Katri Raik: EU eastern border cannot be allowed to run out of people

Toomas Sildam's interview with Katri Raik.
Toomas Sildam's interview with Katri Raik. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

She had it all – a job in the Riigikogu and a comfortable apartment in the heart of Tallinn. A month ago, she gave it all up and sat on a wobbly three-legged stool in Narva. How does life in Estonia seem from the last homely house on the border? Mayor of Narva Katri Raik (SDE) knows and tells.

Have you regretted leaving the Riigikogu over the last two weeks days?

Not once.

Perhaps Center would have tried to recruit you for the new government?

I have served as minister once, and there are just two beautiful days in the life of a minister – the roses you get on the first day and those on the last. What happens in between makes you feel like you are plugged into the power grid at 7 a.m. and unplugged at 11 p.m. every day.

I wish the best of luck to all ministers in the new government, especially those who have not been in that role before. It will not be easy, while it will surely be interesting.

You chaired the Riigikogu Anti-Corruption Committee. How surprised were you to learn of suspicions of corruption hanging over the Center Party and its Secretary General Mihhail Korb on January 12?

That Porto Franco was problematic and transparency not the strong suit of KredEx crisis measures was clear from a National Audit Office report and as pointed out by the chancellor of justice. Center's muddy financing had been discussed in the committee before…

What did you expect from then PM Jüri Ratas – would he just apologize or resign?

Because he had already apologized, I was not expecting him to resign and was therefore pleasantly surprised when he did.

I worked in Jüri Ratas' first government [2018-2019] where I served as minister of the interior. He is good to work with, a team player and very balanced, capable of making everyone feel dignified. Jüri Ratas was a great help to a novice minister that I was. I will never forget how he all but held my hand so I would muster up the courage to answer the questions of Mart and Martin Helme during my first Riigikogu Question Time. A heartfelt moment.

That is why I was actually saddened when he resigned.

What kind of a coalition did you think was incoming?

I hoped the door would be opened for the Social Democrats. Because no matter what anyone says, everyone wants to be a part of the government and in power. I was rooting for a coalition of Center, SDE and Isamaa, while I understand perfectly that looking at Isamaa's Riigikogu faction – that has two camps, that of Siim Kiisler and that of Helir-Valdor Seeder – it would have been a difficult government to manage.

What about Kaja Kallas' government?

(Pauses) I think it's sensible.

I was glued to the television every night [during coalition talks], watching the evening news as if it was my favorite soap opera. Knowing the people who are negotiating, it is especially interesting to keep an eye on how far they got that night, how things are phrased and what will happen in the end. I was not the only one checking whether the names of ministers were in every 10 minutes on Sunday [January 24].

I was surprised by the relative importance of women and people of whom the public had no prior knowledge. The most unexpected move was bringing police prefect Kristian Jaani in as interior minister.

Does Toompea now have a "lipstick government" as put by your opponents in Narva?

There is a meme going around in Narva of Kersti, Kaja and Katri – women in power… The men in Narva say it is no bad thing. And as we discussed with President Kersti Kaljulaid who has also managed a Russian-speaking staff: "Baba – eto sila" – "Woman – that is strength." (Smiles)

"Lipstick government" or not, women are expected to do more in politics than men. I haven't heard people discussing the color of someone's tie or whether their pants have been pressed or their jacket wrinkly. While I have heard remarks on women's dresses, how long they are or how a woman looks in general.

That is to say the term "lipstick government" does not cause you to take offense?

No, absolutely not. As long as the lipstick is red. (Smiles)

It seems to me that some men have a hard time accepting women at the wheel.

Well, women have been putting up with middle-aged men steering the ship for long enough. We're square now.

Is Narva a city of women?

That is a slippery slope and one I can linger on for the next hour.

Please don't.

Historians have always written about the women of Narva, since the Middle Ages. Narva has always lied on the border – the border between Germany and Russia, faith and mentality. The way women in Narva looked and dressed has always attracted attention, whether one was coming from Russia or Europe.

Every other woman in Narva worked in the Kreenholm Manufactory in Soviet Times. The company set the tone in the city with its size and level of salaries back in the 19th century. People still remember payday queues in the local "Siluett" shoe and clothing store that now sells old furniture.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Katri Raik. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Did it really not occur to you that it would be exciting to be a part of the government when you were watching Reform and Center coalition talks?

I tend to play mind games of what if in terms of various positions in life… I pondered these questions, lately in terms of what Minister of Education and Research Liina Kersna will say.

Our education has been concentrating on Russian schools in Estonia so far. If until recently we have been talking about learning Estonian, we are now talking about learning in Estonian, while I was shocked to learn we are still only discussing having a plan, developing a methodology, finding study aids. We have both the methodology and the aids – how about getting to work.

Changes in education need to begin in kindergarten, while it won't take kids long to go to school. This means we cannot limit our efforts to preschool institutions. It would be especially harebrained to have children study in Estonian in kindergarten before sending them to a Russian school.

Estonia starts in Narva?

Europe starts in Narva. Estonia starts in Narva.

A decade ago, Narva was eight hours away when seen from Tallinn, while it seems like four now. (Smiles) Looking from Narva toward Tallinn, it still takes two hours and 36 minutes by train or two hours and 15 minutes twice a day.

Therefore, while Tallinn and Narva have moved closer, I still hear people say, "They in Estonia…" or "Them in Tallinn" almost every day.

Estonia seems far removed from Narva?

Unfortunately, that is the feeling one gets.

I said when running for mayor that Narva needs to turn its countenance more toward Tallinn and the latter toward Ida-Viru County. It comes off as so many empty words but is crucial.

Narva is like a small homeland for its citizens – your words. Is it also a little closed and tends to keep to itself?

It is a question of the historical roots of [modern] Narva. The city of Narva began again in 1944. Former residents of whom there were roughly 15,000 left the city in late January and early February. The city was all but destroyed [in the war].

The first people to come to Narva came from virtual famine areas in Pskov and Leningrad oblasts. Next came Ingrian Finns who were in turn followed by ex-convicts who were not allowed to live in major cities and finally people who showed up for construction drives. Narva was reborn. Only half of the citizens of Narva have been born in Estonia.

Half of Narva residents have been born in free Estonia and Narva is their only home – a peculiar Russian-speaking Estonia to use your words. Speaking Russian, yes, but what about the mentality?

Definitely Russian-speaking… As concerns mentality, I dare not provide an assessment, while I can give you an example. When Narva had a power vacuum [late last year] where a no-confidence motion against the incumbent government had passed but the new one had not been formed yet, signatures were collected in support of the recent mayor. These people also reached an acquaintance's parents who were told that if the Estonian Katri Raik becomes mayor, they will be deported to Ivangorod.

A Russian trying to intimidate another Russian by telling them they will be sent to Russia suggests that… the mentality is changing. While the fact they are threatened with an Estonian is cause for concern.

Is that what your experience tells you – that living in Narva is like living on the edge of a knife where the Estonians do not like you for being overly Russia-friendly and the Russians dislike you for being pro-Estonia?

Yes, I made the mistake of trying to explain on the pages of Maaleht the phenomenon of May 9 in Narva. I failed completely. I wrote what I felt was an honest article on how May 9 comes across in Narva and I got told off by everyone. For me, May 8 could be followed by May 10 from here on out. (Smiles)

Why were you attacked?

On the one hand, Estonians found that May 9 should be all but banned and that no understanding for people's sense of history is needed.

But the people of Narva also do not like someone rummaging around in their soul. They held it against me that I said it was a day of remembering grandparents, grandfathers and fathers for some, while it was a day of demonstrating mentality for others – who are not on the side of the Estonian state.

Anyway, there is great confusion surrounding May 9.

However, May 9 celebrations are not the number one problem in Narva nor is it the 101st. Let us allow people to celebrate the day however they wish in what is a free country. Let us not get involved. It is clear that May 9 celebrations do not have to be organized by the city government or council. The city can support it through some NGOs.

But I will also not plan a business trip on the day or hide behind the blinds in my office. I will attend the event. I will not speak, but I will be there because they are my people and I need to understand them. I want them to show up for the February 24 flag ceremony [at daybreak] 13 minutes earlier than in Tallinn after all.

Why should the people of Narva speak Estonian in the first place? They hardly have any chance to practice with just 5 percent of the population being Estonian.

Look, Narva residents shouldn't have to limit themselves to the city. One of the most serious problems in education is that only teaching IT or customer service in Russian at our vocational training center, we are confining these young people to life in Narva, Sillamäe or one part of Tallinn.

Speaking Estonian gives one freedom, confidence and most importantly the chance to continue studies somewhere else. Only half of young people who go to a Russian basic school obtain higher education compared to those who have attended language immersion or Estonian schools. And only half again of those reach the master's level.

We should move toward a more universal education system from here and promote Estonian education in every possible way.

Do you remember Eesti 200 election posters from the 2019 parliamentary elections that said, "Estonians only here" and "Russians only here"?

Of course I do. It was unfortunate that Eesti 200 failed to say what they meant by them the next day.

But were they right in pointing out that Estonia has two parallel societies?

Yes and no. There are two parallel societies and there are those who cross over between them through that thick glass wall. We have a lot of Russians who feel at home in Estonia in every sense of the word and Estonians like me who have gone to the Russian-speaking part of Estonia and have integrated quite nicely.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Katri Raik. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

You have said that the nonexistent or very poor Estonian proficiency of young people in Narva is the cheese in the mousetrap of their possible poverty. This cheese and mousetrap only work to deepen the "Estonians here" and "Russians here" situation.

Yes, people need to learn the language because it is useful.

How to do that is a good question. We need to start on the kindergarten level. Make sure Estonia only has fully Estonian, complete or partial language immersion kindergartens. We can manage that.

However, we should not fool ourselves into believing that it will not have an effect on the basic school level. It will inevitably create the need to use language immersion methodology in primary school. Otherwise, children will both obtain but also forget the language quickly.

Do you remember that all parties with the exception of Center admitted the need for a universal Estonian school before Riigikogu elections in 2019?

It was a beautiful sentence that is often forgotten in real life. We know that our good colleagues in the Center Party have been, and with no small measure of success I might add, trying to keep the status quo for the past 14 years. The last time a decision was made regarding Russian schools in Estonia was in 2007 when high school classes started learning certain subjects in Estonian. No further decisions have been made, while 14 years is a rather long time.

And yet, the topic did not make the coalition agreement this time either. Why is that?

I was also shocked to hear politicians say during coalition talks that they are looking for the suitable phrasing. Not a suitable solution.

While the coalition agreement includes all the necessary words – school, kindergarten, Estonian, Estonian classes, the relevant sentence starts with a promise for a plan. (The coalition agreement of the Reform Party and Center Party reads: "We will launch an Estonian education activity plan to give everyone an equal opportunity to participate in social and professional life and continue studies on the next level of education." – ed.) There are entire desks with drawers full of such plans. How about we graduate to action.

In your opinion, would Center have even agreed to negotiate had Reform not thrown out its election promise of "introducing [fully] Estonian preschool and basic education in the name of social cohesion and equal opportunities"?

(Pauses and sighs) I believe they would have kept working on that sentence until it was just as vague as it is now.

What can the Narva city government do in this situation? Can you have all Narva kindergartens teach in Estonian?

It can be done if the council greenlights it. However, we will certainly have a discussion on what we can do in the fall of 2021 and 2022 and 2023 to promote high-quality Estonian-language education.

Half of Narva kindergarten classes are officially language immersion classes, but if we look at teachers, only half of them have an Estonian proficiency of B2 or C1. Therefore, we do not quite know how well language immersion is working. We need to listen to kindergarten and school principals, education officials before drawing up a concrete plan. In a situation where the central government is unable to decide, it falls to local governments.

We also have a mandate from the people. Looking at the fancy cars is front of Narva's only full language immersion kindergarten, there can be no doubt as to which methodology matches the expectations of parents. Period. Also, looking at how many people want to get into the Old Town State School that also has language immersion, we could open three first grades instead of the current two. It is clear that parents expect their children to speak Estonian.

Mayor Katri Raik, excuse me, but I did not get an answer in terms of your plan.

The plan is to move forward with high-quality language immersion in kindergartens and elementary schools. I want to talk to the head of the [Narva] vocational education center in the near future and ask how the city could motivate them to use more Estonian. Over 40 percent of basic school graduates go on to vocational education institutions in Narva. The Estonian average is around 30 percent. Narva is an industrial city and developing Estonian vocational education is very important.

President Kaljulaid suggested that the problem of Narva is that the way the city government does thing has not been transparent for a long time. Do you know how things are done?

I know how I will try to do them. The first steps for rendering the city authorities more transparent include electing new city council committee chairs and deputy chairs on Friday [January 29]. Such things are expected when rulers change. However, all deputy chairman posts will go to members of the opposition who will also be represented in the revision committee. While I've been told they are not keen, that is another matter.

It is very sad if they are not willing.

Yes, but that is their choice to make.

It is important to pick heads of municipal companies or those where the city has a stake through an open competition and with help from HR firms. The city's educational institutions also need to be run by elected executives and not deputies. We will also dig deep and look at how work has been organized in municipal departments. The problem in Narva is that people have found cushy jobs for their close relatives… here and there.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Katri Raik. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Looking at Narva, Jõhvi and Kohtla-Järve local governments, there is a clear shortage of transparency and legibility. Why is that? Has the Center Party considered Ida-Viru County its domain and have the others kept clear?

Center has taken advantage of the situation. They haven't even bothered to look who is doing what under their banner in the region. I have seen real interest from Center lately – at least as concerns Narva.

You have read the coalition agreement of Kaja Kallas' government. It says, among other things: "We will stop generating electricity from oil shale by 2035 at the latest and using oil shale for energy completely by 2040 at the latest." What does that spell for Ida-Viru County?

The first question people in Ida-Viru County will ask is what will happen in 2021. Will there be a new oil plant or not? It would create jobs in construction and for the service industry.

The oil shale sector employs some 5,800 people who make €1,700 a month on average. People are afraid for the future. The question people ask in Narva is whether just transition will also be just to them.

What is the answer?

I hope it will be. The question is whether Ida-Viru County will see new jobs and what they will be. Whether local entrepreneurs will qualify for Just Transition support. It is not just aid but also major loan packages. Alternatively, which Estonian and European companies are willing to move to Narva?

The number one problem in Narva is paid poverty as people often work for minimum wage or only a little more, doing unskilled labor – assembling cables or metal products. We will be meeting with major local entrepreneurs next week to offer them help applying for Just Transition sums should they need it.

Therefore, better-paying jobs… Without solving this problem, Narva will continue to run out of people. Thirty-two percent of Narva residents are over 60. Narva is the capital of pensioners.

Many foolish steps have been taken… Everyone remembers when Kreenholm was shut down for good in 2010 and weavers were offered retraining mainly as florists. Well…

The question today is what type of retraining to offer people coming from the energy sector. I only believe in retraining if the person already knows what they will be doing. Telling people to retrain before having a plan for them doesn't work.

Perhaps chairman of the supervisory board of VKG Ahti Asmann is right when he says the new government is making a mistake looking to abandon oil shale so quickly?

I am not an oil shale expert and dare not make rigid statements. However, I definitely agree with people in Ida-Viru County who say that the old plan cannot be abandoned before there is a new one.

That is why we need to say tomorrow – and I do mean tomorrow and not three years from now – what it is we will be doing. Steps one, two and three. Who will we invite to invest in Ida-Viru County? Nothing will change where Narva is located – we will still be where Europe starts, opposite Russia and I can already imagine potential investors getting the shivers looking at the map. However, what Narva has going for it despite its relatively modest level of salaries is that entrepreneurs who open small businesses, such as a sowing workshop, in the city will have between five and ten people running for every job. Narva has good workforce, people used to working from morning until evening.

I am trying to understand who is willing to invest in Narva and what are their expectations for the city. Straightforward bureaucracy so it would be clear which documents need to be presented where and for no one to say that things will not move forward until you kick 10 percent over to one or several gray eminences.

It is one fear associated with investing in Narva as a major Estonian entrepreneur recently told me in terms of why they haven't moved here. It was common knowledge that an unofficial tax of 10 percent was to be paid to various people.

Will they bring their investments to Narva now?

I hope so. I gave it my best shot during our conversation.

I am forced to quote President Kaljulaid again from an interview she gave to [local paper] Põhjarannik and in which she refers to Narva and Ida-Viru County as the only region in Estonia "where one can open a factory – you cannot even start a henhouse anywhere else." Estonian industrialists know this, and people freed up from the oil shale sector are looking at some good alternatives, the president found. What are they?

What we just talked about – that solution today tends to be a low-paying job. If you are offered €900 a month instead of €1,700, it will change your life. We have to talk about high-paying jobs. We need to find investors capable of creating such jobs.

I am set to meet with CEO of Eesti Energia Hando Sutter and supervisory board chairman Väino Kaldoja and I am looking forward to hearing about Eesti Energia's plans in terms of jobs in new green energy solutions. We do not often inquire about that. What interests me is making sure people get to maintain their level of income and for the region to have dignified jobs.

The new coalition has promised Ida-Viru County funds for job creation on top of EU Just Transition Fund instruments. To be honest, I cannot understand where this additional money will be spent?

Neither can I. Things tend to sound beautiful on the level of coalition agreements.

Additional funds… The people of Ida-Viru County are right to be skeptical here. One could of course say that Narva has not seen additional funds as the local authorities have been suspected of corruption for a long time. Still, Narva has received money for roadworks it applied for a while back, we also have major construction projects – Town Hall Square, state high schools, the new [study] building of the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences…

That said, major investments are needed at the Narva Hospital as poor quality of healthcare is a big problem for the city. The last Estonian-trained doctor to come to Narva from the University of Tartu did so in 1988. Let that sink in… We need change quickly and not just in terms of infrastructure.

What else? Narva needs sports facilities. Unfortunately, Narva also needs a new nursing home as 130 people are currently queuing for a place.

Katri Raik, you are talking about concrete, while I'm talking about how additional funds from the government and Just Transition funds can help people who will lose their jobs after the green turn.

I was talking about investments the city needs. Entrepreneurs are the first to tell you that a good environment, good education and healthcare are needed and that they can handle the business side of things once all of that exists.

Just Transition funds should go toward job creation. Let us be honest, jobs in Narva and Ida-Viru County are created by major companies that also operate elsewhere. I am counting on Eesti Energia and major newcomers from Tallinn or thereabout.

Perhaps we should be discussing tangible tax breaks for companies willing to create new jobs in Ida-Viru County?

Recent studies on this topic, such as the Praxis study on Just Transition, conclude that a special economic zone in Ida-Viru County should be considered. That mainly means tax breaks.

It is one possibility that has been discussed in the past. Ida-Viru local governments must come together and say it is our only chance.

A lot of people in Tallinn are afraid of an "Ida-Viru special economic zone."

We can give it a… softer name. (Smiles) However, it is clear we would also be solving a security problem. The European Union's eastern border cannot be allowed to run out of people, and we want the people who live there to be glad to see the sunrise every morning and see it in Estonia. That is why we need to make sure peripheral areas and the eastern border in particular do better.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Katri Raik. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Do you know what worries Narva residents?

The Social Democratic Party city council faction carried out a survey with help from Norstat before the power changed in Narva that found every other Narva resident to be concerned for their job or paid poverty that makes it difficult for them to feel joy in the mornings.

The other matter was the city lacking a development plan and confusion pertaining to authorities, corruption. People care about the streets and lighting as the city is quite dark in the evenings and it is easy to trip on the sidewalk. I have. (Smiles)

A book you wrote about the history of Narva called "Viimane lahke maja" (Last Homely House) recently landed on the shelves. The title sounds like Narva is on the edge of something and where all good things end.

In that case, we can call it the first homely house… (Laughs) "The Last Homely House" comes from the book "The Hobbit." However, the motif is often used in 18th and 19th century German travelogues in which the German-speaking world ends and the Russian-speaking one begins in Narva. The city was home to the main road between Europe and St. Peterburg until the mid-19th century.

The book itself, if I am allowed a little more advertising, is the best guide to Narva…

The public broadcaster is not open to advertising.

I will not advertise further, while I invite everyone to come to Narva in the summer. We will be opening a light traffic road – this is not advertising but a mayor talking about her city – between Narva and Narva-Jõesuu. We hope it will be possible to rent electric bikes. And if everything goes well, there will also be regular boat trips from Narva to Narva-Jõesuu and back. I dare recommend the latter experience as looking at Narva and Russia from the river is emotional.

That is to say that all Narva and Narva-Jõesuu restaurants, hotels, cafes and bistros from Ro-Ro to Franzia will be open in the summer…

Let us hope so. Even though the COVID-19 situation today is far from good. We have not been able to open schools beyond elementary school levels and grades nine and 12. We will continue with just 50 percent attendance from next week.

The problem in Narva is that people refuse to quarantine. They do not want to miss work because it will impact their income. Unfortunately, people also do not understand that they must not visit their grandparents because they will take the coronavirus home to them. Narva residents are skeptical of vaccination…

Some say it is because many Narva residents live in the Russian information space.

I dare not agree completely. There is enough information available in Russian in Estonia. We have Raadio 4, ETV+ and local newspapers. But… everyone lives in apartment buildings, takes the same elevator and works in major collectives. And modest salaries mean people are reluctant to miss work. I am trying to understand my fellow citizens, while I cannot understand those who refuse to isolate.

You told Rein Sikk from Maaleht how the mayor of Narva has to sit on a three-legged stool – that the position is so unstable one never knows whether they will stay for two weeks or twenty years. How long do you think you will get?

After the first month, it seems I will stick around until the fall elections. What happens next will depend on what I get right and what wrong in the meantime. (Smiles)

Did you notice how Kaja Kallas' government got 70 votes in the Riigikogu?

I did. And it makes me glad. It was good to see the [opposition] Social Democrats support the new government.

What would you say were someone from the coalition to say you should run for president and that we have the votes to get you elected in the Riigikogu?

The thought is alien and unexpected. I am not a fan of posts that come with a lot of representative tasks and I do not think I am the best candidate for president.

Narva is my party and my work. That is what I would like to be doing.

And as you have yourself said– Narva needs to be seen with the heart and not the mind.

Precisely. Because using one's mind, things would get complicated and there would be too many questions.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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