The ambassador was a bit down and out, it seemed to me. The young republic was almost broke; they couldn´t afford to pay the electricity bill. That´s why we sat there in the almost empty amassador´s residence by candlelight late into the night. The presidential elections were a few months ahead. Meri felt he didn´t have a chance. It was during this night that I became Lennart´s spin doctor which is confirmed in the following correspondence.
Dr. Rein Taagepera is a wellknown scholar (political science) and an Estonian in exile (Californa, USA). He became a candidate for president of Estonia in the elections 1992. Our correspondence, which follows, is about those presidential elections and my accidental role as a sort of political spin doctor for my friend, Meri. I have told the story in greater detail in an interview with Askur Alas in the Estonian magazine, Keskus.
Dear Dr. Taagepera.
You may be surprised to receive this letter from out of the blue – or rather from your office (room 312) at The Institute of Governmental Politics of the University of Tartu. Well, here comes the explanation:
My name is Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, formerly Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland during the tumultuous times, when the Second World War finally came to an end in this part of the world. I am now staying for a few weeks in Tartu as a scholar in residence and guest lecturer at your institute. The course deals with small nations in the international system and is based on a case study approach. Last spring I gave a similar course at Vilnius University. The word spread North, I suppose, that´s the reason why I am here. I have a weekly consultation hours with my students. That´s the reason why I was given access to your office which I hope you don´t mind. I was, of course, aware of your deep involvement in Estonia´s liberation struggle, although I don´t remember having met you in person. And since I am merely an economist – meaning not a political scientist – I was not really familiar with your scholarly work, until now, when I am surrounded by your books and documents.
In the common room, over coffee, the other day, when I asked about your run for the presidency in ’92(?), one of our colleagues said that if the campaign had lasted a bit longer, you would probably have won. This reminded me of an almost forgotten story.
In 1992 there was a CSCE-conference in Helsinki. There I met an old colleague, Lennart Meri, who by then had been sent to Helsinki as Estonia´s ambassador. Lennart and Helle were living in a villa almost devoid of furniture, but with his stacks of books all around. Because the embassy of the newly restored republic across the Gulf of Finland couldn´t afford to pay the bill, the electricity had been cut off. I remember having to knock on the door of the Danish charge d´affairs nearby to borrow candles. Over the candlelight my wife, Bryndis, arranged a fondue with something, and we continued talking about Estonian politics long into the night. The presidential elections were up and coming. Rütel was the favorite to win, since he had strong support in the countryside as a functionary of the old system. Lennart wanted to run but was pessimistic about his chances and complained that he didn´t really know how to go about organizing a campaign and mobilize voters in his support.
I am a third generation of a politician from a small country. So Lennart thought I would know about these things and solicited my advice. When he had explained his take on the political landscape, namely Rütel´s solid support in the countryside and his (Lennart´s) slim chances of coming out on top in the first round, I questioned him thoroughly about the possibility of splitting Rütel´s support. Would there be a potential candidate in sight who could accomplish this? I remember that Lennart mentioned your name (and perhaps one or two others, whose names I have then forgotten).
When we left late in he night, my impression was that Lennart was still uncertain; but if he would run, he would place his bets on a behind the scenes alliance with a third candidate for the purpose of splitting Rütel´s “silent majority”.
Now we know what happened. You became the third candidate. Lennart came out number two in the first round but managed to win in the electoral caucus in the second round. The rest is history. But our colleagues´ comment that if the campaign had lasted a bit longer, you would probably have won,reminded me of this story and raised a question, which only you can answer: Was your candidature based on a tactical alliance between you and Lennart? Or were you in it on your own from the start?
I sometimes say, after this nightly session by candle lights in Helsinki, that I was probably responsible for designing Lennart´s winning strategy, apart from giving him professional and practical advice, from a vily old politician, on how to make his case appealing to a suspicious electorate. Is there any truth in this – or is this just an amusing anectote?
Another question, if I may: Who was George Tumulus, author of a book in you library: “I am an Estonian”, published in 1959?
I am curious to know, because his understanding of the fatal flaws in the Soviet system are cannily prescient and his advocacy of a federation of small states (in Europe) and ultimately of world government, is remarkable at that time, coming from an ardent nationalist.
I am told that you usually arrive in Tartu like to migratory birds, in spring. Unfortunately, I leave before the end of March which makes it unlikely that we have the chance to meet. But perhaps some other time?
With kind regards,
P.s. Please find attached the text of my speech at St. John´s University in Vilnius on June 6th last year, which summarizes my take on the Western response to the restoration of independence of the Baltic Nations.