- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

EDITOR’S NOTE Former Estonian President Lennart Meri, a revered and unusual European statesman, died this month and was to be buried today. Michael Tarm remembers the man he got know as an AP correspondent in the Baltic country.

Inside Estonia’s presidential palace in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lanky, white-haired man could occasionally be seen bent over a broken coffee maker or light fixture, screwdriver in hand, repairing it.

The man was President Lennart Meri.

Statesman, survivor and sage, Mr. Meri died at age 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.

His skills as a handyman had a political overtone. The intellectual writer-turned-president was waging war on all vestiges of Soviet-era sloppiness and neglect, and his weapon of choice was the screwdriver he kept in his pocket ready to pounce on the next broken appliance.

“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.

Spoke against Moscow

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

He displayed encyclopedic knowledge and playful spontaneity and shunned the blow-dried image of a modern Euro-politician. He liked to give, with little warning, discourses on everything from astronomy to Shakespeare.

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

Mr. Meri applied 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.

It worked. Annual national economic growth roared from minus 14 percent in 1992 to plus 11 percent by 1997.

He also lobbied hard for Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia to join NATO, ensuring the security of the three small, historically vulnerable Baltic States.

“Security is like virginity,” Mr. Meri explained with characteristic wit about why full membership was essential. “You’re either a virgin or you’re not. You either have security or you don’t.”

He also scolded 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.

Deported to Siberia

Mr. Meri’s preoccupation with the consequences of Soviet rule lasted virtually until his death on March 14.

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 for the 2,000 mile journey to Siberia.

The Meris managed to survive, thanks in part to Lennart’s adeptness at stealing potatoes from the Red Army. They returned to Estonia in 1946 to find their Baltic coast behind barbed wire and searchlights to prevent anyone from fleeing West.

But as he entered his 20s, Mr. Meri refused to accept that Soviet rule would last.

Mr. Meri, who spoke six languages fluently, including English, fashioned a homemade shortwave radio and would scribble down whole broadcasts for hours on end — speeches by Winston Churchill, a lecture on the theory of the expanding universe.

He also wrote several books, including “Silver White,” theorizing about how a meteorite that slammed into Estonia more than 4,000 years ago also affected regional history.

At dinnertime in the 1960s and ‘70s, discussions between Mr. 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.

Estonians in charge

“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 overnight.

Mr. 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 flying.

“I am not going to walk onto Estonian territory under a Soviet flag,” he declared, and ordered a port official to have it taken down.

By the time he left office, he had helped to transform Estonia into a tech-savvy nation of 1.4 million people, reoriented away from Russia toward its Nordic neighbors. His once beaten-down homeland is now nicknamed E-stonia for its sizzling economy fueled by a cutting-edge Internet infrastructure. It belongs to NATO as well as the European Union.

While Mr. Meri urged his countrymen to overcome the legacies of the past, he also cautioned against dwelling on them.

“It’s our duty to live for the future. And this can only be achieved without hating the past and without seeking revenge,” he once said. “We don’t have the luxury of living in the past like some old French aristocrats.”

Mr. Meri, who is survived by his wife Helle, sons Mart and Kristjan and daughter Tuule, is to be buried today at Forest Cemetery in Tallinn.

Michael Tarm wrote from the Baltic States for 13 years until 2004 and was the AP correspondent there. He is currently an AP reporter based in Chicago.

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