Tõnis Saarts: Center cannot continue as a broad-based Russian party
The heads of the Center Party must keep in mind that they share in the responsibility for the future of Estonian democracy. If the party's recent Western orientation stops short of the goal, political isolation cannot be avoided, Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.
Results of recent parliamentary elections are a clear sign that the Center Party cannot continue as a mainstream party for all Estonian Russians. The choice is clear-cut: to become the party of the younger and rather pro-Western Russian middle-class or cater first and foremost to pro-Kremlin pensioners. It is no longer possible to sit on both chairs, at least in this corner of Europe and in the current geopolitical reality.
The Estonian public has somewhat overlooked a serious split in the local Russian community created by the war in Ukraine. Studies suggest around a third of Estonia's Russians are pro-West, a third impartial or confused and a third back the Kremlin.
The split largely runs along generational lines. Russian-speaking youths who rather sport Western attitudes tend to avoid political conversations with their pro-Putin parents of grandparents. This is the situation in which Center will have to eventually pick a side as it just cannot remain neutral in the context of such existential and diametrically different choices.
Let us weigh the pros and cons. Catering rather to pro-Kremlin voters would constitute stepping into the footsteps of the former "Savisaar's party" and nip the danger of an ethnic Russian party (Mihhail Stalnuhhin and Aivo Peterson) in the bud as Center would fill that niche itself. Pensioners tend to be active voters, meaning that the choice would immediately pay dividends, especially at upcoming local elections.
But the price of plotting a pro-Kremlin course could prove to be too high. First, it would cost Center it's presentability in Estonian politics and keep them out of governing coalitions for a decade or longer. Secondly, would the pro-Kremlin support really offset completely losing the Estonian voter?
Opting for a pro-Western and younger Russian middle-class path would help Center retain its coalition worthiness and allow it to keep its Estonian votes. It is also the only feasible long-term option as demographic processes will inevitably put today's rather pro-Western younger Russian voter in charge, in place of seniors trying to hold on to Soviet nostalgia.
The cost of the Western option would be a considerable part of Center's current Russian votes and the inability to stop a more radical Russian party from emerging in Estonia. However, looking at Mihhail Stalnuhhin, Aivo Peterson and the KOOS movement, the question of whether they are proficient political activists capable of mustering support and building up a successful political party in the near future remains. I rather doubt it, which is to speculate that Center will at least have enough time to make its decision.
Another con of the Western line would be having to go up against competitors also looking to woo the moderate Russian vote. I am first and foremost talking about Eesti 200 and the Social Democratic Party here.
Therefore, there is no win-win for Center in the current situation. Either choice comes with losing a considerable amount of votes on either wing.
In truth, Center have already made their choice. The decision to go with the pro-Western and younger Russian voter was made in the morning of the historical date of February 24, 2022. A decision which was at the time backed by most of the Russian wing's representatives.
However, this does not mean the party's path is set in stone for all time. Because Center is set to elect a new chairman this spring, changes in course remain possible. Whoever is elected chairman can feel tempted to continue betting on the Russian mainstream party model, sticking to loyal talking points so to speak when appearing on Estonian media, while using other channels to promise voters sporting different views that the party is still with them.
That said, the future heads of the Center Party will have to keep in mind that they share in the responsibility for Estonian democracy. If the party's pro-Western orientation stops short of the goal or fails to appear sincere enough, political isolation cannot be avoided.
The worst outcome for Estonian democracy would be Center rendered untouchable in addition to the Conservative People's Party (EKRE). A democracy where roughly 40 percent of the vote is automatically excluded from potential coalitions cannot be healthy or sustainable. A responsibility that no Center chairman candidate can afford to ignore.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski