There are few in the UK who have paid much attention to the Presidential election in Estonia.
Yet the Liberal revolution in Estonia has attracted attention vastly disproportionate to the small size of the country. The flat tax revolution sweeping Europe was born here, and the country has become a model for flexibility, openness and the use of technology.
The defeat of President Ruutel, albeit by a narrow margin in the electoral college, was a victory against the forces that are trying to roll back the Liberal revolution that has taken place in Estonia over the past fifteen years.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a Swedish born, American educated, exile now completes the set of Baltic Presidents who have spent most of their lives in North America: Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania lived much of his life in Chicago, while Mrs. Vaira Vike Freiberga was a Professor in Canada. In the brief period that their terms will overlap (President Vike Freiberga must stand down later this year), it will be interesting to see how the cerebral but sharp tongued Mr. Ilves compares with the steely and highly intelligent woman, widely acknowledged as an outstanding leader for Latvia.
The victory of Mr. Ilves reflects the wishes of the vast majority of Estonians and is of more than symbolic significance. It is a major setback for Edgar Savisaar, the leader of the Centre Party and eminence grise of the current government. Mr. Savisaar has had questionable relationships with significant Russian interests and his policies have sometimes seemed to reflect personal rather than national interests. Although, in general, Estonia does not have a significant corruption problems, where the rumours of such problems exist they have tended to be associated with allies and friends of the Centre Party leader. Even when prima facie evidence of corruption exists- for example the dubious land deals of Victor Kaasik, a lawyer close to Mr. Savisaar- authorities have been unwilling to take effective action. This has been corrosive of trust in the Estonian legal system.
Mr. Savisaar had cut a deal to deliver the Presidency to Mr. Ruutel, with the likely quid pro quo that, after the Parliamentary elections in March, that as President he would do whatever he could to ensure that Mr. Savisaar could become Prime Minister. Mr. Ilves, by contrast is one of Mr. Savisaar's sworn enemies and the Centre Party leader's vocal and highly personal attacks on the new Head of State will surely come back to haunt him.
Mr. Ilves' ideological identity is not as clear-cut as his Social Democrat label would have you believe. In a country where any mention of Socialism is anathema, he has stood as a "Moderate", before adopting the Social Democrat moniker just before he was elected as an MEP, in order to join a significant grouping in the European Parliament. However, as a campaigning foreign minister he has demonstrated his commitment to the Liberal Estonian model.
Where Ruutel would have supported Savisaar and the drift away from Liberalism. Ilves will need to be as lynx-eyed as his name (Ilves is Lynx in Estonian) in order to ensure that the intellectual impetus of the Estonian model is not yet lost. The President of the Republic is the guardian at the gate- we should be pleased- indeed delighted- that a man with a proven commitment to freedom will be the guardian of the Estonian constitution for the next few years, for it ensures at least a chance for the Estonians to avoid descending into a political system of cronies and corruption.