Laar is respected around the world for his commitment to liberal economic policies. Yet in his own country, Laar's party Isamaalit isn't even part of the ruling coalition. Instead power is shared by the Reform Party, Keskerakond, and Eesti Rahvaliit. Of the three, KESK has been climbing to power over the past few years as the public soured on the Res Publica-led coalition and bought KESK leader Edgar Savisaar's brand of populism.
The only problem with Savisaar is that he is seen as corrupt, unfriendly to international business (see this editorial about the Estonian Railways dispute), and too friendly with Russia (he regulary meets with United Russia - the Kremlin majority party - to, I don't know, scheme, drink vodka, drink some more vodka, take a sauna. You know - politician stuff.
But Savisaar is attractive to Estonians who don't have much because he - unlike Reform and Isamaalit and whomever else - acknowledges their concerns in a language they can understand.
Take Savisaar's latest comments, courtesy of Baltic Times:
“Tallinn looks good indeed, but there are areas in Estonia that are badly lagging in terms of development and where poverty rules,” Savisaar was quoted as saying during a meeting with Irish Ambassador Noel Kilkenny on April 28."
At home, Savisaar was attacked by Reform and Res Publica alike. But their railings against his "unpatriotic" words - which play well with their nationalist base - do not mitigate the effect he has on every aging pensioner and unemployed Ida-Virumaa resident that can vote in the next election. And the thing is that Savisaar is party right. North-Tallinn is still unflatteringly impoverished.
European liberals might point out that you have to grow the economic pie for the poor of Estonia to get a larger slice. But you don't win elections by telling Estonia's less fortunate to suck it up for the benefit of free enterprise.
Estonia's parties outside of KESK really need to pay attention to Savisaar's techniques. Building strong support in three overlapping communities - among Estonia's rural citiens, former manufacturing base (often unemployed), and, yes, large minorities, can greatly help those parties with solid ideas - like SDE or Reform or Eesti Eest, for example - perform better in the critical parliamentary elections next year.
If you can campaign among pensioners in rural Estonia who barely have running water, or go to Narva or Kohtla-Järve and speak to Russian-speakers in their own tongue about ideas, then you'll probably see KESK's impressive lead shrink by the time March 2007 rolls around.
Because Mart Laar can collect all the Milton Friedman prizes for the next five years, and it still won't change the fact that there are people in Estonia that are at least going to need some genuine-sounding lip service to vote for anyone other than Keskerakond in the next election.