President Kersti Kaljulaid gave an end-of-year interview to ERR's Russian-language channel ETV+, where she gave her views on the future of Estonian-language education, and of the oil shale industry and communities affected by future closures, necessitated mainly by following climate neutrality regulations from the European Union.
While the president was keen to steer away from making definitive statements on recent political developments like the ongoing pharmacy reform controversy, she did note that, while the current government had plenty of issues, arising mainly from being a coalition including the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), it had also done some good things, including finding 150 teachers from the rest of Estonia, to teach at schools in Ida-Viru County, as well as the decistion to pursue climate neutral policies.
"These are very good decisions from this government," Kaljulaid told interviewer Dmitri Pastuhhov.
"But it is true that they have been overshadowed. And they have been so perhaps because the government's loudspeaker is being used to question all advances we have seen over the past 30 years – having established the rule of law, close partnerships and alliances, and an acceptance of equality regardless of people's mother tongue, orientation or skin color," Kaljulaid continued.
The President added that while this had been taken for granted earlier, today this may no longer be the case.
"Therefore I can't say it's just a bad thing that the public pays a lot of attention to the rhetoric from some of the EKRE leaders. And I highlight the speeches of individual leaders, since these cannot be equated with their own party and, while we need to pay attention to them over time, this will inevitably also take away from any good things the government has done. "
Asked by the presenter whether politicians could be trusted if they backed out of their pre-election retirement pledges or the promise of raising money for science, Kaljulaid said she did not want to comment on domestic policy choices.
"I also understand that the government has a difficult budgeting process, especially after an election. There is nothing to say; politicians are used to make election pledges, and as voters, we effectively make specific financial promises. If we, as voters, paid more attention to people's mindsets, worldviews, how they behave in a difficult situation and we vote along those lines, then we should not make such promises. There are always two sides to every coin."
How do you explain climate neutrality to oil shale miners who will lose their jobs, and their dependants?
As the president has made climate neutrality a topic close to her heart, the presenter inquired whether she saw this as a threat to employment in Ida-Viru, and so how to explain the policy to those who might end up losing their jobs. Kaljulaid replied that she had noticed an interesting historical difference.
"When [textiles factory] Kreenholm closed its doors, there was little concern about how these weavers, the lovely ladies, would handle things. Yet the Estonian state was able to provide far less social security at that time. Why are we afraid today? Certainly people who change sectors need,until they gain productivity in their new sector, significant support - and we can provide that support today, but we can't afford to pay to keep the past."
The president said that maybe this transition could have happened earlier, when the cost of CO2 was known and electricity production was likely to fall.
"Maybe we are too late to try to hold on to the past? A much safer option is to invest in the future. And the chances of doing so today are much better than when the Kreenholm weavers lost their jobs. We also remember that Ida-Viru's job market vacancies are higher than the national average, based on the number of working people."
The interviewer pointed out that many miners are worried that if they were to lose their current job, they would not find a job that matched their qualifications and had so far helped feed an entire family. Kaljulaid replied that she believed that jobs would be created where at least comparable salaries would be obtained.
"True, initially, when people achieve a certain amount of skill, that is the case (that they would have to take a wage cut-ed.). But in some ways, there are many in Estonia who would like to be able to have one family member provide for the whole family. This is the case in Ida-Viru County, but not only there and not only working in mines. However, very few of us can afford to do that, so therefore we need support and help for the whole family, or for those who are not currently working within these families. This is a nuance that we should pay more attention to in this particular case.
My mind and soul were broken by the Soviet experience too
The President talked a great deal about the learning Estonian and admitted that he was very pleased that Estonian language houses had been created. All praise for this was in fact due to the executive – the government, Kaljulaid said.
"Schools with Estonian as the language of instruction today say that there are many [native] Russian [-speaking] children who are willing to come a long way to study in an Estonian-speaking school. It's clear that everyone in Estonia would like a situation where our children can grow up together regardless of their native tongue. It is our job to make sure that the children and parents who make this move, feel supported."
Kaljulaid said that he was very impressed with the way non-ethnic Estonian staff who are fluent in Estonian try to teach children at the Sillamäe kindergarten and school the Estonian language, via immersion.
"Fortunately, the Ministry of Education has realized that these people need to be helped. There are 150 people who want to work in Ida-Virumaa. This shows that all political parties have the desire and will to move towards that, so that we no longer have segregation in the school system. This should not be taken to mean that Estonian-language schools will achieve better PISA results, and Russian language schools, weaker ones, however."
At the same time, President Kaljulaid stressed the importance that in schools where children with Russian as their mother tongue were in the majority, Russian culture and Russian literature were taught in-depth in schools.
"There is also a need to provide schools with resources so that parents of Estonian-speaking children do not feel that the weaker are being helped at the expense of the stronger. These schools need to provide supportive learning; this is necessary. Whereas thirty years ago, the Russian community was distrustful of going to school, today the situation is different. We have to deal with that."
According to Kaljulaid, there are two ways to provide support - one is technical or material support, the other is emotional, such as in [Estonian rapper] Nublu's songs. She added that the reasons for hesitation should be spoken honestly.
"Most factors arise from hurt caused to our parents. It cannot be denied that many of the people who came here during the Soviet Union era did not want to have any [local] language or culture. They did not want to serve me, a little child, in Estonian. They dealt very arrogantly with me. My mind and soul are also damaged, but isn't this all about growing up? We all do [grow up]. But knowing what those injuries are - we can help each other. "
The President also said that her own children had attended classes where some of the children's home language was not Estonian.
"My grandchildren also attend a Russian kindergarten. Our family believes it is a waste that seven-year-olds would end up monolingual. My younger children were trilingual from kindergarten. I value the richness of language," she added.
The full ETV+ interview, with questions in Russian and answers in Estonian, is here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte