Kristina Kallas interview: Estonia is paralyzed and frozen

Toomas Sildam's interview with Kristina Kallas.
Toomas Sildam's interview with Kristina Kallas. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Chairman of non-parliamentary party Estonia 200 Kristina Kallas told ERR journalist Toomas Sildam that she, as well as the president, is critical of the Riigikogu and its workload: 101 high-paid, highly educated, full-time politicians who seem only capable of producing one poorly prepared bill per month.

Estonia 200 formed in 2018 and narrowly missed out on being represented in the Riigikogu at the 2019 election. The party gained 4.4 percent of the vote but needed 5 percent to meet the electoral threshold.

In recent weeks the party's support level has increased to meet, and exceed, the threshold in polling by Estonia's biggest pollsters Norstat, Kantar Emor, and Turu-uuringute AS.

Estonia 200 has also been voted the fourth most popular party in several surveys, rising above the Social Democrats and Isamaa. The party has already confirmed it will run in the local elections in autumn 2021.

Kristina Kallas is the former director of the University of Tartu's Narva College.

In her speech on Independence Day last month, President Kersti Kaljulaid criticized members of Riigikogu for failing to do any work and insulting each other.

Do you like champagne?

(Pauses, visibly surprised) Not particularly.

When pollster EMOR put your rating at 14 percent, ahead of the Social Democrat Party (not to mention Isamaa), how did you celebrate?

We didn't celebrate as such, but we were glad. It gives us the strength to carry on, tells us we're doing the right thing. And that we must stick with it.

Some say your party is so popular because it has kept quiet. Are they being unfair?

We have nothing to add to the daily squabbles between the coalition and the opposition. There is nothing to say or do but look on perplexed… We are waiting for the conversation to graduate from a melee of words to fundamental debates.

We have chimed in regarding the pension reform and green tax – Estonia 200 will speak up whenever actual problems are discussed, while we are not missed in bouts of verbal abuse.

When Estonia 200 came out with its manifesto in May 2018, you said you'd gauge the public reaction to see whether people need a new party or not. In March of 2019 [at the election - ed], the people decided not to take Estonia 200 to the parliament. Why keep going?

March 2019 was a pivotal moment for Estonia 200. We sat down after the elections and asked ourselves whether we would return to our professional fields and leave the project behind or whether we still believe Estonia needs a party of specialists who aim to address the future.

Six hundred members of the party were looking at me, figuratively speaking – Kristina, are you willing to continue? I said that I am if you are too. Estonia 200 staying active after the elections was far from certain.

I still cannot understand where your voters are. Estonia 200 only took 10,700 votes at European Parliament elections, which was half of what Raimond Kaljulaid got as an independent.

The European Parliament elections were important for Estonia but not for Estonia 200.

Our voter is someone who wanted other parties to adopt a new approach before the previous elections but has now seen that it is not meant to be and is looking for an alternative. Voters who are not happy with the coalition or the opposition today.

You've admitted Estonia 200 still has to learn how to communicate simple messages to voters. What could that simple message be in your case?

I'm forced to admit that our simple message is still not easy to phrase.

Talking about the future, we must talk about things that do not exist today and make people imagine them. However, at elections, people want to talk about the things that are and what's wrong today.

Your message was complicated.

We spoke about the future, while that future does not exist today. It takes a long time for people to start imagining that future. We did not have enough time to take our complicated topics to the people, to simplify them.

No matter what we talked about – the personal state or challenge-based administration – it is all very complicated for people. And if you try to explain it quickly, people say they cannot follow you at all.

From where does this confidence to say that "Estonia 200 is a positive alternative to Riigikogu parties" come from?

It comes from our deep conviction that we are a positive alternative to all the other Riigikogu parties.

Help the voter decide – what is Estonia 200's worldview?

Liberal, pro-Estonian, future-oriented, innovative that is to say progressive.

Estonian politics pays too little attention to the future. We used to be – as was Europe as a whole – very good at envisioning the future, talking about it and running toward it. Estonia was brilliant at mapping out a path for itself in the 1990s. Politicians knew how to sell it to the people, we agreed to eat potato peels because we knew the future that was in store for us. We have lost sight of that now. We are stuck in the present, and struggling…

Because we caught up to that future.

Yes, but we need to map out a new future now. We cannot run a country struggling in the present and fighting over the past. But that is just what we're doing today.

Voices say that while you used to resemble the Social Democrats at first, you are now seeking to offer an alternative to Reform Party voters.

I will admit I cannot think in such political technological terms. I think about what we want to achieve in politics, and if some of those things appeal to voters of the Social Democrats – that's nice, and if some of them appeal to Reform voters – that's also nice. But this state of mind of only saying things to get votes from Reform supporters – it's backwards thinking to me. Such vote farming should not be the only goal for any politician.

A politician without votes is like a berry-picker lost in the woods alone…

Yes, of course. But what I've learned is that collecting votes is not something to turn your nose up at but work a politician needs to do. The question is how. Politics finding itself in a deadlock today is partly the result of how votes have been sought.

Using promises.

Which promises?

Simple ones.

Simple, populist promises which you know will be popular but which cannot be fulfilled in the coalition agreement. A very cynical use of democracy.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Kristina Kallas. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Would one of your election slogans be that a municipality mayor should not be able to fire a principal at will?

Yes, indeed.

After the conflict in Lüganuse municipality where the municipality government fired the principal of Kiviõli High School Heidi Uustalu, Estonia 200 made a proposal of amending the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act in a way which requires the school board to sign off on hiring and firing principals. How far along have you gotten?

We have the signatures – over 1,000 – and we will be presenting the bill to the parliament this week or next.

What do you think the Riigikogu will do?

It's difficult to say. A lot of MPs agree with us on the level of what they know and feel to be right.

It is my first attempt to introduce an initiative I know to be near to heart for many people in politics, to see how they will act. Whether they will prioritize their party's strategic stance or really discussing the topic and making an honest decision.

It will be difficult for MPs to say that Estonia 200 – the rating of which is on the rise – came up with a good idea and one they'll support.

Why wouldn't they say that?

We shall see.


Refugees are once more headed for Europe from Turkey. Should Estonia close its borders?

I believe the ball is in the European Union's court once again in terms of whether it will be able to reach a new agreement with Turkey. It is not sensible to move great masses of people across vast distances; the sensible thing to do is to keep people close to their homes and help them there. But they need to be offered help, instead of saying it's not our problem.

Businessman Priit Alamäe – one of the key figures for Estonia 200 today – opined in August of 2014 that Estonia could import domestic helpers from outside the EU who could be paid a few hundred euros a month to leave families more time for spending time with children. Would you be willing to discuss such a proposal in the parliament?

As a mother of three working full time, I can see how I could use help cleaning, taking care of children… Yes, I have access to grandmothers, but many people don't.

Now, about the political problem. If we do not promote and offer support for domestic help, while a woman from the Philippines is perhaps not the best solution, we are keeping our women tied up, so to speak. That is where our gender pay gap starts, the reason fewer women are in politics or hold executive positions. Women are much busier taking care of their parents or children. These obligations take up a lot of the time that could otherwise be spent on contributing to society.

At the same time, women have a much higher level of education on average in Estonia. I have been taught a great deal on the taxpayer's dime, seeing as I have a doctorate, with the relevant question being should I really spend a considerable part of my time cleaning at home instead of contributing to society simply because I cannot afford to hire a maid.

I understand where Priit is coming from. While I'm not sure the solution he proposed is the best, I agree that the obligation placed on women to take care of relatives is extensive. Things are not balanced in this regard.

How would Estonia 200 have voted on pharmacy reform – should it have been reversed or should we agree to pharmacists being the only ones allowed to own pharmacies from April 1?

The law that is about to enter into force still needs several solutions, but we generally agree to the principle of pharmacist-owned pharmacies.

The main question here is not who owns the pharmacy but whether it is a business or a medical service the availability of which must be guaranteed by the state. It cannot be a fully free business in the latter case.

Do you understand why you are attacked when you say that "a person who regards as Estonia their home and honors its constitutional values is Estonian, no matter what language they speak at home"?

As a scientist, I can analyze why this position is being criticized. On a human level, and as someone fighting for the future of Estonia, I don't know whether people really fail to realize that it is a position that benefits Estonia by defusing tensions revolving around the "us-them" debate that has persisted in our society since the 1940s.

It dilutes our nation, opponents say.

Nationality is not a genetic phenomenon. A nation is a cultural, linguistic and political community that identifies as such, it is not a medical term.

I know a lot of Russian-speakers living in Estonia who do not speak Estonian but identify as part of the Estonian political community and culture. I know a lot of Estonian-speakers who do not see themselves as part of the political community in Estonia.

The territory of Estonia is home not only to genetically pure Estonians and has people who regard themselves as Estonian despite not having their roots here.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Kristina Kallas. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The coalition slashed the excise duty on beer and vodka. Was it the right thing to do?

Considering tensions the previous hike of duties had produced and cross-border trade, it was the correct decision.

Who was President Kersti Kaljulaid referring to when she asked in her speech: "What are you doing, Riigikogu?"

I believe she was referring to the 101 people working at Toompea Castle every day… or not working.

Perhaps it would have been more accurate if the president had asked the coalition partners in person: "What are you doing Jüri Ratas, Mart Helme, Helir-Valdor Seeder?"

But the president was not talking only about the coalition. She was referring to all MPs. I understood her meaning as pertaining to the entire parliament.

She should also have asked opposition leaders Kaja Kallas and Indrek Saar what they are doing?

That is what I understood she did. It was preceded by how the president sees challenges that lie ahead for Estonia, especially in terms of security, economy and the green turn. It was followed by the question – what are you doing, esteemed Riigikogu? That Estonia is facing concrete challenges, while we cannot see the parliament working toward addressing them.

Should we address the abstract notion of the entire Riigikogu or parties on which the work of the parliament depends?

I'm not sure the president should have listed all five parties in the parliament. She was talking about our 101 MPs and all the parties represented in the Riigikogu.

I am also somewhat… baffled by how little leadership and initiative we've seen both from the coalition and the opposition.

Could the opposition somehow affect the big picture?

Doing nothing definitely doesn't help.

They are doing something – bringing bills that are rejected and no-confidence motions that fail.

There have been very few bills, no more than a couple if memory serves, and they usually constitute reacting to something the coalition is doing.

If I had the team currently at the opposition's disposal, all those well-paid and highly educated people, bills, initiatives and proposals would be issued weekly.

Can you imagine running headfirst into a rubber wall?

Watching your ideas come to nothing? The floor of the Riigikogu is not the only place for ideas, and a debate needs to be held with the entire population, interest groups, as opposed to just the coalition. That is the debate I miss today and that the president likely misses [in her speech].

Where is our economic debate on the green turn? It doesn't exist. Neither side has any ideas.

We saw a broad-based public debate over rendering the second pillar of pension voluntary, but it was futile as the will of the coalition won the day and the law was passed. The president has vetoed the reform that will likely move to the Supreme Court.

The debate mattered a great deal as we managed to discuss many things. Had the opposition remained quiet, there would not have been a debate. And the game's not over yet.

It was somewhat surprising to read your words, according to which "railing only against the coalition is not quite accurate as the opposition has also been emotional and tried to toy with the emotions of others."

The comment concerned politics last year that was emotional and complicated. We were probably all of us… in emotional cramps. Everything seemed wrong, there was widespread disappointment…

What was wrong?

Some felt that election results were wrong, while others felt they were right. Next, someone felt the government was wrong and vice versa. It was this pervasive feeling that something is off, someone got hurt…

I hope emotions have calmed now, and I expect us to move on to fundamental topics. We have a fiscal strategy to put together, and I hope emotion can be avoided this time; that the opposition will present its view and the coalition its proposals, that non-parliamentary parties are allowed to contribute…

I dream of the politics of the early and mid-1990s where we gave long speeches and held debates on the correct tax or education system, instead of arguing over which politicians are bastards and which are fools. As put by the president – we have locked ourselves in with our insults. I would like to escape from there and return to the discussion.

It is nice to see new people go into politics.

(Laughs) Very good.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Kristina Kallas. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

What would have been Estonia 200's dream government, had you been given the chance to be part of it?

We ruled out the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) at the time, and I still believe it would be very difficult to form a government with them, as evidenced by the experience of the Center Party – instead of doing work, you need to spend your time apologizing. Forming a coalition with EKRE is not sensible because it would paralyze that government.

However, you would no longer rule it out?

I would like to listen to EKRE. One thing I've realized is the concerns of people who stand behind EKRE leaders are legitimate and honest, and that they need to be heard. My problem is that the people representing those concerns on the political landscape are very difficult people to work with.

Regarding all other parties, cooperation depends on the degree to which we can agree on things that matter to Estonia 200. Because we prioritize major fundamental reforms, the question is that of other parties' preparedness to invest in the future, instead of handing out populist promises and cash. We are prepared to form a government with parties that have that preparedness.

What are your red lines?

What we will definitely not take part in are all manner of campaigns to promise people an easy payday.

You said in January that you have discussed having a common platform for upcoming local elections with several parties and strong election coalitions. Who could we be talking about?

Our potential partners differ in various local governments. We have talked to very different people in Tartu, Narva and Tallinn.

Local elections in October of 2021 are crucial in terms of your survival.

Not in terms of survival, but they will show our capacity for political manoeuvring, our organizational strength.

The coalition agreement contains a promise for a referendum over whether marriage should be defined as a union between a man and a woman on the level of the constitution to be held around the time of the next local elections. Do you believe it a sensible decision?

Naturally, I do not hold it to be sensible. It will disrupt local elections. Such a referendum taking place would make it impossible to have a debate on important local problems as we will be busy trying to define marriage instead.

I understand why EKRE want that referendum – it is theirs and a way to gloss over all local elections topics that are less convenient for them, such as garbage collection, road construction, local direct democracy… The marriage topic is far sexier and holds greater potential for riling up society.

For me, it is irresponsible. We'll be heading into emotional waters once again, leaving aside important topics that really matter in terms of whether we can move forward or not. And life in Estonia will stagnate.

This stagnation has been with us for some time, we have become paralyzed, frozen. We cannot move on because we need to pick emotional fights over refugees, marriage or whatever else.

Will you be trying for the councils of all major local governments?

I will not reveal the local governments we're aiming for at this time. But we are working on building a strong party organization all over Estonia and running in as many local governments as we can.

Who is Estonia 200's candidate for mayor of Tallinn?

No one yet, but we have some people lined up.

You should have a lot of people lined up, we have dozens of local governments.

Absolutely, and we're working on it every day.

How well has Mihhail Kõlvart done as mayor of Tallinn?

He has done very well! He is a calm and balanced person who doesn't get caught up in emotions and prefers to put in the work.

I might not agree with him in terms of solutions, for example, I had a different idea for Reidi Road. But Kõlvart is not one to drag things out when decisions need to be made. We can take if only the example of Linnahall and the solution he found there.

Would you be willing to help him out should Center fall a few mandates short of an absolute majority?

It is too early to say and depends strongly on what our people in Tallinn will decide.

Looking at how often you go to Ida-Viru County and Narva especially, it seems you are hoping to make it big there.

You know, any Estonian party missing from Ida-Viru County is pointless in my eyes. It is one of our most important regions, strategically.

Also, one of our most complicated.

And strategically important. That region cannot be allowed to develop a political vacuum.

The Center Party is losing ground in Ida-Viru County, and if other parties fail to pick up the slack there, those positions will be seized by local oligarchs or all manner of peculiar election coalitions and groups that is not in the interests of Estonia.

Center is doing its utmost to be able to hoist its flag atop the Narva city government building once more.

Whether they'll succeed is another matter entirely. I cannot say. But they are doing the right thing, and everyone else should too.

Would you be willing to work with the Social Democrats and Katri Raik to come to power in Narva?

Yes. We are talking to everyone in Narva today, except the ruling coalition.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Kristina Kallas. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Do you still believe that overcoming the Estonia-Russia split is the key issue for Estonia for which purpose Peeter and Petya need to be sent to first grade together?

Yes, I am still convinced of that and more so as time goes by. It is among the most important matters of the future for Estonia. If we continue with the current education system, the consequences we are already seeing – geographic segregation, ghettos – will only deepen of which nothing good can come.

Are you prepared to once more put up posters highlighting the difference between the worlds where Estonians and Russians live at tram and bus stops in Tallinn and Narva?

Yes, we are.

Have you heard the rumors about who could lead Estonia 200 into the next parliamentary elections?

I have not. (Laughs)

Kersti Kaljulaid…


… whose term as president will expire in the fall of 2021.

Kersti Kaljulaid has many years of work ahead of her, and I believe it is too early to talk about. She could continue as president as I believe she is the right person for the job.

She would surely help Estonia 200 achieve a good result and make the Riigikogu.

What could I have against working with such a brilliant woman? Absolutely nothing.

Has it come up?

It really hasn't.

And the rumors are just that?

Kersti Kaljulaid is the president of Estonia today. We cannot talk about her leading Estonia 200. She is a very capable woman who could and should continue as president.

Provided she has enough political support?

And provided she has the strength. I hope that she does. She is really a very capable woman.

How many people does Estonia 200 employ?

That would be me, half-time.

How so? Estonia 200 is paid €100,000 a year or €25,000 quarterly from the state budget. You could make €8,000 a month.

Our monthly income [from the state budget - ed] is €8,333 if memory serves. Part of it is spent on paying back a loan we took from LHV for our European Parliament elections deposit. Another part is made up of daily office expenses, while the chairman's salary is modest – I make €1,400 after taxes. That is how Estonia 200 operates today.

But that, Toomas, is all the more reason for me to wonder how my organization made up of 600 voluntary enthusiasts working on the side manages to meet with people, write press releases and opinion pieces and organize public initiatives, while we have 101 well-paid and highly educated MPs working full time and only producing a single low-quality bill a month. That is my criticism for the Riigikogu. What are you doing, dear Riigikogu? Where is your ability to work?

I suppose you will find out if Estonia 200 makes it to the parliament in 2023.

Yes. (Laughs)

Toomas Sildam's interview with Kristina Kallas. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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