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Estonia: New President Controversial But Likely to Stay The Course

In a surprise move, Estonia's electoral college chose Arnold Ruutel to be the country's president. Ruutel was the chairman of Estonia's Supreme Soviet legislature when the country regained independence from Moscow in 1991 and was once a member of the Central Committee of Estonia's Soviet-era Communist Party. So is the political wheel coming full circle?

Prague, 25 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Arnold Ruutel is a man with a past.

Ruutel was a Central Committee member of Estonia's Communist Party in the Soviet era. He was also chairman of Estonia's Supreme Soviet legislature. Of course, that does not make him unique in a country that for half a century was part of the Soviet Union.

But in the eyes of some Estonians, it is surprising that -- 10 years into the democratic era -- Ruutel was chosen by an electoral college to be the next president of Estonia.

The 21 September vote went comparatively easily for Ruutel, a 73-year-old agricultural specialist. He defeated Parliament Speaker Toomas Savi for the post of head-of-state, to replace outgoing President Lennart Meri.

The special electoral college was assembled after a deadlocked parliament failed to pick a president in August. The panel consisted of parliamentary deputies and local government officials, and it was apparently local officials from rural areas who threw their support behind Ruutel.

Ruutel's People's Union party says that's not surprising, because it is the rural areas that have suffered in Estonia's ambitious drive for market reforms -- a drive that has made it a favorite for membership in the European Union in the next few years.

As Tallinn-based media commentator Tarmu Tammerk puts it:

"Essentially, the Estonian presidential election is a vote of no-confidence in the current government's policies, which have been ignoring the emergence of the 'two Estonias,' as the saying goes here. One is the gleaming skyscrapers of Tallinn, a lot of foreign investment, Internet banking, e-government. And then there is the rest of Estonia, with soaring unemployment, very rapid spread of HIV virus and many other problems."

Tammerk says, however, that Estonians expecting a change of political direction are likely to be disappointed in that the president's post is largely ceremonial and does not allow for much direct political action. But Tammerk says:

"What is in the power of the new president is to change the political discourse in this country, and I think we see this already taking place. So that in an indirect way, we can say that Ruutel's election as president will make the voice of the countryside and the underprivileged sectors of society better heard in government."

Two of Estonia's prime foreign-policy goals have been membership in the EU and in NATO. The People's Union, of which Ruutel is honorary chairman, says these goals will not change under the new president.

The People's Union itself is cold toward EU accession. But party adviser Andra Veidemann says Ruutel supports these aims and that in itself will reassure the section of the public with doubts. She says:

"I think that the knowledge that the new president supports the process to join the European Union and also NATO will convince more people in Estonia that the step will be the correct and the right one."

Veidemann also addresses Ruutel's communist past, asserting that the present political establishment seeks to assign guilt to those who rose under that system. Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar recently urged that the Communist Party be designated a criminal organization for the historic record. She says:

"Arnold Ruutel was really one of the outstanding politicians during this red period, this is true. But he was dealing with the question of the countryside, of agriculture. He was the rector of the academy of agriculture in Estonia, and most people connected him, correctly, with questions relating to the countryside."

One of the parties in the ruling coalition that did not support Ruutel in the electoral college is the Pro-Patria Union. But Pro-Patria Union press secretary Sirje Kiin took a conciliatory line in commenting on the result of the vote. She said the fears aroused by Ruutel's choice are probably greater than the reality. She says she does not expect major changes.

She quotes a local opinion poll that indicates the population is evenly divided -- 44 percent of those questioned are satisfied with the electoral college vote, 44 percent are not satisfied. Such a figure indicates that the issue could divide society. But Kiin goes on to note Ruutel's conciliatory nature. She says:

"He is very peaceable and [tends to] negotiate. It is a very big plus for him that he has always negotiated with every party, so I think he is a quite a good, but passive, diplomat."

She recalled his actions as an important intermediary who helped win back Estonia's independence from Moscow in the early 1990s.