President Kersti Kaljulaid said that Estonians' will to cooperate has shined through during the outgoing COVID-19 year. The president told Priit Kuusk in an end of the year interview on ETV about overcoming the economic crisis, plans regarding her OECD candidacy, next year's presidential elections and Christmas that will come differently this year.
The year 2020. Could you sum it up in a single word?
I believe the year has held a lot that is beautiful, mainly the Estonian people's will to work together and help out.
It is beyond question that the year has been defined mostly by COVID-19. We have had no choice but to get used to it. We are sitting in an empty conference hall that in some ways works to symbolize the year: empty hotels and dark restaurants. That is the reality we are living today.
Yes, but there is a ray of hope. Let us not forget vaccines are just around the corner now. Immunization is about to begin, while it will take time and we will probably not be able to say that a considerable part of the population has been vaccinated before summer. But in the words of virologist Andres Merits, we should not be troubled by the virus for a second winter. That is hopeful and I believe gives people strength to know the situation isn't perpetual.
Did it shock or scare you just how vulnerable we are, how quickly strong societies were brought to their knees?
Not really. I have given it some thought what our children and grandchildren will witness, considering global warming, changes in nature, extinction, impoverishment of ecosystems. The ice caps are melting, but we do not live close enough to the sea to feel it. However, we are beginning to see that it is real – it will not be an apocalyptic flood that will hit us but small events that will balloon and start to affect our lives to a great degree. In that sense it is not a ray of hope – it will solve the virus crisis – but at the end of the day, we have no reason to be satisfied with how we have treated the planet.
You attended a conference on how to wisely adjust to the coronavirus in Tartu a month ago. It seems peculiar to ask how to celebrate Christmas wisely?
I have believed since spring that the best solution is when people continuously create risk matrixes in their heads. Which risks to avoid, what to give up in order to be able to do something else. These risk matrixes differ, but everyone being well informed will add up to a safe Christmas.
Kids are glad as they can look forward to presents and do not have to attend school. However, their parents are sad or rather worried. Are you worried about school closures and the fact there will be gaps in our children's education as a parent?
I have a couple of kids at home who would have liked to go to school. It is not just parents. Our children need social contacts and perhaps one of the lessons to take away from this is that we should pay less attention to teaching our children how to live in the technological world – we don't know ourselves and technology will have changed by the time they go to work – and concentrate more on teaching them how to be human, function as a society, how to get what you need without insulting or hurting others. It seems to me that we need to place learning how to be a human being above all else in the education system starting in kindergarten. That could be one of the lessons we take with us, in addition to the digital craze.
Are you not afraid our children's competitiveness will be negatively impacted because of gaps in education? Or are such fears blown out of proportion?
Every adjustment and competitive ability in general depends on conditions in the future. We do not know the conditions they will have. Pieces in the kaleidoscope could fall in a way that this year's experiences will benefit them in the future. One such benefit could be the realization that we want to be human to each other, to really be there and be close.
Where should we lean in the conditions of the virus, toward order or freedom? How to decide which is more important?
In freedom lies responsibility, and the extent to which we need tough restrictions largely depends on what every individual person does. Restaurants and diners being open until 10 p.m. does not mean we need to go in if we see they are crowded. We can pick a time when they're empty. Perhaps we can avoid tougher measures if we take responsibility in freedom. We cannot really say we have seen the worst of the second wave. No virologist dares suggest something like that today. I urge people to find ways of being happy in smaller circles.
How to realize in public, in the press and society that losing a single freedom is not perpetual?
There were more such fears in spring. But we exited the spring situation and the press paying a lot of attention to freedoms being limited and their eventual return helped a great deal. It matters a great deal and is the role of journalism. What bothered me the most in spring were nursing home visitation bans in a situation where we know that staff commute to and from home and that keeping touch with loved ones matters to elderly people. I was hoping we would not have to go down that path again in fall. It has led us to discuss the rights of the elderly in our society that has been another value.
When I was walking to work this morning, it occurred to me that this might be your last end of the year interview as president. You have been in office for four years and have one left. One aspect to define your first term is discovering Estonia. I could not stay on top of all of your visits and events you have attended. I presume you have been to every county, every place in Estonia. What did the country look like over these past four years?
I have seen a beautiful country. I saw the Estonia that was afraid of the administrative reform before adjusting to it. I see an Estonia where the idea of a seamless society has manifested in reality and while it is clear that fewer local government councils will not fit all the active people in society, I'm sure they will find their place and role in village associations and other organizations. I see that local government heads have been wise enough to include the nonprofit sector. It holds value.
We can be sure that the president will be showed that which is well and beautiful when she visits a small place. But did you also encounter people social anthropologist Aet Annist has defined as the deprived?
Yes, definitely. We have not just toured places where everything is bright and fair. On the contrary. While there will always be cheerful voices, every social worker, every child protection officer I have spoken to, people who work in children's homes and are behind their creation, those who work with children with special needs – they have all meant a great deal to me. I can see the heart it takes to do what they do and I also understand that we cannot hope our social system will be able to hold on to these greathearted people at the current level of salaries forever. It is also not fair. We talk a lot about people who are struggling needing access to a dignified life, while those who take care of them are no less deserving.
I believe that we need care insurance, for people to save up for old age, while on the other hand, it is very difficult to make a long-term promise on the state level today, considering that one such promise was recently recanted. The social sphere still needs more attention.
One of your recent initiatives was urging young people to write and send in speeches on the topic of "Everything depends on me." Young writers were asked to end their piece with an exclamation point if they believed in it or a question mark if they had doubts. Which would you use to finish such as speech today?
Were I young, I would definitely use an exclamation point because young people must feel the urge to make the world a better place. Thinking back to this year and the last and also my first two years in office, when my presidency began, we decided with the government that Estonia must leave the Russian power grid and join its Central European alternative. I helped make sure the project fit into the previous EU funding period. We also made e-residency 2.0 happen together, put together a cyberattacks response plan, pursued the UN Security Council campaign. This was made possible by the fact we had very good cooperation with the government.
It has occurred to me that such efforts have not been easy in the past few years. And this definitely impacts my ability to contribute to life in Estonia. From there, you start to think why it has become impossible today and the reason is that I have fulfilled my professional role – defended the Estonian Constitution. And you cannot cooperate beyond those boundaries.
Has it been a difficult year personally and professionally?
Indeed. And I feel that this kind of hands-on approach we used to have has grown much more seldom now, even though it is not really in the president's job description. The reason is that it would only be possible to continue that cooperation today by abandoning value-based policy. And that is not something I am willing to do.
Everything very seldom depends on a single person. As you said, cooperation is key. That is the message we should be sending.
Such cooperation is of course possible for achieving short-term goals in a short-term crisis. However, when it comes to long-term goals that require everyone to play in the same key on the international arena – I'm not sure what I say and feel still matches. If only thinking back to 2016 when the government changed and I was asked in Europe whether Estonia got a pro-Russian cabinet. I could always tell people that they can trust me and that everything is alright. Such words would be empty today, which is why I cannot utter them. This means that moving forward is impossible in some respects.
Is one reason why you cannot say what you would like politics today? The value of a single person's vote is reflected brilliantly in the marriage referendum debate. What is the value of an MP's voice in a situation when a delegate is forced to admit they cannot follow their conscience when voting because their party's faction forbids it? Or worse, when an MP's vote becomes the object of horse trading. What does that tell us?
I can understand to an extent that if something has been agreed on the coalition level and one partner's promises have been fulfilled, you cannot hang the other's out to dry. It is another matter whether the potential consequences of these agreements could not have been foreseen. Because they will lead to the marginalization and disparagement of a part of people in Estonia. That is the real issue and what we have today is one such consequence. I believe it has been very difficult for all of us to learn that a part of top politicians in Estonia feels that some Estonians are not deserving of equality.
Whereas I believe that we were moving closer to agreeing as a society that the implementing provisions of the Registered Partnership Act could be passed, seeing as the law has been in force for some time. Representatives of very different parties dare say that today, including those on different sides of the referendum question. [Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church] Urmas Viilma has also said as much. I see that we have grown and that was the main aspect of that growth. Turning that into a very sharp confrontation today is not something I find to be sensible.
However, we have not been given a choice and are forced to debate whether everyone in Estonia is equal or not. It has become a more principled matter than it was.
We find ourselves in a completely new situation because none of us know how to behave when political debate is suddenly steered using provocation, escalation and improvisation in the service of a single agenda. How should we react? Society, MPs, the press and the president?
Recommendations need to be ignored from time to time. I do not take this view. I believe we need to say out lout that we don't like it. That we don't like it when people who are summoned to appear in front of Riigikogu committees, people who have taken an interest and cared about something on their free time, show up only to be told their positions are not worthy listening to and that they do not have the right to speak their mind. Such a condescending attitude is unjustifiable. You cannot justify bad behavior.
I believe that the more important and visible a person's role in society, the more it matters for them to be not just smart and quick to achieve their goals but also good to other people to avoid anyone being hurt unnecessarily. It is possible to debate in a civilized manner.
Politics affects us all and has reached more and more people. I was caught out when my 16-year-old son asked me why our country is hypocritical. A 14-year-old is considered equal to an adult when it comes to having sex, while talking about seeking psychiatric help, a 16-year-old is still considered a child. I didn't really have an answer for him.
This makes for another topic that has hurt a lot of people this year. Just as I have been thinking in the context of the referendum debate about young people who are discovering their sexuality and perhaps finding that it differs from what their parent have thought, who have to talk about it to older generations. This has never been easy to do for a young person, especially in our rather conservative society.
It is not just a matter of sexuality, there are other problems – domestic violence, bulimia etc.
Yes, I believe that a young person should be able to see a doctor without having to notify their parents. A 16-year-old is even allowed to vote in Estonia (in local elections – ed.). How can we trust them so much on the one hand and so little on the other?
Therefore, I need to own up and tell my son that we are indeed hypocritical?
I believe it is honest to admit mistakes. No country is ideal and there are always legal controversies. It would be nicer to admit and remove them rather than say that is what we wanted.
These are difficult times wrought with problems. And yet, there are also good things. We have never had as much money to distribute. Are we wise enough to do it sensibly?
I'm forced to agree with Ardo Hansson and other economic experts here. We have no certainty that this money will buy us structural economic change we need. The thing we gained from the previous crisis was the euro, even though I admit it came at a social price the people were never compensated for.
Were Estonia not a member of the Eurozone today – and the idea certainly can be entertained as we always had trouble with the inflation criterion as a small economy with much wealthier markers all arounds us, with our prices-wages growing very quickly. Let us imagine for a moment not being a part of the Eurozone. We would not have that kind of money today.
I cannot see the positive we will take away from this crisis. Will we come out the other side having managed the green turn? Will we leave with anything at all in terms of new legislation to help us develop our digital state? For example, giving artificial intelligence a playground to once again be a trailblazer in Europe? I cannot see steps that look 10-20 years into the future that should accompany a crisis. What will we be taking away from this crisis?
Therefore, you are afraid we will come out the crisis not confident but knee-deep in debt and wretched?
Knee-deep in debt is going too far. Estonia still maintains one of the lowest public sector loan burdens in Europe. The question is that if you have over €400 million in annual expenses not covered by tax revenue, when is the time to dial things back to avoid having to borrow the same amount every year. I cannot see the will to assume that responsibility. That the people who have allowed these expenses to be created would take that responsibility. Another question is why we need such a steep fiscal deficit in a situation where solid growth is forecast for next year. It cannot be logically explained in economic terms.
While we're on the subject of the future, there will be presidential elections next fall. Have you any advice for parties, thinking back to four years in office?
I would like to wish them the same kind of atmosphere of agreement I saw in the Riigikogu when I entered that debate. I would like for it to be there from the beginning. Perhaps it would help overcome the problem that we now have a very small Electoral College (following the administrative reform – ed.). We have fewer local governments and even though there seemed to be readiness to change the electoral system after the previous elections, it has not happened.
I hope the Riigikogu will be able to overcome the coalition-opposition boundary as the Constitutional Assembly has wished, for them to be able to agree once in five years.
You are running for OECD president and I wish you goof luck, but I'm sure you have counted on the possibility of things turning out differently. There is fierce competition. Would you be ready to run for a second term as president of Estonia should the proposal be put to you?
I would not be running for OECD president if I did not believe the campaign – just like the UN Security Council campaign – benefits Estonia. We need measures and venues for developing the global digital services market. Landing this topic in the OECD is very important. We can see a closed bubble being created on our otherwise free markets for adjusting to climate change, fighting global warming. How to keep markets functional if we need to start taxing CO2 on the border, and not just regarding the energy market? Social justice. The fact many countries are offering social benefits, social housing, even salary benefits. It is a lingering problem that has been around for a very long time and is the reason for generational hopelessness in Western Europe.
I hope that through this campaign I have managed to nudge the OECD agenda closer to these topics. What happens next is in the hands of diplomats. The interviews have been concluded and everyone has tabled what they have to offer. I hope it will be a good program for the OECD.
Win or lose, would you be willing to run for a second term?
I do not think this question should be put to anyone we would like to see or currently see as president. The question needs to be put to the Riigikogu today – who would you like to see? I sincerely hope the Riigikogu will be up to the task.
It is somewhat intimidating to think that you are president for life. Institutional golden handcuffs. Have you thought about what it means?
I have seen neither gold nor handcuffs in the past four years, nor do I believe I will.
I am very grateful to the Estonian people for how they have received me over these four years and I hope this friendship will last forever. I feel privileged.
People change and are changed by their office, not to mention institutions. Do you feel this office has changed you as a person?
In certain respects. I have become more patient and learned to live with the realization that even if you think you know how to do things best, everyone has their limits, even the president of the republic. The best thing is to stick to those institutional limits. One risks losing one's predictability and credibility otherwise. That is why I have tried to remain within the confines of the Constitution in my statements and decisions over those four years. It would be easy to behave in a more political fashion now and then, but it is not something I allow myself.
Based on your experience, should a young person serve as president? There seems to be a kind of ceiling in Estonia. Or is it wrong to think like that and you could become the PM or a founder of a new political party?
I think that seeing the presidency as the terminal station is a problem. First of all, becoming president is not the end of things. You go to work every morning thinking what to do with this office. How can I be of use as president of Estonia? It is not the terminal station and those who fill that office should not be expected to stay away from professional work. I have had ties to the University of Tartu, have served as chairman of the university council, worked on the Estonian genome project. I am trained as a management accountant in addition to my first diploma. Why should I not put these skills to unpretentious use?
Therefore, a state official flirting with the idea of going into politics should be normal in tiny Estonia? Instead of such aspirations being stigmatized.
It is very sad we think along those lines today. I would like for politics to have a good reputation in Estonia.
Unfortunately, it does not.
Yes, and it is a problem for every politician. I hope that the people who today feel like politics has too little vision and selflessness are willing to come and provide it. That would definitely improve the situation.
Let us end on a brighter topic. Christmas is almost here. Do children have to recite verses to redeem presents in your family?
It varies. There are smaller ones who can't wait to, while others are not so keen. Some prefer to be at the source, in other words to play the role of elves. We have all kinds and everyone needs to be found the place where they feel cozy and comfortable. There is a lot of mathematics involved this year, in terms of who has been where, been in touch with whom and whether people dare come together at all. I have a very big family. I have brothers, children and grandchildren and we all worry for our elderly relatives. It really is complicated mathematics. And in the end, granny will make her own decisions.
As we started searching for a word to sum up the year, let us also end that way – what could be the word to define 2021?
Our Estonia, everyone's Estonia. Let us consider what is best for everyone's Estonia and not just in 2021, but also 2041 and 2061. And let us do it together.
Editor: Marcus Turovski