Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) gave a year-end interview to ERR's Russian-language TV channel ETV+, covering a range of topics including the status of native Russian-speaking politicians in a coalition including the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), the future of oil shale, the influence of big business in the country, and his relations with the president.
Speaking to interviewer Nikolai Loštšin, Ratas said that the role of president was not anything which would interest him personally. The next presidential elections are in 2021.
"[Being president is] absolutely not within my area of interest or on my mind. I haven't even thought about it. Fortune-tellers and clairvoyants can think about it. I'm trying to do concrete things," Ratas said.
Ratas also hinted at reported rifts between himself and President Kersti Kaljulaid, noting that he had been saddened by the latter's recent words that the current coalition is a threat to Estonia's national security.
Ratas is set to miss the traditional presidential evening reception on independence day, February 24, next year, spending time with his family instead.
While Russian president Vladimir Putin met Kersti Kaljulaid in Moscow in spring, and has been invited to visit Tartu for a Finno-Ugric languages conference next summer (the status of this invitation is unclear, since the Russian leader has not yet responded to it-ed.), Ratas said that no concrete plans had been put in place to meet his own counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, but that dialogue was always preferable to no dialogue.
"No preparations have been made for such a meeting. But then again President Kaljulaid has met Putin and invited him to Tartu. And similarly the foreign minister (Urmas Reinsalu-ed.) to his opposite number (Sergey Lavrov-ed.). In addressing everyday issues it is better to have a dialogue than not."
When asked whether the EU would be strengthened or weakened by the U.K.'s impending departure following the election of Boris Johnson as prime minister, Ratas said that neither side would emerge as a winner, although it was a positive thing that the exit is likely to take place with an agreement rather than without.
At the same time, Ratas said that the U.K. will continue as an important E.U. partner following Brexit, and that Estonia's strategic relations with the United Kingdom will remain very important.
We can't wrap up the oil shale sector overnight
Ratas also considered environmental debates and the EU's goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 as the most important topic of the year.
The Estonian government's stance on the issue had been under scrutiny, not least with the nomination of Kadri Simson (Centre) as incoming European Commissioner for Estonia, with the energy portfolio; the government signed up to the EU's 2050 goal having expressed concern with it previously, shortly before Simson passed the European Parliament vote in early October, confirming her in the role.
However, this does not mean that the oil shale industry – in focus as a major polluter and thus running counter to carbon-neutral initiatives – should be scrapped overnight, Ratas said.
"I'm not going to say on ETV + that oil shale has to be discarded overnight. For decades, oil shale has been our most important resource and has laid the foundations for our economy. Over 60 percent of our electricity comes from oil shale today. The question is, how will oil shale perform in the future, since less and less electricity will be produced," he said.
According to Ratas, climate policy concerns three areas: The natural, the economic and the social environments.
"All three of these components must be taken into account in climate policy. That is why climate neutrality is to be pursued by 2050. But with such an ambitious climate target, certain countries need to be invested in, such as Estonia in oil shale and Poland, in coal."
Going from opposition to coalition difficult?
Ratas also noted the switch in going from opposition to office, and the difficulties that can bring; while Ratas had already been in office over two years before the March general election, EKRE had not.
"Yes, it's hard to make the move from opposition to coalition. It requires a lot more responsibility and professionalism. The shifts that the EKRE has made, I believe, means the new ministers will do their job with commitment and the EKRE will learn from it."
EKRE has seen three ministers step down since entering into office in late April – Marti Kuusik was in office for one day, and his replacement, Kert Kingo, a few months. The most recent change came at the rural affairs ministry with the replacement of Mart Järvik by Kaimar Karu. However, Ratas pointed out, at the same stage in the previous coalition his party was in with Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party (SDE), five ministerial changes had taken place, including some from his own party.
Is EKRE the reason why no ethnic Russians hold ministerial posts?
When being asked whether the reason no ethnic Russian politicians were in office as ministers at present, even though there are several examples from the ranks of Centre MPs, and one (Viktoria Ladõnskaja-Kubits) from Isamaa, was that they didn't want to be in office with EKRE ministers, Ratas said that the decisions on posts related to individuals and agreements, not nationality.
"If we take the EKRE rhetoric that preceded the elections. They said very harsh things about various nationalities and also races ... Has this rhetoric changed? I can't say it's normalized. It's been active and turbulent for the last seven to eight months. The words he (interior minister Mart Helme-ed.) said about the Finnish prime minister cut to the quick with many people in Finland, and they were very wrong [words]."
Ratas also noted that when Taavi Aas (Centre) moved from being Tallinn mayor to MP and then economic affairs minister, it was Jüri Ratas who proposed Mihhail Kõlvart as his replacement. Kõlvart was born in Kazakhstan.
"There is so much more to be done in Tallinn so why would we start to take our good people out of Tallinn [city government]?" Ratas said.
"Yana Toom worked at the European Parliament prior to the Riigikogu elections and wanted to be re-elected. And she managed this with a very high level of support. Then we have Vadim Belobrovtsev, deputy mayor, responsible for important areas such as sport, culture and education."
There is no 'oligarchy' in Estonia
On the issue of pharmacy reform, which cause a split in Ratas' party late on in 2019 amont other controversies, Ratas noted that the move to reverse the original course of the reforms (in favor of big pharmacy chain owners) was no longer on the table, adding he was disturbed by the half-day lockout the chains' owners called at short notice, earlier in the month.
"It [the lock-out] was inappropriate. I do not support a power-driven approach. People did not get their medications that day, at a time when the weather was bad. It is vital that quality, efficiency and availability are guaranteed. Plus in terms of availability – and by that I mean that medicines in Estonia are more expensive in real terms - we need to improve the conditions of competition here."
In the context of the pharmacy dispute, Ratas said that it is not possible to buy legislation in Estonia, adding that there was zero tolerance for that.
The scrapping of the original planned reforms by the government followed a donation in the summer from an associate of Margus Linnamäe, owner of the Apotheka pharmacy chain. The original reforms, which would have placed more control in the hands of small, qualified dispensing pharmacists, were replaced by a draft which went in the opposite direction in favoring the large chains. This draft was however defeated in a Riigikogu vote on December 17 (the lock-out followed two days later).
Ratas noted that while there are big business players from Estonia on the international stage, there are no 'oligarchs' in the correct understanding of the word, in Estonia.
The original interview video clip (questions in Russian, answers in Estonian) is here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte