Influential deputy chairman of the Center Party, Tallinn mayor and taekwondo black belt and coach Mihhail Kõlvart smiles on several occasions, laughs on a few, resorts to irony here and there, but generally avoids making light during a 90-minute conversation with ERR's Toomas Sildam. On his desk is a row of small cactuses.
How nice is it to rule alone in the capital, without a coalition and only the will of the Center Party to guide you?
It is true that a single party rules in Tallinn. However, this model is not without its drawbacks.
The first thing that comes to mind is only having a single perspective. When it comes to debates and proposing solutions, the wider the circle of those involved and the more competency, the more you see. A coalition could provide a bigger picture.
On the other hand, you have the downsides of a coalition. Too much energy and resources spent on debates and searching for compromises that might still not be the best solutions in the end.
Therefore, we must proceed based on the principle of democracy. If the voter trusts a single party with a big enough mandate, they will rule alone, while a different outcome will produce a coalition.
After local elections in 2017, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas felt Center could still form a coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SDE) despite being able to rule alone. You – after taking 24,668 votes – were against it. Why?
It seems to me that we failed – without pointing any fingers – to achieve a positive result during talks. There were different visions and proposals that did not culminate in a coherent concept.
Was the social democrats' rather pronounced election campaign a factor?
Not for me. It is the opposition's role to be critical, active and pronounced. Whether it should be aggressive… Perhaps not. There is a difference between pronounced and aggressive.
You took a record-breaking 17,150 votes in the election district comprised of the City Center, Lasnamäe and Pirita districts of Tallinn last March. You could have asked for a ministerial portfolio and gotten one. Why didn't you?
One's position or portfolio is a secondary matter. A person should be motivated by what they could really do and achieve.
What about the economy and infrastructure portfolio – building four-lane highways, major projects, expanse, scope…
Yes, but not every politician is capable of serving as minister in every administrative area. [Former Tallinn mayor, Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure] Taavi Aas definitely is competent enough. I decided to continue in Tallinn where I have experience and developed competency over the years, and I must admit I like and find it interesting working in the capital.
Would your decision have been different in a different coalition?
Everyone knows I voted against this coalition. That said, once the party made its decision, I took part in coalition talks to try and protect the interests of our voters as much as possible. It is part of the responsibility of a politician that their personal opinion must be put aside from time to time.
It was difficult for me to accept this choice emotionally, but every politician needs to keep in mind that coalition talks are not between people who like each other but between those elected to the Riigikogu by the Estonian people. Because a one-party government is impossible in Estonia, we sit down with our opponents whose ideology often converges from Center's.
Mihhail Kõlvart, Yana Toom, Vadim Belobrovtsev and Raimond Kaljulaid were the ones who voted against this coalition when we look at the board of the Center Party. Would you vote differently today?
(Snorts) I'm sorry, but the question is meaningless.
Based on the situation in March 2019, I would vote the same way.
Should other coalition options come up for discussion today, we would have to consider what value a different kind of coalition would hold, and it would be an entirely different debate.
A year has passed since Riigikogu elections, while we're still debating potential coalitions – it is not very constructive. We should be discussing what to do with power instead of who gets it by this point.
You now find yourself in the same boat with the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) also in Tallinn.
How do you figure?
All EKRE city council members voted in favor of Tallinn's 2020 budget bill. What is that if not cooperation?
That's an interesting approach. On the one hand, we say that politicians should concentrate on the matter at hand, instead of simply making sure the opposition is always against and the coalition in favor. Whenever anyone votes based on a different logic, the only thing people see is a political agenda.
Both I and members of EKRE's city council group can assure you there was no discussion or agreement before the vote. What we had was a lengthy and detailed budget debate in the city council, including proposals to amend by the opposition, some of which were approved – a rather rare situation in Tallinn and especially looking at Toompea Hill where opposition bills are doomed to fail. This time, we supported proposals by the Reform Party, EKRE, Isamaa and SDE.
Why did you support the opposition's proposals?
Some of them were aimed at developing things that we found sensible. If memory serves, the opposition's proposals got €800,000 from the city budget. (Tallinn's budget for 2020 is around €700 million – ed.)
We make no secret of the fact that it was also a signal. Yes, there is an opposition and a coalition, but we are prepared to pursue constructive cooperation, albeit on a modest scale.
You said that a government between Center, EKRE and Isamaa is the only way to retain Russian education in Estonia as had Center formed a coalition with Reform or became the opposition, the hopes of Russian schools in Estonia would have been dashed.
Yes, I said those words.
I don't understand. A government made up of Reform and Center would not have closed Russian schools.
I distinctly remember a prime ministerial candidates' debate where the honorable chairman of the Reform Party said: Russian schools should be closed, probably by the next academic year…
You can say a lot of things during the election campaign, but things change once you start ruling with someone.
Yes, that is true. However, the only way to access that truth is during coalition talks. The question of whether it would have been possible to negotiate with Reform is from yesterday. No point talking about it today.
Sometimes it seems Reform is the embodiment of all evil for Center. Is that so?
The Center Party spent many a year in the opposition and was referred to as the "embodiment of evil."
I have never said that.
But many journalists and politicians did, and it's understandable because there is always a political force some people do not like.
What about Reform in the eyes of Center today?
My political career has not been very long…
How so? You were a social democrat 20 years ago, in the Moderates.
(Laughs) That was not a political career.
At first, it seemed to me you need to be very particular about who you talk to. I believe today that you need to talk to everybody, while you cannot form a coalition with anybody. But ruling a party out completely or perceiving it as all evil – that's not right.
Do you know who said in the October 20 issue of Lääne Elu: "Mihhail Kõlvart is a brilliant mayor who dares make decisions!"?
I do not.
It was Siim Kallas, the honorary chairman of the Reform Party.
(Visibly surprised) I'm flattered.
When you were elected mayor of Tallinn last spring, you said: "Every person who lives in Estonia must understand the importance of the Estonian language and its cultural context." Why do you oppose switching Russian schools to teaching in Estonian?
(Laughs) Well… It is a question than cannot be answered in a single sentence.
Let us begin by saying that Estonian is not just a means of communication. Language is the backbone of a people's mentality. Without language, there is no culture, and without culture, there is no nation or state. The significance of language goes far beyond its official or educational status.
The culture of people of other nationalities who live here brings additional opportunities, not problems. Their cultural background provides different perspective and wisdom and creates a synergy in society that in turn creates new knowledge and possibilities. When national minorities lose their language and culture, they lose a part of their potential…
A person must speak Estonian and know Estonian culture – no one is contesting that. It is not a situation of local Russians being reluctant to learn Estonian. Rather, the problem is that the public sector has failed to provide effective language training over the years. Which is not to say people do not bear personal responsibility here.
Everyone understands their kids need to learn Estonian. I believe that is where we are headed one way or another.
Where is that?
Russian parents increasingly choosing Estonian schools for their children. It is already happening. But Estonian schools are not prepared to admit enough Russian students today.
Were I to ask whether the English College, French Lyceum or the German High School sport educational value for Estonia because they have a second study language and cultural background, most people would say yes.
The number of Russian schools will start falling either way. However, we could still have Russian schools in the future that would offer Estonian education but retain students' cultural background.
Let me complicate things further. Children with special educational needs. Their number is growing with every passing year in Tallinn, Estonia and the whole of Europe. No one is seeking to answer the question of how they should learn in a different language.
Politicians like to make decisions first and then wait for consequences. We could sometimes have more analysis before making a decision. A lot of people do not understand where the heart of the matter lies, while politicians are busy piling on emotions. And some processes develop much more quickly and effectively if politicians steer clear of them.
Local elections are coming and politicians will definitely not steer clear. You know this.
Yes, but there could be a moratorium on some topics before elections. Areas where we know we would be creating additional tension in society. Conflict and tension cannot be just filed away once elections are over. They take on a life of their own.
What would some of those topics be?
Nationality issues first and foremost. Everything to do with minorities as that is what fuels passions. Do we need to discuss these things before elections? I believe there are a lot of risks involved.
You said in August of 2019 that the coalition with EKRE has not been good for Center. And yet, your voter should be partial to the government's conservative stance on traditional family values or containing immigration, including seasonal workers from Ukraine.
Immigration might be a problem for Estonia, but that does not mean it could be solved through anger. We need to look at how much labor we need, how to regulate it and avoid risks.
Ukrainians can be seen working at many Tallinn construction sites. Where do you stand on that?
I would quote the head of a major construction company: Without Ukrainians, most of these sites would be empty and could not be completed. I'm not sure whether it is strictly true; perhaps if companies offered noticeably higher salaries, local construction workers would come.
But one thing is for sure, there is considerable labor shortage in Estonia. Which leads to pragmatic questions of how to solve the problem and whether it can be solved without foreign labor. If the answer is no, we need suitable regulation, keeping in mind the social aspect. The situation today is that the economy needs labor, while no one is paying attention to the social aspect.
The city of Tallinn?
We have been feeling it for some time – in kindergartens, schools, as seen by our social workers, regarding integration. The problem exists, while we cannot react emotionally.
We have not considered what new immigration would mean in terms of integration, the social aspect. We are not ready for it. And that leads to the other risk – growing tension, xenophobic moods, hate that no society is interested in.
But if our approach is limited to the more labor we have, the better…
The government is rather looking to slow it down.
… or the other extreme of saying we do not need any strangers.
Neither approach is sustainable. If there is labor shortage, we need to admit as much and regulate the process.
The coalition agreement includes a referendum for amending the Constitution to phrase marriage as a union between a man and a woman scheduled to take place in the fall of 2021. What is your opinion of that?
Well… (Pauses) That politicians must address these questions is already a problem because the discussion will be politicized.
It will be made a topic of local elections which it shouldn't be.
What I feel is that marriage is indeed between a man and a woman as stipulated in the Family Act. Why repeat that in the Constitution, I don't know.
The referendum is part of the coalition agreement that we need to stick to. But it is another issue that fans resentment in society. It is a problem.
It will ruin local elections.
The results of these elections are secondary in this context, I'm talking about deeper processes.
How much truth is there to claims that there is Jüri Ratas' Center Party and Mihhail Kõlvart's Center Party and a Tartu Center Party, some sort of Ida-Viru Center Party etc.?
No party is interested in having different factions, while every party has various groups. I am interested in a united party.
What is the actual situation?
We cannot see Center splitting into two or three parts. There are various debates, tensions and problems, but I do not see a trend toward there being several different camps.
Do you agree with those who say that Mihhail Kõlvart's position in the Center Party is becoming stronger – that you have become the leader of its Russian wing and are expanding your influence into the so-called Estonian sector?
I understand the question as whether there is active and purposeful activity to boost one's influence. First of all, I'm forced to admit that 99 percent of my motivation has been aimed at Tallinn over the past year and I have hardly done enough work in the party as deputy chairman.
Secondly, it is not a goal of mine to be influential in the party. What I find positive and what the party would benefit from is if all leaders would gain in authority and influence independent of their mother tongue.
You turned to the president in the fall of 2018 because – in your words – people were being labeled based on their nationality, with a considerable part of society referred to as "cripples refusing to walk," "scrap," and even "a tumor," whereas such expressions could be heard in the Riigikogu. It had also become commonplace for some politicians to try and paint a picture of an entire people based on a single person's actions. Has the situation improved in the 18 months since then?
One would hope things improve with every passing year. (Pauses) I have not heard similar utterances in the past year and a half. But talking about tensions in society – unfortunately no [things have not improved]. There is still a lot of tension.
Where is it coming from?
Everyone can feel that emotional political antagonism is still one of the reasons. Sometimes, this aggression hits the streets which is when it becomes really dangerous. This is where politicians need to be careful. They need to understand that they can create a background, environment that will take on a life of its own in society. That is when processes start to spin out of control. Do we spend enough time if any thinking about that? I'm afraid we don't always.
To what extent is this a personal issue for you, thinking back to your letter to the president?
I'm used to being different from my childhood. (Kõlvart's parents moved to Estonia from Kazakhstan when he was three – ed.) All manner of things have been said about me, also publicly, but I make sure not to let it create personal emotions.
My letter to the president was not a manifestation of personal emotions; its aim was to point to processes I believe are dangerous. I worry when I realize processes go beyond an individual's emotional outburst.
Did the president answer?
Not personally, I received an official reply from her office.
Why did you decide to close Tallinn Television when you became mayor?
It was a pragmatic decision. I saw no future for it. It would have taken a lot of money for the channel to have quality content. And I believe that would not be a sensible use of city funds.
How many in the Center Party criticized you for the decision?
Not just in the Center Party, it went beyond that.
Of course, because a lot of people living in rural areas lost the ability to watch free to air Tallinn Television and, let's be frank, Center Party politicians.
Not only Center politicians. There was another party that was quite popular on Tallinn TV – EKRE.
I admit, people in rural areas lost a channel. But we need to realize that Tallinn Television was not a national network, it was a single local government's TV channel paid for by the Tallinn taxpayer. The money can be put to more effective use.
People outside Tallinn are not your voters?
It's not about whose voters they are. The reason is that the people of Tallinn did not watch Tallinn Television.
But when I said the same thing at an event, the elderly people who attended all said they were Tallinn TV viewers. I raised my hands and apologized. Looking at statistics, the channel's ratings were marginal in Tallinn, while having a proper network would require a much bigger investment, with there being no guarantee Tallinners would watch it even then. It [the decision to shut it down] was a mathematical one.
Your voters watch the Russian network PBK where Tallinn city government buys airtime. The Estonian Internal Security Service recently searched their offices in connection with an investigation in Latvia into alleged business activity with a person under EU sanctions. You are not considering severing or freezing ties with PBK for the duration of the investigation?
Our interest is very pragmatic. Our partner must guarantee us viewers, and people watch PBK. We are also partnered with Estonian networks. That way, information about Tallinn reaches more viewers and it's cheaper than running your own network.
All partners were picked using competitions or tenders, and we have no grounds for terminating the contract without taking a financial hit. We also do not have enough information about what is going on at PBK, not to mention what will happen in the future.
Because there is so much talk about PBK… It would be peculiar to think that information can somehow be controlled in the modern world; everyone can always find the information they want. Secondly, it is not fair to think that Russian-speaking people are incapable of analyzing information or making choices. People can decide what's adequate and what's objective or subjective. I believe our people – irrespective of the language they speak – are smart enough.
Do you know what your opponents would say right now?
I've heard it. (Smiles)
That we will soon see a line of people at the Russian Embassy in Tallinn, looking to vote for Putin or United Russia. It is the effect of Russian networks, you will be told.
First of all, it is our aim for Estonia to have more Estonian citizens.
Secondly, we cannot be sure who they are voting for.
Thirdly, people can think for themselves. And even if someone else thinks they are wrong, it is nevertheless their right. How else could it be? If we say that we should keep an eye on the kind of information people have access to, start separating information into right and wrong… It seems like a rather dangerous path to me.
And who will get to decide what kind of information is right, at first for an individual and eventually the whole of society? It's a little bit scary just talking about it. Of there being someone who decides what kind of which information is right and what kind is wrong…
Is it true that you have launched a reorganization campaign at the city government to render city administration simpler?
There is a broader goal. The city needs to have a bigger conceptual vision of what it wants to be, not just today, but also in 25 years.
It sounds peculiar, but the last time we had major plans and developmental visions in construction was when the warrens were being built 30 years ago. Today, in most cases, it is up to private developers to decide the face of the city. I'm not saying we need to overregulate this, but we need a broader vision one part of which is answering the question of the city's [administrative] structure. Change is needed, and the past year has yielded ideas of how it could happen.
One of your officials recently admitted that "there is a lot of ballast, projects get bogged down in endless red tape." How accurate is this description?
What we need to develop is horizontal cooperation. Between different areas and specific departments. What you pointed out suggests vertical management. For things to move faster, we need more horizontal management and initiative. It can be introduced through structural changes, while we also need to change organizational culture. And that takes time.
Will these structural changes reach Tallinn's Culture Department, many would ask at this point?
(Smiles) Tallinn has 270 bodies with some 14,500 employees. Certain management changes need to trickle down, while some will need to be carried out separately. Are we working on that? Yes, we are. Do we intend to reach every single institution one way or another? Again, that is our aim.
If you must choose between widening a road and putting in a bicycle path, which do you choose?
That is an overly simplified question. A third option is possible – as we did with the Reidi Road project. Cars were given more space and we also built a light traffic path. These things go hand-in-hand when it comes to major projects.
Rather, it seems you have been siding with drivers who make up a large part of your constituency.
(Laughs) Yes, I've been told that several times and read about it.
A project should be realized if it's well-weighed and the city is ready for it. Not to have an idea for the sake of having an idea, but to make life in the city better for as many people as possible. Irrespective of whether they take the bike or the car.
You told the "Laser" TV show last year that you would consider lowering the general speed limit to 40 kilometers per hour in Tallinn. What have you decided?
We had a survey where we asked people what they think about lowering the speed limit, among other things. It turned out citizens are not in favor of the idea, whereas it did not depend on whether they take the bus, car or bicycle.
I'm sure some would support raising the speed limit to 60 kilometers per hour.
Exactly. We are putting in a system of having traffic lights and signs regulate traffic based on feedback from the streets. That would allow us to lower the speed limit in places to achieve smoother traffic. It is the future – smart traffic lights and electronic signs that can change the pace of traffic.
Will Tallinn build a super-hospital?
In a situation where the minimum cost of the project is €400 million, it needs to be realized that we can only make it happen in cooperation with the state. Tallinn is motivated, we're trying to make preparations, but this is a national project.
Is it also a matter of EU funding?
Yes, the first signal we need will have to come from Europe, after which a part will have to come from the central government, and only then can we talk about the project in more detail.
When will the state and Tallinn start renovating the now extremely dilapidated Peterburi Road leading into Tallinn from Rakvere and Narva?
We have expectations… Because we are talking about an international highway and not just a Tallinn street in this context, state funding should be made available. The city estimates it would cost around €40 million to fix the road. That is a considerable sum. We are still hoping for state support, while we will get started in the meantime. We want to include planning costs in next year's budget.
Will the Center Party win absolute majority in Tallinn for the sixth consecutive time in 2021?
That is up to the voter.
What else could a politician say?
Yes, of course. That said, every politician is interested in seeing support for their party grow, while political technology alone is not enough to achieve that – you also need to get things done. We have greater responsibility than the opposition in this because we are in power and the people can judge us based on what we do.
That's Tallinn behind you, nowhere to fall back to.
A party winning or losing an election should not be a tragedy. It is the next step in the development of society.
Raimond Kaljulaid, who recently joined the social democrats, believes that EKRE and Isamaa will make the most sense for Kõlvart as coalition partners after local elections. Is that so or is it just an attempt to discourage your voters?
I'm pretty sure Raimond will not be involved in the process of forming a coalition on Center's behalf this time, irrespective of who our potential partner is.
True, he is SDE's candidate for mayor instead.
And if it is something that we need to discuss with SDE after elections, I suppose Raimond is among the people we can negotiate with regarding a potential future coalition.
In all seriousness, it is akin to asking about the perfect coalition. But there is no such thing.
Personally, it would be easier to deal with a party that shared a similar ideology. It is clear the social democrats would be a good fit in this regard. Whereas the result should not depend on whether they have Raimond Kaljulaid, Rainer Vakra or other former centrists there. Ideally, it would depend on truly having a similar understanding of the world based on which something could be built. Does it work like that in real life? Not always.
Every party wants to maximize its potential at elections. For the Center Party, that's having 40+ seats in the [79-seat] city council.
You are 42. How long do you plan to work as mayor of Tallinn?
(Laughs) Is it time to go already? (Laughs again)
My colleague Anvar Samost wrote that the only place left for you to go is the one currently occupied by Jüri Ratas.
There is another position I'm quite fond of – that of a taekwondo coach.
Sport is alien to me, let's stick with politics.
So… Do I harbor such ambitions?
You've said that a politician needs to have ambitions.
Of course, a politician needs to have ambition (laughs), I completely agree.
I sincerely believe that there are stages in a person's life that prepare them for a certain role. A conviction little bit like fate. Should the position of prime minister lie in my future, I want to have had enough of these preparatory stages and time to be ready for it.
The other thing is that I only became mayor a year ago and there is a lot I would like to get done. Here and now. To have grounds, motivation and perhaps people's support for considering other perspectives.
But for now, I have a lot of things I want to get done in Tallinn.
Why is there a row of small cactuses on your desk?
They absorb negative energy, should any waft in from somewhere. (Laughs)
Editor: Marcus Turovski