Urmas Viilma's interview with the PM: Which politicians need a timeout?

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and Archbishop Urmas Viilma
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and Archbishop Urmas Viilma Source: ERR

Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church Urmas Viilma hears the figurative confession of PM Jüri Ratas on the show Pealtnägija, with questions ranging from the environment to how to avoid verbal pollution in society. The interview also treats with the prime minister's relationship with God.

Mr. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas. I'm glad we have a chance to meet like this, but I don't suppose you feel like you're in a confessional right now or have something you would like to get off your chest?

My dear archbishop. I feel as people are wont to feel when they see a clergyman, a kind of reverence and respect in the best possible sense. What is said is always sincere and from heart to heart. And I believe that often it is your work to listen and take onto yourself people's problems and give them something in return. I cannot say whether I feel like I'm in a confessional, but I believe we will have a cozy, interesting and sincere conversation.

Talking about problems, a big concern everywhere in the world and in Estonia is the environment. And talking about the environment, it seems to me that we're rather talking about people, future generations and not so much about nature itself. Going for the Paris climate targets – to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 degrees – and doing it only for ourselves seems a little egotistical for me. I've also heard people saying that we need to enter the climate race and finish first, achieve climate or carbon neutrality. That we need to get there first for economic benefit. Looking at the Bible, God put Man in the garden of paradise and told him to take care of it simply because it was God's creation. How about it, Mr. prime minister?

I do not really share the theme that Man is the crown of creation. Man is not the crown of nature but one part of the greater diversity of life. Perhaps we need to control and alter certain behaviors and activities, but it is not only for our own sake. One example is unchecked consumption, people standing in front of counters, checking out different goods. We should think about the packaging and how the plastic therein ends up in our oceans. And how parts of our environment, bigger and smaller fish are in serious trouble because of it. Or our very own parks and forests. Plastic does not rot and is a danger to birds, a lot of young chicks perish because of plastic pollution.

Yes, I took part in a stage of the Admiral Bellingshausen expedition to the Antarctic where the crew and I discussed what we could do to help and what people could do in different parts of the world. You have highlighted these problems already. My question is that in a situation where I have a choice between a biodegradable plastic bag and an ordinary one at the supermarket, but the former costs 6 cents while the latter is free, why couldn't the trader pay for the biodegradable bag? What about the balance between consumer and manufacturer or trader responsibility? Couldn't we do something about that? It is a political question, one of legislation or…

I believe the principle of the polluter or consumer paying is very good. But there is also the principle of manufacturer's responsibility. A good example of the latter is that we can leave our old tires in the shop when fitting new ones to our car. The example of the two plastic bags is very good in that it is something a lot of people face every day. Whether I pay a few cents and hope or know that the bag will somehow decay faster or whether I refuse to surrender those 5-6 cents for the sake of getting something for free. Could anything be changed? You're pointing to the principles of consumer responsibility and the polluter pays and asking about balance. I think it is a good example of how I, as a polluter, should think about whether I need all those plastic bags or perhaps I can take some textile bags with me and reuse them when I go to the shop.

These are good examples. I'm sure the viewer is interested in the prime minister's example. Do you recycle, or what are the little things making the world a better place starts with at home?

It is said that recycling trash where it is created is the most effective way. Do we recycle? To an extent. We set aside plastic packaging, also paper and cardboard, not to mention more hazardous waste, like batteries etc. So yes, we recycle our trash. I cannot sit here in the confessional, look you in the eye and say that I always take a textile bag to the store. I also use plastic bags sometimes, although recently, I've tried to buy paper bags when I don't have one with me and reuse them later.

That is setting a good example as I believe it is great when someone thinks about how to change the world starting with the little things. Coming now to the spiritual environment around us, we are surrounded by so many words. We have talked about freedom of speech and speech being free over the past year. I've gotten the feeling that freedom of speech has been used to hide lazy language and that we've developed an air of verbal pollution. While we recycle out trash, we do not assort our words. It does not just concern public figures, although their use of words is especially prominent. It also concerns me, using words as a tool of the trade, and every one of us or comments sections. How to make people check their words because of something they feel, so they would keep their own dignity and respect the dignity of the person they're addressing?

I don't know whether the reason is that the pace of life has become so much more frantic. It definitely has over the past 15, 20, not to mention 30 years. This means we are expected to react faster and faster in different situations. It is also aided by altered media environment. The evening news at 9 has given way to social media, online media. I also engaged in word pollution just now by using the English word online. I apologize. We must realize words matter more every day. I can see, from where I'm sitting, how a single sentence or even a single word can cause great scandal, major problems. What we could have more of, but are realistically seeing less and less of, is the ability to listen, and this definitely also concerns politicians. We say we can and we want to, but we can also learn something from listening.

Talking about politicians, how much of their choice of words is acting aimed at voters, supporters? I'm not the only one to have experienced how talking to them in private, you find they are very nice people and that they also communicate very naturally in certain social situations. But as soon as they step in front of cameras or make statements, it turns into a mummery show. Doesn't it entail the risk of taking it too far, down to having to settle things on the level of countries? And don't words become devalued? As well as apologies that follow them…

It does entail that risk and we can already see it manifesting. And words or sentences coming from Southern or Central Europe can have very different meaning that what we say in Northern or Eastern Europe. Perhaps it is a good way to highlight the extent of a politician's responsibility. Those words can be very interesting and get picked up by the media, but very strong or extreme words and sentences are like sparklers that burn out very quickly. And they might cause a lot of trouble. Someone reacts to a sentence with a slightly stronger one until finally you have to be the politician to try and get people to come out of trenches and reach an agreement so it would be possible to move on together.

What have you done as PM to make sure we would have less verbal pollution?

I have always said, been against use of language that includes disparagement, hate, repulsion. I've said that it is not the right path for Estonia.

There is a lot of talk about Christmas peace and it was declared in Jõgeva this year on the third Sunday of Advent. Bishop Joel Luhamets was there and Deputy Secretary General of the Riigikogu Siim Kallas, as well as the head of the Jõgeva local government. Now, to keep this peace, is there anyone in the coalition or opposition who should be given a timeout, like is done in kindergartens. Can you name someone, although I'm pretty sure you will not?

I would name Jüri Ratas. To look for a splinter in someone else's eye, you must first make sure there isn't a beam in yours. I don't know whether it needs to be a timeout, it could rather be a skill. When people suggest you take a deep breath before you say something or measure nine times and cut once. I believe that is a necessary skill in politics. One is the part about listening and the other is the skill to notice things. However, looking at major political principles, I feel that we have found more common ground than we've lost, and I thank God for that!

I liked your answer very much. It includes a clear Christian dimension and you also referenced the Bible by talking about the splinter and the beam. Moving on to matters of the church, as it is Christmas time, you have publicly admitted to believing in God and feeling close to the church and the Bible. Does reading the Bile help you in your work? Or has your father taught the family to pray and led by example? Has that background helped you?

It helps a lot. I will say that I am a God-fearing man, open to faith and that I believe in God. It is no secret that it brings me joy. I remember when my mother told me about when she was very young, so young that she doesn't remember her father. My mother has told me that she does not have a single picture with her father. Also my aunt, who was only a little older, and how my grandfather had to go away to war. There is a letter my grandfather left to my mother and aunt. It told the children to believe in God. Their family did not go to church every Sunday, but they believed in God. They said grace, and the dinner table was where their father taught the girls. He never came back from the war, but the letter survives. However, my father has had faith and believes in God. It has also helped me, lent me balance. And I cannot deny that I sometimes find the time to ask God for wisdom and resolve during my workday.

You said you sometimes find the time to talk to God during your day. If it is not a secret, what was the last thing you asked God?

Presence of mind and wisdom for handling things, whether meetings or complicated problems. Perhaps a deeper prayer happened on one of this year's Advent Sundays when I got the chance to attend church with my father. When we got back and he was back in bed, we said the Lord's Prayer together, thanking God for giving us the chance to be together and go to church. It was complicated, considering his health. But it went very well, thank God. I also asked for good health and recovery for him.

I'm reminded of a colleague of mine who was greatly moved one Christmas when after Christmas Day and all the bustle had died down, the prime minister walked into his small country church. There were only a few people, and the PM walked in and sat with them in a relatively empty church. Will you have time to go to church this Christmas?

Yes, I will definitely do that, and I believe it will take place near my parents' country home. It is in Saarde municipality today, and it will likely be a small church in Kilingi-Nõmme. I'm glad I will have my children with me, and I believe it will only leave them with positive and joyful emotions for the future.

While this might not be the most original question with which to end an interview, what would you say to the people watching, some with reverence, others with mockery, but everyone living in the country you run?

I have indeed always sought to be the prime minister for everyone living in Estonia. Irrespective of whether the viewer laughs at me, doesn't support me or does. I would wish everyone good health for 2020. I wish people would always have someone they can share their joy and sadness with. So they wouldn't have to be alone. And I wish peace for the country. What else? That we would see more people returning to Estonia in 2020. To be able to say at one point that our population growth has returned. That the year would see our population grow.

I thank you for the interview, for the chance to converse. I wish everyone what you just did and for you to have a merry Christmas and more time for your family. Be blessed, you and everyone you hold dear. Thank you, Mr. prime minister.

Thank you.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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