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Estonia: Analysis From Washington--Bucking The Trend

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 23 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- By re-electing Lennart Meri as president, the Estonian people have bucked two disturbing trends that have marked many recent elections in post-communist states: the choice of someone drawn from among the former communists or the selection of an extreme nationalist.

Instead, Estonia elected a man whom the U.S. State Department characterized on Friday as one of America's "major interlocutors in Europe" -- precisely because of his commitment to democratic values and to international cooperation on security and other issues.

The reasons that so many other post-communist states have chosen one of the other paths are all too obvious.

Those countries who have decided to go back to the old communist elite for a new leader have frequently done so for an entirely understandable reason: Some of those chosen at the time of independence proved unable to cope with the enormous difficulties and strains that the transition from communism to democracy and free markets inevitably posed.

Consequently, electorates who had chosen anti-communists in the first elections turned on them in the second both because of a natural tendency to blame those in office when things go badly and because of a belief that some communist leaders were more competent to run the government machine.

Those countries who have turned to more nationalist leaders in the second round paradoxically have done so in response to precisely the same pressures. But in contrast, they have decided that the best way out of their current difficulties is to find someone to blame.

Unfortunately, the historical record so far suggests that both of these choices may end in blind alleys. On the one hand, the return of former senior communist officials as presidents has often meant the return of their entourage and their past way of doing business even if the top man has himself changed his stripes.

On the other, the selection of extreme nationalists to lead these countries only guarantees them and their neighbors more violence and more isolation, two things which inevitably undercut any possibility that the problems which generated support for nationalism can be resolved.

By choosing Lennart Meri, who has presided over a difficult but ultimately very successful transition to democracy and a free market in his country, Estonia remains with the Czech Republic, led by President Vaclav Havel, as a beacon of the path between the Scylla of communism and the Charybdis of nationalism.

But neither this election nor that of Havel marks a final victory for the ideals that motivated those who led the revolutions of 1989 and 1991. Instead, this vote allows for the possibility that Estonia will continue to face the difficult questions of national life and security in a dangerous world with the confidence that democratic legitimacy and economic progress alone can bring.

Estonian President Meri signaled his understanding of that by two steps he took immediately after being reelected.

First, he invited the candidates who had opposed him and all the members of the electoral collegium to a coffee at Kadriorg Palace, the residence of the Estonian president. By so doing, he underscored the important if often neglected point that in a democracy, political figures are often opponents to each other but they must never become enemies.

And then, Meri told a press conference in Tallinn that he did not believe his second term would be an easy time for him or for Estonia. As he put it, Estonia has faced many difficult questions in the past, but it now and in the future will face even more difficult ones as well.

Nonetheless, by avoiding the shoals that have wrecked so many, Estonia will be in a better position to deal precisely with these even more difficult problems.