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Europe

Estonian Government Resigns

Estonia's longest and most successful government is on the verge of collapse after the reform-minded Prime Minister Mart Laar announced he would step down.

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Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar submitted his resignation on Tuesday

Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar handed in his resignation on Tuesday, forcing the entire government to step down just as the country begins its final push to enter the European Union and NATO.

Laar’s announcement was no real surprise, however. His Pro Patria party had been working hard to salvage the alliance with coalition partners, the Reform Party and the Moderates, after bitter infighting erupted over the Reform Party’s secret alliances with the opposition Center Party in local Tallinn government politics.

Last month Laar, who had successfully led the longest serving post-Soviet government in Estonia, said he would step down from his position so that the dispute within the coalition would not hurt progress on the EU and NATO membership goals.

Joining the two blocs has been Estonia’s foreign policy focus for 10 years since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union. Estonia is hoping for an invitation to join NATO at the military alliance’s summit this year in Prague and is on track to enter the EU in 2004.

Laar said he expected the next government – whoever leads it – to continue pursuing membership in both organizations. And analysts suggest that it would be difficult for a new government to derail the current progress.

"All major decisions [regarding EU and NATO membership] are made and are being implemented. The president has signed the budget as well and this is designed to meet the key policy priorities [for joining the EU]" government press spokesman Kaarel Tarand said.

New government

Under Estonian law, President Arnold Ruutel has 14 days to designate a new prime minister who will then form the next government, the tenth since gaining independence in 1991.

Although Ruutel has not made any announcements yet, many consider an alliance between the Reform Party and the Center Party as most likely. Siim Kallas, the current Finance Minister and Reform Party leader, has also been mentioned as a probable candidate for the new prime minister’s position.

An official for the Reform Party said it still hoped to come to a last-minute agreement with the current government parties before turning to new alliances.

Meelis Atonen, Reform Party deputy leader, said the worst outcome would be a decision to take an early vote. The next national election is scheduled for March 2003. And organizing a general election requires by law at least three months.

"If we have extraordinary elections then several more months will be lost and this will clearly harm the EU and NATO goals," Atonen said.

Center Party deputy leader Peeter Kreitzberg, however, said that new elections offered the best hope for a new, strong government.

When asked what he thought about the prospects for a new government, Laar said he was confident that the country’s goals would be achieved even if his political rival Edgar Savisaar, head of the opposition Center Party, became prime minister – but he doubted this would happen.

"First of all I think Siim Kallas will be the prime minister and will work for the goals we have had in the coalition, and at the same time I don’t think Savisaar [from the Center Party] will have the chance of being prime minister," Laar said at a press conference after announcing his resignation.