Raul Rebane: Savisaarianism has fallen behind the times

Raul Rebane.
Raul Rebane. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

The Center Party does not have a crisis of leadership but rather one of ideology. Savisaarianism has become outdated, Raul Rebane finds as he takes a look back at the history of the Center Party.

The Center Party is set to elect a new leader this week. Whether it will actually get a new leader is far from certain, however, as the party seems to still be governed by Edgar Savisaar or rather his ideology. Center's train is running on tracks laid by Savisaar, carrying its greatest treasure – the Russian-speaking vote.

It is unclear whether Center's chairman candidates (Mihhail Kõlvart and Tanel Kiik – ed.) can propose a new ideology for the party. If not, they will simply become assistant conductors for Savisaar's opera. Only they will have to conduct in new circumstances and a very different mood among the audience.

Until the Ukraine war, the Russian vote was worth its weight in gold and constituted a successful strategy for Center. It gave the party decades of absolute rule in Tallinn – which continues to this day – a lot of political weight on the parliamentary level and Jüri Ratas several years as prime minister. And it seemed normal and right to many. But it no longer is. Savisaar and Center's former eastward oriented strategy has become unacceptable for a lot of Estonians in the new international situation. The results include Center losing ten seats in the Riigikogu in 2023 and every one of the party's current problems.

This means that the party does not have a leadership crisis. Center has an ideology crisis. Savisaarianism cannot keep up with the times and people.

Of Savisaar's ideology

In the memories of many older people, Savisaar still lives as a young, energetic curly-haired "bringer of freedom" who met Russian tanks barehanded at the TV Tower. For Russian-speaking voters, Savisaar was and remains the defender of their rights and the hope that perhaps change in Estonia can be postponed.

Admirers of Savisaar's merits claim that his compromises kept a strong Russian party from being created that would have destabilized the country. All are little more than subjective guesses.

Where the truth lies and who Savisaar really was remains a mystery as the analysis of his person and role in Estonian politics hasn't even properly started.

It has been interesting to see his image change over time. Among the more thorough analyses of his actions recently is Rein Ruutsoo's "Vene maailma kollaps ja Keskerakonna tulevik" (The Collapse of the Russkiy Mir and the Future of the Center Party) published in Sirp magazine. It is very critical of Savisaar.

As recently as in 2015, Ruutsoo occupied a diametrically opposite position when he took the media to task in a Pealinn article titled "Kui palju võib Savisaare demoniseerimiseks riiki lõhestada?" (How Long can You Keep Undermining the State to Demonize Savisaar). And Ruutsoo is not the only person to have changed his stance on Savisaar.

Looking at the Center Party's election lists for the 2009 and 2013 local elections, one can see a sharp decline in the number of people of culture. In 2009, the party had over 40 stars of the culture scene running in its ranks, enough to form choirs and sports teams. This had been cut in half by 2013, while only a few such candidates remained after that. While such candidates only took about 5 percent of the votes cast for Savisaar alone between them, their role was to lend legitimacy to Savisaar's actions, and they did.

It remains unclear when and why Savisaar made the fateful decision of warming himself in the eastern sun. Some have proposed it happened as far back as April of 1990, following one of his Moscow trips. Others say he plotted a final eastbound course in the early 2000s when Savisaar realized he would never become prime minister relying on the Estonian vote.

We'll leave that up to historians, while it is clear Savisaar liked the Russian empire more than he did the EU. Allow me to provide only a short list of Savisaar's actions and eastern orientation.

  1. Savisaar's party signed a contract with Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.
  2. Savisaar and his party were against Estonia's EU accession.
  3. Savisaar never condemned Russia's aggression in Georgia.
  4. Savisaar's party froze the process of switching to teaching in Estonia for long years, finding new reasons for evading the transition time and again.
  5. Savisaar created in Tallinn, using the money of Tallinn taxpayers, a media system that up until the start of the Ukraine war bought air time from Russian propaganda networks. The programs were used to advertise his party.
  6. It was Savisaar's initiative and support from Moscow that saw the so-called Putin church erected in Lasnamäe.
  7. Savisaar asked KGB general Vladimir Yakunin for a "third in cash" (which suggests two-thirds not in cash) for his party and efforts to change the political system in his favor.
  8. According to Savisaar, the 2014 revolution in Ukraine was carried out by "Maidan thugs."
  9. Savisaar was against Russia sanctions following the annexation of Crimea and said he "understood" the Crimean referendum.

Finland is currently having a public debate on the after-effects of post-Finlandization. A book on the subject by Pekka Virki called "Jälkisuomettumisen ruuminavaus" (Autopsy of Post-Finlandization) is currently being translated into Estonian. The book demonstrates how some top-level Finnish politicians were active in representing Russian interests.

Borrowing the term, we could say that Savisaar was the creator and main promoter of the policy of post-Russification in Estonian top politics. His sun rose in Russia not just physically and mentally but, considering Savisaar's aims, also financially.

Savisaar and us

Savisaar's political longevity was nothing short of baffling. He remained close to power despite being haunted by major scandals during his career, all of which have names. The best-known are the tape scandal, eastern money scandal or bribery scandal.

This begs the question of what is wrong with us. A lot of Savisaar's actions should have cost the person their political career under normal circumstances but didn't for us. The answer to that questions says more about Estonia today than an election does. Why is it that a considerable part of us is willing to settle for tendencies and actions that should be unthinkable in an independent democratic country?

The term "Teflon man" is used to describe a politician who has such a loyal fan base to make them impervious to scandals. They are few, and can usually only stick around in authoritarian countries. Putin can do what he likes because his supporters will automatically assume defensive positions.

The same kind of uncritical admiration could be observed in Savisaar's case for a long time. The difference is that while Putin controls the media, Savisaar managed to stay close to the top in the conditions of a democratic field of information, which makes his career all the more extraordinary.

His "need for hierarchical dominance," to borrow the term of Russian psychology professor Anatoli Zimitsev, was almost absolute. Hunger for power is the layman's term here, and it is this inner need that largely determined his behavioral patterns. This does not mean the Estonian society had to put up with it – it just did.

In truth, we created Savisaar through our uncritical and tolerant behavior.

What next?

Among the first things our MPs see when leaving their "office" on Toompea Hill are the onion domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The church, built in 1900, served to legitimize Russia's symbolic authority. Then Estonian Governor, Duke Sergei Shakhovskoi, put it succinctly: "So that the Russian church's cross, as a symbol of the victory of the Orthodox faith, would shine high above Tallinn from the land and sea." Estonia was part of the Russian Empire when the cathedral was built on Toompea Hill.

We do not know Savisaar's motives for using Russian money to build a church in Lasnamäe in independent Estonia. But the effect is exactly the same as it was for Shakhovskoi. It stands out from its seat on a high limestone rock, sending a strong symbolic message of where we belong, or at the very least where Lasnamäe belongs.

The church is also the first thing students and lecturers of the Estonian Public Service Academy see when exiting and entering their building. If Savisaar failed to understand the symbolic message he was sending to several generations, he was foolish. If he did understand, it's even worse.

The Ukraine war should mark the end of the era and cult of Edgar Savisaar. He demonstrated that while he may have managed tactical victories, he was weak strategically. The latter carries a heavy price in terms of one's place in history.

Whether the topic of Savisaar will surface at Center's looming chairman election is unclear. But it cannot be kept quiet for much longer.

Perhaps Jüri Ratas still had the chance to let go of Savisaar and position the party behind Ukraine last fall, but he didn't for fear of losing votes. Instead, Center tried to turn subsistence into the number one concern in Estonia and avoided Ukraine topics. This was a strategic mistake and constituted failure to gauge the mood of the majority of the population. The same method (concentrating instead on pensions, taxes and potatoes) was used repeatedly by Savisaar. But there is a war going on today...

The Center Party's congress, the speeches given there and whether they mention or glance over Savisaar will be under heightened scrutiny.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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