Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Estonia's Knight Returns

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Estonia's Knight Returns

Article excerpt

The results of the 2001 Estonian presidential elections shocked the country and many outside observers, as former communist-era leader Arnold Ruutel won the post by a slim margin in a specially convened Electoral College. Few analysts had given his third bid for the presidency much of a chance, and most opinion polls agreed. Thus, the election result came to most as a total surprise, and to some a rather negative one. (1)

Although the power of the Estonian presidency, if examined constitutionally, is generally limited, the position does carry a significant symbolic and politically influential force. The bulk of the president's powers are linked to foreign affairs, as the head of state represents Estonia overseas and at home. Most of the appointment powers of the president require parliamentary confirmation (for cabinet members and other top officials) or other consultative agreement with the government (for ambassadors). Although the president also serves as supreme commander of national defense, the practical application of this has remained consultative. The president holds limited veto power over legislation, with deadlocked bills decided by the Supreme Court. For the most part, the power of the Estonian presidency is stronger than that of Germany but weaker than that of Lithuania or Poland.

Attempts to explain the electoral triumph of Ruutel over candidates from the three-party center-right ruling coalition of Moodukad, the Reform Party, and Pro Patria Union instead exacerbated the already growing tensions within the trio; indeed, the coalition collapsed within a few months. But whatever the explanation offered, Ruutel was nevertheless elected and will serve as president until the next election in autumn 2006; in other words, Ruutel--formerly the highest ranking official in Soviet Estonia--will likely lead the country into NATO and the EU.

Why did Estonia, largely seen as one of the leaders of reform in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), choose this relic of a bygone era to lead it back into Europe? Does Ruutel's election actually indicate a political maturity or perhaps even a symbolic end to the transition period? (2) And the key question is whether the knight in question (the word ruutel in Estonian means knight) will be a dark knight riding in from Estonia's gloomy past or a knight in shining armor on a white horse, leading Estonia into a bright future--or perhaps both.

Where Have the Ex-Communists Gone?

For the most part, Estonia's top communist functionaries from the 1980s fell from public prominence, unlike those in many other CEE countries. Arnold Ruutel, who became chairman of the presidium of the Estonian Supreme Soviet in 1983, is the sole top functionary still active in politics. However, despite being a popular member of parliament (MP), his profile diminished over recent years as he relinquished his leadership role in his party, the rural-focused Estonian People's Union (Eestimaa Rahvaliit). His profile only rose in August 2001 during the events commemorating the tenth anniversary of the restoration of Estonian independence, in historical reflections, mainly on television.

Other high-ranking former communists bowed out of politics for the most part; for example, former chairman of the Council of Ministers Indrek Toome has transformed himself into a real estate developer able to work easily with the Scandinavian partners that dominate the construction market in Estonia. The former Communist Party, renamed the Estonian Social Democratic Labour Party (Eesti Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Toopartei), gained a minute representation in the parliament in the 1999 general elections by running in a coalition with the Estonian United People's Party (Eestimaa Uhendatud Rahvapartei), a mostly Russophone party.

The case is rather different in many other CEE countries, as many of the former Communist Parties successfully transformed themselves into some "social democratic" or "democratic labor" party. …

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