Interview | Jaak Aaviksoo: Politics far more complicated than science

Jaak Aaviksoo
Jaak Aaviksoo Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Estonia could do with a single vocational school. Let us only recruit the foreign students Estonia needs. The Reform Party fell victim to a coup. Segregation also down to a particular attitude among Estonians. The tallest minister of any Estonian government (198 centimeters), former education and defense minister, former University of Tartu and Tallinn University of Technology rector Jaak Aaviksoo (66) gives an interview.

I heard a description according to which you are currently renovating your basement, walking miniature dachshund Ella and riding an electric scooter called Tuul. Is that it?

Far from it, but all are parts of life. A good life (Smiles contentedly)

Have you gotten over your defeat at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) rector elections?

I cannot really think of it as a defeat. Rather, the proposal that was made (to run for a second term – ed.) was not watertight.

I'm happy with the result today as I can do the things that really give me satisfaction, decide what and how.

Do you know boredom?

I do not.

Do you read the newspapers, listen to the radio and watch television?

On and off.

How does life in Estonia look from Viljandi?

Unsettled. Just as it is unsettled everywhere in the world, so does it appear uncertain in Viljandi, Tartu or Tallinn – wherever I happen to be. Unclear and lacking a clear goal… Nervousness can be interpreted in different ways as some are nervous in anticipation of goods times and others bad.

That is what best describes the modern world.

The government closed schools in Estonia and sent students home when the first wave of the coronavirus hit. Now, we can again hear doubts in terms of whether schools need to remain open. What do you think: should we encourage schools to operate normally or opt for distance learning?

I would refrain from joining the ranks of so-called coronavirus specialists trying to save the world by relying on their own logic. The truth is that we don't know, and it is hard to give good advice in an uncertain situation.

Personally, I tend to believe we should try to maintain normal life in education and the economy. It is likely that we will have to learn to live with the virus, as said by professor Irja Lutsar. We should start learning rather than trying to postpone the lesson and hoping it will simply pass.

Does the latter entail the danger that coronavirus damages will come to include merely episodic education of our children?

I don't know about episodic. It's not as bad as all that.

Many teachers said after distance learning in spring that a notable part of students could not handle it.

The traditional way of studying is definitely more effective than an impromptu distance learning campaign. Then again, I do not see it as anything overly dramatic either. One or two semesters will not change the world, even though the problem is quite real and will take gradual getting used to.

Perhaps it goes to show that we need to attach new meaning to education and help deliver new momentum in those terms.

What do you mean?

We need to take another look at how and where we learn, especially considering developments in AI, global technologization, our environment becoming smarter.

Next to the very structured organization – attending school for a certain amount of hours, obtaining a fixed curriculum one's proficiency in which is measured in percentage points at examinations – we should ask the question of whether this kind of educational approach is compatible with the modern world. If a jolt that takes kids out of school helps us answer that question, I believe we've benefited.

Is it true that you used to say that Estonia only has room for a single university when serving as University of Tartu rector?

It has somehow been attached to me, even though I have never believed it to be true. Although, talking about a traditional university – Estonia might not be big enough even for just one.

We currently have six public law universities.

Yes… They have all found their place in terms of work allocation in recent years and we cannot see much duplication anymore.

Would you merge the University of Tartu and the University of Life Sciences were it up to you?

Perhaps I could have said yes 15 years ago. By now, the two institutions are so different that mechanically merging them would hardly benefit anyone.

Rather, I am thinking of different solutions. We have paid a lot of attention to academic education and in terms of academic erudition, we may very well be the smartest nation in the world as the [ETV] television show suggests. However, we should pay a lot more attention to good vocational education. Also, in terms of the structure of the Estonian educational landscape.

With the University of Tartu operating current vocational schools as colleges?

No. We should think about the once considered solution of Estonia having a single vocational school, a nationwide educational structure that would oversee all vocational educational institutions. And perhaps also vocational higher education providers. It could also pursue closer cooperation with universities.

That is Estonia's bottleneck – we have more academia than we know what to do with and less practical skill than we need.

How long can the taxpayer keep footing the higher education bill and when will we see tuition fees return?

Tuition will return in one form or another in the near future. I have no doubt. However, higher education is an international field and introducing a tuition fee in Estonia in a situation where neighboring countries do not have one would likely be unconstructive as we would lose a lot of students.

Jaak Aaviksoo Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

It has been suggested that the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) became a migration pump during your time as rector. What can you say in your defense?

I don't want to defend anything.

Do you plead guilty?

I do not. Exploding the number of foreign students under what was a slightly superficial aegis of internationalization happened long before I came to walk under the pine trees of Mustamäe. We have made our entry criteria much more stringent over the past five years – by three or four times and it is no longer possible for just anyone to get into TalTech, whether they are from Estonia or abroad.

We should definitely agree on what we expect from foreign students, why we need them.

Why do Estonian universities need foreign students? Is it to make money off them?

Universities are paying the difference or rather the taxpayer is. Universities do not make any money off foreign students as they are an item of expenditure and not income.

First of all, we have only populated with scarce meaning the claim that internationalization boosts the quality of universities. It probably applies to universities that have a lot of global applicants. However, when it comes to Estonian universities, we have no reason to believe we could double our quality simply by doubling the number of foreigners.

Foreign students are largely looked at in the context of talent scouting, in hopes of attracting talented young people to contribute to the economy and standard of living. That is the reason most countries recruit foreign students.

Is it the same in Estonia?

Yes and no, and it's rather the latter. The IT sector has made corresponding efforts over the last 10-15 years. But when it comes to other specialties, we have a lot of foreign students who do not end up staying and have a hard time integrating.

Why are we accepting them?

That is the question. It deserves an honest and public answer.

Do you know the answer?

Yes, I have an idea of how we should move forward in terms of foreign students. We should do two things. Firstly, we should put in place stricter admission criteria – bet on quality instead of quantity. Secondly, we should seek foreign students in areas where they can benefit Estonia's socioeconomic development. In other words, we should handpick them in certain fields instead of accepting them everywhere and in great volume.

It is not a matter of education policy but of broader national development – a matter of prioritizing. We are not doing too well there.

What is the motivation of foreign students to come study in cold and windy Estonia?

Foreign students should not be lumped in together as they have different backgrounds. But leaving aside Finnish students who come here to study social sciences and economics, after that, we get Nigeria, Iran, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Turkey… We should think about why these countries and what is their motivation. Academic content is not always at the top of that list.

What are their true motives?

To try and sum it up, many see it as a chance to move to the European Union. To get a better life, while many plan it as a family undertaking from the first. People are willing to suffer the cold winter and lower standard of living in Estonia until they get their diploma and the chance to look beyond, toward other European countries.

The government wants tougher conditions for student migrants as foreign students will not be allowed to bring over family members, there are attempts to dial back their working during studies, study period will not be counted as part of time spent in the country when applying for residence permits etc. Is this the right approach?

It is and it isn't. Society clearly feels that we've lacked a coherent policy and the reaction to potential unchecked migration has now found a political terminal, with suitable methods – such as banning everything – sought.

It would be more accurate to say screws are being tightened.

I understand the sentiment and goal, even though I personally believe that we should start by debating who we want and what for, what they could give Estonia in terms of helping it endure throughout the ages. And only then move on, as opposed to banning everything that seems hostile or insensible at first glance.

In short, you believe Estonia should engage in very specific talent scouting in terms of who should study in our universities, people who could stay in Estonia and help make life better here after they graduate?

To bolster Estonia's economic and academic capacity where we deem it important and to make less of an effort to attract a mass of people with unclear motives that does not coincide with our clearly communicated national interests.

Were you a member of the government today, would you support opening Estonia to people from Belarus being persecuted by the regime there?

We could have a corresponding support program.

The government is hesitant about allowing Belarusians to come here, saying that Estonia will not alter its visa policy. How is the current government different from its predecessors in general?

This government stands apart both positively and negatively in its desire to make political decisions and really change things.

Every coin has two sides. The smooth sailing that was also referred to as fine-tuning that we had before left me a little nervous. Then again, perhaps we would need a little more consideration and balance today, whereas ideological preferences seem to clash quite often, leaving the government hard-pressed to find common ground.

Isamaa, your former party, got to decide after the March elections what kind of a government Estonia would have. Had it been up to you, would you have opted for a coalition with the Reform Party and the Social Democratic Party or would you also have gone with Center and EKRE?

That is a speculative question in retrospect. It was not a situation of Isamaa picking dance partners.

I can understand the decision to opt for this coalition. Behind it is a lot of politicians'… personal dissatisfaction or negative experience with the Reform Party.

Because they [Reform Party] have dumped everyone, insulted everyone and held themselves to be holier than thou. There are underlying psychological causes.

Of course, it seems that Reform has more political potential and I would prefer a liberal-conservative coalition over what we have today. That said, we must admit today that besides blanket criticism, the party has failed to generate a single attractive idea behind which the Estonian people, myself included, could get during its time in the opposition.

It seems we are back where I started in that life in Estonia is uncertain and no one seems to have a clear vision.

Jaak Aaviksoo Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

You left the Isamaa and Res Publica Union when you ran for TalTech rector [in 2015]. Have you considered joining the party again?

No. I believe that the political part of my life is behind me for good.

Why? They have the Right-wingers (Parempoolsed) group now that is more liberal than the recent Isamaa mainstream.

What they have today is a few lines of text and some names. They have not produced the vision society expects.

These are interesting times in politics because there is a vacuum of ideas and success is likely in store for anyone who can offer something with the potential to excite people in the current situation – where we have more money for realizing ideas than we have ideas.

You were unfair toward the Reform Party when you said they lack attractive ideas. They recently introduced a bill for a universal Estonian education system.

I have higher expectations for the Reform Party. Higher expectations for Reform and fears when it comes to EKRE.

While hardly a new idea, a universal Estonian education system constitutes a step in the right direction, despite coming hopelessly late.

What should Isamaa MPs do? Should they support the initiative or vote against it?

I believe they will opt for the pragmatic option of abstaining.


It is political realism. They have very little to gain and a lot to lose getting behind the slogan. Ideologically speaking, they are in favor of course.

It is very difficult for them to support in this government.

They can support it in words but not on the political level. Keeping the coalition together serves the interests of all three partners. Barring extraordinary developments, that is how things will remain and any steps to rock the boat are unlikely.

You served as education and research minister in 2011-2014. The president is still dreaming of a universal school system in her Riigikogu fall session speech ten years on. Where has it gotten stuck?

The roots of this complicated matter go back to the early 1990s. We were very cautious when it came to national issues. We had felt the effects of Russification and even though we were representing the Republic of Estonia, Estonian language and culture, we… did not want to be like them, neither as a people nor as politicians – to try and sum it up. This sympathetic approach has come with a price – we have been reproducing certain cultural and linguistic segregation. For too long.

Things are much more complicated now, 25 years later. Something has taken shape in this time and it is not like changing our historical legacy but rather our political attitudes and choices now.

And so, we are left with two parallel school systems.

For some time to come.

Even though we've passed legislation according to which secondary education is in Estonian, we have not managed to switch to Estonian in Russian schools, irrespective of whether we're talking about teaching 60, 70, 30 or 50 percent of subjects in the official language. On the one hand, we lack political will, while on the other, we have the Estonian-speaking part of the population's unwillingness to go along with integration – to see a third or even two-thirds of students in their kid's class have a non-Estonian background. Therefore, this segregation is also the result of attitudes among many Estonians.

While this segregation in turn supports continued social inequality?

The conclusion from several studies according to which the roots of ethnic inequality we are criticized for are almost completely down to language proficiency is very probably correct. Language integration would help non-Estonian-speaking people the most.

Perhaps Jüri Ratas' government needs a push to arrive at a universal school system?

I do not think it could come about like that. Rather it will be a slow, evolutionary process. The number of people who believe it is sensible to put their children in Estonian schools and even kindergartens is growing.

Secondly, it depends less on the central government and more on local governments' political preferences. Let us be frank, achieving political goals through the school system is a common practice everywhere in the world, Estonia is no exception here. Which is why we are seeing major problems in places where it seems to suit the interests of local ruling politicians.

You have referred to yourself as a direct person. How would that directness have manifested had you been defense minister when the finance minister decided to take it upon himself to say what kind of arms Estonia should procure and from whom?

I have no practical experience working with EKRE. However, what observation would suggest is that rhetoric and actions need to be seen separately in their case.

Still, I believe I would have been direct enough [as defense minister]. It is not a question of the defense minister's political preferences but a conflict of national defense expertise and political ambitions. And EKRE's national defense competency is specific…

Why are you smiling now?

What I mean is that… (Pauses) … Kunnas who is a soldier with a Defense Forces background and Brig. Gen. Laneman (both EKRE MPs – ed.) are both men who were on the other side of the fence when it came to defense policy back when they were still in active service.

Kunnas is definitely someone you want in your scouting party, a man who will never surrender or betray you – that much is beyond doubt. But whether he is the best possible defense policy and national defense adviser – let's just say that remains debatable.

The coalition – and that includes EKRE and their defense advisers – would do well to listen to the experts.

Jaak Aaviksoo Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

The situation is rather peculiar today. We have the finance minister telling the defense minister that Estonia should by medium-range air defense systems from Israel and coastal defense systems from the same contractor offering us tanks. Is it really the finance minister's jurisdiction?

Well, speech is free as we are fond of saying in Estonia lately. Let us dial back the criticism as we have had outspoken ministers in the past and more than one member of the government has encroached on the territory of others. Martin Helme is by no means the first.

Perhaps I would not like it were I in the shoes of the defense minister, but I have aimed words of wisdom at my colleagues myself and perhaps not in the most delicate way.

You are very indirect, diplomatic to the extreme rather. What has happened?

Being direct is only necessary in politics when it serves a greater purpose. While I could present my personal views in a much more extreme way, I doubt it would help solve any problem.

But listen, it is outright blackmail to threaten to cut the defense budget by €50 million because the GDP is falling, while proposing spending €300 million on defense procurements but using handpicked vendors.

Such ideas hardly come as a surprise. There have been plenty of defense ministry advisers who have come up with similar or yet other kinds of proposals.

We have a lot of people in society who seriously believe that the first thing we need is a tank, ten tanks if possible and that if we could get them for free, we should take a thousand. Without any thought to who would use them, where they would fire, how to solve basic logistical problems

EKRE and Martin Helme have let these voices in the door and I'm sure that a lot of Estonian people are thankful for it, saying he is the right man for the job. That said, we have seen time and again with this coalition how a proper debate can culminate in very different results and arguments than initial public rhetoric would suggest.

You wrote, together with Alar Karis and Jüri Raidla, that Estonian statehood is a small miracle and urged the parliament to contribute to the state reform to modernize the country. Do you believe the parliament will listen and the state reform plan will finally become the state reform?

I would not have bothered if I did not believe that. Modern times require from states far more flexibility than we have today. That flexibility will arrive sooner or later, and the sooner, the better.

I feel that the current parliament and coalition are more capable of making decisions, also as regards important matters, than what would be a hesitant and careful alternative always aiming for political correctness. Of course, it comes with its own set of risks…

Such as?

Accidents tend to happen when decisiveness is lost. It is a common situation that if no one decides anything, the expectation is for someone to finally decide something by which time the risk of making the wrong decision is elevated.

But I believe that the Riigikogu motions to amend [regarding the decision to "Put into practice a state reform"] include a series of ideas worth considering and that are compatible with the convictions of the State Reform Foundation.

Is strategic planning and project management competency still the number one problem in terms of administrative capacity, as you've said in the past?

Most definitely when it comes to administrative capacity. We have real problems there. I even agree with critics who say that we have a lot of bureaucratic, formal bustling and political hypocrisy that, unfortunately, is keeping us from hitting targets, setting goals, undertaking major challenges and offering bolder solutions.

It is partly down to the general administrative culture and administrative capacity. We have superficial deliberations, also when drafting development strategies, where we pile every single brilliant idea in the world on the table and then compromise until we have a document that more or less everybody can accept. From there, it doesn't matter whether the document reads it is the development plan of Estonia, Nicaragua or Mali because while everything is lovely on paper, the question of how to get there has not been answered or difficult political choices made.

Seems to me you are itching to return?

I am in a way. But not politically.

I'm simply thinking about the developments we've seen – since restoration of independence – and that have been absolutely incredible. Incredible.

A miracle?

Yes, definitely, both historically and globally.

But the time of simple solutions is over. More is expected of us now. I also long for new and exciting ideas, instead of lounging in the comfort zone.

You will be able to run for president or at local elections in the Mulgi Municipality next year? Which will you choose?

(Laughs) I'm pretty sure it will be neither.

The idea that the only way to realize public interests is through political parties or elected bodies is superficial. We need people outside the political elite who have a clear opinion and who are free from institutional burden, whether as a university rector or head of a company, not to mention a political party, who can simply let their mind wonder and participate in debates. I hope there is room for such debates in Estonia.

There is definitely enough room, while I'm not so sure such debates would yield anything tangible.

They will. It is not accurate to think that politicians only realize ideas that match their narrow interests. Having seen lifer from different angles, I can assure you that there is willingness to hitch good ideas to parties' wagons, even though it might not always be easy. Many ideas will also appeal to several parties at once.

I'm not at all sure life wouldn't be better if we could stop relying on parliamentary elections producing a miracle and the unearthly wisdom of party programs and would instead go about our business in the most effective way. Everyone can achieve something if they go about it wisely.

What kind of a president does Estonia need?

(Pauses) Looking back, it seems that presidents can be very different and meet very different expectations. I have nothing to add in terms of proposing a single ideal.

However, it should be kept in mind that the president's greatest power is the chance to unite instead of divide, even though it takes more work and one's patience could run out, especially when it comes to more energetic, younger and direct persons. However, something that lingers can help other players – whether they are parties, the parliament, enterprise – to grow in confidence and mutual understanding. That is the role I would like to see from the president.

In closing, what does Estonia have more of – emotionality or rationality?

Scientists have gradually come to realize that there is much less rationality in our world than we have believed and would like. To simplify, what we know today about how people make decisions is that generally, emotional decisions are followed by rational justifications.

I'm not sure things are quite that bad, but if we ignore emotions and attitudes and bet only on rational decisions, one of two things will happen. We will either be rendered utterly indecisive or we'll fall out beyond all reconciliation.

Therefore, emotions are important, people's attitudes and interests are important, which explains the fact that politics is far more complicated than science.

Toomas Sildam and Jaak Aaviksoo Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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