Interview: Estonia not a country of officials, says Lemetti
"Do not ask me to pass judgment, I won't," says Illar Lemetti who was released from office as Ministry of Rural Affairs' secretary general on Monday and will "very likely" contest his dismissal in court. How does Lemetti look back on everything and what does he perceive looking forward?
How does it feel to be famous?
I've never wanted to be famous. I have tried to stay away from the media hubbub.
When PM Jüri Ratas urged people to notice exemplary citizens around them on Citizen's Day in a Facebook post, your name dominated the comments.
My colleagues told me.
Are you satisfied?
I have not sought it, but I cannot deny that kind words are good to hear.
Have you accepted President Kersti Kaljulaid's apology?
I'm grateful to the president for her clear position. I would take this opportunity to also thank everyone else who have remembered me with kind words and wished me luck.
The president had no reason to apologize to me personally, but I suppose she was looking at the big picture.
She apologized for the way your country has treated you.
What is the deep state?
You are its manifestation for a party in the government.
If that is indeed the case, it remains utterly incomprehensible.
Conservative People's Party (EKRE) chair Mart Helme said after you were released from office that now the new minister will not have to wage war against the secretary general from day one. Did you wage war against Mart Järvik?
No, absolutely not. As I wrote to the PM, our everyday relationship was very good. He never had verbal or written criticism for me.
Of course, we had various discussions, I expressed my opinion when I believed it was necessary. But I do not see that as a conflict.
Tarmo Tamm from the Centre Party served as rural affairs minister in the previous government. Did you get along with him?
I have gotten along very well with all ministers.
It was Reform Party minister Urmas Kruuse who promoted you from deputy secretary general to secretary general. How close are you to the party?
I have always been a completely apolitical official; I do not stand close to any party.
You first became deputy secretary general when Helir-Valdor Seeder, today the chairman of the Isamaa party, poached you from the Estonian University of Life Sciences. Why did you agree to go into civil service?
After the university, I first came to run the Agricultural Board…
Looking further back, I studied agronomics at the university and later soil management in the master's program. After that, I taught ecology, environmental protection and soil management at the university until 1999. I then went to work at the Ministry of Agriculture and after that, the agricultural studies center in Saku. I went back to the university in 2005, to head the Agricultural and Environmental Institute. Five years on, I was invited to run for the position of director general of the Agricultural Board that was in the process of being created at the time. Because I live near Tallinn in Harju County, I agreed. From there, I became deputy secretary general.
You do not regret returning to civil service now?
Was there a management crisis at the rural affairs ministry?
There was not. Of course, it depends on one's interpretation, but there was no management crisis as far as I could see.
There was no cooperation between you and the minister?
I cannot say that.
Why did minister Järvik pay you more than your monthly salary in late October?
You need to ask Mart Järvik that. Performance pay usually follows good work. I suppose that was the case in October as well.
What is the emotional state of a ministry when the government changes and a new minister comes to the building?
Usually it's positively expectant. (Thinks.) Yes, that's it.
Quite a lot changes for the staff?
Indeed. But a new minister always brings opportunities for development in the field. That is the positive expectation.
What was the sentiment when Mart Järvik became minister in April?
While I cannot speak for the others, I believe the sentiment was the same as for any new minister. No minister is received biased.
At the same time, preconceived notions are so very human.
They are, but people want the minister and their policy to be able to develop rural life and agriculture. The house always contributes.
Do you remember what changed when Järvik became minister?
Every minister has a different style. In this case, we can point out the active management role of the minister's adviser.
You are referring to Maido Pajo?
Was it a case of it being unclear at times whether it was Mart Järvik or Maido Pajo who held the portfolio, as has been suggested?
I would not put it like that. But a lot of the minister's wishes moved through the adviser, he very seldom gave orders directly.
State Secretary Taimar Peterkop's report – do you find it objective?
Yes, I do. Perhaps some things have been phrased more softly, using synonyms than they could have been. But it is objective as far as I can tell.
The committee refrained from using words such as "lied" or "hid"...
Yes, they used synonyms.
Peterkop's report suggests Järvik went beyond his commission when he tried to intervene in a control action by the Veterinary and Food Board (VTA), gave the public controversial or questionable explanations, was unaware of a conflict of interest in his inner circle… What can the secretary general do in such a situation?
The secretary general can direct the minister's attention to circumstances. They can also draw broader attention.
Did you and Järvik talk about these things?
I tried to express my opinion in emails in a few situations where it was clear a certain kind of behavior was in order.
Was you opinion heeded?
These emails usually went unanswered.
Mart Helme accused you of counteracting your minister. Is there any truth to what he has suggested?
Definitely not. I have never worked against a minister. I hope that no one interprets speaking one's mind as counteraction. If we did, things would be dire indeed.
"He did not forward food safety reports on the listeria problem to the minister in time, failed to keep him up to speed, directed processes to target individual businesses through which the minister could be attacked, leaked in-house information to the press." These are Mart Helme's words.
First of all, those who know the first thing about the ministry's work organization also know that the VTA answers directly to the minister, as concerns the listeria scandal. Secondly, specific fields are governed by deputy secretary generals.
The secretary general is a general manager who does not handle relevant information on a daily basis. The secretary general works on the budget, administrative matters, IT and staff problems. Therefore, that claim [by Mart Helme] is utterly baseless.
How do you understand the following: "…officials can and must talk. They must talk directly to politicians and publicly whenever necessary. We cannot under any circumstances have a state where we need to muzzle anyone?"
I agree that we need to talk, there has to be discussion, between the minister and the secretary general, as well as between all other sides. Cooperation is unthinkable without discussion.
The PM uttered these words live on Aktuaalne kaamera on Monday evening. That is what you did – you went public with information that the minister misled the media, you also gave statements to the prosecutor's office in September and the police's corruption crimes unit in November. About what?
I gave them an overview of matters regarding which there was a risk of conflict of interest. But these matters should not be discussed publicly at this time.
Had you said nothing, would you still be secretary general today?
Perhaps, but there is no way to know. I went to the state secretary in August and hoped the information would reach the PM and that something would be done about it.
The PM invited you to give an explanation at the government sitting on November 21. You did not attend. Why is that?
I kept an eye on the government's agenda and my removal from office was not on it for that day. Secondly, I had until the evening of November 22 to form my position [regarding Mart Järvik's proposal to dismiss Lemetti]. I used all of that time.
I received a call late on November 20, and I was invited to appear in front of the government the next morning. But because I had not yet formed a position and had two full days in which to do so, I saw no reason to go there unprepared.
How does the dismissal of a secretary general work – the minister calls or summons the secretary general to tell them that cooperation is unsuccessful and that we need to go our separate ways, that I will propose that the government release you from office?
Throughout this entire process, minister Järvik and I have not exchanged a single word on the topic. The minister first asked the house to prepare the papers [for my dismissal] in early November. The second time they reached my desk was on November 20. A verbal exchange, the minister providing an evaluation of my work – there was nothing of the sort.
On November 22, you sent a letter to the PM and all other ministers to explain the situation at the Ministry of Rural Affairs, and it includes a rather sharp hint as you wrote that the PM probably knows that some very important circumstances of Järvik's conduct as minister have not reached the public. What are they?
I believe it would not be right for me to go into them. But they are the same circumstances I reported to the state secretary in August.
Did Mart Järvik ask for your advice before he put up portraits of German and Soviet occupation-era agriculture ministers on a wall next to his office?
He did not.
It now portrays people who participated in destroying rural life in Estonia and carried out mandatory collectivization. Rather surprising?
Unfortunately, that is the case.
Järvik hoped to kick-start rural life in a way that people who had gone to Tallinn, Tartu, Finland or Sweden would want to come back and live in the countryside. Do you believe that possible?
I firmly believe that life in the country and agriculture have a future in Estonia, while no one knows for sure what that distant future might look like.
We know the structure of our agricultural companies today. It is very difficult to imagine having a lot of viable small producers crop up. That said, it is not difficult to imagine new homes in the country if there is work, either in agriculture or other areas.
All kinds of measures to liven up rural life – such as financial support for new businesses – and help young people make their home in the country are very welcome. It is also possible to live in the country but work in a nearby city these days.
What do you think about Mart Järvik's plan for a structural reform that would abolish the position of the food safety deputy secretary general, currently filled by Toomas Kevvai, and merge several departments?
Looking at the most important side of this plan – changes regarding food safety – I find they are entirely unnecessary. If this merged division ends up in the jurisdiction of the secretary general – whose desk is cluttered as it is – it will negatively impact food safety or other areas.
Do people who believe the aim of the in-house reform is to get rid of Toomas Kevvai have it right?
We heard of plans to get rid of some people in charge of food safety even before Mart Järvik became minister.
There has to be something tied to Toomas Kevvai on a personal level, but I do not know what that might be.
Is the Veterinary and Food Board persecuting M.V.Wool, seeing as it has shut down their production facilities due to listeria?
I cannot speak for the VTA. Only the watchdog can decide what to do about a company, not the minister, secretary general or any other official for that matter.
Some people who are fond of you say that the ministry could use a moderate shock to the system. Do you agree?
The ministry has seen quite a few moderate shocks in recent years. We changed our structure, we have fewer people compared to a few years ago, we have never had a development plan to cover the entire sector before, while the ministry just finished Estonia's agriculture and fisheries development plan for 2030. Recent years have seen quite a lot of changes, with more in store for the coming years.
Do you regret being pushed off the tractor so to speak?
Naturally. (Pauses.) I'm not sorry for my position, I regret having to leave the people.
Someone who ran for the position of deputy secretary general of the Ministry of Rural Affairs when you were secretary general writes in an EKRE media portal how the first thing you asked them during the job interview was what would happen if you hired them but were disappointed. A very businesslike question.
How many people have disappointed you lately?
Very few, compared to how many people have positively surprised me with their support and behavior.
Is Estonia a country of officials?
Estonia is not a country of officials. Powers have been very wisely separated in Estonia, and as long as people stick to this allocation, the country works brilliantly.
Will you challenge the government's decision to release you from office?
I will definitely analyze all aspects of the process [of my dismissal], the reasons given and… I will challenge it very likely, yes.
Will you go to court?
Very likely, yes. Of course, knowing full well that it will not get me reinstated.
However, there are things the officialdom should be made aware of; whether a secretary general can be dismissed in this manner or not. And only the court has that power in Estonia.
Perhaps you should not have been so confident as to think hiding a minister's misconduct is not part of the secretary general's job description?
I still believe that I did the right thing. Of course, it is always possible to debate nuances. But we need to talk about the nature of things, not their form.
What words of encouragement do you have for your colleagues in civil service?
I sent a letter of farewell to colleagues on Monday where I said that a team is a great force.
Do you see yourself in civil service in the future?
To answer the question theoretically – I do. Whether that will happen in reality – I don't know.
What will you do now?
I hope to find a new professional challenge very soon. I'm not one to take several months off before looking around. I'm interested in having something practical to do as soon as possible.
Should this activity be tied to rural affairs?
That would be great.
What are your wishes and recommendations for the new rural affairs minister?
I sincerely wish them all the best for developing the entire field.
I also recommend bringing in new advisers if at all possible.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski