Eight former prime ministers talk about Estonia’s 25 years of regained independence ({{commentsTotal}})

Top left: Edgar Savisaar, followed by Tiit Vähi, Mart Laar, Andres Tarand, Mart Siimann, Siim Kallas, Juhan Parts. On the right: Andrus Ansip.
Top left: Edgar Savisaar, followed by Tiit Vähi, Mart Laar, Andres Tarand, Mart Siimann, Siim Kallas, Juhan Parts. On the right: Andrus Ansip. Source: (Postimees/Scanpix, ERR)

A quarter of a century has passed since Estonia regained its independence. On the occasion, ERR interviewed all of the country’s eight former prime ministers: Edgar Savisaar, Tiit Vähi, Mart Laar, Andres Tarand, Mart Siiman, Siim Kallas, Juhan Parts, and Andrus Ansip.

Edgar Savisaar: The people aren’t as united anymore as they used to be

Savisaar ran the Estonian government in chaotic times. As he told ERR’s Indrek Treufeldt in his interview, he had had a dream in 1990 about things taking a very different turn.

“I saw in a dream how I was taken to Siberia, and how I lived there in a mud hut. And in the next mud hut was Mikhail Gorbachev. That was a possible scenario, how things could have gone. We were very lucky,” Savisaar said.

He is convinced that had the August Putsch been successful, it would have reached Estonia a few weeks later. According to Savisaar, the only reason why the republics were left alone was because of the consolidation of powers in Moscow.

Asked about his opinion about the frequently made statement that a lot of Estonia’s politics of the last quarter century had revolved around him, Savisaar said he thought he’d been able to get a few things moving.

“I think that I’ve done something for Estonia’s history over the past 25 years. As prime minister, as mayor of Tallinn, as deputy president of the Riigikogu, and also in the other offices I’ve held. Of course there are those who don’t like what I’ve done. That’s for them to worry about, and though they’ve tried to get rid of me, they never managed,” Savisaar said.

Asked if today’s Estonia was the country he was hoping for 25 years ago, Savisaar said yes and no. “I dare say Tallinn has caught up with Europe. It seems that the people of Tallinn are very happy about that. They wouldn’t have given us the majority four elections in a row otherwise. This is the biggest plus, Tallinn’s success.”

Savisaar added that the biggest disappointment was that Estonians were nowhere near as united anymore as they were back then. “When I think that more than 100,000 people live abroad, I’m not sure anymore if the people who still come to the Song Festival grounds and think like we did back then are enough. But there’s hope.”

Savisaar was Estonia’s prime minister from 1990 to 1992.

Tiit Vähi: Make Siim Kallas the next president

Tiit Vähi was prime minister three times. So far, two of his governments’ foreign ministers later became presidents: Lennart Meri, and Toomas Hendrik Ilves. If Siim Kallas were elected president later this month, he would be the third.

Vähi told ERR’s Marko Reikop in his interview how he had encouraged Meri to run for president.

“I asked Lennart over and told him, ‘You’re worthy of becoming president, but there’s no president in my government. So I suggest you resign from the position of foreign minister, so that you can dedicate yourself to becoming president,’” Vähi said.

According to Vähi Meri was surprised, but took it very seriously. “When he ran for president the next time in 1996, Isamaa (Meri’s party, ed.) didn’t want him to, but he became president with the votes of the Estonian Coalition Party.”

Vähi said that it was hard to predict what was going to happen in the upcoming presidential election, but that he’d like to see Kallas become the next president.

“I’d like this because Siim Kallas is well prepared for this office. He knows the conditions in Estonia, and also those in the East. He was part of the team that broke up the USSR. He worked in the European Union for ten years. If he were to be president, he could phone to Brussels, Washington, and obviously also Moscow,” Vähi said, adding that in Kallas’ case, the calls would be taken as well.

Tiit Vähi was acting prime minister during the transitional period before 1992, and again prime minister between 1995 and 1997.

Mart Laar: NATO membership and the ID card

Mart Laar was prime minister twice. In his view, his second government from 1999 to 2002 can be seen as the strongest since regaining independence, and its decision to join NATO one of the country’s most audacious steps.

“This was Estonia’s strongest government. Think about it, if you have Siim Kallas as minister of finance, Toomas Hendrik Ilves as foreign minister, Eiki Nestor as minister of social affairs, and Jüri Luik as defense minister, what more can you want? This government was extraordinarily strong,” Laar said.

His government’s most important decision was to join NATO, Laar said, to which they laid the ground work. Estonia joined the alliance in 2004.

“There were clear goals, what we had to do. Defense spending needed to be raised from 1.4% to 2% [of GDP] within three years. This was my aim, and I did it,” Laar said. “Carl Bildt, whom I talked to a lot, shook his head and told me right away that he believed that I could do it, but that I’d lose the prime minister’s office. Estonia made it into NATO alright,” he added.

The creation of the Estonian ID card was the second breakthrough of his government, Laar said. This change defined the way of thinking of a whole generation and began what today is the world’s foremost e-state.

The hardest period of his first government from 1992 to 1994 had been the sinking of the Estonia, Laar said. “I had already resigned from office, but I was still fulfilling its duties. When I went with two other prime ministers to see the rescue efforts, receive the victims, and see the survivors in hospital, that was very difficult. Friends and acquaintances were on the ship as well,” Laar remembered.

Andres Tarand: Big decisions, little time

Andres Tarand had to deal with the question whether or not Estonia should make claims to Russia to regain the territories that had been given to the Russian SFSR during the Soviet occupation. His government’s decision not to make such claims, and to accept the borderline with Russia, was very controversial.

“It seemed to me that territorial claims to Russia made our situation much worse,” Tarand said in his interview with ERR. He recounted how he made a spontaneous decision when he was on his first foreign visit in Helsinki, meeting then Finnish prime minister Heikki Aho.

“At the press conference it suddenly occurred to me, now I’ll make an announcement in the border question. In Helsinki the Russians were listening in everywhere, and would hear immediately. Their embassy there was huge, too. And about Estonia I knew that the majority of the people, 63%, would understand, and that there would be no opposition. So I didn’t need a decision of the government, I just announced it,” Tarand said.

Later on, there had been opposition to his decision, Tarand added. “Of course there was evident opposition, and a lot of the Seto people lost land, but my argument was and still is that all of us lost a lot in 50 years - ourselves, our brothers, Estonians who didn’t lose anything are very rare.”

Tarand became prime minister in 1994 and remained in office for five months.

Mart Siimann: Adding a working pension system to the administration

The time of Siimann’s government saw the decision to apply for membership in the European Union. It proposed the country’s three column pension system, which represented an important step towards today’s social model. Siimann said in his interview with ERR that this was often wrongly attributed to Siim Kallas and Eiki Nestor.

“The concept was adopted in a government meeting. The basis of it was worked out by Ardo Hansson (today the president of the Bank of Estonia, ed.). He was Laar and Vähi’s as well as my economic advisor,” Siimann said.

Siimann recalled that Hansson always asked him how much time he had to deal with a task. “I told him, two months. And after two months, it was on the table. He certainly had a small commission he consulted with, but this honor is Hanssson’s”, Siimann said.

Siimann was prime minister from 1997 to 1999.

Siim Kallas: Estonia enters NATO with strong support of the USA

Estonia became a member of NATO in 2004. In his interview with ERR, former prime minister and EU commissioner and current presidential candidate Siim Kallas said this couldn’t have happened without strong support of the United States.

Kallas stressed that NATO’s eastward expansion was a political decision of the United States, and that the European allies weren’t all that happy about it.

About his time as prime minister, Kallas said that he remembered Sept. 4, 2002 very well, when he met with U.S. president George W. Bush. He describes this meeting as one of the most thrilling moments of his life.

“There was a point where I said to him, ‘Mr. President, sometimes democracy needs to be decisive. We lost our independence in the 1930s, when democracy wasn’t decisive, but could have prevented aggression’. He liked this so much that ambassador DeThomas told me afterwards, ‘The president quoted you 46 times’, which he also wrote down in his book,” Kallas said.

Kallas said he was very impressed with Bush, and that Bush had called him several times. “That was style. The president of the United States calls the prime minister of Estonia. In one of the calls he also informed me that they had decided to go to Iraq,” Kallas said.

“The Egyptians said this as well, that this is the great difference between Bush and Clinton. Clinton called when he needed to, Bush always called. He took care of his allies. Who’s with him, is with him. You can be absolutely sure about him.”

Kallas was prime minister in 2002 and 2003.

Juhan Parts: Estonia’s NATO membership was a result of the 9/11 terror attacks

Former prime minister Juhan Parts said in his interview with ERR that the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001 made the expansion of NATO possible, as it changed the way the leaders of the bigger nations thought.

“In politics, there’s always a window of opportunity. You can’t decide things every day and at any time. Such a window of opportunity was created by the terrorist attacks of September 11. Some might think otherwise, that this process was natural. But I think that this attack in New York, against the Pentagon, and in Washington changed political thinking and will,” Parts said.

Asked by ERR’s Marko Reikop if Estonia had then made it into NATO thanks to Osama Bin Laden, Parts said that this was his interpretation.

“The correct interpretation for the encyclopedias was of course that this was a natural development and that we met NATO’s criteria, but the real political will - here, God was an Estonian,” Parts said.

He added that there had been several moments over those 20 years that had felt unreal in the current context, hard to solve, but that somehow these windows of opportunity were used very skilfully. “I think the moment we were able to join NATO was such a moment.”

Parts also said he remembered going along with the U.S. and sending troops to Iraq, and hearing about the death of the first Estonian soldier that was killed.

Parts was prime minister from 2003 to 2005.

Andrus Ansip: The longest serving prime minister

Andrus Ansip held the office of prime minister the longest, namely from 2005 to 2014. During his time in office, Ansip gained the reputation of being somewhat unapproachable and unemotional.

Asked if he ever encountered anything that really got on his nerves during his nine years as prime minister, Ansip said that no prime minister could afford to be unemotional. “Every human being is emotional. I think no prime minister can be unemotional. What bothers me is when absurdities get respected and nobody speaks up against them,” he said.

One of the most visible events during Ansip’s government was the 2007 Bronze Soldier riot. When a Red Army memorial was moved from its location in central Tallinn to a military cemetery and the soldiers buried under it along with it, the local Russian youth took to the streets, and the protests escalated.

Ansip said about the events that they represented the point where Edgar Savisaar chose political isolation over cooperation. “The Reform Party, IRL, and also the Social Democrats declared they wouldn’t work with him. This was one of those times when it becomes very clear where people stand,” he remarked.

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