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Estonia: Young Members Infuse New Cabinet

  • Don Hill

When former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar startled the nation just before Christmas by resigning, the Estonian Reform and Center parties swallowed their policy differences and put together a new team to govern. The Center Party came out of the opposition with a slate of young newcomers for cabinet ministers. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that there is more to the story than mere youth.

Prague, 28 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Estonia's Center Party entered the country's new governing coalition last week with a 28-year-old defense minister and a minister of education who at 27 years of age only recently completed her own schooling. The party's agriculture minister is 38. Ministers from its new partner, the more experienced Reform Party, include Foreign Minister Kristina Ojuland, 35, and Environment Minister Heiki Kranich, 40.

Jokes in Estonia about a kindergarten cabinet were perhaps inevitable. It is said that the Center Party could boast: "Join our party for rapid advancement."

Tarmu Tammerk, head of the Estonian Newspaper Association, is a long-time observer of his country's politics. He says some circles have questioned the wisdom of such a young government: "It has become an issue of discussion, definitely, in the media and in public in general, that some of the ministers are too inexperienced."

But in other circles, among commentators, analysts, and politicians, a view is held widely that neither age nor gender is a supportable issue.

For one thing, in a country that regained independence less than 11 years ago, there is nobody with very long experience in democratic government. For another, fresh faces in Estonian government are nothing new. Past Prime Minister Laar was 32 years old when he took office after independence.

Foreign Minister Kristina Ojuland agrees that some of the new ministers lack experience, but she says this does not mean that will not function competently and effectively. She cites the case of Defense Minister Sven Mikser as an example.

"At the same time, I know myself from the past, Minister Mikser, who becomes minister of defense, and as a former colleague in the [parliamentary] Committee of Foreign Affairs, I can say that he is very competent in the foreign affairs field and not only foreign affairs but what concerns the security field as well."

And, as Tammerk says: "But then others have pointed out that in all the Estonian governments ever since independence was restored in 1991, we have been having people who are quite unknown to the public and some of them have become quite successful as ministers."

Parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2003 cast a shadow now over all calculations about Estonia's new government

Vello Pettai, a lecturer in political science at Tartu University presently working for his doctorate at New York's Columbia University, says the inexperienced ministers are unlikely to hold office long because the government undoubtedly will change again after elections.

The Newspaper Association's Tammerk says the upcoming elections also figure in the Center Party's selection of newcomers for ministerial posts. He explains that older, more experienced politicians would not relish the thought of serving in a government that may be in power no longer than a year.

"Well, I think in general that the Centrist Party was having some trouble with finding well-known candidates [because] it has been in opposition for quite some time and its old guard, so to speak, was occupied in high positions in parliament and was not quite willing to join the government for a short time."

Laar resigned as prime minister in protest against what he called "infighting" within his center-right coalition government, made up of the Reform Party, his own Pro Patria Union, and the Moderate Party.

Tammerk says, however, that Laar decided to resign almost certainly after lengthy deliberation, rather than emotionally or symbolically: "I am pretty certain it was a tactical maneuver to create a better position -- to improve the chances -- of his own party to get to parliament next time, because his unpopularity was unprecedented in the whole of Estonia's history in the past 10 years."

Last week, the Estonian parliament elected the Reform Party's Siim Kallas as prime minister. An economist, he had been finance minister in the old government.

The government Kallas leads will have to make a number of painful decisions that Laar, by his resignation, now escapes. In preparation for joining the European Union, Estonia must substantially increase excise duties it levies on cigarettes and other tobacco products. The new Education Ministry will deal with the hot issue of phasing out Russian-language schools in Estonia.

The new Estonian cabinet is attracting comment not only for its relative youth but also for the number of women involved.

Foreign Minister Ojuland says she thinks this should be no issue at all: "Well, I am not a feminist, first of all myself at all. And I would say that those women who for the positions, they did not get the positions by just the fact that they are female but they are just competent in their fields." Still, the government has officially expressed some pride in the number of women members.

Foreign Ministry Deputy State Secretary Marina Kaljurand told the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women last week in New York that the new cabinet contains more women ministers -- five out of 14 -- than any in Estonia's history. They hold the portfolios of foreign affairs, culture, education, and social affairs and the combined portfolio of economic affairs, transport, and communications. The oldest member of the new government is veteran Liina Tonisson, 61 -- a woman and the country's new minister of economy (Center Party). The youngest is Mailis Rand, 27 -- also a woman, and now minister of education (also Center Party).