This is my official election eve post, and I'll try to sum up a lot of big thoughts in a few modest paragraphs. Such is the Estonian way.
When I think of Arnold Rüütel, the first word that comes to mind is not 'president', and it's not 'ex-communist', and it's not 'old' - it's 'midwife'. The presidency of Lennart Meri - though I was not paying attention at the time - seemed to prevent a clear break with the past. But coupled with NATO accession, EU accession, and citizenship and language reform, the years since 2001 have necessitated a figure like Rüütel, that is popular among the havenots and - to an extent - accepted by the haves. Rüütel has, in this way, played the part of a mediator in society, cooling the passions of warring factions with the finesse of the ex-communist bureaucrat.
The question before the valimiskogu is now whether Estonia needs five more years of that, or if it needs a bold, new, more European direction. In Toomas Hendrik Ilves they will no longer have a president that knows Russia in any personal capacity. Ilves does not speak Russian, and is unique among Estonians of his generation in this way. It seems trivial, but considering that an increasing number of young Estonians - the post-Soviet generation now entering the workforce - are in Ilves camp, Russia is as foreign to them as it is to him, he may ultimately wind up making - sooner or later - a better figurehead for independent Estonia than Rüütel could.
As the metaphor implies, Rüütel is the midwife, coaxing the new Estonia into existence. The questions is whether or not Ilves' direction is the baby everybody wants.
Opinion polls suggest that they do, and the fact that a political majority echoes those polls - uniting the far right of Isamaa with the Euroliberals of Reform and the Social Democrats - plus the fact that the Center Party and People's Party forbid their own electors to vote in parliament - reveals that this emerging direction is not the Soviet-style top-down, do-as-I-say model. Instead, it has genuine grassroots support, and a diversity of economic support - The Economist basically endorsed Ilves in its recent issue.
The central figure in this is the party unity of Keskerakond and the personal aspirations of Edgar Savisaar. Savisaar has shown himself as someone who is capable of speaking to Russia in a language they understand, of well-known political acumen (some call it trickery), and most of all of uniting Estonia's large and diverse Russian-speaking minority under an Estonian party led by one of the leaders of the reinstatement of independence, rather than separatist Russian people's parties.
While it can be said that Savisaar represents some Russian business interests, I think it would be wise to accept that he is not the enemy of the Estonian republic. In any fight, he is a man who you would want on your side. And his patriotic rhetoric shows that even though he coddles Russian interests, he acknowledges that none of his efforts will bear fruit unless he speaks to the national Estonian interest.
So Estonians who despise Savikas and Reiljan must know this - in any new Estonian order that emerges from the election, Savisaar will be present, no matter what.
Still, the problem with his model is that it is top-down, rather than bottom-up. What that means is that eventually his model will breakdown, because political movements in a democratic society - or any society - cannot be sustainable if they are top-down.
From that viewpoint, those who support Rüütel, and by association Savisaar, must accept that the coalition backing Ilves would find another point man if he wasn't there, because their coalition is one of ideas, not just based around a personality. The polls and parties show that Estonia is a Northern European state that looks West. That's where its capital comes from, that's where its TV shows come from, that's where its intellectual ideas come from (the modern tax system is based on ideas promoted by Americans, for example).
Like it or not, these two movements in Estonia must eventually embrace one another. While they duke it out in the political arena, the reality is that Estonians have consistently chosen their direction since they were given the choice in the mid-80s. They chose independence, they chose Mart Laar's government in 1992, they chose the EU and NATO in 2004, and it is likely that, whether tomorrow or in 2011, they will choose Ilves, or someone like him to lead them.
Estonia clearly has shown it has one future, like it or not.