"Of course, we want to rock our socks off," entrepreneur Kristjan Vanaselja who was elected chairman of Isamaa's Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) group says. "Darn it, we are spurred on by the degenerate situation Estonia finds itself in." Vanaselja dreams of an Isamaa which has a support rating of 20 percent instead of 5 percent. Read the group's manifesto here.
Are you a rebel?
I am one at heart, definitely. I'm not one to be satisfied with the status quo and, rather, I want change, development in life and am willing to rebel if that is what it takes.
Are you looking to overthrow the current management of your party?
(Laughs) No, that is not a goal in itself or something you would find on our agenda. Parempoolsed… are not just about Isamaa or the board of Isamaa today. Our concern and rebellion, to use your expression, go beyond that.
Some people are asking what use could another Estonia 200 (liberal non-parliamentary party – ed.) be for Estonia?
Estonia 200 have styled themselves as a party lacking an ideology that tries to address different topics on the Estonian political landscape, a party lacking a backbone…
What constitutes your backbone?
We tried to phrase it in our manifesto.
The choice is between a closed, reticent small country stuck in the past and an open, materially successful, future-oriented and educated state that represents Western values and is valued in the world.
Precisely. Looking at openness and pro-Western sentiment that Isamaa has represented throughout the years, serving as the standard of Europeanness on our political landscape, Estonian policy today at times questions these values.
Who are our friends in Europe? Are we still partners of Hoyre in Norway, the Swedish Moderates, Kokoomus in Finland, the Citizens' Platform in Poland, Lithuania's National Association and pursue cooperation with them or are we rather throwing in with different forces that are calling Western values, openness into question?
Let us look at Hungary. Flirting with such forces that we can see in Estonian politics is not the best future for Estonia in my opinion. I would like to see us return to partners, European and Western values that have served us this far.
For that purpose, you want to undermine Isamaa from within and change its course?
It is not a question only of Isamaa.
You will not be able to turn all parties.
True. We need to start somewhere… In order to achieve something in politics, effect change, you need to have a strong team, a home front. To achieve something in politics, one needs a team.
Jüri Ratas' government is also Isamaa's government, you are a member of the coalition. Would the Parempoolsed group take Isamaa out of the government today?
Coalitions are formed based on election results. We are not looking so much at 2019 parliamentary elections and what happened there but rather to the future, to new Riigikogu elections.
We will be entering the elections cycle next year with local government council elections – what will happen in Tallinn, Tartu or Pärnu? What will be the messages Isamaa will take to these elections to lay the foundation for Riigikogu elections [in 2023]?
Of course, I see Isamaa as a party the rating of which should be 15 or 20 percent, instead of 5 or 7 percent as it is now. A party that would once again be capable of forming coalitions and governments, instead of playing second fiddle. That is what we are striving for.
You are a dreamer.
Very much so.
Because you dream of four times your current rating.
It is entirely feasible.
The question we ask ourselves is whether we can find people who believe in the same future as us – where Estonia is a cool country, a good place to live and pursue enterprise, innovation, tech development, where we think boldly about the Estonian economy, what kind of jobs we create…
If we can find these voters and get through to them, it [growing Isamaa's rating] will not be a problem.
Do voters like that exist?
However, they tell interviewers today that they support the Reform Party. Have you answered for yourself the question of why the Reform Party has so many supporters?
Support for Reform and Estonia 200 is based on the simple fact that no one has offered these lovely and intelligent voters a clear and future-oriented alternative on the right.
I also believe that Reform's rating is based on the myth of theirs being a party of entrepreneurs, business interests, free market and liberal policy. It has been a long time since they last demonstrated any of these things either in the government or the opposition. In other words, it is based to an extent on… nostalgia.
A member of the core group of Parempoolsed told me that a lot of Isamaa members are not happy in a government with the Conservative People's Party (EKRE), while a lot of members would be equally disappointed in a coalition with Reform. A stalemate?
Happy or not… Coalitions are formed based on election results. There is nothing we can do about it. We (Isamaa) have three alternatives today: government one, government two and the opposition…
Had you a choice in March of 2019, where would you have put Isamaa?
Difficult to say. I did not have a seat at the [decision-makers'] table at the time. I do not know what the considerations were…
However, my conscience and values hardly match those of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE). Perhaps the board today sees policies that could be realized working with EKRE because the coalition agreement likely sat well with those who signed it.
Have you met with Reform Party politicians to discuss daily politics recently?
No, I have not been approached nor has anyone wished to speak with me. I suppose I'm insignificant. (Starts to laugh)
Do you know to what extent major sponsor Parvel Pruunsild, one of the owners of Bigbank, determines policy at Isamaa?
I do not.
He is definitely in touch with the management. But I would not like to believe Pruunsild dictates policy. At least I sincerely hope that is not the case.
You are associated with Estonian startup GoWorkaBit. I suppose Res Publica that operated in 2001-2006 before merging with Isamaa was also like a startup in some way?
They were exciting times. I was young and wet behind the ears, but it was cool to watch a political party be created…
You were not looking on, you were involved.
(Laughs) Young politicians were more actively involved back then, 20 years ago. At least that is how it seems to me today.
Back then, a group of young people decided to try and change political culture in Estonia. Will Isamaa's Parempoolsed see history repeated?
Comparing Res Publica to Parempoolsed is not quite accurate.
We are not looking to create a new party. We want Estonia's recent development and path over the last 30 years to continue. Over the last decade, policymaking has become lazy and complacent to which we can add a general lack of ideas.
With Parempoolsed, we are seeking to put urgency back in Estonian politics, to liven up other political forces, prompt them to offer ideological viewpoints and debate topics that have been put off for years.
And make sure Isamaa could once again phrase Estonia's goals, make it move forward and shape its development.
You helped create Res Publica and secure it 28 seats in the Riigikogu that allowed the party to form a coalition with Reform and the People's Union for two years in 2003. Why did you not go into politics yourself?
It was not the right time. (Smiles) I wanted to do other things in life. I stopped working at the party in 2006 and becoming an entrepreneur has been very instructive and beneficial.
For example, Priit Sibul, who was involved with creating Res Publica alongside you, is now Isamaa's secretary general and Riigikogu group chair. Does that not make you jealous?
Priit [Sibul] is a very good friend and our passionate debates on various topics most certainty do not make me envious. The life of a politician has its downsides. While business is no walk in the park, Priit has a few more wrinkles than I do today.
What did your friend Priit Sibul tell you? "You're right, Kristjan. Go and make the Parempoolsed happen!"?
(Pauses) Almost. When I discussed our plan with Priit this summer, a few weeks before Parempoolsed were unveiled, he asked what we would be doing and wished us luck.
There are many ways one can wish luck.
(Pauses) Perhaps there has been confusion and misunderstanding in Isamaa's ranks in terms of what it [Parempoolsed] means for the party and members. They would like it if we, like other member associations of Isamaa that we are lumped in with…
Such as the Isamaa families initiative that was created on the same day as yours.
Precisely… (Smiles) Like the families association, like the Christians and nationalists. For us to be concentrated on a single topic – economic matters and nothing else, phrasing a right-wing economic policy for the party because Isamaa has been overlooking this aspect in recent years, with other topics taking precedence.
But you want more?
Yes. We want to talk about social development in broader terms, where Estonia is headed. Economic matters are important, but there are other topics. I do not think members of the party should be put in boxes in terms of who has the right and freedom to talk about what. You said rather strikingly toward the start [of the interview] that I am a rebel of sorts. I do not hold back when I don't like something or when my opinion differs. I come out and say it.
To what extent are differing opinions tolerated at Isamaa?
More by some people and less by others. It is like life, business or when you're talking to friends – some people react sharply and take offense, while others see it as an open exchange where everyone can express their opinion.
What is your explanation for Res Publica's fading and disappearance from politics?
We could not really handle the situation we landed ourselves in by winning the elections. On the other hand, perhaps the idealism, vision and ideas that created Res Publica took second place after the election. Realpolitik took its toll.
How well does Isamaa cope with its support rating of just 5 percent?
It seems to me that perhaps some members are satisfied with the rating around 5-7 percent. That if it is to be 5 percent, let it be as long as it is our 5 percent – irrespective of the time, place and policy we pursue. (Smiles)
Why were you elected to lead Parempoolsed, not former minister Siim Kiisler or former minister and influential EU official Henrik Hololei for example?
The Parempoolsed initiative started on the grassroots level – members of the party [Isamaa]. It started with conversations between friends on what we were not satisfied with, how we see Estonia. The founders of our association include dozens of ordinary members of the party who have been rather passive and remained onlookers in recent years, yours truly included.
It seemed right and logical to continue to pull that wagon ourselves for a dignified result. It would not have been fair to put up our hands and say that someone else needs to take it forward. It turned out in private conversations that Vanaselja could be the one to serve as chairman of the board. And I promised myself I would be willing to bear that responsibility for at least a year.
How strong are Parempoolsed inside Isamaa?
It definitely goes beyond the number of our members.
For example, could you tell Isamaa Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu that he is wrong when he orders an Estonian ambassador not to voice support for Poland's LGBT community, contrary to EU and U.S. diplomats?
Every member of the party can say things to the minister. Whether they will heed the message is another matter. But associations if they are strong have more influence in parties.
What to think of the coalition agreement's promise of a referendum on whether to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman also on the level of the Constitution?
Isamaa has tried to keep the Constitution from becoming an object of political games. It seems to me that this planned referendum aims to turn it into a political toy. If the plan to hold the referendum on local election day succeeds, local democracy will be spoiled.
Your manifesto warns: "We are standing on the precipice of a new political age." What age is that?
In recent years, the entire world, not just Estonia, has become a theater of ideological warfare where the entire political landscape and debate are seized by the radical left and the radical right who are forcing the rest of society to participate in this debate and choose sides in highly polarizing ideological matters on values. Whereas they stigmatize those who fail to pick what they believe is the right side.
Today, that ideological battleground has been brought to Estonia. Radicals have managed to take society hostage and are dictating what our politics debates and what we are allowed to debate.
How to escape this hostage situation?
That is what we are trying to do with Parempoolsed. To ask the question of what kind of a right-wing Estonia we would like to see over the next 10-20 years. What to do about healthcare? What are our priorities in social policy? Education policy…
The virus affords us the opportunity to consider how to achieve a greater level of digitation, how we could have our physics, chemistry and mathematics teachers, who have been voted the best in the world, teach more classes using digital tools. How students everywhere in Estonia could share in the instruction of the best teachers.
You've opined that e-education could become the new normality to boost independence [of students] and proposed expanding it to arrive at a three-day school week. Are you not afraid some students would be left with a poorer education as a result of being less independent than their peers?
I have no such fear. It will definitely require getting used to, practice and being able to monitor students' progress, what they learn and how.
Technology makes e-studies possible today. You can monitor where the student develops, where they stumble, where they need more time to think, where they get in trouble and where they fall off the wagon… Using all of that, we could reach individual education faster than in a situation where the teacher has to find students who might need extra attention while teaching a class to 36 students simultaneously.
Many teachers would be skeptical.
Change is hard. I'm not saying it should happen overnight. But the situation dictated by the virus today presents us with a brilliant opportunity to test these things. It is one area where Estonia could blaze a trail in the world by moving forward and offering it to the world.
Estonia should be a cool, groovy, innovative country.
The state budget holds billions upon billions of euros but do they answer the question of how to change the course of our economy, what kind of jobs we want to bring to Estonia, whether we will continue as a contractor state or can we create for our entrepreneurs an environment where efficiency, skills and wages of workers can grow because we are capable of selling better, higher-quality products, export, support the tech sector…?
Being from the startup world, it is painful to hear people say specialists have no obstacles when coming to Estonia at the same time it is said that no one is welcome or that we'll make coming here as difficult as possible.
Reputation and legislative steps taken today to make sure people couldn't and wouldn't want to come to Estonia, including high-paid specialists – that is what worries me.
Your opponents would say we need to take care of Estonian companies and people, instead of solving the problems of strangers.
We need know-how, experience and international expertise on how to develop our companies. That competency exists elsewhere and we can improve our companies by bringing people here.
How wide would you open the door to IT specialists who are being oppressed in Belarus?
I would have been more active in bringing these companies here, opening the door to them. Tech companies will hardly become backdoors of unwanted immigration. The people in question are usually well-educated, paid a good wage and often have stable families. I do not see this issue as the bogeyman it's made out to be.
Promoting smart migration, which is something we touch on in our manifesto, does not mean we are in favor of opening all borders to everyone. However, I do believe that we should not erect walls and look to building bridges instead – how people we want could come here. And what is even more important – who would want to come here.
"A nation that is great in spirit does not combat its own past and people." Why does your manifesto include this sentence?
We should not create rifts among our people or see who is right and who is wrong among us. To have a more coherent society and not to look for ways to split it and wind people up.
To have the ability to let go of things that have hurt us or caused conflicts.
"… a free society accepts mistakes and protects the person's right to a second chance," your manifesto promises. How often can we see such forgiveness and second chances in Estonia?
We could do with a lot more. We do not often recognize those who've made mistakes. Instead, we tend to gloat, walk all over them. However, making mistakes is inevitable in business and life in general. We should welcome and embrace these mistakes as they hide lessons.
It seems to me that society has trampled on those who fail, concentrated on the negative, instead of asking what lessons could be learned.
A lot of mistakes can be forgiven, but not all I suppose?
Yes, definitely. I'm not quick to forgive people in whose nature it is to be hypocritical or persistently go behind others' backs. There are mistakes, errors and then there is malicious intent. I don't really see a way to forgive the latter.
Be frank, do you want someone other than Helir-Valdor Seeder to run Isamaa?
I sincerely hope and will make an effort to ensure members of Isamaa have a choice between at least two chairman candidates at the next general assembly. Isamaa is still democratic at heart, this has not changed.
How much have you discussed the future of the party with Seeder lately?
I must admit that Helir-Valdor Seeder has… never spoken to me. Perhaps we said hello on the street in Viljandi one time.
Then I cannot ask you whether you believe he understands what the Parempoolsed are after?
We can only draw conclusions based on what he has told the press. We have tried to be balanced, not to go along with intrigue or overreact…
You were not welcomed?
Depends by who. Looking around in the party today – people's eyes really light up when we talk about right-wing policy. Whether regional boards or individual members all over Estonia.
Let us talk about the official leaders of the party.
They also include people who are glad to see some momentum return to the party. That there is something to be discussed, debated and intrigues spun, which some might also find important. (Smiles) I don't know. What is clear is that there is more energy at the party than there was a year ago. While it might be negative energy for some, most people welcome it.
You've said it is "time to rock our socks off." Are the Parempoolsed looking to create such a storm at Isamaa?
Of course we want to rock our socks off!
And not just at Isamaa. Darn it, we are spurred on by the backward situation Estonia finds itself in. Let us get our act together and engage in meaningful and future-oriented policy. Of course we will rock our socks off. (Laughs)
Editor: Marcus Turovski