The political career of former President Arnold Rüütel, born in Laimjala on the island of Saaremaa on May 10, 1928, spans several decades. Rüütel was part of the Soviet and communist party establishment in the Estonian SSR, remained in politics beyond 1991, and eventually was president from 2001 to 2006.
Today Rüütel is the honorary chairman of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE).
Agronomist to party functionary, chairman of Estonian SSR’s supreme council
Rüütel is an agronomist. His rise in Soviet-era Estonia can be seen as a model communist career: after his graduation in 1949, he first worked as a senior agronomist for the local administration in Saaremaa, later taught agronomy at the Tartu School of Mechanization of Agriculture until 1955.
A few years later Rüütel was appointed director of an experimental farm, and in 1963 put in charge of the Tartu Model Sovkhoz. The sovkhozy were state-owned farms and generally seen as both the political and social aim of the economic transformation undertaken by the communists, as they stood for “socialist agriculture of the highest order.”
In 1969, Rüütel became the rector of the Estonian Academy of Agriculture. This position set him up for high office in Soviet Estonia, fast-tracking him from his academic position to party and political leadership: on April 8, 1983, Rüütel was appointed Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR, also making him one of 15 deputy chairmen of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.
Rüütel held this position as a communist functionary until Estonia’s first free elections since 1932 on March 18, 1990, and on March 29 that year was reappointed and remained in his position until Oct. 5, 1992. Along with other supporters of reform in Estonia’s party elite at the time, Rüütel helped towards the Declaration of Sovereignty on Nov. 16, 1988, which in turn paved the way for the events leading to the Singing Revolution and independence from the USSR.
Career after 1991 and presidency
After the end of the Soviet Union, Rüütel remained in politics in the reemerging Republic of Estonia, becoming a member of its constitutional assembly in the early 1990s. A candidate for the first president after the end of Soviet occupation, Rüütel won the popular vote ahead of Lennart Meri, but lost to him in the run-off that followed in the Riigikogu, Estonia’s by now reestablished parliament.
Rüütel continued as party chairman of the People’s Union (Rahvaliit), stood for election against Meri a second time in 1996 and lost again. On Sept. 21, 2001, Rüütel was elected president, backed by his own as well as the Center Party, at the time led by Edgar Savisaar. Rüütel’s election was a serious blow to the coalition of then Prime Minister Mart Laar (Pro Patria/Isamaaliit), whose government fell shortly after.
Succeeding Lennart Meri, an affable and outgoing man greatly admired by Estonians and generally seen as the personification of Estonia’s new beginning after the end of Soviet occupation, Rüütel was identified mainly with his ceremonial role, and his presidency didn’t attract much attention domestically as well as abroad.
Instrumental role in European Union membership referendum
Arnold Rüütel played his last big role in Estonian politics when he came out in favor of Estonia’s joining the European Union in a referendum in 2003. Leading up to the referendum, Savisaar and his Center Party floundered, first making plenty of noise against EU membership, then declaring that every citizen should “vote their conscience.”
Rüütel eventually intervened and turned the vote of his own political camp around. His appeal to Estonians to vote in favor of EU membership is today seen as probably his most important contribution to Estonia’s politics.
Though he did run for a second term in 2006, his backers derailed the presidential election in the Riigikogu that year, and the electoral college had to be called, he eventually lost to Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
After 2006, Rüütel played only a minor role in politics. Since the People’s Union merged with other groups to form the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) in 2012, Rüütel has been the party’s honorary chairman.
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