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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Estonia, Progress Not All Positive

TALLINN, Estonia — Fifty-year-old Estonian Valentina Strizhkova does not think the European Union will make much difference to her life and she hopes her next president won't pay much attention to it.

"The new president should not drive around the world. He should take care of business at home, help to create new jobs, new industries, get agriculture out of the hole it's in," she said.

Since leaving the Soviet Union 10 years ago, Estonia has become a leading candidate to join the EU. The Baltic country's parliament will meet on Monday to choose a head of state who will most likely lead Estonia into the wealthy 15-nation bloc.

But for ordinary people like Strizhkova, who have been left behind by the country's decade-long crash course in market economics, the EU seems only to promise more hardship.

"I don't think I can expect good times when we enter the European Union," said Strizhkova, who says membership will mean rising prices and little improvement in wages.

Perhaps because of people like Strizhkova, this year's presidential candidates are not talking about lofty goals such as joining the European Union or NATO, which is another key foreign policy goal.

Instead, they are harping on social issues that have fuelled discontent and hurt sentiment for joining the EU among ordinary people.

Although the president is not directly elected, polls suggest that the candidates may strike a chord with reform-weary voters. The latest opinion survey, carried out in June, showed only 43 percent of Estonians support joining the EU and 44 are opposed, even though the country is blazing a hard and fast trail to get the country in by about 2004.

Pollsters say unpopular reforms by the current government such as privatization have turned voters off to EU entry. "The foreign policy priority should be taking care that Estonia's border with Russia would also become the EU and NATO's border with Russia," said Peeter Tulviste, a candidate put forward by the ruling Pro Patria Union.

"However, the main priority of the new president must definitely be inside his country, as society has been split into fragments," he added.

Tulviste is one of eight candidates to become Estonia's second president since the country regained its independence.

Only four of those — one from parliament's opposition and the others from the three ruling coalition parties — are seen to possibly gain the votes of many deputies.

However, analysts widely expect a hung parliament. If no candidate gains the necessary 68 votes in Estonia's 101-seat parliament, an electoral college of parliamentarians and local government representatives will be called on Sept. 21.

So far this year, Estonia's opposition tapped into growing discontent among ordinary people.

They say the country's rapid development over the last decade has been accompanied by growing social imbalances, pointing out as evidence statistics on rising crime and a jump in cases of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"Our domestic security should become more important as the crime rate is currently growing 6 to 8 percent annually and also the number of people with HIV has skyrocketed this year," said Peeter Kreitzberg, the opposition Center Party's candidate.

Kreitzberg, a deputy speaker of parliament and former education minister, criticized the government's promise to raise defense spending to boost its NATO bid.

The next president can send legislation back to parliament but will have little real power to effect change and is seen mainly as the guardian of the constitution.