Mart Laar

Prime Minister, Estonia

Tiny Estonia was reeling from an economic crisis when Mart Laar became Prime Minister in 1999. Russia's financial collapse the summer before had whacked Estonia's stock market and finances. So Laar took decisive action. He cut business taxes and slashed social benefits.

The medicine worked. Estonia's economy is now growing at 7% a year, thanks to exports of mobile phones and textiles. Privatization has been so successful--some 90% of the economy is in private hands--that Laar, 41, closed the Privatization Agency in May.

If only other European leaders could be as decisive, the Continent might be in much better shape. During his first term as Estonia's leader in 1992, Laar negotiated the withdrawal of Russian troops, introduced the rock-solid Estonian currency, and began the march to a market economy. Now he wants Estonia to join the European Union and NATO. Of all the candidates, Estonia is the most advanced in its talks with the EU. "I hope that Mart Laar will go down in history as the man who completed the process of making Estonia's Westernization irreversible," Laar said in a recent radio interview.

He has more plans for the economy, too. For example, he is keen to develop Estonia's info-tech and banking industries.

Laar's leadership style has changed since his first term, when he earned a reputation as a hothead; back then, his coalition fell apart after a year. His current government has lasted longer than any other in Estonian history and need not call new elections until 2003. "Laar used to be a bit of a wild man, but he has matured," says Estonian diplomat Toivo Klaar. Like his country, Laar appears ready for the big leagues.

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