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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Meri Heads Baltic Republic As President, Philosopher

TALLINN, Estonia -- Although Estonia's economy disappointed many last year, President Lennart Meri sees the low numbers as a sign of high success.

Much of the reason for the economy growing slower than hoped for was that Estonia was hit by the Asian financial crisis, and "it means Estonia has become a part of the global economy ? it means if somebody in Japan gets a cold, we are reaching for some aspirin," Meri said.

The upbeat assessment came in a meeting with foreign journalists before Sunday's parliamentary elections. Meri isn't up for election f the next presidential election is in 2001 f and Meri could take the long view, which he loves to do.

With little formal power, the president's main role is to act as a philosophical polestar for the country as it recovers from a half-century of Soviet rule.

Meri clearly relishes the role. Any question brings a smile, a long pause and a lengthy metaphor-filled response that eventually answers the question. "I was so touched with my own words," he said at the end of the meeting.

But within his absent-minded professor aura is an acute assessment of the perils Estonia faces as it ventures ever deeper into the fierce competition of the global economy. He urges Estonians not to become helplessly in thrall to the charms of getting and spending.

He also worries that Estonia's market-driven reforms are leaving many people in the country behind, fraying the small country's once-tight social fabric.

Meri, 69, said that when he was a young man, Estonians felt so close to each other that ''I knew in every town there was someone ? [from whom] I could borrow 100 rubles and his boots."

But despite his worries, Meri regards Estonia as being on the right track and with a promising future. "I am a horrible optimist. I even believe Russia will emerge as a democratic state," he said.