New EKRE minister Kaimar Karu in first interview: the weak need protection
"It is not the task of the state to control people's lives or tell them how they need to behave." Kaimar Karu, who left a consultation firm in London when he was invited to serve as Estonia's foreign trade and IT minister by the Conservative People's Party (EKRE), gives the interview as if walking on a minefield. What would the interview be about, he asked. I would like to have an idea whom we're dealing with, was the journalist's answer.
You have a degree in language philosophy from the University of Tartu. Is speech free in Estonia?
Okay. Let's start with questions like these.
Depends on what we mean by freedom. If we mean that people are free to say almost anything that isn't officially hate speech – then yes.
If by freedom we mean that a person can say almost whatever they want without there being any consequences, the answer – of course not! Estonia is no exception here, people also need to take responsibility for their words elsewhere.
A related question is whether people feel they can say whatever they want.
Pressure not to say certain things has grown stronger, while it is also possible to talk about more things than previously.
There is political correctness?
Political correctness is… All these terms have been overused and rendered meaningless. What is political correctness?
Not insulting anyone.
Insults are like any other statement in that they have authors and interpreters. I cannot recall who said that it is only possible to take offense, not give it. I do not fully agree, because it is also possible to insult people. However, that said, having a person say something another person finds insulting does not mean the former was looking to give offense. Intent is what matters.
Can speech also be empty? Politicians are often said to make empty words.
It absolutely can.
We can say that the language of diplomacy is occasionally empty, even though meaning often lies outside words in that sphere. You can say a great deal by saying nothing at all, while how you say or refrain from saying something could be far more significant than the words you use.
I once read that the boundaries of language are the boundaries of the human experience – our language is our world. And that everything that falls outside of it seems mystical and different. Alien. Does this mean that the more languages I speak, the bigger and more coherent the world I inhabit?
Language works as a filter between the world outside and the one inside of us. Speaking several languages can mean a person has a richer world.
How rich is your world?
How many languages do I speak? I'm fluent in Estonian and English. But I have learned other languages in the past, even Esperanto for a time. I can read and understand Russian, while I've had very little practice speaking it in recent years... There are a few others I am somewhat familiar with.
A recent survey asked people how they would vote in a referendum over EU membership. Would you vote for or against?
Have we benefited immensely from the European Union? Absolutely.
Would we be worse off had we not joined? I believe so.
Does the EU include a lot of red tape? Absolutely, all such institutions involve bureaucracy.
Does this red tape seem to get out of hand at times? Absolutely, but again, this is in no way only characteristic only to the European Union.
The short answer is that I would vote in favor of joining the EU. At the same time, I would say that the EU and other such institutions need reforms to shed their accumulated ballast and habits not all of which are needed today.
What does the oft-used term "European values" mean for you?
The meaning has changed over time, or rather the term has taken on additional meanings. In the recent past, European values were interpreted as liberal. By now, they have morphed into what could be described as conservative for many people.
European values… Nationalism. And I'm not talking about street marches and lynchings here. Not that kind of nationalism. Faith in the nation state. A lot of people no longer believe nation states are necessary. Perhaps the world is moving toward nation states disappearing should globalization continue. Will we eventually become a melting pot of nations? I don't know.
About what we consider the Estonian language and culture. We have not been left to our own devices in this land over the centuries, the land has almost always belonged to someone else; our history is diverse and painful at the same time. But we have retained something we can call Estonian culture, we have retained the Estonian language, this complicated language of local peasants. It is absolutely incredible, considering how easy it would have been to get rid of it.
What will the European Union be without the United Kingdom?
Provided Brexit will go ahead, things will be far more complicated for the United Kingdom than they will for the EU.
What would this mean for the future of the EU… There are several movements or initiatives for leaving the EU or reforming it to a substantial degree. If one member state "escapes," it is sure to make others think that perhaps they should too.
Or vice versa? They will see just how painful it has been for the Brits and decide against it.
You seem to believe that people are rational beings?
Because we are rather irrational. We tend to follow other motivators than rational thought, even though we like to think of ourselves as rational.
A few days ago, you told EPL that the entire Brexit mess started when the wrong people were asked the wrong question at the wrong time. What would have been the right question to the right people at the right time?
There should not have been a question [of whether to leave the EU] in this form at all. It was an attempt to solve domestic problems using a very heavy foreign policy topic. The Brexit issue was initially often presented as something that would yield domestic and financial benefits, give people more money and independence etc.
PM [2010-2016] David Cameron should never have held the referendum?
He took a risk, and it led to a situation he could not have imagined. He did not want things to turn out like they did.
In the survey I mentioned earlier, 74 percent of people voted in favor of EU membership. Supporters of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) were the most euro-skeptical as just 54 percent of the party's voters were in favor of membership. Now, you will have the chance to explain from inside the party why the EU is not of the devil. Will you undertake the task?
It is not my task in my new role to explain the virtues or problems of the EU. What I can do is show that the EU is useful in terms of the things I must do.
That does not mean I view the EU as a holistically ideal institution that could continue to exist in its current form for the next 50 years. The EU must change for various reasons. Brexit, should it go ahead, could be a catalyst for change. Whether that change will be for the better or worse is something I don't know.
You lived in the U.K. as a foreign worker for years.
Does Estonia need foreign workers?
Both IT specialists and construction workers?
To be perfectly honest, I do not know the answer. It depends on what kind of country we want to be, what kind of industry and service sector we want to develop. Do we need more people in the IT sector? A simple answer would be that you can find more people by paying locals a higher salary.
IT people say they would gladly pay Estonians what they pay foreign specialists, but there simply aren't enough Estonian IT specialists to be found.
Not all roles in IT require people Estonia doesn't have. We have quite a lot of IT specialists, most have good jobs and universities are churning out people with IT education. But yes, there is more work than people.
Salary is one thing, while experience is another. To ensure development, it would make sense to bring new experience to local teams. On the one hand, it is good to have more smart people paying taxes on high salary in Estonia.
On the other, in a situation where globalization is threatening nation states, there is created the question of what will happen if a lot of people will come from the outside. Can our culture survive? Will the newcomers learn our language? Do they want to understand why we are how we are as Estonians or will they simply treat Estonia as an intermediate destination.
Often, it is the latter.
And what will happen then? When people around us do not appreciate Estonianness not because they are bad people, but simply because being Estonian, the Estonian language and people are simply factors and not values for them. What will become of the Estonian state, language, people – Estonianness – in that case?
We are million. There will hardly be as many IT specialists.
You do not need a majority to bring about substantial cultural change. We still remember a time when we were not independent, and there is definitely fear in the air of something like that happening again. This does not have to mean war; losing an environment that attaches value to things you and I care about would be enough.
Should Estonia accept war refugees based on solidarity in the EU?
That is a very specific question and lies wholly outside my area of expertise.
You have long lived in a city of refugees – London.
London is a city of immigrants, not refugees. And living in such a city is one thing, while taking a stand in political matters in the Republic of Estonia is another.
It is also a question of values – solidarity, helping people…
It is also a value-based matter, while it is not just a question of values whether refugees – people who are really running from war or worsening climate conditions in their region – should be accepted. There are several groups of refugees who are really escaping from something…
I don't know. It would require an analysis of pros and cons that would take at least three hours.
Unfortunately, we do not have that kind of time. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas asked you during your first meeting whether you realize what you've gotten mixed up in? Do you?
He did not use those exact words, but it was the idea of his question.
Based on that – do you?
(Sighs and then sighs again)
I would be lying either way.
On the one hand, I know very little of what awaits me because politics is new to me, the role of minister is new to me, and there is no way for me to know what awaits me. On the other, asked whether I believe I understand the challenges ahead of me, I believe I know what I need to do and am ready to do it.
I'm sure there will be a lot of unexpected situations.
Do you know EKRE voters' expectations for you?
I have met with the party's Riigikogu group, rank and file members and supporters. Expectations differ.
Allow me to quote a social media post by a supporter: "I very much hope the investigation into e-election fraud by the social-rat criminal gang will continue." Will it continue?
Let us leave aside the middle part of this quote. (Smiles) My task is not to investigate potential fraud. My job is to make sure the e-voting component is transparent, legible and secure.
Have you voted electronically?
Yes I have.
Are you willing to say for which party?
And have you in doing so agreed with former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves when he said during 2014 European Parliament elections that "an e-vote is a vote of confidence in one of the world's best IT systems and the Estonian state?"
That quote again draws out the language philosopher in me. Trust has been used in several meanings as if it only had one. Elections cannot be boiled down to just a matter of trust, talking about voting and its results. Trust is placed in the people we elect in hopes that they will do what's right.
What about the way we vote? If I choose to cast an electronic vote, I am demonstrating that I trust e-voting.
If you use a paper ballot, do you then strongly and consciously believe you do it because you trust that piece of paper or is it because you know that's how it works, that you can cast your vote this way?
How secure is our e-voting?
I cannot tell you at this time. Various working groups have looked into it and have failed to find a single reason to abandon the instrument. That said, the question remains.
For whom does it remain?
Some Estonian citizens.
In terms of transparency – yes. What concerns me the most, going back to trust, is that complicated systems are very difficult to explain in a way everyone could understand. It seems to me that we've not had enough time to better explain the e-voting system to people who are not tech-savvy, do not come from the sector and have not studied IT.
Perhaps those who know have been a little careless as it has all seemed so self-explanatory to them, and they have not deemed it necessary to explain it to skeptics.
It happens in certain contexts. That we know better and the "plebs" should ask fewer questions, but…
I won't say e-voting developers have been careless. We have been concentrating on development, but it seems we've lacked the time… Today, we have the chance, desire and duty to take a step back – not in terms of solutions – and look at what has been left wanting. We need to work on transparency. Explanation has been half-baked and can be improved. But I won't say people have been careless.
By the way, do you plan to meet with former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves who has helped make e-Estonia great in the world?
I believe so.
How did EKRE deputy chair Martin Helme convince you to leave the razzmatazz of London and its pubs and come to Tallinn with its even foggier weather?
Martin Helme gave me the chance. I did most of the work convincing myself. That you should do something about it if you see that things can be done better… Opportunities like that do not come around often.
You did not suggest Helme find the new minister from within EKRE?
I may be modest like a typical Estonian, but I'm not that modest.
Were the foreign trade and IT portfolio held by the Centre Party and had you been approached by their deputy chair Mailis Reps, would you still have accepted?
I do not know. Not because of the Centre Party or Mailis Reps, but simply because the history of the portfolio would have been different…
History is very turbulent here.
Precisely. Had the history of the role been different, had I felt compelled to do something? I don't know whether I would have taken the job without feeling that something really needed to be done.
You realize Estonia has not had a de facto foreign trade and IT minister since spring?
The position has been filled formally, but we have not had a minister for the job.
I would like to say that I cannot agree with you, but I simply do not have enough information to do so at this time.
You are not afraid of politics?
I do not know to be afraid of it. Yet.
You haven't yet decided whether you're going to join EKRE?
I have not.
An EKRE supporter has asked why a hardcore liberal has become the party's minister?
Perhaps it is a good thing I have not had time to read comments.
Political inclination is in the eye of the beholder. If someone perceives me as a hardcore liberal… I should ask them which convictions they interpret as such?
Describing your worldview, you wrote on social media that preservation of our state, language and culture is not conservation because we do not live in a museum, while you phrased the task of rulers as that of gardeners and not builders. But a gardener is a conservationist in this context?
Definitely not. A gardener takes care of plants the lives of which they can affect to a limited degree. Plants will grow as they will grow. While we can create favorable conditions for plants, we cannot ask them to grow two meters in two weeks. A plant would not understand and would still grow as best it can. A lot depends on the environment you create.
When it comes to state administration, it is not the state's task to control people's lives or tell them how to behave. We have a justice system, rules in society, but we should concentrate on creating a favorable environment, not bans and orders.
Very good. The EKRE council just approved a political declaration demanding the government pull state financing for LGBT associations. You told Õhtuleht in an interview that associations that meet financing conditions should be funded. You are navigating a minefield.
It is another area where we need more substantial dialogue to be able to understand what people mean when they say something and what they really want to achieve. In other words, whether we are looking at the principles based on which associations are funded or trying to apply different principles to a single association.
The question is what kind of associations we finance, based on which principles and for the latter to be transparent and fair.
Provided these principles are transparent and fair, you do not have a problem with the social ministry financing the LGBT association?
That depends on the association's activities. Every association can be educational, helpful, while it can also be violent and aggressive. It is impossible to say that an association bearing a certain name or label is bar or good. If an association's activities correspond to principles of funding that are transparent and apply equally across the spectrum, its name is of no significance whatsoever.
"Honest EKRE members feel as if rainbow-colored pastor Annika Laats was made a member of the party," a national conservative said in comment to your words. Do you know what made Laats famous in Estonia?
I do not.
Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELC) pastor Annika Laats openly supported the Registered Partnership Act.
Do you feel same sex partners can live together and raise children? Singer and volunteer Siiri Sisask who agreed to run for EKRE at parliamentary elections had to step aside after admitting she does.
Regarding some topics there is a conflict of values in society. Sexual minorities, the way they are treated and their rights make up one such topic, and not only in Estonia. Unfortunately, minorities have historically been subject to repressions or persecution in some form. It has been felt by sexual minorities, black people living in predominantly white areas and poor people whom their wealthier counterparts have treated as a minority or as less valuable.
Before we move on to your question, we should talk about these values calmly, openly and publicly to understand why people support them and to find a path that suits the Estonian people. We are not cut from the same piece of cardboard using a stencil.
This conflict of values needs to be addressed. However, the more yes or no questions we ask, the deeper the rift in society grows. I cannot see it benefiting us – neither our country, our people nor ourselves as individuals.
That is the reason why you just dodged a chance of voicing your opinion?
Do you believe the weak have to be protected?
I believe that we need to protect the weak.
Several respected IT people warn that Estonia's e-success story is fading and that Estonia will soon find itself in the middle or even at the back of the pack. Is this a realistic or overly pessimistic prospect?
(Thinks at length)
The heart of our e-state is showing signs of sclerosis. I borrow the expression from you. What remedy could clean those arteries right up?
Clearing them up very quickly could be dangerous.
You run the risk of wearing out the blood vessels, which is something you don't want.
Yes, we are at risk of falling behind. But I would not say it is because we are weak or have become weak.
The others have grown stronger?
Yes, they have. That said, do I believe we can get ahead again – because it is a marathon rather than a sprint? The answer here is yes, which is part of the reason I accepted.
I believe we can build up a solid lead again, but that would likely require us to work more on demonstrating the "business benefits" of good IT solutions. Benefit for the citizen, the state, entrepreneurs; cooperation, rendering things more efficient etc.
Some things we have done do not come off as technical abroad. E-residency is not seen as a technological breakthrough. Rather, it is something that allows people to do specific things and be connected to the state, which is something they find neat. We need more things that emphasize new value, not how cool the technology behind it is. Technology is changing rapidly, and innovation today is stagnation tomorrow.
Do we need to fear Chinese tech and Huawei?
I would rephrase the question so I could give an affirmative answer. Do we need to be wary of technology coming from a major world power? Yes.
And I would not say China is the only such power, while special interest in China is justified, looking at their development and ability to affect global process in recent years. How big is the threat from China to Estonian national security? That is not my field, I cannot answer that question yet.
Technology from China or some other country when used for strategically important tasks and in a way that could facilitate leaks or surrender control of vital systems constitutes a risk that needs to be managed.
But that is the case for any new technology. We cannot procure technology from France, Portugal, India or Australia without making sure it's safe first.
You do trust officials of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications?
You're not afraid of the so-called deep state?
(Laughs and sighs)
When I say "yes" then… (Laughs again)
What is the deep state?
A group of state officials, special services operatives and journalists that pursues some kind of own agenda… I can tell you that you can ask Mart and Martin Helme who preach the deep state in Estonia.
I don't believe in this kind of organized activity.
Allow me to split the question in two and try to give an answer.
Are there people, beyond those you named, who are concerned over events or signs in society that are difficult to explain in a conventional way? The answer is yes, while there might be quite a few people who feel things are a little strange every now and again.
Secondly, there's the question of how some events are covered in the media, whether this coverage is legible, logical and credible.
And if you put together a peculiar incident and an explanation that seems even stranger, you can be left asking, "what's going on?"
Personally, I do not believe in conspiracy theories. That would mean a lot of people would have to be in on it and capable of keeping it a secret. Anyone who has had contact with people realizes it is highly unlikely. As I said, people are not rational.
Are you a rational person?
I'm a person like any other. I'm in the habit of trying to make sense of things before I take a stand on them.
Do you know who your advisers will be and will you be able to pick them yourselves, or will EKRE set some limits here?
I can pick my own advisers. I plan to take this task very seriously, also because of recent events, and find advisers fit for the job and compatible with the minister.
Last question. What smartphone do you use?
I have a Sony. I can exhibit crazy brand loyalty in some areas. My first phone was an Ericsson 788. It was a flip phone. It was fantastic. I was still in high school at the time, and I believe I was the first student at our school to have a cell phone. I have remained loyal to Ericsson to some extent to this day, although the phones were marketed as Sony-Ericsson devices for a time and are now just called Sony. So, there is brand loyalty involved.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski