The heavyweight: Siim Kallas

Siim Kallas (Ülo Josing/ERR)
By Matthew Crandall
8/24/2016 9:21 AM
Category: News

ERR News' series about the presidential candidates continues with Siim Kallas, the Reform Party’s choice for president. Kallas remains one of the favorites and is one of the two candidates with an extensive international background, the other being current Minister of Foreign Affairs Marina Kaljurand (independent).

Kallas is most known for being the European Commissioner for Transport as well as a former prime minister of Estonia and longtime Reform Party leader, but there are other experiences that are noteworthy.

His tenure as the president of the Bank of Estonia in the early 90’s is an example. This is the source of controversy, as many in the Estonian media still bring up questions of his supposed mismanagement of money. Putting the supposed skeletons in the closet aside, his time with the Bank of Estonia is where Kallas established his international profile.

Estonia’s successful transition from the Ruble to the Kroon helped elevate Kallas’ profile. To this day, Kallas is known for his expertise in economics. He also served as minister of finance from 1999 to 2002. Businessman and founder of Hansabank, one of Estonia's great success stories of the 1990s, Indrek Neivelt recently noted that when Siim Kallas left for Brussels, the Reform Party lost a significant part of its economic brain power. The lack of meaningful economic reforms since, in Neivelt’s opinion, can partially be explained by Kallas’ departure.

When considering a Kallas presidency, his experience suggests that Kallas could have a powerful voice on economic affairs. This fits Estonia’s national profile as well. Estonia has made significant efforts to be a model financial country, in other words the anti-Greece. Fiscal discipline, membership in the Eurozone and an image of innovation provide a solid platform for Kallas to use his expertise to raise Estonia’s image and push Estonian interests even further.

Just as Ilves has helped Estonia gain recognition in the areas of cyber security and e-governance, Kallas could do the same in the economic sphere (which Ilves also did, if to a lesser extent). This doesn’t mean the promotion of idealistic free market reforms from the 1990’s. When Kallas returned from Brussels, one key aspect of his message was to increase the social guarantees in Estonia.

This message at times seemed almost more in line with the social democrats than the free market Reform party. This is noteworthy, as issues of inequality continue to grow in importance. For Estonia to be an advocate in the economic sphere, it will need to have a pragmatic message that speaks beyond the top 1%. Kallas’ ability to engage on economic affairs is something that should not be overlooked as the global economy continues to increase in importance and volatility.

Of course most of Kallas’ foreign credentials have come from his time serving on the European Commission. From 2004 to 2014 he served first as Commissioner for Administrative Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud, and later as Commissioner for Transport. Kallas was also one of the vice presidents of the Commission during his period.

Knowing the intricacies of the European Union and having a strong network within the EU is of critical importance given Estonia’s upcoming presidency of the EU in 2017. Other challenges, such as Brexit and refugee flows, also increase the value of Kallas’ EU experiences.

All in all, Kallas can be considered a heavyweight in terms of his ability to make an impact in international affairs. His weaknesses have more of an impact regarding his ability to represent Estonia domestically. First is the fact that he is a member of the Reform Party. Looking at leadership changes in the party, a Kallas presidency could be the beginning of a worrisome trend where Reform plays musical chairs with important positions, such as EU commissioner, prime minister, and president.

For Estonian democracy to thrive, a wide number of parties and ideas need to be represented. Kallas also represents the Estonian elite and could have a hard time connecting to ordinary Estonians. He could run the risk of being branded as out of touch with the reality of Estonian life.

Given the interplay between domestic and international affairs, domestic legitimacy is something that cannot be ignored when evaluating international affairs. Kallas also fits the bill as an elder statesman who would not create a spark based on gender, youth, or other interesting elements of his background. A small minority of elderly Estonians would mention his past as a member of the Communist party before Estonia regained independence. Most correctly dismiss this critique outright as irrelevant in the 21st century.

The real problem lies with his potential inability to connect with the youth and minorities in Estonia. In addition, while Kallas is a foreign policy heavyweight, there are still areas that he leaves unchecked on a desired wish list, hard security and NATO issues being the first. One also wonders if his extensive European network would sufficiently enable him to be globally influential in an era of rising nationalism in a post-Western world.

All in all, a Siim Kallas presidency would place Estonia in safe hands at a trying time. Kallas would be capable of engaging on economic and European topics as an expert, though without the flair of Ilves’ tweets. Kallas’ biggest challenge would be domestic, maintaining legitimacy throughout Estonia, and making an impact beyond the European level.

This article is the third 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.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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