Interview: Who has what it takes to follow Toomas Hendrik Ilves? ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

International Relations lecturer Matthew Crandall identifies the candidates best suited for the diplomatic arena of international politics, comments on the enormous challenge to live up to Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ example, and identifies a unique window of opportunity if Marina Kaljurand or Mailis Reps should be elected president.

ERR News: You’ve analyzed all six candidates’ foreign policy credentials. Who do you think would be the best fit for president in terms of experience navigating difficult issues with representatives of other countries?

Matthew Crandall: Complex foreign relations will certainly be a factor for the next president. Arnold Rüütel, who was not considered to be overly interested in foreign affairs, had one of the biggest foreign policy decisions to make regarding the ceremonies in Moscow celebrating the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII. So even candidates who do not seek to be heavily involved internationally will find themselves involved at some point.

Mailis Reps should be commended for making this issue a part of her campaign, recognizing the need and opportunity a small state has in managing complex relations with larger neighbors and allies.

That said, the candidate who would have the best chance of being successful in navigating difficult issues would be either Kaljurand or Kallas. Both have extensive experience dealing with complex international relations and crisis situation. Kallas has had a long political career, but when looking at more recent events, he hadn’t been the European Commissioner of Transportation for very long before the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland erupted, closing airspace over Northern Europe for about a week. For a transport commissioner, it had to be one of the worst crises he could have imagined. Kaljurand was a diplomat in Moscow when the Estonian embassy was attacked, forcing it to close. Relations don’t get more complex than the experiences that Kallas and Kaljurand have already dealt with in their careers.

If forced to choose between the two, I would rank Kaljurand first and Kallas second due to Kaljurand’s larger and more current network. For example, if a difficult issue in Estonian-Russian relations came up, the Estonian president would need to be influential in getting support from other key nations and organizations in addition to direct interactions with Russia.

Kallas is strong on economic matters, and his connections and networks are in Brussels. This is important and makes Kallas more than qualified. A host of complex issues will surely be related to economics and the EU over the next five years. However, Kallas himself noted in Thursday’s debate that security issues will be the challenge Estonia will be facing in the next five years.

Kaljurand has better experience and stronger networks when looking at transatlantic relations and security issues. Navigating NATO-Russia relations is priority number one, and Kaljurand is the most qualified to do that.

How does the current pool of candidates compare to Toomas Hendrik Ilves? Everybody seems to agree that his shoes will be difficult to fill. Do we have a candidate at all that can pick up where the president leaves off?

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is unique, and there will not be another like him. Every candidate will have a difficult time getting the attention he has received. This doesn't mean that the next president couldn’t be just as successful, attention is not the only measure of success. Mart Helme has the ability to get a lot of attention due to his party affiliation and political ideas, but that wouldn’t be good attention.

Ilves has made his biggest mark in terms of engaging with the global foreign policy elite. Kallas would be able to fill his shoes easily in European circles, while Kaljurand would have more success in transatlantic relations.

You pointed out in your profile of Marina Kaljurand that the importance of the next president’s Russian language skills can’t be underestimated. Can you elaborate?

The key problem at hand is not just language skills, but a candidate’s ability to build a relationship of trust with every part of Estonia’s society. A significant part of the Russian speaking minority does not have a trusting relationship with state leaders. This is problematic for Estonia, because this is precisely the situation that Putin can use to create larger problems down the road.

Putin’s most aggressive conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia also overlapped with a problematic domestic situation. Putin played a role in enlarging domestic conflicts as well, which then created a pretext for Russia to intervene. While the legitimacy gap in Ida-Virumaa is drastically better than that in pre-conflict Crimea or Abkhazia, it can still be seen to a certain extent as a threat enabler, not just a challenge for a civil society. No one wants to see a set of events similar to the Bronze Soldier riots.

The Estonian president will need to increase the legitimacy levels with every part of society. Communication and interaction will need to happen before trust can be formed. Speaking the Russian language will make this process much easier.

Former prime minister Tiit Vähi said in a recent interview that Kallas would make a good president because leaders from Washington to Moscow would have his calls, while others might not be so lucky. How important is the Estonian president’s network?

This is an astute observation and something that should be considered. When it’s 3 a.m. and the president of Estonia is trying to place a call to President Hillary Clinton, will she answer the phone? Kaljurand and Kallas have the best chances of that happening. Reps appears to have the potential to forge that relationship too, but it is far from a sure thing. Other candidates might have to wait to have their call returned.

What are the areas and meetings in international relations where the president can exercise real influence?

The president of Estonia doesn’t have any hard tools to exercise influence, so it comes down to persuasion, the bully pulpit, and speaking in a way that people listen. This happens from public speeches and private discussions. The list is too extensive to mention all of them, but a look at President Ilves’ travel plans is a good indicator. Official presidential visits, speeches at international organizations, high profile conferences and summits are the most important to note. President Ilves also visited elite universities in the United States, which provided him with a platform for his agenda. One of his more influential speeches was in May of 2014 to the North Atlantic Council, where he had the ears of every NATO member state. Many of these meetings and speeches are public, but there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes in personal correspondence that shouldn’t be forgotten.

What is required of the candidates to enable them to successfully use this?

There are different strategies, and candidates each have their own style. Some lean more towards getting their message out in the media, others through building relationships of trust with key leaders. Different strategies require different skill sets. Both can be successful. Competence and respect are key attributes to have for either strategy.

How important is a candidate’s background for their work as president? In the case of Meri and Ilves, we’re looking at former ministers of foreign affairs, in Arnold Rüütel’s case a seasoned party politician. Would a candidate from outside politics, like Allar Jõks, be able to establish himself at all?

A candidate’s background is important. It is what prepares a candidate for the job and helps a candidate develop a specific skill set to be effective. A candidate without a political background or without an international background might not have the proper skill set to engage on international topics, or properly deal with international diplomacy. Experience also influences the perception of the media and of other foreign elite. Perception also will influence a candidate’s ability to be successful.

The outgoing president’s personality has been discussed a lot. While some see him as modern and groundbreaking in his application of PR and social media, others perceive him as arrogant and elitist. What is the importance of the president’s personality when it comes to dealing with foreign dignitaries?

President Ilves can best be described as modern and groundbreaking as well as arrogant and elitist. People react differently to Ilves’ communication strategy. On the whole he has been enormously successful. This is not to say that every future president should start tweeting as candidly as Ilves has done. There are different strategies for achieving influence, and what is important is that a candidate has the proper skill set to make that strategy a success.

The six candidates range from the far right to proponents of a relatively open society. How will their personal political stance affect their ability to do a successful job as president?

Outside of Mart Helme, every political candidate’s political stance falls within standard international norms and would not cause concern for foreign leaders. The differences in international positions regarding NATO, EU, and global economics are not large enough to cause the international community to react one way or the other. As noted, this is not the case with Mart Helme. Helme’s election would raise eyebrows and concerns internationally.

Helme has supported his party’s far-right political positions as well as a world view that by many would be seen as antiquated and chauvinist. Jõks made a sexist joke, apparently not for the first time. Are such personal views and traits a potential problem for the next president?

Personal views and traits can be a potential problem. For Jõks it seems as if it has been managed as a one-time event. In this case it will be easy for Jõks to own the mistake and move on. It shouldn’t cause long term damage in the eyes of the international community. It is problematic in the sense that Jõks has a low international profile and needs to make a good first impression and build himself up. The remarks came at a bad time. If repeated, the jokes can create a perception that of course could be problematic, but I don’t see it as a major problem for Jõks internationally.

Helme has a more difficult problem, because it will take much more time and effort to move away from his EKRE affiliation and the positions that come with it. If he isn’t able to make that move, he won’t be taken seriously by a large portion of the international community.

Estonia has never had a woman as president. If Mailis Reps or Marina Kaljurand are elected, how would this affect international relations?

The impact that Mailis Reps or Marina Kaljurand would make as the first woman to be elected President of Estonia should not be underestimated. It would have an inspirational influence on many girls and women as well as have a positive role in shaping how society as a whole relates to women. When looking at representation and gender equality issues, Estonia needs to put forth effort to make improvements.

Reps and Kaljurand would both benefit from Ilves’ work promoting the brand of Estonia as a forward-thinking modern European nation. In addition to gender, Reps would be able to use her youth and international educational experience, and Kaljurand her ethnicity to be seen as a continuation of Estonia’s positive development. Estonia may even be able to brand itself as meriting a seat at the table regarding gender issues. Despite how ridiculous it may sound now, given the problems in Estonian society, with effort it could be possible. For example, Estonia recently completed a term on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

One of the key human rights that Estonia promoted was the rights of women and children. It should be noted that for all the problems, things could be much worse. Estonia has an unusually long family leave policy (18 months) where the United States doesn’t offer any. A woman head of state, coupled with progress at home of course, could pave the way for Estonia to speak on gender issues in the not too distant future.

Many peace and conflict researchers have highlighted the influence and importance of women in achieving sustainable peace in post-conflict zones. During Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state she promoted what is now called the Hillary Doctrine, meaning that women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights. Likewise, the status of women should be considered a national security issue.

The key nations of the transatlantic relationship — the USA, the UK, and Germany — will most likely all have women executives, with Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, and Angela Merkel respectively. Clinton’s likely election and her renewed focus on women’s rights mean that progress on gender issues for Estonia and a woman president could have a significantly larger international impact now than in times past.

Matthew Crandall comments on the foreign policy credentials of the individual candidates in the article series linked to below.

Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn

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