Despite differences of opinion with and conflict, there is no desire for former Center Party chair Jüri Ratas to leave the party, current leader and Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart says.
Less than two weeks ago, no fewer than six Center Party MPs announced they were leaving the party, including several big hitters. Four of the six joined the Social Democrats (SDE), leaving the question open as to what will happen with Ratas, party leader 2016-2023.
As things stand, Ratas, a deputy Riigikogu speaker, is still a Center Party MP, along with six other members.
At the same time, Ratas has declared the party's sole MEP, Jana Toom, unfit to run in June's European elections, and had criticized Kõlvart's handlig of that matter.
Toom had provided legal aid funding to pro-Russian activists, including at least one who has been expelled from Estonia.
Appearing on ETV current affairs show "Esimene stuudio" Tuesday, Kõlvart conceded a conflict existed between him and Ratas, adding that: "Despite the differences of opinion Jüri and I have, we can say honestly that although there is a conflict, even now I would say that Jüri should not leave [Center]."
"If the Center Party continues to be of a significant value for him – and he has said so many times – then right now is that point where could contribute to the max, in coming to the party's aid," said Kõlvart.
"So far as I can understand from his statements, the Center Party remains in his heart and mind. We have had quite a long period of time where there had been accusations, and charges coming from him are still being heard today. I don't think this will benefit anyone, especially the Center Party," the mayor added.
Kõlvart said he last talked to Ratas on the matter last Friday. "Come what may, it has to be conceded that looking at the general situation – well, it is difficult to achieve anything with just the one message."
"We all have our personal ambitions. I understand that the results of the [Center Party] congress [which elected Kõlvart] were not what Jüri and some other party members had expected. Plus we all express ourselves differently," Kõlvart added.
The Center Party leader said it is also difficult to reach agreement if a party member who has already left, or is considering leaving, is in negotiations with another party at the same time.
"Really, it is difficult to agree with anyone, be it Jüri or any former party-mate, when negotiations are ongoing with some other party. It is hard to find an agreement, it is certainly difficult. But even in the current state of affairs, as long as the last word has not been mentioned, all possible outcomes continue to be present," he added.
In the aftermath of the election of Kõvart as party leader last September, nine prominent figures have left the Center Party.
All had said they no longer saw a future in that party.
Center's Riigikogu presence has shrunk from the second-largest to the smallest, in the space of less than a year, while the party has also lost some seats in the Tallinn City Council, traditionally a party stronghold.
Kõlvart conceded that the situation is difficult.
"These are difficult times. That much is clear, of course. /.../ At the same time, this idea that there has been a civil war going on in the Center Party and after the congress is not accurate. I haven't seen evidence of that. It seems to me that everything has been done to reach a common understanding, a possibility for agreement. This has been suggested, and stated. Naturally, those who have left hold a different understanding," Kõlvart continued.
Nonetheless, the crisis is nothing new for the Center Party, while Kõlvart says he does not see the forecast marginalization of the party materializing.
"This prediction has been made about the Center Party again and again. There have also been crises when the party didn't have a chairman and you don't know how it will end. Yes, this crisis is difficult for us. But I have met members in various areas who are still motivated, and they in turn motivate me. This may sound like a tale of pathos, but I believe it," he went on.
As for the party's rating, Kõlvart said that it will definitely start to drop, adding that this had already been happening before the Riigikogu elections last March.
A week ago [Center's rating] was 15 [percent]. Before the Riigikogu elections, it was 13. Unfortunately, the crisis in the party did not start four months ago, and not even with the Riigikogu elections. Hard times have been going on for several years," he noted.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marko Tooming