Moscow recalibrating its approach to Baltics after Ilves win (38)
Archived Articles 29 Sep 2006 Paul GobleEWR
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VIENNA – Russian media reaction to the Saturday victory of Toomas Hendrik Ilves over incumbent Arnold Rüütel in the race for president of Estonia has been almost universally negative, with headlines like “The American ‘Occupation’ of the Baltics” and “A President Moscow Doesn’t Need” among the most prominent.

But beneath such outbursts, which mirror, albeit with a minus sign, equally excited statements from some in the West, a few analysts in the Russian capital are engaged in thinking carefully about how Moscow should now go about promoting its interests in Estonia in particular and the Baltic countries in particular.

At one level, of course, Ilves’ election does represent a dramatic change. When he takes office in October, all three Baltic countries will have presidents who spent most of their lives in the West: Ilves, like Lithuania’s Valdas Adamkus, in the United States, and Latvia’s Vaira Vike-Freiberga in Canada.

Moreover, Ilves replaces the 78-year-old Rüütel who not only served at the top of the Estonian government in the last years of the Soviet occupation, who along with his commitment to independence and joining the European Union and NATO also sought to maintain ties with Estonia’s ethnic Russian community and Moscow.

Born in Sweden, the 52-year-old Ilves grew up in the United States, has degrees from Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, and was until the early 1990s, a citizen of the United States. Even more disturbing from the point of view of some in Moscow, he was head of the Estonian Service of Radio Free Europe!

But over the last dozen years, Ilves has become an important part of the Estonian political establishment. He served as Estonia’s ambassador to the U.S. before becoming foreign minister, and most recently he has been a deputy in the European Parliament. In each case, he has been outspoken in defending the interests of Estonia and Estonians.

Given all this, in what should have been no surprise to anyone, one Russian website denounced Ilves as the completion of the American “occupation” of the Baltic states ( ) while another denounced him for failing to reach out to ethnic Russians ( ).

But even as this media frenzy is taking place, some more thoughtful Russian analysts are considering how Moscow should proceed, and their conclusions suggest that the Russian authorities are likely to become more active rather than less in its involvement with Estonia and her neighbours, albeit in ways some might not expect.

Their arguments revolve around three main points: First, these analysts point out that under the current Estonian constitution, that country’s president is much less powerful than the parliament, however much some in both Estonia and the West sometimes appear to think.

Estonia’s basic law gives the president far fewer powers than the constitutions of the other two Baltic countries — not to speak of the Russian Federation or of the United States — give their leaders, a fact that many in both Estonia and outside sometimes ignore and often struggle against.

And such failures in turn can lead to real problems. In 1994, for example, at the insistence of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, U.S. President Bill Clinton asked that Estonia President Lennart Meri go to Moscow to negotiate an agreement on the withdrawal of Soviet/Russian troops from that Baltic land.

Under the terms of the Estonian constitution, Meri did not have the authority to do what he was asked to do and did – negotiate and then sign that document. Outgoing President Arnold Rüütel, then a member of the Estonian parliament, even voted against the treaty not because he wanted the troops to stay, as his opponents have claimed, but rather because he wanted Estonia to live within its own basic law.

At that time of extraordinary change, most people were inclined to overlook constitutional niceties, believing that “all’s well that ends well.” But it is not certain that under current conditions, either Estonians or others will adopt a similar view if Ilves, who takes office in October, adopts an equally expansive view of his powers.

Moreover, as Moscow analyst Vitaliy Portnikov pointed out, the real power in Estonia under the existing constitution is in the parliament, and there Moscow has the resources both directly and otherwise to generate support for its positions on Estonia’s foreign and domestic policies ( ).

At the very least, it is likely to be in a position to generate gridlock between Toompea where the parliament is located and Kadriorg where the Estonian president has his residence, possibly sparking precisely the kind of political crisis that Estonia has sought to avoid.

Second, these Russian analysts suggest that the election of someone as Estonia’s president who has spent most of his life abroad highlights a broader problem of many post-Soviet states: the difficulties many of them are having in developing a new political elite to succeed the one that oversaw the recovery or gaining of independence in 1991.

Andrei Suzdaltsev, in an essay posted on the site, even argued that “the main problem of the post-Soviet states consists in the actual absence of national elites” and particularly their inability to grow a new group of leaders to replace the generation of 1991 ( ).

That observation, although not directly tied to the vote in Estonia, is one that many Estonians would recognize. A major concern many Estonians had in the runup to the election was the image of their country were it to have the same leader (Rüütel) in 2011 that it had in 1991.

But Suzdaltsev’s argument calls attention to a more general problem: The political system in Estonia, like those in her neighbours Latvia and Lithuania, has not succeeded in throwing up new leaders from within, as evidenced by the continuing competition between “emigres” and “old timers.”

Clearly, in pointing this out, Suzdaltsev thinks that Moscow may be able one way or another to take advantage of that as well. And third, these analysts point out that Russia’s size, power and importance to the West place severe limits on what a political figure in any of the Baltic countries can do. If such a leader fails to show that he can cooperate with Moscow, they suggest, he will find himself with less support in the West than he and his countrymen might expect.

Obviously, the election of Ilves and equally the departure of Rüütel herald important changes in policy direction there, but, these reflections from Moscow suggest, neither the one nor the other is likely to have all the positive consequences some in Estonia and the West hope for nor all the negative ones many in Russia fear.
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