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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Estonia's Reformer Laar Under Attack

TALLINN, Estonia -- In just 19 months, Prime Minister Mart Laar has turned this tiny Baltic country into a hot-house of economic reform. Now, the former historian, 33, is under attack from within his own party, a potential victim of the very successes his reforms have spawned. Laar's tight monetary policies have made him a darling of the International Monetary Fund and conservative European politicians like Margaret Thatcher, who, upon meeting Laar in London two months ago, told him: "You are my kind of European." But Laar's party, Fatherland, fears that Laar's tough reforms could produce the kind of nostalgia for old Socialist ways that have characterized post-Communist East Europe. Fearing that its plummeting popularity ratings will not improve in time for scheduled 1995 elections, Fatherland has called a Saturday conference to hold a vote of confidence in Laar as party chairman. Laar says he will resign as prime minister if he loses the chairmanship. Laar, in an interview Friday, was philosophical about his prospects, insisting he might survive the vote, but saying it would be a relief to step down as Prime Minister. "I have been prime minister for 1 1/2 years. This has just been too much for me," Laar said. Unlike former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, who faced fierce opposition to his policies in parliament and in his own cabinet, Laar has had a clear majority in parliament and a free hand to run the Estonian economy. The vote of confidence in his leadership comes as the Estonian economy continues to climb. Unemployment is at 2 percent. Exports have doubled in valued to 20 billion kroons ($725 million) in 1993 from 5 billion kroons in 1991. Inflation was 33 percent in 1993, down from 40 percent in 1992. The budget is balanced and the newly established kroon is one of Europe's most stable currencies. Estonians today are proud of their economy, reinvigorated after 50 years of Soviet occupation. But they are quick to add that life today is tougher than ever before. Surveys suggest the average Estonian spends 40 percent of his salary on food alone. Laar's talent for bluntly stating painful truths and his insistence that reforms must be pushed "faster" has frightened many former supporters, and less than one Estonian in 20 now supports Laar's Fatherland party. The crisis surrounding Laar has blown up suddenly, and many Estonians and political observers seem baffled by it. Laar -- whose boyish features and widely publicized admiration of the American rock band Guns'N'Roses have earned him few political points at home -- seems to have been just as stunned. "This is a weakness of being young," he said. "You can be a good prime minister but weak on political intrigue and infighting. A small group inside the party has decided to take me down." That small group, Laar said, includes Estonia's President Lennart Meri, 64, who has called for raising pensions and other populist measures to ease the hardship of reforms. Laar said Fatherland party conference is really about the pace of economic reform: Laar likes it fast, but some of his colleagues want to ease up until after the 1995 elections. Whoever is Fatherland's chairman after Saturday will be the top candidate for Laar's job. But the final nomination must be made by Estonian President Meri and approved by parliament. Meri, meanwhile, has left for Kazakhstan and China. His spokesman, Een Eesma, said Meri was not concerned about being out of town when the government fell because he could always nominate a replacement by telephone. Laar said that if he does not survive Saturday's vote, he will write a book about his days in office and would continue to use his seat in the Estonian parliament to press for the radical economic reforms. "I think I will be supported and come out on top, but who knows," he said. "I will not go away in any case."