Sunday, March 26, 2006

Statesman and Survivor

Today is the day of the burial in Tallinn of former Estonian President Lennart Meri. Michael Tarm writes:
To combat the legacy of the Soviet Union's hammer and sickle, Estonian leader Lennart Meri had a favorite weapon: the screwdriver.

Inside his presidential palace and on the streets of the capital Tallinn, the lanky man with thinning white hair waged battle on the vestiges of Soviet-era shoddiness --a screwdriver in his pocket, ready to pounce on the next flawed appliance.

Statesman, survivor and sage, Meri is being buried Sunday, dead at 76 after a life that encompassed the disasters and triumphs visited upon his tiny Baltic country, from being shipped to Siberia in a cattle train when he was a boy, to leading Estonia out of the shadows of Soviet oppression as president from 1992 to 2001.

A writer and filmmaker who survived Stalin's gulag, Meri could be seen tinkering, screwdriver in hand, with a broken coffee machine or light switch in his palace, then delight a visitor with lectures on everything from astronomy to Shakespeare.

"It was the Soviet way, that if you saw one light switch that didn't work properly, you'd say, 'Let's plan to fix all the light switches in a month's time and let's form a committee to organize it,'" he explained in one of several interviews with this reporter during his presidency.

"But no! It only takes five minutes and you should fix it yourself right now."

It was a frequent thread in his cerebral musings: the passionate belief that the legacies of the Soviet past had to be eradicated.

Over the course of his tenure in power, that goal was largely accomplished.

Meri helped transform his beaten-down Baltic homeland into a proud European Union member now nicknamed E-stonia -- for a sizzling economy that's fueled by a cutting-edge Internet infrastructure. Nearly all Estonians, for instance, conduct their banking transactions exclusively online.

Like Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who went on to become president of the Czech Republic, Meri was enlisted to run for president because of his cultural pedigree and the moral stature he had won speaking out against the Soviet regime.

But he proved to be more than just a man of letters.

Applying his fix-it-now philosophy to market reforms, he groomed youthful policy makers who speedily privatized state property, slashed subsidies and unilaterally abolished trade tariffs.

While some Eastern European leaders were groping for ways to rescue their economies, Estonia's gained a reputation as a Baltic Tiger -- with annual growth roaring from minus 14 percent in 1992 to plus 11 percent by 1997.

Similarly, Meri was quick to decide that NATO membership was the way his small, historically vulnerable nation could ensure its security.

"Security is like virginity," Meri explained with his characteristic offbeat wit about why nothing short of full membership would do. "You're either a virgin or you're not. You either have security or you don't."

With similar flare, he also criticized Western governments for offering aid to Russia before Estonia's giant neighbor had shown a commitment to democratic reforms.

"They thought that by feeding a tiger more and more meat, it would eventually turn into a vegetarian," he said.

Meri's preoccupation with the consequences of Soviet rule lasted until his death.

It began more than 60 years earlier, when 12-year-old Lennart awoke to the sound of soldiers' boots outside his bedroom.

After the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states in 1940, it deported more than 200,000 men, women and children viewed as potential enemies of the new regime. The Meris were swept up in a first wave of deportations -- on June 14, 1941.

The troops who came to arrest Lennart, his brother and parents, gave them 20 minutes to pack, then marched them to a waiting cattle train and packed them in. Holes in the floor served as latrines during the 2,000 mile (3,200 kilometer) journey to Siberia.

While many exiles perished in the near-famine Siberian conditions, the Meris managed to survive -- thanks in part to Lennart's adeptness at stealing potatoes from a Red Army food-processing plant. They returned to Estonia in 1946.

The sense of imprisonment Estonians felt in their own country by the time the Meris returned was accentuated by the barbed-wire fencing and searchlights, a virtual Berlin Wall, that lined its coast to prevent anyone from fleeing West.

Meri, who spoke six languages fluently, including English, devoted much of his energy as a young adult literally trying to stay tuned with the West. He fashioned a shortwave radio out of a hodgepodge electrical components, scribbling down whole broadcasts for hours on end, including a lecture on the theory of the expanding universe and speeches by Winston Churchill.

He also wrote several books, including one in 1976 called Silver White. In it, Meri theorizes about how a meteorite that slammed into Estonia more than 4,000 years ago may have affected regional history.

At dinnertime in '60s and '70s, discussions between Meri and his father Georg -- an Estonian diplomat based in Paris and London before World War II -- often revolved around their conviction that Estonia would one day be free again.

"In this sense, you could say that, in our family, there was never an Iron Curtain," he said. "The state of mind in my own family was that the existence of a totalitarian state was something very temporary."

In 1991, events proved the Meris right.

In August of that year, a poorly executed coup in the Kremlin failed after just three days -- ushering in the restoration of Baltic independence virtually over night.

Meri, then the foreign minister for Soviet Estonia's independence-minded government, happened to be in Finland during the coup. But when he returned days later, he epitomized the new confidence that Estonians were in charge now, not the Kremlin.

Arriving by boat at Tallinn Harbor, he looked up at a port tower to see a red Soviet flag still blowing in the breeze.

"I am not going to walk onto Estonian territory under a Soviet flag," he declared, directing a port official to have it taken down. "That's an order," Meri barked for good measure, and the flag was promptly removed.

By the time he left office, tech-savvy, Nordic-feeling Estonia had dramatically transformed. A few years later, it had also achieved what once seemed an impossible dream, though perhaps not to Meri: it entered NATO in 2004.
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And Carl Bildt has a tribute to Lennart Meri here.

(via Leopoldo)
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