister has earned a reputation for being a 'big brother' figure. Though most obviously in the recent set of campaign billboards, where you see only Savisaar's eyes behind his glasses, his connections to security-minded institutions worry many. There is a remarkable amount of people affiliated with the Interior Ministry running under the Centre Party banner: policemen, security officers, migration officials, and others. He wanted essentially his own 'police force', ranging from the now-disbanded Kodukaitse (Home Defence) volunteer force to his cosy ties to a leading security company in Estonia. The examples go on and on, but it is safe to say most of the analyses place the accusing finger of President Meri on Edgar Savisaar.

However, some other commentators, especially politicians close to Savisaar (both within and outside of the Centre Party) have listed a few other names: for example, former Prime Minister (Coalition Party) Tiit Vähi and former head of the central bank and former Foreign Minister (Reform Party) Siim Kallas. Some may argue that the only person mildly authoritarian over the last few years was the president himself. The fact that former Prime Minister (Pro Patria Union) Mart Laar was very rarely mentioned in this light is another hint that analysts believe the president is again favouring his former protege. However, most suspiciously off the list of the 'accused' from the press is former Foreign Minister (Moderates) Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The former leader of the People's Party (which merged with the Moderates), who wrote a scathing commentary propping up the claim that the president was accusing Savisaar, has remained remarkably silent on issues throughout the campaign - even when asked on television. Perhaps some, including the president, know more about his domestic policies than others...

Lesson of the wise man

President Lennart Meri has earned a reputation from home and abroad of being a wise academic-minded statesman of the grand old days of statesmen. His ability to talk about things ranging from the migration patterns of the Magyars to the early days of the BBC off the top of his head marvels anyone who has the chance to speak to him. He often complains that he has very few opportunities to address the nation, thus he uses his three big annual speeches (New Year's Day, Independence Day and Victory Day) to make a great impact.

His speeches often contain lessons and advice for his fellow countrymen. Talking about the elections, during his New Year's Day speech, he reminded Estonians, "Do not fail to use your opportunity and your rights. Do not elect an air bubble." He caused a major storm in his Independence Day 1998 speech when he called the many corrupt politicians and officials in Estonia 'scum' and "scum that we will gather with a ladle and throw into the slop pail. If not sooner, then at the time of the elections. This we will do together and we will do it until there is no more scum to gather." This is the Lennart Meri school of public address, powerful and demonstrative.

But the lesson of the wise man has perhaps been missed by the press. At the end, it is not whom the president is hinting at that is important; as long as the individual elector does not cast a vote for whom they think is the 'authoritarian' then it serves President Meri's purpose. In the paragraph immediately following the previous, President Meri wisely said:

"On March 7, you will elect a Riigikogu that will take Estonia to the new century. Depending on your preferences, you will choose between two different forces, two different paths of development, of which only one will be successful in today's world. This choice is not without significance. On the contrary, the choice you make is vital to you and your children, to you and your parents, especially to those who still remember the pre-war Estonia. Do not lull yourselves with stories that you know nothing about politics and that nothing really depends on you. This choice is yours to make. Use your vote with due discretion. Later, it will be too late."

Mel Huang, 8 March 1999


Office of President Lennart Meri
Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Government of Estonia


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