Estonian Parliament Grapples With Transition to Democracy

Soviet legacy shadows Baltic state's first moves toward democracy. Anti-communism colors selection of president, as status of Russians tops country's political agenda.

WHEN the gavel came down opening the new session of parliament here - the first comprising deputies elected in the post-Soviet era - many in the chamber said the event marked the breaking of this Baltic nation's last link with the Soviet era.

"With this parliament, the communist past is changing into a democratic future," said Juri Luik, a parliament member and a leader of Fatherland, the dominant party in the new legislature, known as the Riigikogu.

Estonia is the first former Soviet republic to hold parliamentary elections since the breakup of the Soviet Union last December. How the new parliament here handles the transition from a communist system to democracy could set a precedent for other former Soviet republics. Georgia and Lithuania are holding elections later this month.

In Estonia, occupied by the Soviet Union for more than 50 years, the specter of communism is likely to influence the nation's democratic transition for years to come. Estonians' anti-communist obsession was particularly evident in the selection of the republic's new president, Lennart Meri.

On Monday, the 101-member parliament seemingly ignored the wishes of the electorate by choosing Mr. Meri president in a 59-to-31 vote over Arnold Ruutel, a former Communist Party official who was head of state prior to the parliamentary elections Sept. 20. Contrast to popular vote

The presidential vote in parliament, in which nationalist parties supporting Meri enjoy a narrow majority, contrasted with the general election results. That poll, also held Sept. 20, gave Mr. Ruutel 41.8 percent of the vote to Meri's 29.5 percent. The parliamentary runoff was needed because none of the candidates running gained the necessary 50 percent to win in the first round.

Many parliament members said Ruutel, head of the moderate Safe Home Party, was an unacceptable candidate because of his ties with Communist officials of the Soviet era, especially industrial managers. "A lot of people are fond of Mr. Ruutel as a person, but they were suspicious about his connections with the old networks," says Marju Lauristin, leader of the Social Democratic Party.

To win the election, Meri had to overcome allegations that his father - a prominent pre-World War II Estonian diplomat - had been an informer for the Soviet KGB secret police. The accusation has been vehemently denied by Meri.

Parliament's selection has not sparked mass protests from either opposition members or Estonia's population. Leaders of Fatherland, Meri's principal backer, defended the electoral process, citing Estonia's new Constitution, which specifies that parliament choose the president.

Meri, a cultural historian, said after taking the presidential oath on Tuesday that his goal was to restore links to Europe severed by Soviet occupation.

Many parliament members say their primary task is economic reform. Estonia already has introduced its own currency, the kroon, which replaced the Russian ruble in June. But beyond that, they say, not much has been done to dismantle the old Soviet planned economy and create a market system.

"We're for rapid privatization, but legal privatization. The process must take place under proper conditions. This could take some time," says Mart Laar, a Fatherland parliamentarian who could become Meri's prime minister.

Parliament may want to concentrate on the economy, but the nagging Estonian citizenship issue could prove a big distraction. The September elections were hounded by controversy because most ethnic Russians were excluded from voting. Few Russian citizens

Russians comprise about 40 percent of the Estonia's 1.6 million population, but there is no Russian representative in the new parliament. Only a tiny fraction of the Russians living in the republic have Estonian citizenship, and thus few enjoy voting rights.

Moscow has condemned Estonia's stringent citizenship requirements as discriminatory. But Estonian leaders defend the requirements, saying up to 50,000 Russians are eligible for automatic citizenship but have never bothered to apply for it.

Mr. Laar and other parliamentary leaders are adamant on the citizenship policy, saying provisions will be made to grant separate, but equal status to ethnic Russians. "We are preparing a law on non-citizens that will constitutionally protect their rights," Laar says.

The key to Estonia's transformation, many say, will be parliament's ability to adopt legislation. The governing alliance - including Fatherland, the Social Democratic Party, and the National Independence Party - enjoys only a one-seat majority in the legislature. Nevertheless, Fatherland leaders are confident they can push through reform measures.

Laar says parliament will have to act quickly to prevent anticipated shortages this winter from destroying the fragile economy. Estonians shivered from fuel shortages last winter.

"This winter will be more difficult than last," Laar predicts. "And all the preparations for this winter haven't been completed."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.