Deep divisions over relations with Moscow complicate the choice of a new head of state
Estonia’s opposition Center Party has long argued for closer ties with Moscow, but presidential candidate Mailis Reps has broken with that tradition, declaring herself “no friend of Russia.”
In the shadow of Moscow’s aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the largely symbolic Estonian presidency has gained weight partly thanks to incumbent Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ strong arguments for the European Union and NATO to stand by Estonia and its Baltic neighbors.
On August 29, the 101 members of Estonia’s parliament gather to vote for a new president. As it is unlikely to produce a clear two-thirds majority for any of the three declared candidates, a 335-strong electoral college of MPs and local leaders will likely be summoned in September to make the choice.
According to a poll of MPs for the daily Postimees, the two leading contenders would be former prime minister and European commissioner Siim Kallas and Reps of the Center Party — and relations with Russia would be at the center of the debate.
One of Moscow’s justifications for its expansionist policies along its borders is the alleged need to protect such minorities.
“There’s this idea about changing our relations with Russia to make Russia a better friend,” said Andres Anvelt, head of Ilves’ Social Democrats, who are the junior partners in the ruling coalition to Kallas’ Estonian Reform Party.
About a quarter of Estonia’s 1.3 million people are Russian-speakers, largely descendants of settlers who moved there during five decades of Soviet occupation. Their lack of integration — they watch Russian TV, follow Moscow politics and hold Russian passports — is a cause of concern to many ethnic Estonians, especially since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
In 2004, the Center Party signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin‘s United Russia party, committing both sides to ensure “neighborly and friendly relations” and deeper bilateral cooperation.
Edgar Savisaar, leader of the Center Party since the early 1990s and a controversial mayor of Tallinn, is one of the most popular politicians among the Russian minority; he was identified by Estonian’s internal security services as being at risk of being influenced by Russia.
Earlier this year, Reps defeated Savisaar in the internal Center Party contest to be presidential candidate, during a rough campaign where she spoke of a struggle to “take the party out of isolation.” Although she was one of the signatories of the 2004 agreement, she tried without success to scrap it earlier this year, arguing that “the geopolitical situation has changed.”
“I’m definitely no friend of Russia,” she told POLITICO, pointing out that she had authored several reports for the Council of Europe that were critical of Russia’s treatment of Ukraine and detailing human rights abuses in countries including Russia.
That doesn’t mean Reps is anti-Russian — she said the party has always maintained that “Estonian security is much better if we have a good relationship with our neighbors,” including the Russians. Another reformist in her party, its parliamentary leader Kadri Simson, accused the Reform Party of using Russia “to scare voters.”
“The fact is that we have a lot of native Russians who now have Estonian citizenship. The worst thing our politics could do is to ignore them,” said Simson, describing issues that are sensitive to the Russians, such as Estonia’s EU and NATO membership, as “a matter of fact [that] no one puts into question.”
“The Center Party’s focus is on the economy,” said Simson. “It is important that the next president deals with domestic issues.”
We cannot forget
If this contest does go to an electoral college, the Center Party stands to benefit as it is stronger in rural areas, which would be represented by local council chiefs — many of whom resent the Reform Party-led government’s measures to eliminate some smaller Estonian municipalities.
Reps is already focusing her campaign on local council leaders, who talk about Russia “very, very little,” she said.
The Reform Party acknowledges the chances of a decisive vote in parliament are limited.
“Everything is quite open at the moment. After the first round, probably all the talks, all the negotiations, will be very intensive,” said Kristen Michal, the minister of economic affairs from the Reform Party.
“The chances for an agreement in the first round are limited,” said Reform Party MEP Urmas Paet, a former Estonian foreign minister, adding that it was in the Center Party’s “strong interest to have elections in the special electoral body.”
Michal added that the Reform Party’s current domination of domestic politics and diplomacy could, paradoxically, count against it in the presidential contest. Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas and European Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip are both from the Reform Party.
“We probably don’t have — not in legal sense, but more in ethical balance sense — the right as a political party to ask for the post of the president,” said Michal.
The third current contender is the political outsider Allar Jõks, a constitutional lawyer who has the backing of two smaller right-wing parties. Like Reps, he’s focusing on the local government representatives whose support will be crucial if the vote shifts to the broader electoral college.
On the crucial question of Russia, he treads the middle ground between the Reform Party’s total focus on the threat from Moscow and the Center Party’s focus on anything else.
“We should have as good as possible relationship with all our neighbors but we cannot forget what Russia has done in Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia,” Jõks told POLITICO.