Becoming a supporting member of the Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) dissident group in Isamaa is not revenge against the government for robbing Perling of her second term, former Prosecutor General Lavly Perling tells Toomas Sildam in an interview. Perling's move into politics has created a fair bit of confusion and stirred passions. But COVID-19 is worse, Perling knows, as someone who has recovered from the disease.
Did the Savisaar corruption trial that began in 2014 culminate how you hoped it would as prosecutor general back then?
I believe that prosecutors general do not have hopes when it comes to criminal proceedings and instead leave the work up to case prosecutors.
I'm sure they hope for a conviction.
Of course, because public prosecution is what it is. At the same time, convicting people is not a goal in itself. The most important thing for the prosecution is to make sure such matters get taken to court. While no prosecutor goes after a case seeking an acquittal, what matters is giving the court the chance to administer justice.
Postimees wrote in its Tuesday editorial that the conviction of Kalev Kallo will end an era in terms of attitudes toward corruption in Estonia. Has Estonia become better?
I believe so. Every corruption trial cleanses Estonia and has a positive effect on society.
The Savisaar trial brought together politics and corruption, while the prosecution was also criticized for serving a political agenda in removing Savisaar from power. To what extent does such background noise affect the work of the prosecution?
Prosecutors are professionals in that they know what they are doing and proceed from the law and evidence.
But they are also people. And, of course, it affects you if your work is constantly the subject of debate, opinion and allegations… That said, this is in no way unique to Estonia. Major international conferences are held on how the media and politics influence high corruption proceedings.
How do they influence them?
There is a measure of influence but the stronger the country's justice system that looks at laws and evidence and nothing else, the lesser this influence is.
The Savisaar trial ruling entered into force on Monday. Did you call your former colleagues to congratulate them?
I must admit I did not this time. I has been a while since I spoke to prosecutors in charge of [so-called Savisaar] proceedings. I congratulated the prosecutor and wished them luck when the district court ruling came in.
Good. Let us get a few things straight now. Are you still with the Prosecutor's Office?
I do not work for the Prosecutor's Office as an active prosecutor. I work through the Estonian Eastern Partnership Center for the UN and the European Union, working on reforms in Ukraine.
Your employment relationship at the Office of the Prosecutor General has been terminated?
You have no tasks there?
I have no tasks, proceedings or access to information. My email accounts have been closed and I do not keep an office there. I have no link to the Estonian prosecution whatsoever.
Are you being paid by the prosecution?
If memory serves, the justice minister agreed to release you from office on September 21 next year. Is the aim of that to have worked for 25 years that would make you eligible for a prosecutor's special pension?
A quarter of a century with the prosecution is definitely a worthy goal to pursue.
The prosecutor general asked me in spring whether I would be returning to the prosecution and when. I said then that I would not be returning. The new leader needs to be given a chance and my career in the prosecution is over. That is why I was prepared to write a letter of resignation long in advance, which is a common practice in courts.
It has been referred to on social media as "special pension combinatorics" and not in a positive sense.
A quarter century with the prosecution… I think I have earned it. That's all.
A prosecutor's special pension is 65 percent of previous salary.
Yes, and while it is not polite to talk about age, it is still several decades in the future.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg said in 2019 that they would like to see you continue as prosecutor general for the next five years, while opposition from the heads of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) meant you did not get the posting. Did you know what you would be doing when your successor Andres Parmas took over the office in February?
It had become clear shortly before that. I flew to Kiev and was working in Ukraine by early February. I had started thinking about what would come next some time ago. I was looking around, weighing proposals. When it was suggested I could go to Ukraine – an exciting country and one of strategic importance for Estonia – it seemed like interesting work and I agreed.
The way the position of prosecutor general was taken away from you should have resulted in disappointment in Estonian politics, while you have now become a supporting member of the Parempoolsed group in Isamaa. Why is that?
Life in Estonia simply matters a great deal to me. My motivation is wanting a beautiful, free and open Estonia for my children and grandchildren. These seem like so many grand words, but that is just what I think. I believe in Estonia as a small but strong country. And if there is anything I can do to help Estonia while working in Ukraine – that is where I got the idea.
Why not go to Estonia 200? They have double Isamaa's rating in the polls.
I decided to become a supporting member of Parempoolsed after I read their manifesto this summer. It spoke to me as it details values that should return to the spotlight in Estonia. That is why I chose to support the group.
And to make it very clear what this support means – I can only voice my opinion and am not a voting member of Parempoolsed.
It's like visiting the ballot box in between elections.
Please give an example of the values that spoke to you.
Freedom. It was the number one thing.
But I also like where they stand on the rule of law – that there are no untouchables. That there are no untouchable areas and that laws are still in effect when people go home. That no one must be allowed to get hurt at home.
You do know that Parempoolsed constitutes liberal opposition to the current Isamaa leadership?
(Pauses) If you say so… I'm not sure I would have phrased it quite like that… Yes, of course, I saw what Parempoolsed grew out of, a certain opposition or confrontation inside Isamaa.
But I'll be honest when I say that I don't really care. I like to make value-based choices. And the group's manifesto left me feeling it could have people I could discuss my thoughts on the future development of Estonia with. That is all.
I was not driven by ambition or high office. One problem in Estonia is that we tend to talk about position first. I would rather start with substance and values.
What you said when talking about moving closer to politics, that "Isamaa has become a teddy bear under the populists' arm" could be compared to sticking one's hand in a wasp nest. You hurt a lot of people in Isamaa and Seeder did not hold back in his reply.
On the contrary. I was pleasantly surprised to be contacted by a lot of Isamaa members who voiced support. I'm not talking about Parempoolsed members, but people in Isamaa. They said that I voiced what is also on their minds.
And taking offense when compared to a teddy bear on the backdrop of recent political rhetoric in this country is… shall we say, interesting.
Perhaps cozying up with the Parempoolsed is an elegant way to get even with the current government for what happened to you?
It is not. Why should I seek revenge? As I've said in the past, constructive criticism is a driving force and the new paths that were laid at my feet have been rather interesting and exciting.
Of course, saying I am glad to be rid of the prosecution would not be strictly true either. Some things were left unfinished. But everyone who knows me realizes there is no measure of payback involved.
You said it yourself that a supporting member is a rather empty positions, that one has a voice but lacks a vote. Why not join Isamaa outright?
A prosecutor is not allowed to be a member of a political party. My idea was to first have a say in terms of contents, gradually exchange ideas on what the manifesto outlines.
What can a supporting member do?
Not much in terms of policy. They can voice their opinion. It is like belonging to a civil society organization that the prosecutors' ethics code allows or standing close to the ballot box in between elections as every prosecutor is allowed to vote in favor of a political force.
Prosecutors usually do not voice their political preferences.
I also emphasize the group's manifesto, their ideology and ideas. But the latter are not the property of a single political party.
You are right in that the ideology of the Parempoolsed isn't any party's ideology today.
I believe it is the ideology of open conservatives.
Could it become the ideology of Isamaa?
(Pauses) I wonder whether this will be followed by [accusations of] me meddling in politics, even though I am expressing my opinion as a citizen.
But yes, I believe that a better Isamaa or a right-wing Isamaa could be what Estonia needs.
You were serving as prosecutor general a year ago, while now, the ethics committee of the Prosecutor's Office met to discuss your personal question [on Monday]. How does it feel?
(Pauses) I would leave feelings out of this. Because one thing I feel is that I respect the Prosecutor's Office and prosecutors who have this difficult job.
Perhaps this process made me think. Because just as I learned that the committee would be meeting from a Delfi journalist on Friday evening, I learned they had made a decision from an Äripäev reporter on Monday.
I do not hold that to be in keeping with good administrative practice. I would have wished to share my position, voice my opinion, how I understand ethics. It is sad I was not given the opportunity. I have read about [the prosecution's] positions from the paper, while I did not manage to voice mine.
You were not given the chance to explain why you decided to appear on the fringes of politics?
I have not received an invitation to express my thoughts in writing, not to mention being invited for sessions where I could say what I have to say.
The ethics committee found that you voicing support for the Parempoolsed group might jeopardize the independence of the prosecution. The prosecution must both be and appear independent. Is that no longer true?
That question should be put to the ethics committee. It is difficult for me to answer.
I am all but gone from the prosecution. I cannot affect a single process. Comparing the situation to being on parental leave is not accurate as the person has the opportunity to return in that case. Those risks have been managed in my case as my letter of resignation has already been signed by the minister.
You do understand your former colleagues' fear of being labeled political. It is a sensitive issue.
Absolutely. These principles, that the prosecution needs to be and appear independent are correct. However, I cannot see any way in which I have tarnished the prosecution's reputation.
This made me wonder which is worse, having COVID-19 or getting burned going too near politics. You have both experiences. Which is harder?
(Pauses) It was a serious disease. Serious enough to sort out one's priorities.
The virus is definitely worse because it makes you realize just how much your health matters, how much next of kin and family matter. It leaves you hoping you might get it instead of loved ones.
You start seeing life in a new light?
I would not go that far. I was filed under mild cases in terms of statistics and needed neither hospitalization nor respiratory support. But it was the most serious disease I've ever had and made me think about a lot of things I had perhaps forgotten to think about.
Do you think that your case could spark a broader discussion on whether Estonia is willing to allow busier traffic between the public sector and political parties? That prosecutors, judges, police officers could suspend their service relationship to go to the parliament before returning to their old job?
It seems unthinkable, inappropriate and even dangerous in our tiny society…
However, we could discuss as to why that is. Europe has several countries where such traffic is much less restrained. When a judge or a prosecutor in Germany decides they want to contribute to society also on the political level, their term will be suspended for the duration of their parliamentary stay after which they can return to their previous profession.
Perhaps Estonia is too small and too intertwined to allow such a system. However, on the other hand, we number too few and every person who wants to contribute to life in the country should be welcomed and valued.
But so that this back and forth would not damage the credibility and independence of the prosecution, courts or the police?
Not just there; Estonia has a valuable opportunity in general – our small size allows us to analyze every individual case, keeping in mind this particular one.
Of course, I do not mean to say that an active politician, a minister for instance, would be in charge of high corruption and taking such trials to court upon returning to the prosecution. That needs to be avoided. Actual and seeming independence, integrity of criminal proceedings needs to be retained always. However, whether a person could be allowed to use their know-how for the benefit of the prosecution or the entire justice system – I would not rule that out.
Parempoolsed took quite an aggressive stance toward the prosecution after the ethics committee. "Whether Parmas sought to please EKRE or simply acted rashly, as prosecutor general, it is he who has crossed the imaginary line between the prosecution and politics," the group said in a statement. Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg (Isamaa) has said an apology is in order. Care to smooth things over?
I hope this matter will quiet down and the sides will get the opportunity to discuss matters in a reasoned and calm fashion as opposed to doing it emotionally and via the media.
Let us hope so. There are certain rumors involving you that I simply need to ask about. First of all, is it true that you were offered the position of Center Party secretary general?
It is not. A simple answer and a short one here.
Secondly, is it true that people from Isamaa asked you whether you would be willing to become justice minister after the 2019 parliamentary elections?
That is… a somewhat unexpected question. I generally do not make it a habit of commenting on private conversations.
But as rumors go, I would say that my values would obviously not have allowed me to join a government with EKRE in it. Just as they would not have allowed the prosecutor general to dive into party politics straight away.
It would have been out of the question in any case.
But were waters tested?
Let us leave those rumors were they are.
It is unfortunate as you would have gotten the chance to pick the next prosecutor general.
Estonia has a prosecutor general.
I wonder who you would have picked?
The Prosecutor's Office has a number of strong candidates, professionals who would have made excellent leaders, would have known the intricacies of the prosecutor's profession and given their all to ensure the prosecution continues to protect the rule of law and use best practices.
You would have found someone from the depths of the deep state?
What is the deep state? If the deep state means people who contribute to Estonia and life in Estonia more than their salary or working from nine to five require, I have always said that I too have the honor of belonging to the deep state.
There is a third rumor. Is it true that you might be one of the candidates for mayor of Tallinn in the run up to local elections next fall?
We have gotten lost on the path of speculation now. I will take things one step at a time.
Lavly Perling, I did not receive an answer to a rather modest question?
One cannot answer speculations. (Smiles)
Might you be candidate for mayor or not?
I image there are hundreds if not thousands of potential candidates who meet formal criteria.
Once you have left the prosecution behind once and for all, will you join Isamaa?
I must once again tell you that I will take things one step at a time. Considering everything that is going on today, I will put one foot in front of the other.
Are you prepared to support Isamaa alongside Parempoolsed at local elections in Tallinn?
Let us see what life will bring. These aren't even beginnings of ideas today.
You gave ERR a going away interview in October last year that ended with the question of whether you were planning on going into politics. "I see no such possibility today," was the first half of your reply that continued somewhat more carefully: "No sector, office or field should be ruled out." You are just as vague today, not ruling anything out?
Of course. Things need to be clear in one's mind first and discussed with important people second. Only then can they be shared with the public. The most important thing is not to lie and I intend to stick to that rule.
Will we see Lavly Perling in politics after September 21, 2021?
I am not tying myself to a specific date. That is my answer.
Neither did I. I simply said after September 21, which is when your final link to the prosecution will be severed.
I've said that I'm on my way into politics. But being on the way means you never know what could happen.
I'm sure you're not trying to make it look like you only have a faint idea at this point?
/.../ (Pauses) The idea is to find where I can put my know-how and experience to use in the service of Estonia.
You believe politics to be that place?
Democratic countries are run through politics.
A lot of people do not like politics, it seems dirty and messy. This can be changed by people who are perhaps a little naive and idealistic getting involved but doing so with the desire to give instead of desperately getting something out of it.
Are you naive? I find that hard to believe?
Perhaps not naive, but definitely idealistic in a way.
Comparing a safe consulting job in Ukraine to Estonian domestic politics, which is far more harmful for those in it…
If you say so…
You have not felt it yet?
If you say so… My days are spent supporting the prosecution in Ukraine, helping design criminal policy etc.
While superficial attempts at tying these things together have been somewhat unexpected, as many good people have told me, that is just reality.
Did you imagine publicly voicing support for Parempoolsed to be a peaceful walk on a rainbow filled with positive emotions?
Definitely not. I knew what I was doing and had a good idea as to the reactions. I admit that involving the prosecution in my affairs has been somewhat surprising, but I was ready to be attacked.
You will be hurt often should you decide to stay in politics. Are you ready?
If it will help improve life in Estonia – yes. I will do my best.
Editor: Marcus Turovski