Members of the party at the time make no secret of the fact that the Center Party's scandalous cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin's United Russia party was signed in 2004 with one simple goal in mind – to finally help the party come to power on the wings of the Russian vote.
It is the year 2003. The Center Party is under the directorship of a forceful tandem: Edgar Savisaar out front, and behind the scenes the iron grip of former interior minister Ain Seppik.
The Center Party wins the March parliamentary elections but is left out of the coalition eventually formed by Res Publica. Savisaar is disappointed – it is not the first time he's lost. It also becomes clear that the existing electorate has been divided between parties, and that the only way to attract more voters is to concentrate on Estonia's Russians.
«We were in Moscow just when Russia was in the process of reentering global politics. We were looking for political partners,» MP Vladimir Velman recalled. Members also visited the congress of Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces but quickly realized that agreements with marginal parties count for very little.
Delegates from the Center Party saw representatives of other countries sign similar agreements at the United Russia conference.
Ain Seppik, fluent in Russian and recently counted among friends in the Russian community, realized the opportunity had to be seized. Seppik's hand was much stronger than that of Savisaar, who was relatively unknown among Russian voters at the time.
Seppik had untangled the church row of 2002 as interior minister, allowing the Moscow Patriarchate to rent 18 churches for a symbolic sum of one kroon.
The board of the Center Party was less than united – while many favored the agreement, there were opponents. Some members believed it to be a risky venture. However, the world was different at the time – Russia did not pose a military threat.
Talk of the agreement having been signed behind Savisaar's back is not true. «Savisaar lost the trust of the party only in recent years; back then no decision or agreement was made without him,» Seppik said.
According to Seppik, the reason for the agreement was a pragmatic one – something had to be done to allow the Center Party to become a popular force. It had to win over Russian voters, it had to win elections.
However, principles needed to be considered beforehand. For example, the party brass decided that under no circumstances will it go to Russia to sign the agreement, but that it will be done in Tallinn. Every word was carefully weighed so as not to take on undue obligations.
There were heated arguments. Seppik's camp wanted to sign the contract immediately in 2004, while Savisaar's wing wanted to wait and make the agreement public on the eve of the October 2005 local elections. Savisaar lost.
United Russia sent to Estonia its head of foreign relations Valeri Gussev and first deputy chairman in the State Duma, former journalist Valeri Bogomolov. «Very nice people,» Seppik recalls.
Members of Pro Patria were spewing fire and brimstone. When the delegation arrived in front of the National Library in Tallinn where the agreement was to be signed, they were greeted by a few dozen members of the right conservative party.
Irony was not in short supply. One placard expressed concern for Putin: «The crooked deal of an inexperienced Russian politician with Estonia's experienced and scandalous party chief harms the development of Russia's young democracy.»
The cooperation protocol bears the signatures of board member Ain Seppik and fellow board member, foreign secretary at the time Mailis Reps.
Seppik is convinced the agreement served its purpose to this day. «It worked; we were in the government a year later, where we did some good work with the Reform Party for two years,» Seppik found. «Politically, the agreement was well conceived and executed.»
Let it be said in the interests of factual accuracy that while the Center Party did become a member of the government in the ranks of the so-called garlic coalition in 2005, the reason for that development was prime minister Juhan Parts' resignation.
Seppik is right, however, when it comes to votes. The Center Party merited the support of 126,449 people or 25.48 percent of the vote at the 2005 local elections. The party grew its parliamentary elections vote yield from 125,709 in 2003 to 143,518 or 26.1 percent of the vote in 2007. That point marked the beginning of Savisaar's personal popularity.
Mailis Reps said after the signing of the protocol in 2004 that the parties will form committees of both parties' representatives, scientists, and entrepreneurs. The partners were also supposed to hold seminars, conferences, and roundtable meetings to discuss relations between the two countries.
There have been no committees formed or seminars held in the nearly 11 years since the signing of the document. True, the agreement has been used as cover for at least one cultural visit to Moscow by Reps and several by Savisaar, who become the primary contact after Seppik left the party.
The Center Party came under fire in Estonia immediately after signing the contract. And for good reason as representatives of United Russia had communicated they believe the Soviet Union occupied Estonia in accordance with international law the same year.
Reps calmed the public in 2005, saying that the Center Party will renounce the agreement in case Russia fails to follow it.
«If Russia fails to observe the framework – for example by not proceeding based on mutual respect – we will no longer follow the protocol. It holds no consequences,» Reps maintained. «Yes, absolutely, we will renounce it.»
This was three years prior to the Bronze Night, four to the war in Georgia. Despite attempts by some centrists to abandon it, the protocol is still in force.