It is difficult to understand why EKRE leaders needed to replace the foreign trade and IT minister during a crisis and why PM Ratas let it happen with next to no opposition, journalist Toomas Sildam writes.
Last week's biggest surprise in domestic politics was EKRE chairman Mart Helme's decision to replace Minister of Foreign Trade and IT Kaimar Karu. Even though the tense relationship between Karu, who served as minister for five months, and the heads of EKRE was widely known, his removal in the middle of the coronavirus crisis was nevertheless unexpected. Startling even, like glass shattering in an empty shopping mall. Also, because Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, not to mention Estonian entrepreneurs and the IT community, only had good things to say about Kaimar Karu.
While it is up to government parties to decide how to man their ministries, with the opinion of coalition partners of little significance, the prime minister's say matters.
The prime minister – also, as the leader of the coalition government – can always say they do not want someone to be a part of their cabinet and we can expect them to be involved in decisions of whether and when people leave it. That is what happened to former rural affairs minister Mart Järvik (EKRE) who lost Ratas' trust. The resignation of former foreign trade minister Kert Kingo also wasn't voluntary even though she signed the document at the end. It was a move she was forced to take after Kingo got caught lying to the Riigikogu.
Ratas could have told Helme that while it is EKRE's right to replace ministers, it will not be done in the middle of a double crisis because we do not have the time to teach someone the ropes and I need a practiced team.
A clear and concise point. Ratas chose not to. Was he avoiding a conflict in the government? Perhaps he did not think EKRE leaders would grab the bull by the horns immediately.
It seems incomprehensible at first glance. While Kaimar Karu might have increasingly looked like a liberal to EKRE hardliners, what urgent need was there to replace him now? During a time when the foreign trade and IT minister is responsible for allocating €1.5 billion through KredEx and €35 million through Enterprise Estonia for saving the economy.
The conservative party's opponents warn this might very well be the reason and EKRE heads want to have control over who qualifies for the subsidies and on what conditions. No one knows.
What is clear is that EKRE leaders wanted to reinforce their position in the government, which is something every coalition party aims to do.
"… it's simply that we found a suitable, trustworthy and tested person," Mart Helme said when asked why change ministers now. One possible translation is that Kaimar Karu was no longer trustworthy in Helme's eyes. Precisely in Helme's eyes, for I have seen no press releases to suggest Karu's removal and setting up Siem as his replacement had been discussed at EKRE board meetings.
If that is the case, it is telling in terms of the functioning of democracy in the party.
Excerpts from an old interview:
Kaimar Karu, who left behind a consultancy firm in London after receiving an invitation from EKRE to serve as Estonia's foreign trade and IT minister, gave his first longer interview to ERR on November 10, 2019.
How did EKRE deputy chair Martin Helme convince you to leave the razzmatazz of London and its pubs and come to Tallinn with its even foggier weather?
Martin Helme gave me the chance. I did most of the work convincing myself. That you should do something about it if you see that things can be done better… Opportunities like that do not come around often.
You did not suggest Helme find the new minister from within EKRE?
I may be modest like a typical Estonian, but I'm not that modest.
You are not afraid of politics?
I do not know to be afraid of it. Yet.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas asked you during your first meeting whether you realize what you've gotten mixed up in? Do you?
He did not use those exact words, but it was the idea of his question.
Based on that – do you?
(Sighs and then sighs again)
I would be lying either way.
On the one hand, I know very little of what awaits me because politics is new to me, the role of minister is new to me and there is no way for me to know what awaits me. On the other, asked whether I believe I understand the challenges ahead of me, I believe I know what I need to do and am ready to do it.
I'm sure there will be a lot of unexpected situations.
Editor: Marcus Turovski