As the country's previous environment minister, Siim Kiisler (Isamaa) is worried Estonia might take the easy way out and say "no" to everything – wind power, nuclear and oil shale – in a situation where we need to say "yes" to something. As a veteran politician, Kiisler looks ironically at the current political situation where everything seems to be in order, while moving a single block might bring the whole structure crashing down.
Allow me to start by repeating the question my colleague Astrid Kannel put to Prime Minister Jüri Ratas recently – how much more can you take?
Ruling is suffering. (Smiles) A coalition MP must suffer, while a government minister must suffer even more and the PM most of all.
Centre's deputy chair Jaanus Karilaid was much more optimistic when he answered the same question by saying that the government is only building up momentum in a good way. You do not share that view?
I said the same thing using different words.
How can we tie suffering to building up momentum?
I like to watch cycling. Tour de France, for example. You can see the men suffer and build momentum at the same time there.
Does the coalition of the Centre Party, Isamaa and Conservative People's Party (EKRE) have enough momentum or…?
As politicians are wont to put it – several important decisions are ahead and there are outstanding things. When a politician says that things are outstanding, it means they want to keep going.
And there is sufficient unity?
(Thinks) Every coalition gets more tiresome as time goes on, but…
Excuse me, but this government has only done eight months.
Yes, so not much in it now, just three years and four months to go [until Riigikogu elections].
I believe the initial elation from the coalition agreement has passed and everyday life begun.
How to describe the latter?
It's rather peaceful viewed from the Riigikogu… Until you read something surprising in the paper. Then it gets uneasy for a while, before becoming peaceful again.
Is the press to blame?
No. The press is just a channel.
It was not the press that came up with Isamaa chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder comparing coalition partner EKRE leader Mart Helme to Russian populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky whose utterances people have stopped paying attention to.
A description of the situation at the time.
But I was not trying to blame the press. I still read, listen and watch and regard the press as important.
How does one coalition partner compare another to Zhirinovsky?
Populism is the political style employed by EKRE. It is the most accurate word.
"What has happened in Finland is enough to make one's hairs stand up on end… And I would recall the saying of Vladimir Ulyanov-Lenin that every kitchen maid can become minister, or how did it go. Now we can see how a salesgirl has become prime minister and how some other street activists and uneducated people have become members of government." Is this a statement of recognition from our interior minister to the new PM of Finland, as he would have us believe, or did it constitute an insult, as interpreted by PM Ratas?
It was a performance given to EKRE voters, without thought given to the possibility that the Finnish PM might read it.
Isamaa did not understand this form of recognition. It is said that Estonians are poor when it comes to giving praise, but it is better to not even try if the result is what we saw. It seems Mart Helme needs to practice recognition, perhaps try it at home a few times before stepping in front of the public.
Is this the reason why Isamaa MPs showed Helme a "yellow card" by abstaining from voting in the opposition's no-confidence motion against Helme on Tuesday?
Did you not care whether the interior minister would get to stay on?
We would like it if all ministers – including the one in charge of internal affairs – came from Isamaa, but the parliament being what it is today, that is not possible. (Isamaa have 12 seats in the 101-seat parliament – ed.) What this means is that a coalition needs to be formed with parties with whom we or others have differences.
What people tend to forget is that the Reform Party went to the Centre Party after elections [with a proposal to form the government], while Centre came to us…
Reform also came to you.
Not with a serious proposal.
I still cannot understand why the Reform Party acted the way it did. It was extremely unfortunate. It would have been sensible to approach Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) with their first serious proposal. Why they decided to go down a different path is something they will have to explain, but the result of that is the coalition we have today.
And once a coalition has been formed, Isamaa have never left… we have always tried to maintain the coalitions we have formed.
Are you saying that we would have a different government today had Reform first approached Isamaa and SDE with serious proposals?
Yes, I believe so. We would either have a government made up of Reform, Isamaa and SDE or one between Reform and Centre – they would have held all the cards, but they decided to hand those cards over to the Centre Party instead.
First, they basically let EKRE know they were out. Next, they sent a message to Isamaa and SDE, also suggesting there would not be a coalition. After that, Centre had free rein to do whatever it wanted.
We moved away from my question on whether you cared about Helme remaining in office after the no-confidence motion.
Every person with a sense of reality understood the interior minister would remain in office. Unless he decided to leave himself.
Isamaa strongly supported former rural affairs minister Mart Järvik (EKRE) when the opposition introduced a similar motion in the Riigikogu.
The two situations were quite different. In the case of Mart Järvik, it constituted a hearty handshake for an outgoing colleague.
You knew he would be leaving the government by then?
That is where it was going, yes.
Things were different when it came to the interior minister. It was clear he would continue, and the question was of the message we wanted to send. Our message to the interior minister is that he needs to choose his words more carefully.
The work of a minister is difficult; you cannot say the first thing that pops into your head. Because the next moment, you might be reading your words on the Financial Times or BBC. You need to always keep this in mind.
The last thing millions of readers of the Financial Times know about Estonia is what our interior minister said about the PM of Finland. Not exactly good publicity.
Of course not. If you are a member of the government, you must realize the consequences of your words.
If the parliament brings a motion of no confidence against a minister that merits the support of a ruling party's politicians, that government is over?
It would be difficult to imagine otherwise, also in Estonia.
Is what President Kersti Kaljulaid said true, that Jüri Ratas' second government is a threat to constitutional order and national security?
It is not. It is unfortunate the president said it. I find her words were just thrown around.
Speech is free.
Of course it is free. But assessments need to be fair. To refer to [Minister of Defense] Jüri Luik or [Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg] or [Minister of Foreign Trade and IT] Kaimar Karu as posing a threat to national security…
I would very much like to hear in what way Jüri Luik is a threat to national security.
You know the president was not referring to Jüri Luik when she said those words.
But she said: "the government."
The government makes decisions based on a consensus.
Has the government made decisions that threaten national security? I am not aware of any.
Perhaps the president meant the prime minister's decision to move forward with the current coalition?
That would be an artificial construct. Members of the government are not the only ones who need to choose their words more carefully.
Rumor has it that Reform and Isamaa politicians have started talking to each other more often lately. What are you discussing?
I frequently talk to many Reform Party politicians because I know them well, we've been in a government together.
The Reform Party, Isamaa and the social democrats have enough seats for a parliamentary majority, leaving Centre and EKRE in the coalition. How about it?
As I said – once Isamaa forms a coalition, it will try to maintain it for as long as possible.
How long will Reform have to spend in the opposition?
Difficult to say. Looking at the current Riigikogu, I'd say that depends on EKRE.
It depends on how the party will choose.
They have taken at least two positive steps by replacing two ministers (Kert Kingo with Kaimar Karu for the post of foreign trade and IT minister and Arvo Aller instead of Mart Järvik for the rural affairs portfolio – ed.), whereas their new choices inspire hope that they want to change… into a civilized government partner.
It is always difficult for a protest party. On the one hand, their politicians want to be in the government, while they want to keep protesting the government, continue acting like a protest force on the other. However, they will need to choose because they cannot do both. You can either be a civilized government party in a civilized country or you can continue playing in the street.
Heads of the party have said they will not become soft.
Nevertheless, we are seeing some signs; the replaced ministers for example.
Perhaps I'm mistaken, but it seems to me that they haven't thought it all the way through yet and have continued to hope they can do both. But that is only possible for a short time, not four years. The choice needs to be made [by EKRE].
And then the current government could last for four years you mean?
Depends on what they will choose. We've all seen that what is eroding the current coalition is EKRE's behavior. Thinking about difficult moments for the coalition and for the PM in trying to keep it together over the past eight months – I only see one type of difficulty. It has been the behavior of EKRE that has placed the coalition in jeopardy.
Where does Jüri Ratas get his patience?
His recent political career has trained him well. I'm sure he has had plenty of opportunities to practice patience in the Centre Party.
Tuesday was a dark day for the coalition in general because in addition to Isamaa's decision to abstain from the Helme no-confidence vote, seven Centre MPs voted against reversing Estonia's pharmacy reform, going against what the coalition had agreed on.
As concerns the Medicines Act bill, looking at parties' platforms and their ideological positions, differences inside the Centre Party are hardly surprising. What decided the vote was Reform's conduct.
They stood united in opposing the reversal of the reform.
Yes, but a year ago, the Reform Party clearly stated it did not support the ownership restriction included in the reform. Now… Reform have put forward their additional sale of alcohol restrictions bill, or looking at their position when it comes to liberalization of pension – they have moved considerably to the left, leaving Isamaa alone in the center-right.
They have moved more toward the center?
I'm not saying they have moved farther left than Centre. But as I see it, Reform is no longer a center-right but simply a centrist party.
Let us talk about the seven Centre MPs who voted against a bill their coalition had agreed on, suggesting that the coalition is having trouble with parliamentary discipline.
These things happen in any coalition.
Why has support for Isamaa fallen near to the election threshold of 5 percent in the past nine months?
I cannot really say.
Perhaps your voters are having a hard time understanding why you share a government with such partners?
It is surely a part of the reason.
Your grand election promise of rendering funded pension voluntary has not given you the support you hoped for.
Isamaa supporters are conservative people and it is likely that our voters – despite considerable public support for the pension reform plan – want to wait and see how the reform will turn out. If all goes well, I'm sure attitudes will be more positive.
You do not care that the IMF, Bank of Estonia, National Audit Office and economic experts warn – while the II pillar of pension needs to be changed, it should not be rendered voluntary?
An interesting thing you just said: it needs to be changed. When Isamaa took that idea to its [Riigikogu] elections campaign, everyone said nothing needed to be changed. We have come a long way if people agree that change is needed.
Nevertheless, let us return to my question.
Our economists said a few weeks ago that they were unable to forecast Q3 economic growth, while they are seriously suggesting they know what will happen in 30 years' time. Such analyses do not convince me.
The best way to make pension more effective is through competition. Pension funds have lacked an incentive for making efforts for their clients.
They seem motivated now.
Because we introduced our bill. They have started thinking that perhaps they should demonstrate they're doing something useful.
I do not plan to withdraw money from my second pillar, but I very much want pension funds to make the effort and prove to me why I should keep my assets there. I want them to care.
Will Isamaa go all the way and make the II pillar voluntary?
We made it a promise at elections. How could we say now that we changed our mind? That is not right.
Election promises have turned out this way and that before.
While that's true, it has been the latter without a majority of 51 votes in the parliament and the former in cases where there were 51 votes. It will not be our fault if we cannot get 51 votes, while we cannot say that we changed our mind in a situation where we have the votes.
Will you have the votes?
All signs suggest that we do. But I also believed we had them for the Medicines Act bill.
The president could veto it and send the matter to the Supreme Court.
In which case they'll hear the matter and decide what's fair.
Is teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg your person of the year as she is for Time magazine?
As concerns Greta Thunberg, I'm reminded of the climate activism week in September that saw major climate demonstrations, with one million and more people on the streets in U.S. cities. Very powerful. It was a clean protest. The end of the same week saw the World Cleanup Day we can all be proud of because Estonians started that tradition. The event saw more participants worldwide than the climate strike.
And yet, international news concentrated on street protests instead of millions of people who actually got something done, came out to clean a beach or clear a forest of garbage. It is unfortunate when yelling slogans and badmouthing politicians merits more media attention than people really doing something for the environment.
What they do is also a protest against garbage, but it is an active protest. For me, people of the year are Estonians organizing the World Cleanup Day. They have given the environment something far more valuable than Greta.
How likely are we to achieve climate neutrality by 2050?
It will be possible with widespread carbon capture and storage. Having extracted colossal amounts of CO2 and left it in the atmosphere, the question now is how to put it back. The technology exists, but it is expensive. Seriously contributing there could do it.
Should we build shale oil refineries?
Experts forecast that oil production will continue to grow for the next 12-15 years. Therefore, we should think about whether we want to partake in this accumulation of wealth or whether we want to let Norway do it and continue to grow richer. We should emulate Norway and participate.
Whether the state should invest in the sector I cannot say. I would have to look at the figures first. However, pre-refining should not be ruled out for as long as there is a market for oil, which is going to be a long time.
You do no believe Estonia should stop mining oil shale?
Definitely not. Even if shale oil will no longer have a market one day, we will still need laundry detergents and other products that can be made from oil shale.
The energy turn needs to bring us new ideas, new technologies we can use to pull ahead. So we can invest in our startups, give our innovators the chance to grow. It is a good opportunity for Estonian companies.
For that, you need experience. Had we never used oil shale, we would not know how to turn it into quality chemical products today.
Why isn't the government contributing more to research and development next year?
We could have contributed more. But the lion's share must come from the private sector that needs to be given a chance. I have participated in many debates on whether Estonia could greenlight environmental surveys for a pulp mill. Finland has made the right decisions in the past that has allowed them to pull ahead in developing wood chemistry and technologies for manufacturing wood-based materials.
But we're done with oil shale energy?
It will likely remain as a way to ensure supply and energy security, an export article for when the price is high and the deficit great. Neighboring countries seem to be headed toward greater power deficit and we might sorely need oil shale in some situations, but it will likely not be used when the market is calm.
You do not think there will be carbon capture devices on power plant chimneys?
It would hike the price as these devices are expensive today.
Are wind farms even realistic in Estonia? One is disrupting the army's radars, the other is rubbing nature conservationists the wrong way, while local residents simply do not like the third one…
They have to be realistic. And we need to solve the current situation where we cannot [build wind farms].
As concerns turbines of the Aidu wind farm disrupting radars, I was forced to read up on the situation as environment minister. Had the company proceeded based on the permits it had and only constructed what was permitted…
Do you remember when they were constructing gravel bases for the turbines and said it was not construction at all? People have forgotten, but they claimed they were simply stockpiling material. And then turbines suddenly appeared on top of that stockpiled gravel…
Perhaps the turbine was also stockpiled?
(Laughs) We can talk about stockpiling for as long as they're not spinning? (Laughs)
I'm an ardent defender of entrepreneurial freedom, but as usual, freedom comes with responsibility. An entrepreneur must operate within the law, within regulations and permits they are issued and understand that we're no longer living in the wild 1990s when you could do what you wanted and take care of the paperwork later.
Had they gone about it by the book, we would not have this problem today and would have the Aidu wind farm instead.
As concerns offshore wind farms, we need decisive action by the government. We need to pass sea area plans, at least in places where we want to have wind farms. We are holding back renewable energy developments because our plans are out of order.
That said, it is clear certain areas need to be ruled out for conservation purposes. There are areas that will remain unavailable because of national defense considerations, which is once again understandable. We need to determine the areas where we can have wind farms, create legislative premise for action and investments.
What about a new-generation nuclear plant – should we consider it or give up on the idea straight away?
The nearest nuclear plant to where we are now [Tallinn city center] is closer to us than Tartu. We do not think about the fact that the closest nuclear plant is closer than Tartu. We go about our lives.
The plant in Finland?
Yes. Not to mention nuclear plants that are only a little farther than Tartu from where we're sitting [Russia] and regarding which we're perhaps not that calm, while we also don't think about them constantly.
We will be buying and making use of nuclear energy in the future. The question is similar to the situation with oil – if we use Norwegian oil, perhaps we could also use Estonian oil. If we use Finnish nuclear energy, I would like us to use Estonian nuclear energy, provided it's possible of course.
We need to discuss energy options publicly and without prejudice. It is very easy to say "no" to everything – wind power, nuclear, oil shale. However, we need to say "yes" to something, we need the courage to say "yes," and for that we need a social contract.
Let us presume the world is climate neutral by 2050. What will 85-year-old Siim Kiisler be driving? Will it be powered by electricity, hydrogen, gas?
Well, right now, two things have potential. The car will either run on biogas made from the manure of our own cows or pigs. It would be a fine perspective and something we would not have to import. Or it could really be hydrogen because current electric vehicles are not looking good because of battery problems – manufacturing them is problematic, while disposal is even worse.
What about Christmas in 2050 – will it be white again?
Perhaps it'll be white in 2050, but it won't be two years prior and after. That is my forecast. (Laughs)
Editor: Marcus Turovski