Estonia's young guard ousted

Tallinn - Youthful liberals who earned Estonia a reputation for radical reforms have been swept from power by older, more cautious politicians, results from parliamentary elections showed yesterday.

A mix of former low-level Communists and farm leaders from the allied Coalition Party and Rural Union were the big winners in Sunday's poll, securing more than enough seats to lead in forming a new government. Free- market radicals in their twenties and thirties who have dominated the government in the former Soviet republic, fared badly and will be relegated to the sidelines.

After their electoral triumph, centre-left leaders bristled at suggestions that they would stray from the path of reform and lashed out at critics who depict them as Communists. "Even in Estonia there are artists who like to paint pictures that don't coincide with reality," Tiit Vahi, the Coalition Party leader and man likely to be the next prime minister, told a news conference.

Most leaders of the Coalition and Rural Union parties were not high-ranking Communists. The exception is Arnold Ruutel, 66, Estonia's last Soviet- era president.

Mr Vahi, 47, was a state company director in the Soviet era and then caretaker prime minister in 1992. He said he is committed to a free market but wants a stronger social safety net.

Projections showed the Coalition Party and Rural Union would win 41 of 101 legislative seats, a commanding lead over their closest rivals. The Centre Party, also regarded as centre-left, was expected to win 17 seats, and analysts said it would be a likely partner in a coalition government. The young radicals' Fatherland Party was projected to share seven seats with its election bloc partner, the Estonian Independence Party.

About 70 per cent of those eligible voted in what amounted to a generational clash, older voters backing centre-left parties and younger ones supporting reformers. The results showed Estonia fits the pattern set in Poland and Hungary, where reforms have been followed by the ousting of reformers. "The lesson from elections like this is that there's never a big window of opportunity for reform in ex-Communist nations," Vello Pettai, a political scientist in Tallinn, said.

Critics say the centre-left leaders could bust the Estonian budget if they act on promises such as increasing pensions. Others worry Estonia could lose its star reformer label, so throttling foreign investment.

President Lennart Meri seemed to warn against any big shifts in foreign or economic policy, saying: "We made our historic decisions and mankind does not have a better option to offer."

While the elderly and farmers accused the young radicals of ignoring them, foreign observers credited them with pulling Estonia from the wreckage of Communism. Growth is running at 5 per cent a year, and the country has the third highest level of per capita foreign investment in Eastern Europe.