Interview | Mayor of Tallinn: Integration, Tallinn's future and 'Tenet'

Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart.
Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart. Source: Karli Saul/EOK

ERR News interviewed Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart last month about the future of the capital city, integration, coronavirus and upcoming movie "Tenet." The interview took place at Tallinn City Hall on June 19.

Mihhail Kõlvart is a member of the Center Party and has worked in politics, on and off, for more than 20 years. Throughout his career, he has moved between the city council and the Center Party-governed Tallinn city government, and started out representing the residents of Lasnamäe, the city's largest district, in 1999.

The 42-year-old was elected to the position of Mayor of Tallinn in April 2019 and replaced former Center Party mayor Taavi Aas, now minister of economic affairs and infrastructure, after he was elected to the Riigikogu in the election last March.

Kõlvart was also elected to the Riigikogu, but chose to remain the chairman of the city council. At the time, he was opposed to the coalition agreement his party entered into with the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE). The same spring, he chose to run for mayor of Tallinn. 

During his previous stints in the city system, Kõlvart was particularly interested in youth activities, sports and integration, issues which also intersect with his personal interests.

His father, Ülo Kõlvart, was the founder of the Estonian National Taekwondo Association in 1992 and he passed the love of the sport onto his son. Before entering politics, Kõlvart was internationally recognized as a top athlete in boxing, kickboxing and Taekwondo and has a black belt. He is a former Taekwondo coach and in 2016 became a member of the Executive Committee of the Estonian Olympic Committee. 

Kõlvart was born in 1977 in Kyzylorda, in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. His father is Estonian and his mother, Liidia, was of Korean and Chinese descent. The family moved to Estonia at the start of the 1980s. He has also spoken frequently on integration issues with the Russian community such as education, integration and language policy. 

Mihhail Kõlvart (Centre) elected Tallinn Mayor. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Speaking to ERR News about how integration should be improved in Tallinn in the future - for all migrants living in the capital - he said Tallinn has been a multicultural city, historically, from the middle ages: "This is also part of our history... Tallinn has been multicultural."

While the Center Party's coalition partner EKRE has sought to make migration to Estonia more difficult and spoken negatively about people from third-countries moving to the country, Kõlvart said this is inevitable and something which should not be feared.

"We need to understand that this is not a problem - this is potential which we need to use. People can live together and cooperate together. It is, very often, a problem of politicians, not people," he said.

This doesn't mean that problems cannot flare up, and it can be "quite hard" to have neighbours from other countries or cultures who think differently. But Kõlvart believes that if Estonia wants to develop and maintain its good reputation, this cannot be done without people from elsewhere.  

"If we want to be part of a global world, if we want to have development, we need to be more open. We cannot be, at the same time, the leader of the world in digitalization and at the same time say: 'No, no, no, we do not want foreigners in our country, we do not want foreign students in our country'. These two systems can exist together," he said.

But if this is to be the case, Estonia needs to face up to reality and understand that this could lead to a lack of development or stagnation.

At the same time, Kõlvart said, people moving to Estonia often come with their own "problems", such as the need for schools, kindergartens and communication in languages other than Estonian and Russian.

While he believes it is very important for newcomers to learn Estonian, he also said the city needs to start helping people with their problems and communicating with all of its citizens. Kõlvart said Tallinners' needs - irrespective of where they are from - are universal.

"I think that our responsibility is to create the same level of services for all Tallinn residents, irrespective of their language or nationality," he said. "People must have or need more information in English. This is a reality, we need Estonian and Russian communication but also, today, we have to speak also English with our citizens. So we need to also create a new way of communication." 

Looking at the development of services in the coming years for the international community, he said supporting families and children is important because it helps make Tallinn a popular city for people to move to: "In the future, I think it is quite possible that in Tallinn we need a municipal kindergarten with English education and maybe in the future also a school.

Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

"If Tallinn is an internationally popular city, it means that we have international companies, high salaries and from those high salaries we have a percentage [of taxes] to Tallinn city income and if we wanted to have those people who come here, we need also to create possibilities for them." 

After a year in office, Kõlvart wants to make internal changes at the city government, which will start to affect the city itself. Two weeks ago, he announced plans to merge several departments and restructure the city government; having spent two years as deputy mayor, he said the experience has shown him how the city needs to become more joined up.

"I saw that the system of the schools and their plans are not only for the teachers or the parents and students: It depends on the environment, city planning, transport, ecology, food - so and then you understand in the city system and the system of society you can see all the parts are in one system. If you want to have a good level of schools you need to have a good level in the city not only good students and teachers. Everything needs to be connected," he said.

The new strategic plan for Tallinn spanning 2021 to 2035 will be released in the autumn and will lay out the plans for the city. Among these, Kõlvart said, are plans for electric transport, the development of green spaces, better access to the sea, how to manage future crises and new areas for housing developments outside of the city center.

"We need to have more centers of life in our cities. It must not be the choice of private developers - it needs to be the choice of our long-term city planning, how to create those centers," he said.

There are also plans to link up with public transport sectors in other parts of the county to encourage drivers to use public transport. However, Kõlvart said he is not in favor of forcing people to use public transport over cars and that incentives to do so should be positive and not negative, such as creating a better transport network rather than through higher taxes.

Tallinn has also been named as a contender for the Green Capital of Europe - much to the mirth of Tallinners, but Kõlvart said people are wrong to sneer and being selected shows Tallinn is in with a chance as it meets the criteria to compete.

"I think Tallinn is a green city and I think people who come from other countries, from other cities, see it better than locals. But also if somebody thinks we are not green enough, it is good to be in the final and it is good for us to receive this title as it gives us more motivation to be green, so it means that people who think we are not very green must also be happy about this possibility to receive this title," he said.

If Tallinn is selected as the winner, the city will become a leader in Europe on green issues. Kõlvart believes the city can be a leader in this area and the rest of Europe can look towards Estonia for inspiration. A proposal for how this can be achieved will be published later this year and will be implemented even if the bid is not successful.

He said: "We understand everything is not perfect but the big picture is good enough to be a finalist. But now we need to show not what we have, but what we want to create and what we want to show to Europe and the vision of what will be good for other cities."

Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart is also a Tae-kwon do black belt. Source: Ksenia Kurs / City government

Plans to combat the next wave of the coronavirus (COVID-19) are also on the agenda at the city government this summer. Kõlvart said every department has been tasked to draw up three scenarios for what will happen if the virus returns, and at what strength, this autumn.

"In March when the virus came we didn't have any plan and we didn't know what to do so every day a new decision was made, every day we reacted to the new reality, next time we need to have a concrete scenario of what we will do. We won't have to invent every new measure next time. But we need to know how we clean our rooms, how we wear our masks, how we propose our services to clients," he said. He also said he hoped foreign students would be able to return this autumn when universities start their new terms.

The mayor also has high hopes that more movies can be shot in Tallinn in the coming years following the successful shoot of Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" last summer. Despite two months of negotiations about the closure and filming on one of Tallinn's main roads, Laagna tee, the city government and the production crew reached a good compromise.

"I think it is normal that city governments want to try to create the possibility for tourists, filmmakers and partners [to come here]. Of course, in the future, we are waiting here for more films and the city government is ready to participate in this process," he said.

"It was a very interesting experience and we are interested to be in the center of international attention, and these kinds of projects bring this attention."


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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