One of the most exciting Center Party politicians Yana Toom says that while she would like to be a minister in Jüri Ratas' government, it is not the current one. Now, she is a member of the European Parliament who would push the EU toward federalization, form a coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SDE) in Narva but tends to trust Kristen Michal over Raimond Kaljulaid in Tallinn.
Yana Toom, do you remember how you fooled a greenhorn journalist two years ago who ended up believing you?
(Pauses) I don't know what you're talking about.
You told me during an interview that had you a choice between a ministerial portfolio and going to the European Parliament, you would surely choose the former. And yet, you are in Brussels today.
And indeed, I would like to be [an Estonian] government minister. Just not this government.
I was against this coalition then and still am. It would make no sense for me to be a part of it as there would not be any cooperation. All we would ever do is fight.
"Education minister Yana Toom" has a nice ring to it.
It doesn't, because Yana Toom does not have higher education that would be a very bitter pill to swallow for those in the field.
Had you your pick of portfolios…
Why are we selling skins of ministers who are still running free in the forest?
There are things that I would like to do. Education is one such field, but it is unthinkable. What [Minister of Social Affairs] Tanel Kiik is doing is also very interesting, but he is a strong minister, so I would not like to go after his portfolio.
There are things I could do [in the government]. But there is no such possibility at the moment.
That would be interesting. But a Russian Estonian politician needs to have a clear sense of society's tolerance limit.
What are the limits of a Russian politician in Estonian politics?
One needs to be very careful because of our difficult past.
I didn't immediately realize it when I started out in politics a decade ago. I do now, courtesy of extensive experience.
Are there some ministerial positions for which a Russian would be unsuitable?
What do you mean unsuitable? But try to imagine who could be a Russian Estonian foreign minister… and if they also had a Russian name…
It would depend on the makeup of the coalition, the mood in society – a million things.
You wanted to get out of Estonia?
I did not leave Estonia. (Smiles) I'm sitting in a Gonsiori street office [in Tallinn] right now.
You know what I mean.
Going to the European Parliament is not leaving Estonia. I spend four days over there and three days here during an average week. Whereas I do not spend the latter cooking shashlik in my summer house. I meet with people, work.
How does Estonia seem from afar?
Oh, Estonia is very sweet and safe. We had the 2+2 rule during the coronavirus crisis. In Brussels, it [the distance people keep] is 1.5 meters, while it's just one meter in Paris. Because there simply isn't enough room in Paris to pull off 2+2.
We number so few… We have pristine nature… It's cool here.
When did you became a Center Party board member?
I do not remember. I believe it was around six years ago or something like that.
In other words, you know where the €110,000 in cash that the Center Party paid into its account in 2014 and 2015 and that the Supreme Court has now ordered it to return came from?
Honestly – I don't have the faintest idea.
What does the board do? It approves the budget after going over the revenue side of things. You ask whether the money came from donations, you get an answer and then you pass the budget. We will be more attentive in the future.
And the board knows nothing about €110,000 in cash that was moved?
The work of the board is largely built on trust that is undoubtedly eroded with every such case.
We will go over it with a fine-tooth comb next time. Board members never used to do that. You tend to trust people after working with them for years.
Who managed the party's finances before Jüri Ratas was elected chairman in 2016?
Supposedly, it was secretary general Priit Toobal. We all remember how that ended. It is the work of the secretary general in all parties.
Will you go bankrupt should the court find Center guilty also in the €1.2 million affair in fall?
I believe not. There is still time, we'll see.
Why is the Center Party always in trouble when it comes to financing?
These are old troubles that started years ago. We are trying to leave them behind and we will.
You have not changed your position according to which people punished for corruption offenses should not run in Center's ranks?
And yet, regional branches endorse the candidacy of former financial secretary Kalev Kallo at board elections. Why?
Kalev Kallo has not been convicted on all levels yet. And he is a very strong politician. He is the person keeping a very close eye on almost all [Center Party] finances and asking inconvenient questions.
(The circuit court upheld a county court ruling on June 22, according to which activities pursued by Kalev Kallo included fostering a bribe and facilitating illicit donations, as well as Kallo's conditional sentence – ed.)
What this looks like from the outside is Center repaying Kallo for services rendered by supporting him.
I do not think being a member of the party's board can be seen as gratitude. It is unpaid work.
How would you describe Kallo's services to the party?
Again – Kalev Kallo is a decent person. Smart as a whip and attentive. That he finds himself in trouble… Let us wait for the [Supreme Court] ruling and then we'll see. Estonia has presumption of innocence, also as concerns Kalev Kallo.
Do you believe that an entrepreneur donates €50,000 to the Center Party after receiving it from her ex-partner as compensation for having been absent from parenting?
It is a nasty vocational accident that could have happened to any party.
I felt weird when I first learned of it. I have children and not the best of relationships with their fathers. But it is difficult to imagine supporting anything at the expense of my children.
Then again, if the relationship was truly that bad… A friend of mine once burned money in the fireplace, literally. Her ex had given her a wad of cash and she just chucked it in there and was very happy. You experience those kinds of emotions, I understand where they are coming from as a woman.
Of course, the story [behind the €50,000 donation] was suspicious, while I was not 100 percent sure it was made up.
Why did you allow it to become such a major scandal?
We had people investigate it, we talked to the sponsor and Mailis [Reps], a mother of several children herself, said this is how things stand.
Even though, Jüri [Ratas] supported returning the donation from the first. He said it before it even landed on the table. Rather, the board told him everything was alright etc. But Ratas clearly felt it should be returned, that there would be trouble.
How will Center finance its local elections campaign next fall?
I cannot speak for the whole party, but I know what I will do. The same thing I've always done. I spent €44,000 of my own money on the recent elections campaign [2019 Riigikogu and European Parliament elections]. Not only on myself but the whole region where I was the frontrunner. We all have certain obligations to the party.
Will the fall of 2019 really see the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) referendum over whether marriage should be fixed as a union between a man and a woman on the level of the constitution?
It is included in the coalition agreement. It's all rather ghastly.
And there will be a referendum?
I would very much hope not. But I cannot answer you as I do not attend government sittings. There is no need for it as the Family Act already provides that a marriage is between a man and a woman.
Last spring, when Center was forming a government with EKRE and Isamaa, you were against it. Have you really not come around since then?
What I have found, surprise-surprise, is that [Minister of Finance] Martin Helme is an okay minister, hardworking. While I'm not one for his political views, he gets the job done.
That said, should something happen to the president (spits thrice over her left shoulder) and Mr. Põlluaas step in for her – that is too terrible to imagine.
(Laughs) You cannot see it, but Toomas Sildam just made the sign of the cross.
Rather, what is surprise-surprise is your opposition to the government as Viktoria Ladõnskaja-Kubits (Isamaa) named Yana Toom and Mihhail Kõlvart the godmother and godfather of this coalition.
I would refrain from commenting on what Viktoria Ladõnskaja-Kubits has said. My apologies.
And yet, had you and Kõlvart both said "No!", the Center-EKRE-Isamaa government would not have been formed.
That's not true. It took more votes to torpedo it than Kõlvart and Toom had. Add to that the near fact we would have split the Center Party that would have, at worst, resulted in six to eight independent Russian MPs sitting under the window in the Riigikogu right now.
It is fascinating how this whole EKRE mess was pinned on the Russians: "It's a Russian problem and you better solve it!" That Russian politicians were supposed to be the ones to torpedo the EKRE coalition. No one spoke like that to the Estonians.
We have a party growing out of – how to put this politely – the fears of Estonians, while we then tell a handful of Russians that they need to go and solve the problem. Weird.
Do you feel sorry for Jüri Ratas?
I do sometimes. I don't know whether he gets any sleep. His work is very stressful. But Jüri is doing a good job.
It's difficult for him?
Of course. First, he has difficult coalition partners. And then he has his family, children. He is drowning in work.
How long will the current government last?
I believe that… it will probably last until the next elections. Even though Isamaa's rating [of just 3 percent] is troubling.
Why should you be concerned with Isamaa's rating?
Did I say I was concerned?
You said it is troubling for the coalition…
I do not feel part of the coalition.
… and you are a member of a coalition party.
That does not make me a fan.
The rating of one coalition partner falling so low will prompt concern and steps. But we will see, as ratings are not that important in between elections and Isamaa has jumped from 3 percent to 11 by the time of elections before.
The Reform Party remains more popular than Center.
Opposition parties are always more popular than ruling ones. It's normal.
Reform was often more popular than Center back when you were in the opposition.
Let's say then that the oppositional is always more popular than the coalition on the whole. Is that better?
Support for coalition parties exceeds that of the opposition today.
We also have Estonia 200 that, while not represented in the Riigikogu, has seen its support soar. Therefore, all in all…
We need to factor in the disappointment we manufactured by going for this coalition. We need to realize that some [of our] people are still mad at us.
I'm sure you would find life much more interesting in Estonian domestic politics than in the European Parliament.
I would find life much more interesting in a proper newspaper editorial team, but we simply don't have any left. I'm talking about Russian papers.
You are not bored in Brussels?
Have you gotten used to it over the past six years?
I have not gotten used to it – the parliament is new [following the 2019 elections], the people are new, the situations is new, with over half of MEPs newcomers. This means that collective knowledge is lost and some things will have to start from scratch, which is a little exhausting, while it's also a part of the job.
How much do you get paid in the European Parliament?
The same as my colleagues – €6,932 if memory serves.
And what does the taxpayer get in return?
My work here and there. I currently serve as the shadow rapporteur for the Just Transition Fund. I have served as rapporteur for a few important reports, twice in the field of social policy. I'm attempting to grasp the [European Union] minimum wage topic that is of great interest to me.
I also maintain an office in Estonia where I have three full-time employees. We offer free legal assistance and have helped over 6,000 people over the past five years.
Ida-Viru County is set to receive nearly €700 million from the fund. Do you have an idea of how it could be put to sensible use?
There are clashes in the European Parliament over what the money could be used for. We have a peculiar rapporteur in the labor and social affairs committee who wants [to construct] social housing, student dormitories… include everything that can make the world a better place.
According to my vision, the money is meant specifically for helping people who no longer have work in the oil shale and energy sector. To create new jobs, develop infrastructure – investments.
Initially, the European Commission managed to forget oil shale and peat even exist.
It is a lot of money for Ida-Viru County.
Absolutely, and it needs to remain in Ida-Viru County. It is not meant for… building bridges to the islands.
A few months ago, you urged member states to give up a part of their sovereignty to remove obstacles on the path of EU solidarity. Do you want to turn this alliance of states into a federation?
There is a fight about that presently, one part of which is Ursula von der Leyen's [EU recovery] plan.
Does it constitute partial surrender of sovereignty?
Depends on how you look at it. I would be fuming were I an EKRE delegate.
How so? EKRE supports the EU rescue package in the Estonian government.
It is quite the puzzle.
It is a step in that general direction. Taking on a joint loan, creating joint taxes – it is undoubtedly moving closer [to surrendering a part of sovereignty].
We should also ask why we found ourselves in a deep healthcare crisis. We do not have coordination. How countries fought for masks. It requires common action and solidarity in Europe which we do not have, courtesy of the taboo of subsidiarity and every country making its own healthcare decisions. Here we are.
"The federalization of the European Union is vitally important for us." Do you recognize your own words?
I do not see any other way. This crisis clearly showed how a chatroom made up of different governments is slow and ends up diluting decisions that could otherwise be made quickly and on a large scale. It manages to kill every good initiative. Like what we had recently – a [video] summit was held only to decide nothing, just endless haggling.
Hearing you say "federalizing Europe" is good news for EKRE and Isamaa as it presents them with a chance to oppose you, while Center will now have to defend itself because of your words.
Certain words causing certain disturbances in people's minds belongs in the field of psychiatry. That some words induce a panic.
But we have areas where European cooperation is not working. We do not have a Europe-wide healthcare and personal protective gear reserve. We do not have an EU minimum salary, which is a problem because it leads to some countries running out of people, such as our dear neighbor Latvia, and other countries telling Polish plumbers they should go home.
Your opponents would say that a federation equals treason.
Of course they would. But does that mean I should forget what I believe? They can say what they want, but I know it will not change how I see the world.
How successfully will the EU handle the economic paralysis caused by the coronavirus crisis in the end?
I believe it will be successful. We will agree on the rescue package in the end, despite the protestations of the "frugal four" (Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden – ed.).
The main thing is to make sure the money ends up in investments and for governments to resist the urge to simply start throwing cash around before elections to get people to vote for them. That would be cheating, but I hope that will not happen.
We will manage.
Who should be Estonia's more important partners in Europe?
The EU as a whole should be Estonia's most important partner. That said, we cannot just overlook the fact that Germany and France are the locomotives of Europe.
Should we believe in America?
I don't. But I'm not one for telling people what they should or should not believe. It is a very personal matter.
You do not believe the U.S. to be the main guarantee of security for Estonia?
A United States run by Donald Trump is not our main security guarantee.
You do not regret Estonia being a NATO member?
No. (Snorts) You cannot turn an omelet back into an egg.
What to do about Russia?
(Pauses and smiles) I would ask in turn whether you think Estonia can do anything about Russia?
What should Europe do about Russia?
Build bridges. I admire [French president] Macron who is one of only a few people stubbornly seeking to maintain a relationship with Russia. His calculations are absolutely correct in that looking at the entire world, China and USA will emerge victorious from crises and any situation where we cannot normalize relations with Russia [in Europe] will be difficult.
You disgruntledly wrote back in March about how the language inspectorate checked medics' Estonian proficiency in Ida-Viru and Kallavere hospitals, issued precepts and ordered fines but stopped the raids during the coronavirus crisis. You do not like it when state agencies go about their work?
I do not like the language inspectorate. I find it unnecessary.
It was now merged to form the Language Board.
During the pandemic, I was stuck at home and whenever a dark-skinned courier brought me my meal, I wondered how they are the heroes of our time and how no one cares whether they're Bolt or Wolt and what language they speak as long as we can keep using the service they provide without having to go outside. But as soon as the epidemic ends, the inspectorate jumps out of the bushes and starts asking to see people's language certificates. It is ugly.
Is it the same for medics?
Yes. A person who stumbles and falls over an assisted breathing machine – God forbid anything of the sort should actually happen – will not, I believe, care what language the doctor speaks.
You have said that choosing which is more important, in-house climate or power, the former should always be prioritized. What about the in-house climate of the Center Party?
There are some members in whose case you look at them and wonder whether it's possible you're both members of the same party. Luckily, they number few. The party is big, a true cross-section of society. (Smiles)
How many Center Parties are there in the Center Party?
That's like asking how many families make up your family. There are several, while the result is one big family.
Ratas' Center Party, Kõlvart's Center Party, Ida-Viru Center Party, Tartu Center Party… Or am I wrong?
You're not wrong, of course. But I would stick to the family comparison. My son has a family, my daughter has a family, my other son has a family and all of us form one big family.
How to explain Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart's independent actions where heads of the Center Party often learn of his decisions via the media?
Miša [Kõlvart] has been working in Tallinn city government for… nine years, I believe, and knows the system inside out. He knew what needs to be done a long time ago and he's doing it now. I do not agree with all of his decisions, for example, I would not shut down Tallinn Television, while I would let some air out of their budget.
But I like the fact Kõlvart dares make decisions and is visible. Good on him.
Does he have political ambitions?
He is deputy chairman of the Center Party and mayor of Tallinn. Does he have political ambitions? Of course.
To became Center chairman?
I do not think so. But a person who lacks ambition shouldn't be mayor. He would not have done the things we're discussing had he no ambition.
How much did the Social Democratic Party (SDE) gain by former Centrist Raimond Kaljulaid switching sides so to speak after he took 5,521 votes, 701 more than you, at the previous local elections as Põhja-Tallinn district elder?
Yes, his Wikipedia page says as much. What it doesn't say is how he failed to be elected to the European Parliament, but never mind that. (Toom later said she meant that Kaljulaid's Wikipedia page makes no mention of how he lost to Yana Toom at EP elections – ed.).
I cannot gauge SDE's benefit as I am not their voter, much less of Kaljulaid. The elections will tell.
Which seems likelier – Kõlvart forming a government, should it prove necessary, with Social Democrat Raimond Kaljulaid or the Reform Party's Kristen Michal after local elections in 2021?
I do not know what Kõlvart would do. I know what I would do. Given the choice between those two, I would definitely go with Michal.
I trust him over Kaljulaid. Very simple.
Is Raimond Kaljulaid a defector or traitor in Center's eyes?
I don't know what he is for Center. For me… sorry, no. (Falls silent)
Is the problem that he left Center?
The problem was created before that. These are in-house affairs which I will not go into here.
A few weeks ago, you wrote a sentence in Eesti Päevaleht that could have caused a social explosion but I believe went largely unnoticed: "It is no secret there is racism in Estonia."
Listen… The hollow wood reference (EKRE chairman Mart Helme on the subject of black students two years ago: "… if you knock them on the head, it's hollow wood!" – ed.) and all those other things… "Show blacks the door" (EKRE deputy chair Martin Helme seven years ago: "Our immigration policy should have one clear rule: show blacks the door." – ed.), is that not racism? Is this not Estonia? It [my sentence] went unnoticed because it's hardly news.
Isamaa MP Üllar Saaremäe then wrote that you accused Estonia of racism that prompted you to have local paper Virumaa Teataja publish a story on how you are not accusing Estonia of racism in the EPL piece.
Estonian is not my native language, but I understand that if I accuse Estonia of something, I'm accusing the state. What I said was that there is racism in Estonia. It's a fact.
If you don't believe me, ask Estonians who went abroad and married a dark-skinned person there and had children. Ask them whether they would bring their children to Estonia? I very much doubt they would. I wouldn't dare.
Racism in Estonia stands for different attitudes toward people with different skin?
Absolutely. As it does everywhere in the world.
And it is associated with a particular party? EKRE?
No party grows out of nothing. No politician pursues something that lacks popular support. It has to be there.
I was baffled by [freelance journalist] Abdul Turay's opinion that anti-racism protests in Estonia are ridiculous. According to this train of thought, expressing solidarity is pointless.
Will you be saying goodbye to Narva and to running there?
I will probably not run for office at local elections, but I'm not saying goodbye.
The situation in Narva is very interesting today. (Smiles)
Tell us about it.
Well… (Smiles) What's to say? Elections are coming. The former Center Party group (Jüri Ratas demanded they leave Narva city council over an investigation into corruption, they refused and left Center instead – ed.) is looking around and there have been some attempts at finding common ground, so we will see.
Center is trying to win over the current mayor?
That's not strictly true. Jüri Ratas is not King Midas in that everything he touches immediately becomes a member of the Center Party. Meeting local government heads is part of his work.
And even if he mentioned the possibility of joining Center [to Narva Mayor Aleksei Jevgrafov] during that meeting, it amounts to what Ratas once said to Trump – come to Estonia.
Pardon me, but I've met with Jüri Ratas on several occasions and he has never invited me to join the Center Party.
Of course not. As far as I'm aware, Toomas Sildam is not worried about what will become of him after local elections in Narva in 2021. Unlike Mr. Jevgrafov.
What will become of the Center Party in Narva by fall of 2021?
I will be completely honest and say that, personally, I would like a common election list with the Social Democrats. And for the people currently in power in Narva to be sent home.
But that will likely not happen as parties have considerable egos. Both Center and SDE. A common list is somehow out of the question.
It has always seemed to me that Katri Raik and Yana Toom get along as people.
I believe we also get along as politicians.
What's the problem then?
A political party is a structure. Katri Raik is not the party and neither is Yana Toom.
I see. Jüri Ratas and Indrek Saar are against such an alliance?
I don't know whether it's the reluctance of these two gentlemen, but such things are usually not done.
We will see. There will definitely be cooperation on some level.
Because to ask whether Center was in power in Narva before – we weren't. People brandishing the Center Party logo were in power. That is not the same thing.
It's no secret that we have people in the party who believe there is no sense in fighting and that we should move on and return to how things were two years ago… But I do not like that as it would mean nothing would change in Narva, even though the city deserves better. Damn it, the city deserves better than what it has now.
Will Center be in charge of the next Narva city government?
We are making corresponding efforts. (Pauses) You want to know what those efforts are? (Pauses) This interview is not the place for laying my cards on the table. I'm sorry.
Editor: Marcus Turovski