The ideal candidate: Minister of Foreign Affairs Marina Kaljurand (12)
ERR News' series about the presidential candidates' foreign policy credentials continues: Kaljurand will not be on the ballot in the Riigikogu election on Monday, but if they should fail to elect a president next week, she is considered a frontrunner for the next stage of the elections in the electoral college. Though not officially affiliated with any party, she is considered to be the Reform Party’s second choice after Siim Kallas.
Along with Kallas, Kaljurand is one of the heavyweights in terms of foreign policy credentials. She currently serves as Estonia’s very popular foreign minister. Kaljurand’s almost rock star status can be tied to her time as ambassador to Russia during the Bronze Soldier riots in 2007. Along with the riots in Tallinn, protests popped up in Russia at the Estonian embassy, where Kaljurand was attacked (link in Estonian).
This attack elevated Kaljurand to the status of a modern day freedom fighter. One element of status is comparison, which also helps to explain her current popularity as foreign minister. Her predecessor, Keit Pentus-Rosimannus (Reform), had been a surprise choice as foreign minister given her lack of foreign policy credentials. She was seen as weak, highlighted by an incident where the Estonian media accused the office of the president of usurping the roles that the foreign minister traditionally occupied. Given President Ilves’ expertise and stature, this was not an unsurprising observation.
Furthermore, Pentus-Rosimannus had to resign due to a scandal related to a civil courts ruling concering her father’s company. This put the Reform Party in a bind and the spotlight and pressure on the next foreign minister. Marina Kaljurand can largely be seen as the anti-Pentus-Rosimannus. A competent career diplomat who is also an independent, and has not been affiliated with any political party before.
Setting a new precedent, she opted to not join the Reform Party while serving as minister of foreign affairs. In a country where women and ethnic Russians are laughably underrepresented despite their importance to both business and society, Kaljurand’s rise to the top was welcomed by everyone. Though the Estonian president is not elected directly by the people, it is important to note that Kaljurand is supported by the largest share of Estonians by a healthy margin.
Kaljurand’s experience and status would translate well to the international stage. Her experience as ambassador to the United States and Russia, and now as foreign minister, uniquely qualifies her to navigate the key relationships needed to guarantee Estonia’s security and prosperity. As the Bronze Soldier riots demonstrated, relations with Russia can pose a challenge to Estonia at the international, bilateral, and domestic levels. Estonia finds itself at the center of geopolitical tensions between NATO and Russia, challenges and tensions remain on the bilateral level, and Russia still has potential to be a destabilizing force domestically. Marina Kaljurand is uniquely capable of managing Russian relations on all three levels.
Regarding foreign policy challenges at the international level, Estonia will need to continue to convince allies to provide sufficient support to maintain an active deterrent against potential Russian aggression. This has to be done with the proper tone that does not invite a security dilemma and an arms buildup in the region. Kaljurand’s experience as ambassador and foreign minister, as well as being an ethnic Russian enables her better than anyone to keep relations with Russia from spinning out of control.
Maintaining NATO support depends on a number of countries, but first and foremost on the United States. Ever since Kaljurand’s time in the USA as a Fulbright scholar, she has been considered a favorite of the Americans (though no US diplomat will confirm that publicly). In addition to her time at Tufts University, she served as ambassador to the United States from 2011-2014. When thinking about continuing relations under a Hillary Clinton presidency, Marina Kaljurand would be able to establish a relationship of trust, as they both would share history as the first female president of their respective countries.
If all hell breaks loose and Donald Trump wins, then Marina Kaljurand with her ties to America would have the best chance of convincing Trump and the United States to continue to support Estonia using her networks to ensure that other actors in U.S. policy circles would pressure Trump on Estonia’s behalf.
Domestically, Kaljurand is unique in her ability to represent and influence Estonian society in its entirety. The status of women continues to be a problem in Estonia. Many have asked for years how it is possible that women make up two thirds of university students, but only one fourth of parliament. Estonia also has the highest gender pay gap in Europe. Government leaders have shown worrisome behavior when some of the most competent and successful ministers, such as Anne Sulling and Maris Lauri, were not retained and instead replaced in the government with scandal-tarnished men. These are actions that are noticed by the international community, and which can damage Estonia’s standing. Admittedly, gender equality is a complex issue that will take years to solve, but one should not underestimate the impact that a woman president could have.
Kaljurand’s ethnicity also enables her to connect with the entire population of Estonia. When the international media highlighted this fact, Kaja Kallas laughed it off in a twitter response (link in Estonian). What Kaja Kallas failed to realize is the importance ethnic Russians place on language. President Ilves earned their ire when he stated that speaking the Russian language would be accepting 50 years of occupation. Years later, when Ilves spoke at a Russian school and said in Russian “Hello, I am your president”- ‘Здравствуйте, я ваш президент’ - he received a standing ovation (link in Estonian).
As events in Ukraine demonstrate, gaining the legitimacy of the Russian speaking minority is no laughing matter. Given Russian president Putin’s preference to use an ugly propaganda machine and use minorities as tools of destabilization, ensuring legitimacy in the eyes of the Russian speaking population is not just good for society, it is critical for the peace and security of Estonia.
As far as Kaljurand’s political position is concerned, behind the rock star status and the excitement that a woman ethnic Russian would bring, there may simply be a status quo president. Her political views are very much in line with those of the Estonian elite, especially regarding security issues. Those who are hoping for new ideas or a change of course might be disappointed in Kaljurand. However, in a time of uncertainty and crisis, Kaljurand appears to have exactly the skill set Estonia needs in its next president.
This article is the fifth in a six-part series published between Aug. 22 and 27. The other articles in the series are listed below.
Matthew Crandall is an international relations lecturer at Tallinn University. He has agreed to write portraits for all six presidential hopefuls in the 2016 election.