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Estonia: Premier's Resignation Announcement Pitches Country Into Uncertainty

Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar has announced he will resign on 8 January, citing infighting among members of the ruling coalition, which he said could harm his country's bids to join the European Union and NATO. Under Estonian law, Laar's resignation means the entire cabinet will have to step down. Are Laar's reasons for stepping down to be taken at face value and will the political tensions have any effect on Estonia's preparations to join NATO and the EU?

Prague, 20 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking to legislators in Tallinn on 19 December, Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar said that attempting to keep Estonia's current government coalition together would "lead to conflicts and scandals, which could seriously endanger the most important goals for Estonia -- to end talks with the European Union and get an invitation to NATO."

Laar said this was the reason he plans to resign in two weeks' time, taking the rest of the cabinet with him. But Tallinn-based media commentator Tarmu Tammerk tells RFE/RL he believes the prime minister was being less than candid.

"I'm afraid this is clearly a pretext and not the real reason at all. It is also not very statesmanlike for Mart Laar to make such a statement, placing a question mark over Estonia's intentions to join the European Union and NATO. Because his own foreign minister, I think simultaneously with him, made a statement saying whoever gets to power in Estonia, in the new government, will continue Estonia's movement towards the EU and NATO. I think Mart Laar behaved as some opposition members here have said -- like a young girl who doesn't like something and then starts making faces and so on."

Estonia's three-party ruling coalition had been under strain for some time, but the straw that broke the camel's back was the Reform Party's decision earlier this month to break away from its long-time partnership with Laar's Pro Patria Union and ally itself with the Center Party in the country's capital. That decision enabled the Reform and Center parties to seize political control of Tallinn City Hall. Many analysts called the move an attempt by the Reform Party to distance itself from the increasingly unpopular national government.

Tammerk says the move was seen by Pro Patria as a betrayal and he sees Laar's resignation announcement as payback.

"The announcement by Mart Laar that he will resign in January is an act of revenge on the Reform Party and the underlying motive is: 'Well, they thought they would be able to get away from [taking] responsibility for the government's work at the next national elections by teaming up with the main opposition party in Tallinn city and by showing that they are pursuing a different policy from us.' [And Mart is saying,] 'No, I will not let you do that. I will force you to assume full responsibility in the government and I will try to wash my own hands in the year and a half that we still have until the parliamentary elections.'"

Trivimi Velliste is deputy chairman of the Estonian parliament's Defense Committee and a leading member of the Pro Patria Union. In an interview with RFE/RL, he rejected the allegation that petty motives were behind Laar's decision.

"The situation is very confusing and contradictory -- when in the capital city, which is really a good portion of Estonia, there is an alliance which is totally unthinkable in the [national] parliament, it's impossible to continue ruling the country in this kind of formation, in this kind of a coalition. So actually the decision was taken by our partners, the Reform Party, to change sides, as it were."

Velliste accepts that politics, especially Estonian politics, is full of rivalries. "Democratic politics is always a competition and it's always a rivalry, but there must be very clear rules of the game and there must be a clear understanding of what the goals are and what the coalition agreement is and if you have an agreement you have agreed to play a certain game, then you should stick to those rules and you should also basically stick to your goals."

So, where does this leave Estonia? Under the constitution, the country's new leftist president, Arnold Ruutel, will have to name a premier to form a new government. Analysts point to Reform Party head Siim Kallas as the most likely candidate. But Tammerk says Kallas is in no rush to accept the post and neither is anyone else, for the simple reason that a budget with several controversial provisions has already been passed and whoever takes over the government will be faced with the thankless task of implementing it. One of those provisions concerns pay hikes for teachers.

Media commentator Tammerk says: "The pay increases for teachers have been written into the budget but the source of the money to cover these pay increases has not been indicated in the budget. So the next government -- whichever government it is -- will be in big trouble over this sometime next spring. They won't be able to pay the teachers the higher salaries that have been promised under this budget and several other such problems. So, there is a sort of a vacuum, a feeling of vacuum, now."

What will happen if no one agrees to take the government's helm? Velliste says snap elections are a possibility. "If the president's nominees all fail, then according to our constitution the parliament itself will have a try at nominating the prime minister, and if the parliament fails -- this all may take 66 days in all, starting from the first day -- and if there is not a positive result in 66 days, that would mean special elections."

It appears Estonia is in for some days of political suspense and no one is wagering on the outcome. One thing appears certain, at least for now: Despite the outgoing prime minister's statement, all major parties share similar foreign policy priorities and if Estonia can assemble a new government in fairly short order, its negotiations to join NATO and the EU should not be imperiled.