Interview: Raimond Kaljulaid on politics and joining the Social Democrats ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Raimond Kaljulaid (SDE).
Raimond Kaljulaid (SDE). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Raimond Kaljulaid was elected to the Riigikogu for the first time in March, having worked for several years for the Tallinn's City Government. Much water has gone under the bridge even since then, after he first quit the Centre Party soon after winning a seat, then most recently joined the Social Democrats. ERR News caught up with Raimond on a wet and windy afternoon in the Riigikogu's cafe, replete with an awesome view of Raimond's former domain, Põhja-Tallinn, to talk through what's been going on these past few months, as well as what lies ahead both for Tallinn and the whole country and how his background in marketing and advertising can help to change things.

"I'm a person who values my privacy, but obviously this job in politics does not allow you to much, so I have had to make that sacrifice," Raimond tells me.

At the same time, there's a very strong sense of duty behind his words, not least with what he sees as ongoing struggles with the forces of populism and the far-right.

"If you look at these illiberals across Europe and the world, it's not like you wake up one morning and all your freedoms are gone, it's much more of a slow creep. So you have to be constantly vigilant, constantly make sure you're exposing what they're doing, obstructing them as much as you can, to counter it," he says.

Why Põhja-Tallinn?

Before being elected an MP in March, Raimond worked for the city for three years – managing the Põhja-Tallinn (North Tallinn in English), one of the eight districts in Tallinn known for the gentrified Kalamaja, and yet-to-be-gentrified Kopli neighborhoods. While he was elected an MP at the March general election, the Estonian system allows for politicians to sit both there and on local government, meaning quite a few MPs – Reform's Kristen Michal is another – flit between both; the Tallinn City Council chamber is only down the hill from the Riigikogu.

"I would not be being straight up if I did not admit the issue of the city is on my mind a lot, but from a bit of a different perspective," Raimond says of this dual role. But how did he get into local politics, a few years ago?

"I had an office there in Põhja-Tallinn which I loved. There's the cutest, prettiest park in Tallinn – Kalamaja Park, where I used to go quite a lot to work out, which got me interested in the district."

"There's obviously a lot of hipster cafes etc. there. A lot of my friends moved there, and I was working in digital marketing, part of a group of companies, and we moved to the Kultuurikatel."

"Then the then-district manager ("linnaosa vanem" in Estonian-ed.) which sounds a bit funny, a bit like the 'elder of the elves' was dismissed (Karin Tammemäe-ed.), as was her deputy, I think on the spot, and they asked me if I would consider the post."

"Had it been any other district or other city of Tallinn position, or even just to run in the elections, I'd have said no, but since I really liked the district, and it was clearly in some distress, there were problems which ran deep, I said – ok, I'll put my business life on hold and I'll give it a try."

Raimond Kaljulaid sits both on Tallinn City Council and, pictured here, at the Riigikogu. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

This was 18 months before the 2017 local elections, where Raimond won a seat, but that was not an inevitability in the beginning, he says.

"I started with about 20-30 people there knowing my name, and from that, ended up with the second best local election result in the country during that time."

In for the long haul in politics

Politics naturally has a lot of cut and thrust in Estonia. Did Raimond then see this as just a temporary step, at the time?

"Well I thought obviously now I'm in politics, in a political position in reality, even if it's not meant to be. So I thought eventually, in three years' time, I'll be running for parliament if I stick with this."

"I've made it a habit of speaking my mind and deciding thing based on what I think is right, and always thought, well the worst that can happen is the voters or your party hate what you're doing, in which case I just go back to being a businessman, which I quite enjoy as well." 

"So I'm not so scared about losing a job in politics. I'm passionate about setting out to do what I do, but not obsessing every day about what happens if I don't get a second term in parliament."

Small business background

Raimond has his business background to fall back on, should that ever happen, in any case.

"When I started out in the district I remember telling my team, well let's think and act as if we were already really important in Estonian politics and eventually it will become true. I did the same thing when I started my agency. Even though it was just me and two others in a small office, we always tried to do our work at the same level of any big agency."

Path to the Riigikogu

Raimond had in fact been thinking about the road to politics a long time before he embarked on it, and even authored his own book, available online from Amazon, which was essentially a "how to run for office"-type outline.

"Since 2002 I was telling the party and others how to run in the elections, and then wrote the book. So I'd been telling people how to do it so long, but then I did it myself, which prompted someone from the party to say, 'well, he'll find out now for real how hard it is!'"

Did Raimond follow his own advice, though?

"Technically speaking I did a lot of what was in the book, which I'd taken a month off in Spain to write up; the last good book on the topic was written about 2,000 years ago – by Cicero."

A bittersweet general election

Fast forward to the general election on March 3 this year and Raimond wins a Riigikogu seat for Centre, running in Tallinn's Haabersti, Põhja-Tallinna and Kristiine constituency and polling 7,303 votes. He also ran in the May European elections, polling over 20,000 votes, though not winning a seat.

However, the celebrations were somewhat short lived, as Centre went into talks, initially out of the public eye, but not for long, with the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), along with Isamaa, despite the fact that Reform had won the highest number of seats, making Kaja Kallas prime-minister-in-waiting, but not actuality.

Raimond was concerned about this from the start, ultimately leaving Centre on April 5, presumably because he was uncomfortable with being in a coalition with EKRE.

"Not just presumably, it was absolutely because of that. I quit the party the very next day [after the agreement was made]," Raimond says

Did he talk through his concerns with the Centre Party leadership, however? After all, he had been in the party many years.

"I met with whoever would meet with me, I met all of the Centre leadership and told them this [deal] was a terrible mistake." 

"The problem is two-fold really: First it's a terrible thing to do, but second, it's also that we explicitly told voters, and I told them that too, that we would not do that (i.e. enter into coalition with EKRE-ed). So it was the wrong move, and we'd literally said we wouldn't do it."

"I basically told them that I would be considering my position in the party if they went ahead; in the second week [following the election] I realized the deal was done - they'd invested too much in it." 

Tough choices

"The first big vote was for the speaker of parliament, and that is the first test of the new coalition – by electing speaker (Henn Põlluaas of EKRE-ed.) it means the coalition is de facto formed, so I quit the party the day after, and it was all to do with their decision to enter into government with a radical right-wing populist party."

Did he have any doubts that he was doing the right thing?

"I did ponder it, yes; there was a bit of hesitation, as people round me said no, don't do it, this government will fall hard and fast, stay in the party, aim even to become leader etc."

"I don't know if that was realistic anyway, but I had no leanings towards becoming party leader as by then I was very disillusioned with all of them."

This left Raimond an independent for several months, perhaps recreating the small-business approach he had pursued earlier in his career. At the same time, he counted as a member of the opposition, so tipped the balance by one seat to 45 seats versus 56 seats for the coalition.

A new party

Then, a little over a month ago, he joined one of the two opposition parties, not Reform, but the Social Democratic Party (SDE).

"With SDE I've been super happy – it's much smaller. I feel like George Michael who quit Wham! and then signed with an indie label instead of a major record company and management."

What are SDE's chances of making an impact then, surrounded by larger parties and currently on 11 seats now Raimond has joined (it had held 14 seats in the last Riigikogu session).

Raimond joining the Social Democratic Party (SDE) in late November, while party leader Indrek Saar looks on. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

"There's a long march ahead. I'm excited – I don't know if I've ever said this publicly before but there is something that people don't know; after the local elections in October 2017 there was a period when I would discuss with close friends and family if should remain in Centre, and should I run in the 2019 parliamentary elections with them. Since my expectations were the new leadership wanted to create this modern, forward-looking, European, reform-minded centrist party and that wasn't really happening."

Why did Raimond really leave Centre?

Centre was under Jüri Ratas' leadership by then; Ratas had become prime minister in late 2016 following a vote of no-confidence in Taavi Rõivas (Reform) when SDE and Isamaa, hitherto in office with Reform, switched in Centre, perhaps an endorsement that the party had shed its old image from the Savisaar years and was now something completely new.

"It became more and more clear that the whole thing was really pinned on remaining in office," Raimond says, though he stuck with Centre and Ratas nonetheless.

"I considered leaving the Center Party and quitting the job in the City of Tallinn to make it fair. So there was this period, but I thought, no well I'll stick with it. Probably the process of modernizing the party takes longer. I decided I'm going to support the prime minister."

Raimond Kaljulaid talking to Prime Minister and Centre Party leader Jüri Ratas, days before he quit the Centre Party. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

This came to a head as we've seen with the negotiations with EKRE, which Raimond voted on with his feet. But what of the mistake he says Centre made – surely EKRE would change once they were in office?

"If a party like this gains electoral success, then it's the job of everybody else in parliament to contain them – but that containment failed in Estonia. If they had been held in opposition for a long period of time, as they should be, then they would have to moderate themselves or face permanent opposition."

But this containment takes some doing, Raimond says.

"The other political parties have to be not be 'wet' about it, and make no compromises."

Timeline of the coalition formation

At the same time, there had been a lack of clarity whether Centre would indeed go into coalition with EKRE in the first place, given some EKRE members' past record of making what some would call arbitrary or even outlandish statements.

"Before the election, Social Democrats had started this movement of excluding cooperation with right wing radicals or populists, and stated that everyone else should do the same. Centre initially said no, we will not make that pledge, let's hold the election and see what happens."

"I backed that [i.e. not making any ultimatums] as doing so elevated them [EKRE] to getting talked about an actual governmental party. Then Jüri Ratas gave an interview with a Russian-language station, ERR's Raadio 4, where he said that if a party talks about chopping off heads, making statements, he sees no way of cooperating with them – which found its way into the headlines as an unequivocal statement that we would not make a deal with EKRE. I don't recall the prime minister's office correcting that."

The Reform Party won the general election and as far as the general public was concerned, Kaja Kallas was set to become the first female prime minister in Estonia, as she was meeting and holding talks with possible coalition partners.

"I can remember the morning after the general election. I had this uneasy feeling and a sense that something was wrong. It took about a week until the public found out, but by midweek I was absolutely certain that an agreement had already been made between Center and EKRE, that the whole process of evaluating the Reform bid to form a government wasn't sincere."

And with has everything that has happened since then, does Raimond feel vindicated for his actions?

"Yes I do. I had this week and a half, or two maximum, to try to stop what was happening, but I always realized that once they'd invested in it – they'd bought stock so to speak and then the stock basically tanked – now they're making a huge loss and are stuck with it."

"It would be ridiculous for them to walk away from that, EKRE knows this of course, the public knows it. EKRE know they can do what they want and demean the prime minister any way they want, there's nothing for him to do, no exit for him to go through."

What happens next

Were the developments worse than Raimond had expected, or better, or about the same?

As I've been following politics internationally for the past 20 years of my adult life – well just as Estonia is always a little behind in, say, fashion, it's the same with populism, you can see what is going to happen elsewhere, and it all then happened here."

"Fundamentally, these political forces have a completely different understanding of how the structure of the international order works, they don't believe in the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press etc.; when it comes to international affairs, they don't believe in multilateral organizations, rules-based international order. It's a completely different understanding of how the world works."

While some of the developments might seem comedic to some people, it would be a mistake to conflate that with the real deal, Raimond says.

"They are fanatics – they're not doing it as a show, or putting on an act, they are fanatics and they believe what they do and say."

So Raimond Kaljulaid remains in opposition for the time being. And this could be for the long haul, surely. The coalition has settled down, hasn't it, after an uneasy birth?

"Well they [EKRE] lost three ministers (Marti Kuusik, Kert Kingo and Mart Järvik-ed), and they also lost significant political capital when they got someone with very radical and unpleasant views on to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Urmas Reitelmann-ed.), so it hasn't been a smooth ride for them. Some people were expecting this quick fix, which of course doesn't happen like that."

Next elections are in 2021

Looking ahead to the next elections, for local government, in 2021, as has been noted before, there are tens of thousands of expats in Tallinn and Estonia, who, if they hold a residence permit, are entitled to vote in the local elections (and EU citizens can vote in the EU elections of course). Should Raimond and his party capitalize on this, not for pure votes, but as some sort of protector and defender of minorities?

"It's very important that people understand that the next election is very much also about them, the expats who sometimes have this nomadic way of living and working. The revival of nationalism that's been happening, it's something that's never existed here in Tallinn, which has always been a multi-national city, a trade hub. It's always been mind boggling to me that people want to revert to this mono-ethnic, monolingual nation state, which hasn't really ever existed. There have always been different nationalities living in Tallinn."

"This is the fight of our times really. There's a European aspect to it too. There's been a kind of stalling of the European project, the movement of services, goods and workers – there are forces out there who see this as a negative and should be stopped. The free movement of services, for instance, is not as free as people seem to think but in the current political climate not much can be done about it."

"The expat community in any country is the first to feel this, and they are aware of it. I'm a firm believer of a free movement of people, in that maybe one day I too want to take my family and live on, for instance, on the coast of Portugal, or Berlin, where I've long wanted to live in, there was a time when I was thinking of moving to London etc. I would not want to see that disappear. So these next local elections might be the first time people get their chance to express their views not only on the local issues but also on the more general political agenda."

There's something about Tallinn

As noted, Raimond's political and business career has been very focused on Tallinn. What is it about the city which makes it appealing, including for the foreigners living here.

"It is great, but could be much better. I think we're past the point where we should be satisfied with having this run-of-the-mill Eastern European city. Why can't the city government think more like our start-up and tech community? I once wrote an article where I concluded that sometimes Estonia is a county that does not want to be rich. Everyone's kind of satisfied with this slow GDP growth. I think we should have a more aggressive pro-business, pro-growth attitude. If Tallinn would lead this it would draw the rest of the country with it, since more than half the country's GDP is created in Tallinn."

The 'unappealing' Riigikogu and MPs leaving for the private sector

Returning back to where we started, I ask Raimond why so many former MPs leave for the private sector – Anne Sulling and Urve Palo are but two examples – and is it simply because the wages are not as attractive as they potentially can be in the private sector?

"People leaving is the same in the U.K. or the U.S. – if you really want to make a lot of money, then stay in business. [Estonia's first president after restoration of independence in 1991] Lennart Meri said, if you have business interests, go and be in business; but if you feel like participating in public life, then come back. And I can believe in that ideal."

"In a monetary sense maybe the Riigikogu is not that attractive, but the trouble with business, and especially marketing, is that a lot of times you're fighting for getting one brand of cheese of the shelves faster than another brand, or positioning a certain technological product against another, or considering a question of what gadgets people buy."

"Politics, either fortunately or unfortunately, is the only real way you can influence decisions that have a lot more impact, and in that sense the job is a lot more rewarding."

"It's difficult to compare it as well, but I'm sure that many journalists would make more money if they went to work for an ad agency, but there's just something about journalism, and it's the same with politics."

Can politics and business really mix?

We finish with one of the very things which had dogged Centre (and other parties), and which we've seen the aftershocks of this very year with the recently (more or less) wrapped-up corruption trials involving Edgar Savisaar, Centre's co-founder, and his associates. The nexus between business and politics, and the inevitable claims, whether accurate or not, of corruption going on never seem to be far away – to pluck on recent example out of the air, the coalition's recent volte face on pharmacy reform, which now seems to favor big business pharmacies where it had previously apparently wanted to give more stock to small and independent pharmacists.

"Well if you compare it with what was going on the '90s, that was just blatant corruption. Records will show government parties soliciting donations from state owned companies, and getting them, which is incredible now when you think about it."

"With the new millennium, things cleaned up substantially. Sure we're not yet at the point of some of the more advanced economies in Europe, but still it has got so much better. I can tell you that in my three years working for the city of Tallinn, I never felt any pressure by the party, the mayor, officials or anyone else to do anything incorrect."

"Of course, with some decisions we still see this – it's implied, and you don't always know what went on but it can be a big problem." 

"A small country, in the eastern part of Europe – if you look it through the eyes of an international investor, who wants to put money into the economy, then transparency for them, as well as rule of law, is paramount, so we have to keep trying and ensure we don't backslide."

"At the end of the day I remain optimistic and hopeful about it – since the people here have a low tolerance for corruption, particularly among the younger generation." 

"A few months ago I sat down with some leading construction people who told me they liked how much it had been cleaned up. They'd not had to finance anybody etc. and they feel free to act in the market, which is how it should be."

"The size of the country actually simplifies things because there are fewer places to hide, everyone knows everyone and everything tends to come out. Can you completely make corruption disappear? Even in a very transparent system like the UK, you still have scandals like MPs expenses or 'cash-for-honors'. But you can ensure a fair and competitive environment."

"The justice system has done a great job in that sense, in my opinion."

"Ultimately what I would like to see all-round vision and belief that we can be a great small city. You have to contribute this almost Steve Jobs-like attitude where you do everything as best you can: He was actually an impossible manager to work for, they say, since he was always coming back and saying this or that could be changed or improved, but in the same way, this city might need someone to inject a sense of "let's be great".

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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