Deputy chairman of the Conservative People's Party, Minister of Finance Martin Helme vindicates party members serving on the Appointment Committee, talks about father Mart Helme's alleged withdrawal, Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik's infuriating actions and a plan to save pharmacies.
We haven't heard as much from EKRE in the past month as usual.
It was Christmas and peace on Earth.
At the same time, it seems you are vigorously reinforcing your positions and those of the ruling coalition.
We have been working hard all along. The picture the public has of us and the government has from the very beginning had little in common with what the government is actually doing.
We have been systematically working on realizing the government's highly versatile policy ever since September  when we set about drawing up the budget.
It is indeed versatile. Because while EKRE has been criticizing a political food chain created by the Reform Party, your government is now engaging in the same practice by taking to the Appointment Committee that mans state company supervisory boards EKRE member Argo Luude and Reet Roos from Isamaa.
How is it possible to seriously claim the committee is apolitical just because it doesn't have party members? Everyone has a worldview.
But I would not overemphasize the political preferences of the Appointment Committee's recent members – on the contrary.
This personal worldview is expressed at elections, but if people who have defined themselves through party affiliation and who take part in party activities wind up on the committee, one cannot help but think you're looking to politicize it.
Frankly, I couldn't care less about what one thinks. What matters is that we're making good on promises we made to the voter.
Let me be very transparent – our goal is to exercise power instead of just being in power, and we don't care about holding down a job so much as we care about realizing our goals. As put by Argo Luude in a recent interview, that happens through two things – controlling personnel policy and fiscal policy. That is what we're doing.
Argo Luude also asked how should government priorities ever be applied in state companies in a situation where both the Appointment Committee and the supervisory board they appoint are completely independent? How have they been applied so far?
We could also ask whether they have to a sufficient degree? If the government feels this connection should be closer and nearer, that is what steps will be based on.
What was wrong there recently?
Everything has been fine with the Appointment Committee. The committee has ensured a leap in terms of the quality of supervisory board members, making sure no one's second cousin thrice removed can land there.
However, what we've heard from time to time is how a state company management board says it doesn't care what the minister – the owner – thinks, that it answers to the supervisory board that in turn answers to the Appointment Committee and that's the end of it.
The minister represents the general meeting.
But if the general meeting cannot do anything beside give an overview of the owner's expectations nor threaten to disband the supervisory board that could then replace the board? No such threat is even theoretically possible. It is very difficult for the owner to impose its will in case of differences.
In short – more control. That is what you're after?
What's wrong with that? State-owned companies belong to the people who rule them through the government. Every minister has companies in their administrative area. I cannot agree to running kolkhozes that belong to no one. We cannot have kolkhozes in Estonia, we need companies, and if these companies are owned by the people, it is the government of the republic that must control them.
Will politicians be appointed to state company supervisory boards?
I see no such danger. Newspapers write, whether to incite panic or in the form of random outbursts, how we'll soon see a mass campaign to replace supervisory board members. We won't. It's business as usual – some will stay on for another term, some will be replaced. A completely normal process.
Supervisory boards will not cater to the political food chain.
At the same time, you made a proposal to the rural affairs minister to appoint his predecessor Mart Järvik (EKRE) to the supervisory board of the Rural Development Foundation (MES) for the next five years. Why Järvik, who was forced to put down the rural affairs portfolio after losing the trust of PM Jüri Ratas?
MES is not a company. We have a little under 100 foundations in Estonia the supervisory boards of which are appointed based on entirely different considerations.
It's still politicization.
Exactly, no one is talking about politicization when it comes to foundations. Looking at these cultural and social foundations, including major hospitals, they were highly politicized a long time ago – full of social democrats, Reform Party and other parties' members but very few EKRE representatives. Politicization is very much present there, while it seems to be troubling no one.
You haven't answered my question, why appoint Järvik to the MES supervisory board?
One reason is that Järvik launched the "Noored maale" (Young people to the countryside) and the so-called rural affairs fund projects through which the state guides land ownership policy to strengthen rural life when he served as minister. He has done the preparation work, and I want him to continue pursuing these matters.
The other reason is also very clear. The seat on the MES supervisory board was previously held by current Minister of Rural Affairs Arvo Aller (EKRE). We had a vacancy there we filled with Järvik who has already brought himself up to speed on rural affairs.
And thirdly, and I will openly admit this, it was to show that Järvik is not a burnt out or discredited politician, not to us. He did everything right. We said already during that so-called major scandal that what he was accused of is not true. The reason Järvik had to leave the government is that he was unable to explain all of it to the prime minister in a convincing manner.
[Former Ministry of Rural Affairs secretary general] Lemetti was a Reform Party agent working against the minister. No sooner had the VTA director left, following the secretary general and having lost his protection, than the listeria scandal ended.
Perhaps Järvik should be brought back to the government?
That day will come. (Smiles)
Did you also seek to keep Järvik busy after he was forced to leave the government?
You don't leave a man behind, that's true. But the few hundred euros a month a MES supervisory board member makes is definitely not enough to qualify as a soft landing or a place in the food chain.
Järvik has said he wants to continue the "Noored maale" project with a price tag of €100 million. Is it a good project?
It's still in the brainstorming phase. But it is a good project and the right thing to do.
Where to find those €100 million?
Coming up with an answer to that is part of the brainstorming phase. Finding the money is not… Allow me to give a simple example. We have €80 million just sitting there at KredEx that they haven't managed to spend either because they haven't found the right measure or failed to launch it. The money is just sitting there and will be returned to the EU if we cannot find a way to spend it.
What I mean to say is that finding the money is not an insurmountable task.
It is the same ballpark of what the European Union is offering us for Põxit – Estonia giving up oil shale electricity.
Yes, precisely… Only it is a trifling amount in the energy sector – the €120 million they're talking about.
What will happen now? Will Estonia cancel its green turn?
Estonian governments have been among the most exemplary when it comes to implementing a green turn. We have voluntarily adopted goals that are twice as ambitious as those of other member states for 2030 and 2040. We have already achieved those goals or are on target for hitting them.
I returned from an ECOFIN meeting yesterday (January 21 – editor) where the topic was the EU Green Deal. We are one of only a handful of countries to have hit recent targets and could easily spend the next 15 years waiting for others to catch up, so we don't have to cancel the green turn.
What I will clearly state is that this government will not shut down our energy sector, the oil shale industry based on the European Union's slogan-based climate policy. That much is absolutely clear.
Is PM Jüri Ratas on board?
It is a common position in the government.
The question is how to modernize our oil shale industry to lower its CO2 footprint. The course we've plotted is for shale oil.
There is another option. We can wait for development of hydrogen technologies for carbon capture etc. But these processes will take years, and we cannot set about liquidating one of the pillars of our economy before they exist.
But power generation from oil shale will continue to fall?
Yes, and we have already taken it into consideration. Certain oil shale furnaces were known to be headed toward closure years ago. December or January was the first month in the history of Eesti Energia where wind power generation outperformed oil shale energy…
But to say that we will stop [oil shale production] and shut down our mines – not during this government's time, no way!
Please comment on the rumor that EKRE chairman Mart Helme is about to hand over the party and change his portfolio for a seat in the Riigikogu and that you will take control of EKRE.
(Smiles) Commenting on the dreams of our opponents would be a peculiar activity, but there is no such plan. Or rather, while it will happen at one point because Mart Helme is not a king for life, no one knows when that will be today. Not in the near future.
Now we would need to define the near future.
No, we don't. Let them speculate and guesstimate. It's amusing to watch.
Perhaps it's a rumor we released ourselves, although I rather believe it's something our opponents are dreaming about.
EKRE is not planning on leaving the government?
No, why should we? That's another dream someone is having. We have no reason to leave the government as it suits our needs; we are happy with the coalition agreement and how its implementation is coming along in broad strokes, as well as regarding cooperation between partners.
The fact that people are partial to storms in a teacup and corresponding speculation means very little.
However, the government is about to replace a minister?
Excuse me, but who?
You said on your talk show last Sunday that if the social ministry's "Kõik on erinevad, kuid sama palju inimesed" (Everyone is different but equally human) campaign is taking place with the social minister's blessing, you can no longer share a government with them. The campaign has Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik's blessing.
And it is a major problem. Tanel Kiik knows it's a major problem for our voters, for our Riigikogu group and all our ministers.
In the summer, when we also talked about state budget funding for gay propaganda, we had several heart-to-heart talks with coalition partners. We thought we had reached a certain understanding in terms of what can and cannot be done in a government that has two conservative parties. We feel that this recent campaign is in contravention of that understanding.
It is not a gay campaign. If you've looked at the clips, they are very different.
Alright, let's get scholastic.
If one of its poster boys is an aggressive gay activist, a person who sends defenders of family values disgusting postcards around Christmas – it's nothing other than picking a fight. That is how we see the campaign.
What about Tanel Kiik? You've said you can no longer share a government with him.
Not if such activities continue, yes.
You did not specify. I quote: "If it is something that is being done with the minister's blessing, that minister at one point… we can no longer share a government with that minister."
Yes, we will have a very serious problem.
It is not a bluff or an attempt to please our voters by thumping our chest only to let it lie the next day. It is a principled matter for us, not only regarding the campaign but also the question of how money in the budget should be spent.
Will you raise the issue of Kiik resigning with PM Ratas?
(Pauses) We have talked to both Ratas and Kiik, as well as other Center Party members.
About the need for Kiik to resign?
About Tanel Kiik not being allowed to behave in this manner.
But he is.
(Pauses) We will talk again… About there being a line starting form which he is doing it out of spite. Perhaps he doesn't realize how irritating it is.
You do remember how fiercely the PM defended Kiik when you raised the issue of the social ministry funding minorities?
Yes, but the chairman of a party must always defend their ministers and fellow members. It is understandable.
Will EKRE wait for the pharmacy reform and April 1 to be able to say the social ministry failed after a number of pharmacies are closed and organize a repeat of what happened to Järvik only with Center on the frying pan this time?
The answer must begin at the other end. A situation where pharmacies are closed en masse is unacceptable. We are still trying to avoid it. We have not accepted the [pharmacy reform] act going ahead as planned.
You will try to amend the bill once more?
There is very little time left.
So, inside two weeks, you should…
Looking at the parliamentary calendar, there's nothing we can do after two weeks.
What's the plan?
We're working on it as we speak.
Give us an outline?
The outline is that the pharmacy reform going ahead in its current form is unacceptable.
Would you agree to the gradual transition [to pharmacist-owned drugstores] suggested by Tanel Kiik?
It is not a solution, just an illusion.
You want to stop the reform?
We would like to liberalize the market.
What does that mean? Over the counter drugs in gas stations, grocery stores?
The reason why we left it out of the previous bill was Center's reluctance. Their Riigikogu group also couldn't sell a watered down version of it, meaning we no longer have any reason to avoid these topics when looking for solutions.
Therefore – free market for over the counter drugs?
Everything is possible. However, seeing tens or hundreds of pharmacies close doors is not acceptable.
When will you come out with your bill?
Inside the next two weeks.
The question is whether the bill will be introduced by MPs. If so, how many different groups will be involved and who are they. There are a number of people in the Center Party who see things our way. Their voters also aren't likely to forgive them for pharmacies being shut down in their election districts.
Support for suspending the [pharmacy] reform is broad-based and the main reason it failed the last time was that for the first time I saw the Reform Party exercise voting discipline.
Have you discussed the potential bill with Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik whose administrative area it is?
I have, briefly.
Tanel Kiik presented to the government draft legislation to amend the Medicines Act that would have allowed for some solutions, but the plan was left there.
Editor: Marcus Turovski