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Interview of the President of the Republic to New York Times April 7, 2001

Estonia's President: Un-Soviet and Unconventional

In a world run by scions of political families, former Communist apparatchiks and other lifelong politicians, it is refreshing to meet a president whose official résumé says: ''At the age of 12, Lennart Meri started his career as a lumberman. He has also worked as a professional potato peeler and a rafter.''

And not just any log-splitter-and- spud-parer-turned-president, but one who, along the way, won a silver medal at a New York Film Festival and translated the works of Graham Greene and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn into Estonian.

Mr. Meri, who is turning 72, will retire in August [must be: October - translator], having served as tiny Estonia's only president since it won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He leaves behind a country in such good shape that it is sometimes ranked ahead of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and with equally tiny Slovenia, as an early candidate for entry into the European Union.

Thanks largely to ties to Scandinavia - and especially to Finland, whose language is related to Estonian - Estonia has had more foreign investment per capita than any other former Eastern Bloc country. Its average wage is now $300 a month, triple that of impoverished Romania, and slightly ahead of that of Lithuania and Latvia, the other two Baltic states that had their independence jerked away after Stalin's nonagression pact with Hitler in 1939 and not restored until the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago.

Estonia is about the size of the Netherlands but with a tenth of the population, and its per-capita use of mobile phones, Internet banking and other technology is higher than France's or Italy's.

During his decade in power, Mr. Meri has pushed relentlessly for open markets and clean government. He was not necessarily supposed to be as influential as he has been, because the 1992 Constitution defines presidential powers vaguely. But the same kind of do-it-yourself attitude that had him wandering the presidential palace with a Swiss Army Knife fixing broken light switches let him step into many political gaps.

''I've had people in Parliament say to me, ''We're trying to keep him in his box, but he just keeps jumping out,'' '' a foreign diplomat said.

It was Mr. Meri who negotiated the departure in 1994 of lingering Russian troops, meeting with Boris N. Yeltsin over a long, vodka-enhanced lunch during which, Mr. Meri says, he blocked the door to force Mr. Yeltsin to finish haggling over the closing date for a submarine base.

When the interior minister, Edgar Savisaar, was caught bugging cabinet members' conversations in 1995, it was Mr. Meri who denounced the practice so forcefully - arguing that ''Watergate saved the United States'' - that the government fell and was replaced. Now it is filled largely with relative youngsters. Many were Mr. Meri's protégés when he was foreign minister in the transition government as Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union.

''He is so un-Soviet - sort of a prewar man - that there's a generation gap with people in his own age group,'' said Michael Tarm, the publisher of City Paper, an English-language magazine about the Baltic States published here. Mr. Meri's Foreign Ministry ''was like a college dormitory,'' Mr. Tarm said.

As Mr. Meri tells it, he showed up at 9 a.m. the day he was appointed, dismissed all the Soviet-era employees and threw out the only books in the office he inherited: 34 volumes of Lenin.

''I had to invite youngsters I could trust, so for a long time, the Foreign Ministry was reminiscent of a Boy Scout camp,'' he said.

The current defense minister is 33, a former foreign minister got his job at 26. Even the prime minister, Mart Laar, though not exactly a Meri protégé, got his job at 32.

Mr. Meri himself was born in 1929, the son of an Estonian diplomat. He grew up in Paris and Berlin, becoming fluent in French and German. He learned English, he said, because his parents spoke it in front of him thinking he couldn't understand. ''I kept my secret,'' he said.

But he learned Russian the hard way. When Stalin annexed Estonia in 1940, the Meri family was deported to Siberia. With his father in the gulag, he and his mother cut trees to survive, and he floated logs down river. In winter they peeled potatoes in a Red Army factory, where he could steal up to 20 pounds a day, he said, ''because Russians have a liberal view of kids and never searched me.''

They survived. His father eventually became Estonia's translator of Shakespeare - a 25-year task, though the closest he ever got to Albion was the view of its white cliffs from Dieppe.

Mr. Meri went to Tartu University in Estonia, became a historian and produced radio plays. He said he found his true calling after a trip to the Kara-Kum Desert, in Central Asia, in 1958. He wrote and sold a book, which financed his next trip, to the Yakutia region of Siberia, where at one point, he said, he was forced to eat his horse.

In all, he spent 25 years traveling the Soviet Union's most remote areas. Some of his documentaries about the nomadic Finno-Ugric horsemen whose steppes and forests had been colonized by Slavic Russians made apparent the cold indifference of rule from Moscow, and were banned.

But a print of ''The Winds of the Milky Way'' won the New York prize, and his 1976 history of Estonia, ''Silverwhite,'' gave Mr. Meri the leverage to wrest visas from the authorities to travel overseas.

His promotion of Estonian nationalism abroad put him in a position to be appointed foreign minister in 1990 and to run for president after Estonia won full independence in 1991.

But his nationalistic politics were more scholarly than radical; he wanders so deeply into topics that an hour's chat with him is like a week watching the Discovery Channel. When he retires, he has a notion to drain the vast meteorite crater on Saare, an Estonian island in the Baltic Sea. He believes the meteorite's blast in 300 B.C. may be the source of Ragnarok, the Norse legend of the Death of the Gods, Götterdämmerung, as in Wagner's opera. For generations, sacrificed humans were dropped into its depths.

Human sacrifice is one way of looking at Mr. Meri's presidential role. He is in part the national scold, especially in his Feb. 24 National Day speeches. He has called corrupt politicians ''scum on the surface of the state cauldron.'' This year he tweaked Mr. Laar for shooting at a picture of Mr. Savisaar on a visit to a military base.

Last year, he attacked draft evaders, timber exploiters, boastful Estonian tycoons and anyone not exhibiting the Protestant work ethic in this mostly Lutheran country. Asked about that after he mentioned his education by French Jesuits, he quickly explained that even Tacitus acknowledged that Estonians worked their frigid fields harder than the Germanic tribes, whose coast was toasty warm by comparison, ''so Protestantism here predates the birth of Christ.''

He denies popular rumors that he ever told off the elder President Bush for lacking a Baltic policy or that the floor between him and Mr. Yeltsin became littered with broken vodka glasses. ''But you cannot strangle a legend,'' he observed. ''You must, like a cowboy, saddle it and ride it.''

Others say his eccentricities help put Estonia, a country of 1.4 million people that has ruled itself for only 30 of the last 800 years, on the map.

Asked if being a septuagenarian helped him get away with it, he grinned, and answered, ''I think in the bottom of their hearts, they always have a feeling of, ''Damn! But the Old One was right.'' ''

By Donald G. McNeil Jr.


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