In her end of the year interview with ERR, President Kersti Kaljulaid outlined her vision of Estonian society in the coming years, gave credit to citizens’ individual spirit and drive, and once again pointed out that it is precisely Estonia’s secularism that works as its best defence against religious turmoil in the world.
The interview was conducted by Joonas Hellerma for ETV and translated for ERR News by Dario Cavegn.
What has been the greatest challenge during the days you have been in office?
I promised on my first day in office that I will always be there when our safety and security are at issue, when our freedoms are in danger, or when the weakest have to suffer. To be able to do this work, I need to be a pretty decent insurance policy. And for that I’ve been talking a lot to people outside of Estonia, because when our safety and security are at issue, then most of the talks concerning them take place in other countries.
I’ve created this network inside and outside of Estonia so that when it’s necessary to talk seriously this wouldn’t be the first conversation, neither here in Estonia or elsewhere.
How have you perceived your reception here in Estonia? What surprised you the most?
How easy it is to talk to people about the world around us, about Europe, the European Union. If people don’t understand, they ask. We’ve always got to a point where we all are bold, and optimistic about the future.
A subject that has kept coming up in your statements so far has been that you work with your word more than anything else. “The word is my weapon.” What exactly does that mean?
That’s how it is written in the Estonian Constitution, that the president’s primary weapon is the word — you can point to what is important, and sometimes also to what isn’t.
There’s the word that is very quiet, the one the public never hears. This is very important. And the other is the one you see reflected in the eyes of the people, when you speak before large audiences, you speak of freedom, you speak of responsibility, you speak of the things that are the rights and duties of government, what the president’s possibilities and powers are. And you see a tear in people’s eyes, and you understand that this really matters.
And it seems to me that this is a pretty big challenge, as our time is characterized by verbiage and and perhaps also an inflation of the importance of the word. They’re printing a lot more money, but they’re printing even more words. What can add trustworthiness and credit to the word today?
Accuracy. One has to be completely accurate and completely consistent. I liked reading the summary of my speeches over the past twenty years a lot that Poliitika.guru [an Estonian political blog; ed.] published. And if you’re consistent in what you say, then the word doesn’t lose value, it seems to me.
How do you make a difference between truth and lie? How can you be convinced of something?
There are plain facts, in the case of which it is easy to clarify what the truth is. But as soon as feelings and concepts enter into it, there’s no point talking about truth and lie anymore. Then we have to talk about why somebody thinks the way they do, and if it seems that their opinion is based on something that is not grounded in real life, we have to talk about it on those terms. And in a debate we certainly can’t talk about the other person, or their character. That’s the safest way to end a reasonable debate.
Do you already have a clear plan what your agenda for your five years in office is going to be? The previous presidents all entered history with a subject that dominated their time in office. What could such a subject be for you?
There are subjects I have in the back of my mind, so to say. Education, science, economic issues. But I’m appreciating those subjects more and more that are connected with society, for example how the cities and municipalities can support the development of communities together, volunteer work, how every one of us together with their friends could built the kind of Estonia they want, around them. Without harming anyone else’s Estonia.
It seems to me that we’re talking too much about the mechanics of administrative reform, and too little about what’s close to people’s hearts. This seamless society, this interaction, the voluntary initiative, all that could be used to make local life better.
And it seems to me that we are European champions in this. Although others think that we’re the digital state, we’re actually the state of everybody.
Concerning this seamless society, one question that you haven’t much appreciated is the question how you will run this office as a woman. I don’t want to ask just that, but rather keep the broader background and society in mind. There is still a big gender pay gap in Estonia, and we have a high incidence of undetected violence against women. Why can’t we seem to get over this?
We have begun to talk about violence, and doing it we will get over it some day. But yes, we are still in the phase of acknowledging it, and beginning to talk about it. We are also unable to talk about it in such a way that those we talk about wouldn’t get hurt. We still need to practice this, and learn to ask for forgiveness if needed, if we’ve been wrong.
How can you lead by example in this matter?
I can handle the topic delicately. When I’m outside Tallinn I try to hear from those who are competent in this matter. But naturally I have to do this quietly. These are cases where the quiet word is needed. But I’m also not ashamed to say publicly that I like it very much when the Police and Border Guard say that this is one of their priorities, to deal with domestic violence.
I’m sincerely pleased about it, and I gladly devote my power to the topic as well. But naturally we have plenty of more uplifting subjects to talk about thinking about our seamless society. I don’t know if we have to talk about women, but we can certainly talk about topics concerning the life of women and families.
It seems to be that we would need to make good use of the fact that work today isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago. Our work is more diverse, we don’t work from nine to five, we don’t have to do the same thing for 40 years and then retire. And this created the possibility that men and women can more easily live their own lives, work, but also care for their children, change their lives as often as needed, and do those things that are close to their hearts.
This certainly narrows the gap between men and women in the labour market. And this certainly deals with the issue that under the old work model, women had to leave their jobs and be with their children while their male course mates got all the best jobs.
What is the state’s role here? The state’s role is to see to it that this understanding of work changes, and to build a kind of social model around it that allows everybody to live their lives happily and without worry, as far as that is possible.
A few questions about technology and energy. How could we bring society behind Rail Baltic, what would that message have to be?
We need to unite with Europe. Irreversibly. Through infrastructure, through energy networks. That we belong to Europe is a matter of vital importance. Formal and nominal bonds are no longer enough. We need stronger connections. And that’s why we should build Rail Baltic.
We see how now, where the project is entering its construction phase, the Finns are showing more and more interest in it, talk about the tunnel [between Tallinn and Helsinki; ed.] has become very present, and the Polish are going along with it. This is turning into an important thing for us.
The discussion has been pretty pointed. Technology ages, and construction typically becomes a lot more expensive and doesn’t get realized in its planned shape. Doesn’t that make you worry?
Yes, we don’t know at the beginning of infrastructure projects what exactly the result will be in the end. Doubtlessly the costs can’t be predicted with 100% accuracy, and the same applies to future freight volumes. Whoever says they know exactly isn’t telling the truth, but whoever says that things will certainly get worse hasn’t got a better base for their decisions either.
Yes, infrastructure projects take a long time. But if we think about the alternatives, then the main thing would be road transport. Large trucks drive from north to south and from south to north, all the time, and we can’t use the roads safely with smaller cars anymore.
European environmental policy works against road transport, and prefers railway transport. This adds to my belief that the project has an economic future.
Would you take an eight-hour train ride to Berlin that perhaps would cost some €300, if you could fly to Berlin in two ours for €150?
At two hours, taking the plane is tempting. But if there’s a change, you’ll still spend five to six hours. Yes, I’d take the train.
The other matter concerns Estonia’s forests — over the last month there has been a public debate about the state potentially allowing too intense logging. We’ve seen a great reaction to this on the part of people in public life as well. How have you seen these events, and what is your expectation to the state?
There’s a memory I have connected with forests. I flew to Japan last spring, and somewhere around the Ural Mountains I realized that wow, the ground below me is different, nature below me, you know, doesn’t grow in its natural state in squares and along lines. Flying in Europe for years, one can forget about that. This impression was so different that I realized it very suddenly.
It’s important to me that we maintain enough forest of the kind that doesn’t look planted. That forests that are renewed are renewed in a way that they are a habitat also after.
From the point of view of a biologist, it makes no great difference whether a forest is made up of alder or fir trees — both habitats are interesting, also stunted vegetation, moors and swamps are great. But in this exact discussion I really can’t participate, I’ve never even looked at detailed calculations.
Estonia’s pure nature has been made a selling argument for the marketing of the country. Minister of the Environment Marko Pomerants (IRL) has said that the large wind farm planned for the coast of Hiiumaa will be built no matter whether or not attempts at establishing a nature reserve there are successful. Should it be built?
Will it come? I don’t know. But this question needs to be answered. If it comes, then we have to think about what’s important — that we have renewable energy, that [the wind farm] has to be just there, whether we should wait until for instance some future technology is ready that would allow us to build something that uses the power of waves instead.
Not every wind farm has to be built. But let’s say it seems this one will be.
I like to look out across the see, for example in Vääna-Jõesuu, and see a few windmills in the distance. But I’m an industrial human being, I like big machines, maybe I’m not a very good example of the average person.
I probably wouldn’t like hearing the noise up close, but this wind park will be built out in the sea. What is the noise that makes it to shore, how many decibel? I don’t know.
When you became president, you had to step down as chairwoman of the supervisory council of the University of Tartu. Student organizations have recently said that the universities focused too much on their present situation, instead of the big cultural and psychological questions society and culture are facing.
Yes, they said that the university concentrated too much on rankings. What is very nice is that when the supervisory board began its work, we agreed that we would not pay attention to the rankings, as Tartu as a national university has the obligation to offer native language education in as many subjects as possible at least up to the MA level, but certainly not less than up to the bachelor degree level. With this limitation in mind, and in the knowledge that rankings are very important for the cooperation with foreign students and teachers, we decided that we wouldn’t concentrate on that. Nevertheless the University of Tartu has become noticeably better over the past five years.
As far as higher education is concerned, it seems to me that the 3+2 model perhaps created the understanding at some point that three years of studies equal a higher education. I’ve jokingly said to the rector of the university, Mr. Kalmu, that bachelor’s degrees should actually only be handed out through the back door, and only on application. Because proper higher education requires a master’s degree.
That takes at least two years. Only after that we can start talking about specialization of any kind. So friends, please go to university for five years.
Have we pushed the humanities aside? They are marginalized. Don't a lot of today’s problems in our intellectual culture come from just that?
It seems to me that perhaps we have pushed all kinds of specialization aside, and I wouldn’t want to talk about just the universities here, but also about society in general. Becoming a person, becoming a well-educated person simply takes more than three years. It is correct that students in the humanities shouldn’t turn away from the sciences too soon, and vice versa. This certainly opens up people’s horizons and gives them more possibilities to come to terms with life in the future, or to interact with the other side in society.
But perhaps education in America and Estonia in the 1980s wasn’t so different after all, because studying the sciences we also had plenty of other subjects. Yes, there could have been less philosophy, and more ideology — but also we dealt with objectivity and subjectivity during our first course. We had to study Latin, there were language lessons, there was a complete classical degree program.
Former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves was worried about Europe, and often talked about the possibility that the European Union could fall apart, and that we were faced with a strong conflict of mentalities and cultures. You, on the other hand, have always been a great EU optimist. What do we do in a situation where bombs explode and terrorist acts are committed in the days leading up to Christmas?
When bombs explode and terrorist acts happen, we need to show compassion and hold together. But thinking about the future of the European Union, then it is its past that gives me the courage to say that Europe has always been able to overcome these crises. Yes, it might look bad for a time, and getting to an agreement what to do next may take time, but in the end we always get there.
Talking about terrorists, the European Union has decided that the external borders need to be controlled, databases need to be pooled among member states, so that all know who’s in and who’s out. In hindsight one might say that it would have been better if those databases had been ready before the Schengen area was opened, but now these things are happening, and they’re coming.
But this exactly is the European Union’s resilience, that it always manages somehow.
So you are not afraid of an Islamic invasion?
Islam and terrorism can’t be synonyms. I fear terrorists, and I think that through Europol and other security authorities the member states of the European Union can work together, and they do. Now the question is if they would be working better if the European Union didn’t exist. I doubt it very much.
How do we improve our relations with Russia? What’s your plan here?
I can talk to our partners in Europe to make sure that we’re on the same page. In a situation where Russia neither keeps its international promises nor follows the Minsk accords, and behaves as outrageously as it does in Syria, the most important thing is that all those who share the same values we do are united in their statements. In line with others we need to tell Moscow that change has to start there, and not anywhere else.
Of course it’s in Moscow’s interest to show that Europe isn’t united. Every time whatever European leader makes a statement that hints at a crack in its unity, this is taken apart and discussed at length. This is what’s called strategic communication, and we need to understand that.
You aren’t afraid that you might be giving up some of the initiative the Constitution gives you to represent Estonia abroad if everything is handled by such a large collective organization?
No, this doesn’t diminish anything. Our contribution to upholding the unity of the European Union has been very important. A few years ago, when the crisis in Ukraine deepened, the statement was quite frequent in the union’s institutions that now our position regarding Russia was their position as well. At that point, we had had to justify for a long time already why we said that Russia needed to be dealt with consistently and strictly. We justified it, and now this is our common position, which is an expression of our diplomatic influence. This isn’t giving up a position, but applying diplomatic weight.
The celebration of Estonia’s 100th anniversary falls into your five-year term. Will you invite Russian president Vladimir Putin as well?
I don’t know that Moscow’s foreign policy will be at that time. Now we’re seeing that Russia is a state ready to settle differences by force, to change countries’ borders. I wouldn’t invite the president of such a Russia to Estonia’s anniversary celebrations.
According to what I hear, the large papers in the West are representing Estonia as a front country that is being militarized, and this doesn’t appeal to investors. How can we still make life better in such a situation and attract investors?
NATO is really an organization to guarantee the peace, and there has never been a war in its territory. If someone now thinks that for instance in Cold War times, this security was a matter of course — that NATO simply declared that there won’t be war in its territory — well it never was like that. We know that Europe was armed and defended. Why should this be any different right now?
We are doing our work that we promised our allies following Article 3 of NATO, we are keeping the northeastern corner of its territory secure and quiet. And this is how collective defense works. NATO is a collective defense organization, always has been. Nothing has changed. The rhetoric has changed since the time we joined, but it might not be all that different from when we were watching from the other side of the front of the Cold War.
As president you play an important role in the creation of public and social rituals. Is there some kind of public ritual you can see yourself introducing during your time in office?
We have several rituals connected with Feb. 24 [Estonia’s Independence Day; ed.]. There’s raising the flag in the courtyard of the Riigikogu, which the Riigikogu arranges. Last year for the first time the Declaration of Independence was read there, on the initiative of [President of the Riigikogu; ed.] Eiki Nestor. This renewed a ritual that has been around for a long time. Now that we have the War of Independence Victory Column, there’s a wreath-laying ceremony, also a new ritual. The evening event, the reception and concert, is arranged by the Office of the President, and naturally also that ritual changes a little bit every year.
Rituals change all the time, but the basic nature remains. What moves us certainly needs to remain.
Which of these rituals should be the most important? This question means to point to the fact that you drew attention to yourself when you rejected a church service following your inauguration.
No, in my opinion they simply wanted to have a thanksgiving service with me present. I respect people’s freedom of religion very much, and I would have never been against this thanksgiving service if it had taken place without my being there.
I like the work a lot that the Estonian congregations are doing. I visited the Harju-Risti congregation, and the reason why I went is their not-for-profit Vaikuse Lapsed [an organization that helps parents of stillborn children, or those who lost their children at a very early age; ed.]. This is work that society needs very much, and which belongs with the things that perhaps we don’t want to talk about every day. It is hard to talk about such things with someone who has never gone through such a difficult experience. This can be easier for a minister. Our defense forces have chaplains — they also have psychologists, but they have chaplains. More thoughts are connected with counseling and the spiritual there than we have them in our everyday life.
Naturally there are a great many events surrounding the republic’s 100th anniversary — church services, but also swamp hikes and science conferences. All groups of people who want to do good for Estonia are important to me in their own way.
Where have you drawn this line for yourself — the presidency is also a tradition, and institution, and then there is you, your person, how you complete the office. Where is the border, how much can you improvise, and how much of yourself do you have to give up to the institution?
It seems to me that you really have to give 100% to this institution. I completely expect this. And these rituals that come with the institution, to arrange and conduct them, that has to be done honestly, sincerely, and heartfelt.
You have referred to yourself as a liberal conservative. And customs and traditions really are important to you, you have even said that they are sacred. On the other hand, you value the initiative of the individual, their free will.
I’ve tried to say this in such a way that our customs are important to me, how we live our everyday lives. How we dress, what we eat. All of this is important to us in one way or another, our own. And naturally we can go beyond them, and other people can come here, and of course it is nice if what we eat gets more diverse. But then there’s also a large part of customs that we don’t have to let newcomers change.
Starting with the fact that it’s our custom to do what we do in this state in Estonian. That’s simply how it is. We have the custom to have song festivals. But also that it’s our custom that men and women are equal at home. And that we have the custom to wear short skirts. All of these are also our customs.
And then there’s the custom that we don’t make religious exceptions on our schoolchildren’s menu. This is where to me, the essentiality comes in that our state is secular, and that we don’t have a state religion. It seems to me that just this is our best defense against foreign religions. We are not required to accept the conventions of these religions if our hospitals and schools are secular and don’t bow to the special requirements of any religion.
It seems to me that it is just this that defends our country.
How attractive can this space of customs be today to an individual in Estonia? In your own biography there was that point where you gave up your work as a biologist and changed your job to make more money. These customs, all these traditions are all very nice, but what if they don’t allow someone to live a good life here?
Perhaps it’s just because I’ve had to give up my field and do something else that it is very important to me that we don’t forget what the state’s basic functions are: education and health. All children need to be guaranteed access to education, independent from their parents’ income.
It’s extremely important that the state give people the freedom of choice, but at the same time offers them a feeling of security, that they still can see a doctor and get a free education for their children. Also in the case if you choose a field where the salary isn’t high, or if you only want to work three days a week and make less because of that.
What could the message be to young people, to follow their calling or perhaps to be a bit pragmatic as well?
Today the situation is different. For example, people in several fields work for different employers, which I think creates a better feeling of security also for young people.
Talking about the Estonian economy, how do you get your own idea of it? What are the most important measures based on which you get to your own assessment of the economy?
First of all I look at unemployment numbers. If unemployment is high, there clearly are possibilities that aren’t being used, and then it’s about finding simple and quick ways to solve the problem, for example by getting foreign investment, that people would have work.
But if unemployment numbers are very low, and salaries are growing quickly, as we have it at the moment, and we have to deal with it ourselves, then it’s more difficult. Then we have to be innovation leaders ourselves, and winners, those who get people from other countries to realize their own ideas.
We’ve had several instances of corruption, and the Reform Party will soon elect a new chairman, which again has brought up the parties’ past financing scandals. It has been said that the state needs to be led by morally flexible people from time to time, that politicians have to cross these moral and ethical borders from time to time. What is your opinion, is this acceptable?
An honest state is very important to me, and it seems that anything that isn’t a state secret could be public. I’ve been saying to the parties for a long time that their accounting could be put online, and that it could also be correct and honest.
What political culture do you expect in the new year, what could be your message to the politicians here?
I hope that the spirit of cooperation grows, that we may have different world views, but still all want that Estonia would do well. We need to be able to support and complete each other. There are too few of us to deny each other’s good traits and good sides.
Are you certain that you will be heard and listened to?
Yes I am. I’m talking about this all the time, and I do believe that this will have an influence.
What in your opinion is Estonia’s unity today? And what creates it?
Still these same traditions. Children have learned songs this autumn for the song festival, and the song festival is coming. So is Independence Day. Aug. 20 is also coming, where we remind ourselves of our regained independence, the moment where we really were united. Yes, there were different world views, but when we crossed our borders we were always united.
I think that this is what we’ll see also in the next years, precisely because the world around us seems to be off its hinges.
What could this individual initiative and spirit bring? What is your personal experience?
Everyone can create their own Estonia, just how they want it, and this spirit doesn’t always need to be the same in every one of us. It’s very nice that people are driven by different things, and do different things with their friends and neighbors.
What I hope is that there will be cities and municipalities in the new year that take this seamless society and support volunteers in different fields, Facebook groups, whoever, and help them create the kind of home they want. I believe this is the model of how our society changes, this is important. This is cheaper than what was done in Western Europe for decades, and it is more human, as we are getting just the Estonia that we wanted.
Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn