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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 07:40 GMT
Estonia's power vacuum
Former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar
Mart Laar placed Estonia on the path to reform
By the BBC's Rostyslav Khotin

The resignation of Estonia's reformist government led by Mart Laar - one of the most successful reformers in Central and Eastern Europe - has created a political vacuum in the small Baltic state.

Some also fear the move will damage their nation's prospects for fast integration into the European Union and Nato.

Mr Laar, 42, is considered to be one of Estonia's political heavyweight veterans. He was just 32 when he first became prime minister of Estonia, which at that time had recently regained its independence from Moscow.

He wants to raise the popularity of his party and his own popularity by being in opposition.

Janus Pirsaulu, political commentator

He placed his country on the path of reform and laid the groundwork for rapid economic growth, leaving all the other former Soviet republics far behind.

This achievement meant that Estonia was named the only newly independent state to qualify for entry into the European Union in the first wave of expansion, scheduled for 2004-2005. Three years ago, Mr Laar became Estonia's prime minister for the second time.

This time his government's performance was quite impressive in foreign affairs and in continuing reforms. But his overconfident political style spoiled relations with the partners in the ruling three-party, centre-right coalition.

Betrayal

The first sign of cracks appeared in December when the Reform Party allowed the opposition Center Party to take the politically lucrative post of the mayor of capital Tallinn.

Mr Laar considered the move a betrayal and decided to leave. But some observers, such as Janus Pirsaulu, a political commentator for the leading Estonian daily Eesti Paeveleht, think it was a tactical move to regain his high popularity.

Tallinn city skyline
In December the opposition gained political control in Tallinn
"I think that... he just decided before the elections that it will be better to be in opposition for the year 2003 because the polls show that his popularity is going down all the time," Mr Pirsaulu said. "He wants to raise the popularity of his party and his own popularity by being in opposition."

Some Estonian commentators have suggested that it might be premature to call the resignation of Mr Laar's government a "political crisis". But just one day after Tuesday's resignation, efforts to form the new government coalition appear to have failed.

At the same time, many observers question whether the resignation of a successful prime minister, who brought his country to the doorsteps of the European Union and Nato, will have negative consequences.

Western leader

Some view Mr Laar, who is fluent in several Western European languages, heads the Cabinet, and in whose meetings absent ministers could participate via the internet, as an ideal symbol of Estonia's integration with the West.

The Tallinn-based political analyst Erik Terk disagrees.

"I think it's some kind of myth cultivated by the Prime Minister's party," he said.

"They have been trying to give their party a trademark of Estonian economic success and so on. But I don't think it (reflects) the real situation."

The prime minister's resignation came a few months after the Estonian parliament elected the former leader of the Estonian Communist party, Arnold Ruutel, as the second post-Soviet president.

Although it is largely a ceremonial post, the re-emergence of the perestroika-era leader alongside the appointment in the other Baltic State of Lithuania of the former Communist leader, Algirdas Brazauskas, as prime minister, sends mixed signals about the ability of a younger generation of Baltic politicians to rule.

Mr Terk said: "If you look for example at Poland, it's quite hard to say who's doing reforms better - right-wing parties or former communist parties."

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See also:

09 Jan 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Estonia
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