Historian and two-time prime minister Mart Laar, who celebrates his 60th birthday on Wednesday, tells ERR in an interview that the crisis needs to be turned into an advantage for Estonia and things done differently from neighboring countries. Laar says that Finland's behavior toward the start of the crisis showed it does not want a special relationship with Estonia. The former PM sees EKRE having become part of Estonian politics as a positive development as disgruntled people partial to following orders and observing bans have been given a voice.
How will you celebrate your birthday?
There will not be a great celebration at this time. I will spend it with just my wife, while I must admit that we will not be keeping two meters between us. (Smiles)
Will your old friends come and sing to you through the window?
I have no information to suggest they would, but knowing my friends, it would not surprise me either. Luckily, I have a small balcony to greet them from.
You served as PM during pivotal times and made groundbreaking decisions, for example, the switch to a uniform income tax system or radical privatization. Do we need to take extraordinary steps in the current crisis? Or will we follow the example of others by borrowing and handing out benefits to live on as if the crisis hadn't happened?
I believe that today is also a time for extraordinary things. One thing is to weather the crisis, which we will likely do as we've also seen worse. The other is to take advantage of the crisis. I believe Estonia has every opportunity here if we dare take risks and be ourselves. Borrowing is not the worst idea today as our credit rating is very good thanks to previous governments that have refrained from borrowing and hiking our loan burden. Other countries will be reaping what they sowed. However, the relevant question when it comes to loans is what they will be used for.
If we make the usual mistakes of burying loan money in concrete and drawing up state aid programs, it will not be effective. We should go our own way and invest where others are not. For example, in IT support systems or boosting research and development. A good example of this is the Ministry of Defense's decision to procure modern patrol boats (from Saaremaa company Baltic Workboats – ed).
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and the coalition should work toward Estonia standing out to attract investments, people and know-how?
That's what I would do.
You have said we should seek closer ties with Latvia. Was Finland's decision to basically ban passenger traffic in the Gulf of Finland surprising in this light?
My recommendation to turn and rather face our southern neighbors followed Finland's decision. Finland had the opportunity to turn Estonia and Finland into a common economic area. The country's decision not to do that is a good illustration of where the hope for a special relationship with Finland stands today. I would have nothing against such a special relationship, but it will not happen. Latvia and Lithuania that have shared our fate have also been our closest partners through thick and thin.
Are you disappointed in the Finns? We have not managed to attach ourselves to the Nordics as we once hoped to do.
I'm not disappointed because I'm a historian. It has happened before, if only thinking about the 1930s. We are seeing the exact same development today.
Talking about the 1930s, totalitarianism and isolationism reared their heads in the aftermath of the Great Depression then. Could something similar happen in Europe today?
Luckily, we have the EU and NATO today as otherwise the early 1930s could indeed be repeated. Anyone doubting the necessity of the European Union should think back to what happened at around that time. It is the perfect example of why European cooperation is needed.
Why has Isamaa been suffering in the polls for years now? Is the current slump that has sent the party's rating balancing on the election threshold (of 5 percent – ed.) caused by Isamaa appearing as a watered-down version of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE)?
Isamaa has never done well in the polls. Pursuing the Estonian agenda and making future-oriented decisions is difficult to grasp for people forced to look to their daily subsistence. Although I will say that these decisions could be more revolutionary today! But I cannot make decisions for other people.
Have EKRE come to stay in Estonian politics or are we dealing with a temporary movement going after the protest vote?
They are here to stay. They are changing, whereas we will see even greater transformations in the future. EKRE are already turning against their core voter. For example, looking at their agricultural policy and attitude toward agricultural producers. There will be other such turns. But the line that they represent – the state's growing role in the economy, ruling through do's and don'ts – definitely has supporters among the population, so EKRE will endure.
Is Estonia heading toward state capitalism to some extent, with the government increasingly positioning itself as an economic player? Thinking back to the 1930s again, there are similarities. The state was also constructing oil mills back then…
The trend is a little worrying. We can see such signs and I don't believe it is right. It needs to be paid attention.
The liberal left is saying there are manifestations of totalitarianism in society. Do we have reason to say that?
Let us keep in mind that the liberal left are the staunchest supporters of state capitalism. But I am not seeing manifestations of totalitarianism.
There is no reason to be concerned for Estonian democracy?
No. The arrival of EKRE in Estonian politics is rather a positive phenomenon in this sense.
As they offer a platform for dissatisfied people?
EKRE serves as an example that no one is automatically left aside. The elitist hardline has been delivered a serious setback.
Has the Estonia you hoped for in your youth materialized today?
Estonia today is precisely what we have been building the best way we know how. Because I have had a part in that process, I would not like to speak ill of it. I, for one, am happy.
Editor: Marcus Turovski