Edgar Savisaar, Mayor of Tallinn, Estonia

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Edgar Savisaar, Mayor of Tallinn
A permanent feature of
Estonia’s political scene

By Andrew Stevens

15 November 2009: Twice mayor of the Estonian capital and recently boosted by a massive election win, Edgar Savisaar is a perennial feature of his country’s political scene, as a former prime minister and a minister during both the late Soviet era and the post-independence Republic. Leader of the country’s Centre Party, critics allege his autocratic manner and links to Russia do not befit the putative leader of a modern EU state, while others herald his support for and among the country’s worst off.

Born 1950 in the village of Harku (in its prison where his mother was serving a sentence) 13km from the capital, Edgar Savisaar obtained his degree in history from the country’s premier University of Tartu in 1973, later going on to obtain a doctorate. Understandably most of Savisaar’s career was spent in the nomenklatura of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, holding positions in state economic planning, including for the city of Tallinn. In 1989 he acceded to the post of Vice Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Estonian SSR, a mere nine years into his career, continuing as Minister of Economy and then Chairman of the Council of Ministers.

In August 1991 Savisaar became the post-independence Republic of Estonia’s first prime minister, though his administration was shortlived and fell a mere five months later owing to on-going economic woes. He enjoyed slightly longer in office as vice-speaker of the country’s legislature, the Riikikogu, from 1992 to 1995. He then served as the country’s interior minister but was toppled again after only six months in office over a scandal involving his alleged bugging of political opponents, after which he announced his withdrawal from political life.

Savisaar’s retirement proved to be as equally shortlived as his stints in ministerial office as he then returned to political life as chair of the Tallinn City Council a year later. He became mayor for the first time in 2001, remaining in office until 2004 when he was ousted following a vote of no confidence by the city council, replaced by his predecessor Tonis Palts (Res Publica).

In April 2005 Savisaar returned to the national government as economy minister following the ouster of the right of centre coalition of Juhan Parts (Res Publica) and the swearing in of a new coalition of centre forces under former mayor of Tartu Andrus Ansip (Reform Party). Following a successful local elections campaign for the Centre Party that year, it regained control of the city council in October 2005 with Sarvisaar as list head, though with 27 year old councillor Juri Ratas taking the post of mayor during Sarvisaar’s stint in government.

A further coalition change, this time a Reform-Res Publica-Social Democrat alliance under Ansip, saw Savisaar exit the government once again in 2007 (replaced as minister by former prime minister Parts). This may be due in part to his fierce opposition to the presidential candidacy of social democrat Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was eventually chosen by the Riikikogu. He eventually returned to become mayor of Tallinn once more from 2007.

Savisaar began his elected political career as leader of the Popular Front of Estonia, the pro-independence movement, which began as a promotional vehicle for the Perestroika reforms sweeping the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. This later morphed into the Centre Party following independence, which has mainly been led by Savisaar since its inception, save for the duration of his ‘retirement’. The Centre Party could be described as a populist centrist party, aimed at the country’s middle class but also popular with its significant Russian-speaking minority.

In addition to Savisaar’s alleged authoritarian tendencies and inconsistency over the question of Estonian membership of the European Union, the Centre Party’s alleged close ties with the United Russia party of Vladimir Putin has become a lightning rod of criticism for both party and leader. A self-styled ‘man of the people’, his career and antics have obtained him the reputation as an authoritarian leader in waiting among some. The growing disenchantment with the dominant coalitions of the centre and right could see his party return to national office under a centre-left alignment however. In the October 2009 city elections, the Centre Party received a significant boost to its fortunes, giving Savisaar the lion’s share of seats on the council.

The thrice married mayor is husband of Vilja Savisaar, a Centre Party member of the European Parliament and the country’s Olympic Committee, formerly involved in the post-independence Royalist Party (a pro-independence ‘satirical’ protest group which claimed to aspire to becoming a ‘Scandinavian’ monarchy and even jokingly invited Britain’s Prince Edward to accede to the mooted throne). Their daughter Maria is a EU diplomat

The Estonian capital Tallinn is subdivided into eight districts, each with their own council, managed by a mayor appointed by the city council on the advice of the district council. In recent years there has been increasing convergence in the economic and social life between Tallinn and the Finnish capital Helsinki, to the point of a mooted ‘Talsinki’ city government or development authority straddling both EU member states, a world first.

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