Yana Toom, the native Russian speaker freshly elected to European Parliament with over a third of her party's votes, spoke to ETV's Priit Kuusk on Monday night, emphasizing that the Center Party was a cohesive force not organized along ethnic lines. Although she said a generational change was needed, she said she was not looking to unseat party leader Edgar Savisaar.
"As for [MEP Marju] Lauristin's comments [that the Edgar Savisaar era was waning], it would also be logical to write off Sven Mikser, who didn't even make it into Tallinn City Council despite being the [Social Democratic] party leader."
With regard to Center becoming a "Russian party" - a comment heard both inside and outside the party - Toom said it wasn't true, either.
She said 60 percent of the Center Party's votes were from Estonians; 40 percent from non-Estonians.
"I don't believe that Estonian voters are going away. It can't even be proven by anyone that Estonians don't vote for Toom or [Mihhail] Stalnuhhin. I did a street level campaign for three weeks and I believe that I have strong support from ethnic Estonians.
"There are three well-functioning integration mechanisms in Estonia at the moment: sports, military and the Center Party," she said.
Toom also appeared on the morning TV show today where she was asked why schools were not among that list.
She said that the country's laws were such that realistically, children should learning Estonian at age three, but in actuality the language was not taught anywhere at that point. She said she knew of no Russian-speaking children who were proficient in Estonian upon completing the ninth grade.
"I know that the situation is not how it is painted in the Estonian media, and I sincerely hope that now that Education Minister Jevgeni Ossinovski undertook a study whose findings should reach us before July, that maybe the Estonian media will see what is actually taking place."
She said that even she herself did not express herself as well in Estonian as she could in Russian, "let alone schoolchildren," and that it was wishful thinking to say that everything was just fine in the school system.
On the evening program, Kuusk continued to press the point: will the next leader of the party have an Estonian or Russian name?
"This is a slippery path. I've always said that we are all Estonian, just that some of us are Russian speakers. [...] I see no reason that Edgar Savisaar should be replaced with me any time in the future. Kadri Simson and Jüri Ratas are undoubtedly our stars, have fervent beliefs, and they're Estonians on top of it. I don't think we have any Russians who are prepared to take over the party, and Stalnuhhin and I don't have that ambition."
Asked about the disparaging comments from fellow MEPs-elect Tunne Kelam and Andrus Ansip, she said she was not another Tatyana Zhdanok, the Russian Left politician from Latvia who opposed Latvian independence back in the 1990s as a leader of the pro-Soviet Interfront movement, and who is still barred from running for national legislative office as a result.
"Tatyana Zhdanok was elected [MEP] as a representative of a Russian party, the Center Party is not a Russian party," Toom said. "But 25,000 of our voters are Estonian citizens [sic] and if we start labeling people for making the wrong choice, that if I'm a traitor then 25,000 people are also traitors, that isn't normal for anyone to start her post at the European Parliament this way."
Toom noted that she, Toom, had won her case against the Internal Security Service, which had criticized her in its yearbook, and that she should not be stigmatized for that.
On the morning program, asked how she might vote as an MEP on new sanctions against Russia, Toom said she did not support sanctions. "Sanctions don't work in reality," she said, and criticized comments from Jean-Claude Juncker, who, she recalled, said a week ago that appeasement was a path to war.
Russian Postimees interview
In an interview with the Russian-language version of the daily Postimees today, Toom stressed the ways in which she sees eye to eye with leading Reform Party members. (Although rivals in Estonia, both the Center Party that she represents and the pro-business Reform are members of the same European group, the Liberals.) She also answered two of the hotter questions on people's minds.
You are compared to Tatyana Zhdanok [a Russian Left MEP from Latvia who opposed Latvian independence in the early 1990s] . How do you see what she is doing?
I can't say that I would want to resemble Zhdanok or [Tunne] Kelam. No, I am myself. But I do see Tatyana Arkadyevna with great respect if only for the fact that thanks to her, grey passport holders can travel visa-free in the Schengen zone. That by itself ensured her a seat for life in the European Parliament
Why did you receive more votes than Edgar Savisaar?
If I had kept on saying that I would not go to Brussels if elected [as Savisaar did - Ed.], I would have got only as many votes as Olga Sõtnik – 329. The conditions were unequal as Edgar said from the beginning that he would not take a seat in Brussels, and repeated it every day - and still he gathered 18,500 votes. So I can't say it's a loss for Savisaar.
The original interview is here.