Editorial: The Carnival Resignation

(WIkimedia Commons)
3/9/2014 10:20 AM
Category: Opinion

By their very nature, resignations are supposed to be Lenten affairs, exercises in penance and humility. However, whether coincidentally or not, Andrus Ansip scheduled his for the Tuesday before. 

In announcing he was stepping down as prime minister, Ansip's tone was festive and triumphal as he extolled his administration's achievements. The country has indeed prospered in the last nine years, as much as could be expected considering the external setbacks. So, in the absence of, say, health reasons, why did he step down, when to do so takes the entire Cabinet with him? 

Certainly many on Estonia's budding new left had waited long for March 4, and nine years is arguably close to the maximum that any one individual should run the executive branch in a healthy democracy. But of course, Estonia has a constitutional order, Ansip and his party were duly elected and appointed, and there is no direct cause to run out of office in the middle of his term.

Coming as it did, on his own terms, with a situation growing on NATO's borders, and many large funding decisions currently requiring attention, the resignation seems less like a noble gesture than abdication, hitting the stop button in mid-air. It seemed he wanted all of the moral prestige of self-sacrifice without admitting a single flaw.

Cynics might conclude - and have concluded - that it was a shrewdly timed internal calculation on the part of the Reform Party to a) ditch the exhausted Ansip brand with a year to go until elections b) keep their ideological archrival, the Social Democrats, close, and resurgent right-wing ally IRL far enough not to threaten their, Reform's, base.

Indeed, cynicism has certainly been high regarding the Reform Party, with some feeling that the party does not operate on ideological terms at all. Perhaps, despite current assurances that the Center Party is off-limits, they would gladly team up with their old off-and-on partner, Edgar Savisaar, again if conditions favored it.

The value of Ansip's decision is lessened even more by the assumption, considered automatic, that Reform Party's Siim Kallas will take over as prime minister, without any contemplation of alternatives.

Although he is a veteran holder of high office, and respected in Europe, Kallas is for several reasons a problematic choice in domestic politics, and he could compound the Reform Party's image problems.

Few politicians would be further from the definition of freshness and transparency in which its critics find the Reform Party lacking. In the 1990s, Kallas led one of the more arcane and hermetic institutions in Estonia, the central bank. Later, he went off to Brussels, a world that seems equally impenetrable for many Estonians.

While his record in the EU capital is said to have been impeccable, there are skeletons in his closet from the banking days, and they were not hastily planted there by his enemies when they heard about his latest prime ministerial bid. Additional details have been surfacing for years. Fortunately, documentation in the banking world is meticulous. If the rumors are unfounded, Kallas should be able with little problem to point convincingly to documents in order to clear the air for good. 

Indeed, the Estonia of 2014 is not the Estonia of the 1990s. While that fact is sometimes used as an excuse for crossing lines in the "good old days," it is also precisely why Kallas must completely account for these old bones before a high position can be considered. The Estonia of today is too crystal-clear to allow clouds to hang low over Stenbock House. 

The amounts of money involved - tens of millions of dollars or euros, not kroons - are astronomical by Estonian standards. Nor were these merely questionable investments. In several cases, the amounts simply went missing, through companies and individuals that could later not be identified or located.

The fact that Kallas has hinted he will declare a war on poverty, an admirable and timely goal, makes it even more essential that he explain his ground rules and the amount of liberty he would take in investing the Estonian state's budget.

Russia was also a common denominator in several of the 1990s escapades at the central bank, which could raise uncomfortable questions for Estonian national security. A newspaper recently alleged that a senior diplomat in a coalition party is considered unfit for higher office due to his involvement in intelligence operations. An equal standard should be applied to all appointments for higher office. 

Thus, no matter what behind-the-scenes promises may already have been made, President Ilves must on Monday carefully consider what sort of caretaker prime minister is needed for the next year. Changes to the rest of the cabinet should be minimal, as polls currently show people favor stability.

Ansip and the Reform Party can't have it both ways. If a resignation can be interpreted even partly as a mea culpa for the things his administration was unable to do or for Reform's campaign financing improprieties, a non-partisan prime minister option should also be on the table as Estonia heads toward elections in 2015.


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