Reform Party chairman Kaja Kallas explains her sharp utterances aimed at PM Jüri Ratas and says Ratas has abandoned all of his principles. She adds, however, that her comment according to which Ratas would sell Estonia the first chance he got does not mean she accuses him of treason.
Welcome to the studio, Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas.
What is the point of a no-confidence motion against a minister if everyone knows it will fail?
I dare say we didn't. Looking at previous utterances by Isamaa MPs, the head of the party's Riigikogu group and the coalition party's chairman, they all said [Minister of Rural Affairs] Mart Järvik needs to take political responsibility.
You thought they would defect in a situation where the three coalition partners merrily sat here together yesterday?
Of course they are merrily sitting together in the coalition. However, the coalition's 56 votes were down to 51 today. Just enough to stop the motion from passing. Talking to individual Isamaa MPs, it was clear they felt uncomfortable because we know the facts. It turned out in the Riigikogu that Järvik does not understand the responsibilities of a minister and is unfit for the job. I believe they did not press that button lightheartedly.
Does this not achieve the opposite effect of rendering the coalition stronger than it was at the beginning of the week?
You are talking about political tactics, while I'm talking about principles and values. Looking at what the rural affairs minister is trying to do – there is clear evidence that he has favored private interests over public ones, while a minister should always prioritize state and public interests. He has lied. And we all remember that when our former foreign trade and IT minister lied not long ago, everyone was very resolute and said it is the worst sin imaginable. At the same time, the rural affairs minister has lied repeatedly that suddenly doesn't count. This will be on the coalition's conscience if they fail to do something about it. But if the opposition also does nothing and accepts such behavior, it will only get worse.
The opposition has some tools. Not many, but a vote of no confidence is one such tool. We got to question the rural affairs minister who usually does not show his face in the Riigikogu. He was summoned to appear in front of a committee, but didn't show, claiming to be busy. He did come to the floor that allowed us to ask him questions. Unfortunately, we didn't get any answers.
Why did Jevgeni Ossinovski not participate? Is it true the social democrats would have preferred to wait?
That question needs to be put to Ossinovski. Perhaps he knows something about the rural affairs minister he's keeping to himself. I really cannot speak for him.
Why did you not wait for the results of the state secretary's investigation?
Because it's wrong. Looking at the actions of the rural affairs minister or any other for that matter, we need to voice our political opinion, take political responsibility, which is something that cannot be delegated to officials who, moreover, work for the PM. The other thing this achieves is matching the rhetoric of investigative organs being incompetent. When you think about the fact that a criminal investigation is underway concerning the rural affairs minister's former adviser and that case. The PM forming a special committee at the same time means he's calling into question conclusions to be drawn by the prosecution. I believe it is not right. An official cannot pass moral judgment, it is the prerogative of politicians.
Will the committee deliver Jüri Ratas' government?
The aim of the committee is to play for time. Ten days is a rather long time. They are likely hoping that new scandals, new ideas will take center stage. The full moon will pass and everything will go back to business as usual. However, what the no-confidence vote revealed is that Järvik tried to hurriedly amend the Ministry of Rural Affairs' statutes yesterday (Wednesday – ed.) to abolish the position of deputy secretary general for food safety so he could get rid of someone he doesn't like. The fact that something like this is attempted inside the ten days the committee has for its investigation shows that things have become even worse and Estonia has suffered.
Is it even possible the secretary general, deputy secretary general and the minister will all remain in office?
It is very difficult to imagine this cooperation. Management theory suggests all three cannot continue if they are incapable of pursuing cooperation. Who will leave is the question. A minister has the right to release a secretary general from office after they've worked together for six months if cooperation is not coming along. I believe we need to think about the real reason why Järvik is looking to get rid of his secretary general. If the reason today is that the secretary general (Illar Lemetti – ed.) tried to protect Estonia from what the minister wanted to do or pointed to the conflict of interest, that is what we expect from our people. We want our officials to serve Estonia at any given time, instead of being political.
Let us return to the no-confidence motion. Was its true aim the fact that attention started to shift from the government crisis to your recent utterances? To bring back the focus so to speak?
Making it out to be such a big thing was a clever move by Ratas. He wanted to move the focus away from the scandal. But we managed to ask a lot of questions in the Riigikogu today, and the suspicions remain.
And so, you countered?
No. We were talking about a no-confidence motion when the suspicions first surfaced. Even back when it was only the listeria scandal (of fish processor M.V.Wool – ed.). He had already lied enough to beg the question of whether we should seek a motion of no confidence. Add to that the conflict of interest case where it is quite clear the minister is favoring the interests of friends and acquaintances and his adviser's clients over public ones, what more do you need? Violations are piling up.
Let us come to your choice of words. You told Aktuaalne kaamera that Jüri Ratas would sell out Estonia if it meant he could continue as PM. Are you prepared to apologize today?
First of all, I have not talked about treason, which is what Jüri Ratas is trying to incriminate me for.
How else to interpret the claim he would sell out Estonia?
If we take the Estonian Grammar Dictionary or the explanatory dictionary, the results there for "sell out" come back as "having surrendered one's convictions." Not a word or hint there in terms of it standing for treason. That is what he is trying to attach to the utterance. What I meant was that Jüri Ratas has no principles. That Jüri Ratas has abandoned his principles, values and promises. All so that he could be prime minister, and that is exactly how it is today.
A lot of people took offense and some still interpret it differently. Was the utterance a mistake?
It is interesting. First of all, these reactions seem very hypocritical in light of everything Jüri Ratas' coalition partner has said. And really meant treason, saying that Jüri Ratas is a fig leaf hiding the Kremlin's intentions. A week after those utterances, Jüri Ratas formed this government with them. I cannot remember whether there was a public apology. You are journalists and perhaps you do. But aren't you tired of talking about who said what?
Words are a politician's tools and need to be talked about.
I believe we should talk about content. For example, it is the 25th anniversary of the Reform Party today, and I gave a speech to talk about the topics, challenges we're facing. A major storm robs South Estonia of power for several days, with most vital services depending on electricity. We need to look to what extent something like that can paralyze us. These are the things we should be tackling, not who said what and who should apologize.
And yet you are very diligent when it comes to commenting on utterances from the coalition. It is the work of politicians.
Indeed. We must react when someone insults groups in society, goes after minorities or undermines rule of law. It is our role to point it out. It is the new political normality, and it should not be thus. Of course, we must all choose our words and be more respectful, but still… I understand it is easier to just talk about what someone said, while it would be far more important to talk about the things affecting life in Estonia.
Was your utterance simply unfortunate? Did you not mean it like that, or was it a conscious choice?
That Jüri Ratas has abandoned his principles is something I stand by. Looking at how he said he would not work with the Conservative People's Party (EKRE). He said it four times before elections. And the first person he called after the results were in was EKRE leader Mart Helme. Looking at the coalition agreement, Isamaa is to succeed in tearing down our pension system, EKRE will get a platform for attacking minorities in the form of their referendum, but what will the Centre Party get? They've surrender all of it. Let us continue. [EKRE] attacking minorities, gynecologists, Tallinn University lecturers, researchers et al. He is making it all possible. If we look at how Estonia's reputation has been dragged through the mud by the use of all manner of white supremacist hand signals etc., none of it would matter were these people not ministers. However, they are ministers and represent the Estonian government that is the country's countenance outside its borders. It matters. If you have principles, values, promises that are sacred to you, what are they? How much further are we willing to let it go? Today, we have corruption associated with the rural affairs minister who is allowed to stay on, continue as minister and continue doing what he's doing. How far have we pushed these limits?
Won't attacking Jüri Ratas cement the current government further, motivate it to grit its teeth and march on?
That is not on me. The government stays together for objective reasons. Isamaa will remain a part of it until they can tear down the pension system – that is their objective reason. They will not leave the government until then. This government is the only option for EKRE. Those are objective circumstances. I have not attacked; I simply answered a question, saying I'm not willing to be a part of a government run by Jüri Ratas because he has abandoned almost all of his principles, and I cannot do it. I still have principles, and it should count for something also in this day and age.
It is not the first mistake you appear to have made regarding Jüri Ratas. Your no-confidence motion against him also failed. What is motivating these moves?
Time will tell who has made mistakes. When people will look back on all this one day, I doubt my actions will be seen as negative; rather, they will be seen as attempts to protect Estonia from those who would hurt it using everything at our disposal. That is what we're doing.
Your voter wants to see you come to power, while these steps are pushing the boat in the opposite direction.
When Mart and Martin Helme made the government a week after referring to Ratas as the Kremlin's fig leaf. It is hypocritical. And their hurt feelings are a sham and very selective.
Doesn't having back-to-back no-confidence motions fail devalue the powerful tool?
Look, if you think we love putting them together, you're wrong. We don't, but we don't have a choice because we also do not like what these members of the government are doing. We do not like attempts to undermine rule of law, attacks against minorities. We also do not like attempts to help friends on taxpayer dime. We must react, lest we are told we did nothing the next time something like this happens. Why is this thing worse than the last? We would love to concentrate on fundamental matters, but the government doing what it's doing leaves us no choice.
Can the Järvik matter be resolved positively for all sides?
The only way it can be resolved is for Järvik to quit as minister. He has clearly demonstrated the position is too much for him and that he doesn't understand the responsibility it holds, nor the fact he is there to represent public interests. He should be protecting the Estonian taxpayer and state.
Leading EKRE politicians have attacked the prosecution, and one example they give is the case of Reform Party MP Eerik-Niiles Kross' wife Mary Kross whose criminal case was terminated in agreement process over lack of public interest. Do you see how that can rub some people the wrong way?
Yes, I've read about it, but termination in agreement process does not mean one escapes punishment. She was fined €3,000 if memory serves, and the case was closed because it would have required time and money. The instrument is aimed at saving taxpayer money. The debate is over whether there was public interest to prosecute.
You worked as a sworn lawyer. Did the prosecution do its job well?
It is always better if you can make a deal and avoid lengthy proceedings. The latter are onerous for the state. A judge's presence is needed. Queues are very long in courts, people complain why proceedings take so long. The reason is that we only have few judges who have a lot of cases. And working on trifling things where there is hardly any interest to prosecute wastes their time. A judge working on something means they cannot work on something else. Perhaps there is a major corruption case in the pipeline that will end up taking forever to resolve because of it. That's the choice.
Do you feel there was no public interest?
If we are talking about the case, not the person of Mary Kross who does inspire great public interest, I don't see much in it. There was no victim and…
Society suffered because it was a politically charged incident.
This takes me onto a slippery slope, thinking back to my days as an attorney. We have separation of powers and law enforcement organs, prosecution and investigative organs, and we have independent courts. It is not right to invade the territory of another branch, criticize its decisions. I do not know whether the possibility of an appeal exists there, nor who would want to seize it. That is what the court decided and that is that.
Let us also talk about ratings for a moment. The Reform Party lost a few points to Centre recently. Jüri Ratas is found to be the most suitable candidate for PM, while your rating has fallen. Is the Centre Party doing something right and the Reform Party wrong?
The Reform Party won the election by a very safe margin. We have nine more seats in the Riigikogu than Centre, meaning that the Reform Party is doing a lot of things right. Now, as concerns ratings, there are a lot of agencies and most have us 10 points ahead of Centre. So, I believe we are doing everything right.
In your opinion, how will your infamous utterance on Aktuaalne kaamera affect future ratings?
I have no idea.
Editor: Marcus Turovski