Chairman of the Center Party Jüri Ratas ran two very different governments between November 2016 and January 2021 and admits that coalitions have never been happy marriages in Estonian politics. That said, Ratas claims he has always been on the side of Conservative People's Party (EKRE) voters to support ideas the national conservatives have introduced. Talking about his close ally Mailis Reps, Ratas finds that perhaps Estonia should decide that a minister having someone to help with everyday chores is no bad thing.
Have the last four years and two months as prime minister been like a long day where the sun never sets, where everything happens without pause and the possibility of a breather?
It is a long… day and night where you see both the sun and the moon. Just as it is with seasons – there's rain, snow, sunshine, thunderstorms and rainbows…
I can say it has been a fast and interesting ride.
Which feeling did you get more often, that you can do it or that it is an impossible mission?
The day the latter emotion prevails is the day you are done. As prime minister, you must always find ways and solutions for moving on. To move forward better and with an agreement. You must consider what is best for the coalition, how to keep it working.
The only way to serve as prime minister is to feel that you can do what needs to be done, be able to see a solution.
Did you become a free man when you announced your resignation on January 13?
I told my wife "yes" in the Rannamõisa Church back in 2005. A married man is never a free man. (Smiles)
But, professionally speaking, it marked the end of a period. Did I become a free man or free of responsibility – no…
You seemed visibly liberated.
I have always been one for deciding. The responsibility I took in the first hours of January 13 to resign [as prime minister] marks entirely new political behavior, political culture.
Did you feel liberated or not?
I cannot say that I wanted to be free of the coalition. I did not. I wanted to keep working. But we lacked the support base needed to overcome the obstacle.
Was it a liberation…? We cannot say that. It was clear that Jüri Ratas would continue as Center Party chairman and MP.
You said that you would be opening the door to "shedding light on suspicions of corruption against Center in the conditions of political peace" by resigning. Did you really believe Estonia would see political and social peace?
I have always wanted to change the party, ever since I first ran for chairman in 2011. I [later] believed we would leave behind corruption cases some of which are over a decade old and still in court, as well as those from 2009-2015.
And when this recent suspicion arose, I saw acting not only on my words but also personal conviction as the only possible course of action also for the party. That act was deciding that it is impossible to continue as prime minister.
It was a political whirlwind that hit Estonia – the old coalition fell apart and recent rivals Center and the Reform Party sat down to hammer out a replacement.
Center spent the 10-20 hours following Jüri Ratas' resignation [virtually] in the opposition. The question was whether we would stay there or whether we would find enough political will and build a political bridge to also be a part of the incoming coalition.
I believe that in these four years [in power], Center has achieved a hundred times what it managed when it spent a far longer time in the opposition. That is the political reality – the coalition is the best place to represent one's positions, principles, voters and the country.
Dark shadows in Center's past and the weight of old backpacks mean that an apology is not enough in case of new suspicions of corruption.
An apology is one thing, while we must also demonstrate through our behavior that we want to change this pattern. Talking about corruption and not wishing to wiggle our way out of it, we need to credibly demonstrate the will to make a change.
We held a party meeting on corruption, documented who is in charge of financial affairs. We have created a finance committee headed by [Minister of Health and Labor] Tanel Kiik. [Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab] is also a member and I have also asked [Minister of the Interior] Kristian Jaani. I proposed cutting our budget and laying off a number of people on January 13 to be prepared for the worst outcome.
You do know what the Prosecutor's Office suspects regarding the Center Party and former Secretary General Mihhail Korb?
I know what has been made public. The suspicions are tied to the Porto Franco [real estate development] and whether he (businessman Hillar Teder – ed.) got the easement or access road cheaper. Center will be a perfect partner for the police and the prosecution. We also want clarity as soon as possible.
How serious does it seem?
I trust the Estonian courts and justice system, as I have said both in the opposition and the coalition. It is also where I stand today.
In cases where such suspicions are brought, they cannot be dismissed as untrue or treated as second rate matters. No, these are serious things. The suspicion has changed political life in Estonia to a notable degree.
Some of it points to Tallinn city government that is ruled by the Center Party. It does not make for a comfortable position going into local elections.
Mr. Sildam, neither of us is a police officer or prosecutor. I cannot say more beyond that I believe these instances will perform their duties professionally and justly.
Do you read what people think of you on social media?
Of course. And not just on social media. Jüri Ratas is a frequent traveler in Estonia. And it is true that I rather prefer meeting people face to face.
"We know a traitor's wages in the military, what about civilian life?" a woman asked on your Facebook wall, using three question marks. Do you understand this kind of displeasure?
I want to say that Jüri Ratas has been among the greatest supporters of EKRE voters. We formed a coalition with EKRE and Isamaa in 2019. I still believe it was a good coalition and we cannot strike out those two years in our history. The period also saw quite a few major scandals and problems, also on the international level, that came from some EKRE ministers. But I have never felt that EKRE voters who can be found everywhere in Estonia should be ignored.
I have always been on the side of EKRE voters in terms of supporting the ideas the national conservatives have introduced into Estonian politics. Of course, my values are very different in a lot of places. I have always made known the things that don't sit well with me – whether we're talking about attacks and intimidation of minorities, foreign policy scandals… That is when a politician can say: stop, these are not my values nor will they be the values of my government.
That is to say you understand Center Party politicians who said during the 10-hour meeting on the night of January 13…
It was 16 hours!
… that they are tired of having to smooth over the words of EKRE leaders?
(Sighs) One should never be tired in politics. Those who are should leave. Politics needs freshness, new ideas and vision. (Smiles)
Do you often have regrets, are you someone who thinks that certain things should have been handled differently?
Regrets… I cannot say. If your question is whether I think back to those four years in the government and whether I could have achieved more, tried to solve other problems – of course.
Estonia's [Council] presidency, Republic of Estonia 100, the ID-card crisis, coronavirus – all of it fits inside those four years. Like a single day spent going up and down on a rollercoaster… It has left me with a lot of insight, experience and wisdom for achieving in the future what I couldn't three or four years ago.
If you could turn back the clock by two years, would you still turn down the Reform Party and form a government with EKRE and Isamaa?
Firstly, we cannot go back a single second, not to mention 20 months or two years.
Secondly, Center did not turn anyone down.
The party made its choice?
Yes, Center made a choice in the conditions of political struggle where it was clear that the Reform Party's options were a three-way with Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party or a coalition with Center.
I still believe Center made the right choice when Reform was unable to form a government for various reasons after winning the elections. We managed to make a deal with two partners who are not very similar to us in terms of their worldview – Isamaa and EKRE.
At least you tried to rule with such a coalition.
(Snorts) What do you mean tried? I do not agree with what you are trying to say. The coalition functioned and did so over a long period of time. A try? I would say that it was a rather good try.
You are now the partner of former political adversary – Reform, while you made two new ones – EKRE and Isamaa. You're in the red.
Jüri Ratas does not look for adversaries in politics. Estonian politics needs more unity and common ground…
It is an interesting question and I believe I can give an interesting answer. The Center Party has demonstrated over the last four years that we can protect Estonia's interests and those of our voters in coalitions with the Social Democrats, Isamaa, EKRE and Reform. When the previous coalition with EKRE and Isamaa began, I felt that the Riigikogu should have no pariahs, those constantly pushed aside. That is not the way to go in politics.
My question concerned alienating two allies to gain a single one.
And my answer is that I do not work with adversaries but rather friends, partners and competitors. I do not count Isamaa or EKRE among Center's adversaries. I said several questions ago that Jüri Ratas and the Center Party have been perhaps among the greatest supporters of EKRE voters – they were included in the government and their voice was heard.
Center needs to bring back recent supporters, including Russian-speaking people who are now promising to vote for EKRE. How to do that?
It has been one of Center's strengths to have both Estonian and Russian voters for long years. The Center Party has been strong in Narva and Tallinn, Tartu and Pärnu…
And how should you bring these disappointed voters back to the fold?
Center's rating has remained stable around 21 percent in recent months. I am working toward boosting our election result both at [local government council] elections in October 2021 and [Riigikogu elections] in March 2023 by 15-20 percent and seeking victory. I believe we will.
(The interviewer frowns)
If your question is how, allow me to answer.
One topic we touched on was corruption and party financing. We need a fundamental change here. The Riigikogu could consider putting an end to physical person donations and switching political parties to state budget funding only. Support would also be available for non-parliamentary parties as well as those newly created.
I believe it would render the system of political financing much clearer, more specific and transparent.
Would it mean an end to party donations?
Indeed. It is one possible option if we are talking about how to have a very clear system of funding. Parties would be cut off from private donations. Various parties have had corresponding problems, including Center. I believe it would make our political culture much more transparent, improve it.
True, we would need a debate on the volume of state financing for parties in a situation where they could only rely on membership fees and state budget support. Whereas basing support on how many seats a party has in the Riigikogu would not exactly be fair.
Will Center propose a corresponding bill in the Riigikogu?
It should be a parliamentary debate transcending parties. That would be the sensible way to go about it… It is not a place for scoring political points but rather a question of how to achieve clearer and more transparent party financing. It would also require the involvement of anti-corruption experts and those in charge of monitoring party funding.
Everyone wants Estonian politics to be free of such problems.
You passionately said how Center has represented EKRE voters. And yet, [EKRE chairman] Martin Helme said that Jüri Ratas was always looking for excuses of why it was difficult to rule with EKRE, while [Isamaa leader] Helir-Valdor Seeder added that Reform and Center had been in talks for two months by that time. Are they bluffing and if so, then why?
First of all. I could not stand for value judgments made by certain EKRE ministers. Let us take the defense policy dimension. I could not accept an attack on our national security policy, our NATO membership. And I believe that EKRE voters will agree with me.
Or badmouthing my Finnish colleague – it is not something we can do. Finland has been among Estonia's closest allies over the last 30 years. It is also home to a lot of Estonians who, I believe, include EKRE supporters… I cannot agree with statements [to belittle the Finnish PM] made by certain EKRE ministers.
Now for the other half of your question – Helir-Valdor Seeder and Isamaa and whether Center held talks with Reform two months prior to what exactly? The answer is that we did not.
Jokers say that if the Center-EKRE-Isamaa coalition was a violent symbiosis, the Reform-Center coalition is a marriage of the mind. Is that the case?
I believe that no coalition is a marriage. Especially if you are its head and prime minister and need to answer questions on whether the coalition still stands after what your partners did. No one tears down a coalition over a few episodes or differences.
Estonian politics has never had marriage coalitions. There have always been different ideologies and positions. Center and Reform have considerable differences of opinion when it comes to healthcare, tax policy…
Has Center's mistrust in Reform morphed into confidence now?
It makes no sense to share a coalition with someone you don't trust. It is always right to trust one's partner in a coalition that wants to achieve meaningful things.
"I hope you will fall out with the squirrels (Reform Party mascot – ed.) soon and we will get our good old coalition back!" a friend of yours wrote on Facebook. I'm afraid you won't be able to facilitate their wish?
A good friend of mine on Facebook… Might I inquire as to who do you mean?
Because I have not asked them for permission, I only took down their quote.
Whether people can get back a previous government? Considering the challenges we face today, we cannot say that we are here simply to wait for elections that are in two years' time… There is plenty of ambition and major problems we need to solve.
Estonia usually has two coalitions between parliamentary elections. This is the second one. Elections are two years away and if we subtract the pre-election period that is usually spent campaigning, we can say that the coalition does not have two full years in which to pursue policy.
However, I hope this coalition will last until regular elections, which is when listeners of Vikerraadio will get to decide the makeup of the next Riigikogu and who will be forming the coalition.
To what extent is politics unfair?
A politician is always… naked shall we say. They can be asked about their motivation or principles at any given moment. To claim that it is unfair gets you nowhere. Politics is honest competition where the end of one thing is always the beginning of something else. I believe that politics is not unjust and aim to make sure it is transparent and fair.
The Center Party was helped to gain power by then head of the Social Democrats Jevgeni Ossinovski and former Isamaa chair Margus Tsahkna. Is it not unfair that both have stepped aside and been pushed aside to some extent by today?
I am a member of the [Riigikogu] Environment Committee now and can say after two sittings that Jevgeni is among its more active members. We are together again, fighting for the natural environment, which is something he likes, he has not been pushed aside in any way.
I'm sure you took my meaning.
You mean that he is no longer party chairman and minister? I believe that Jevgeni's political heyday is still ahead of him. I'm sure he will be back.
Margus Tsahkna… It was his choice to leave Isamaa. It is no secret he is currently building up Eesti 200. Let us see how he will do at elections. If current ratings are anything to go by, the party will put in a strong performance.
A Reform-Center government is a poor development for Eesti 200.
(Shrugs, exhales at length)
Mr. Ratas, you do know what I mean?
Because a big part of the reason one had for supporting Eesti 200 is now gone.
Every party needs to work on giving people the chance to make a choice in terms of what the party represents, its programmatic positions.
Including in terms of what they oppose perhaps?
I believe that the majority of people in Estonia see the glass as half-full. We see solutions. When it snows, you grab a shovel to clear it out and knock down icicles – safely, of course – instead of lamenting the fact there's precipitation.
What do I mean? That I understand the protest moods that saw support for Eesti 200 soar. But now they have the momentum they need to say what they represent in social policy, education policy, economic policy and local government policy.
What will become of Mailis Reps whose (mis)use of public resources as education minister is now being investigated in criminal procedure?
I cannot comment on the investigation. As far as I know from her, Mailis has not been called in for questioning. She takes the matter seriously and took political responsibility by resigning (from the previous government – ed.).
What is your take on the matter?
Based on what we all know, my take is that we have not managed to solve the question of how ministers should marry professional and family life. How to stay on top of both and make sure that one's desire to work and pursue a career does not leave one's family out in the cold completely.
Mailis Reps' family is by no means ordinary – six children make for a very big family these days. How to solve this problem? Mailis often attended meetings that did not always end at 5 p.m., with some stretching beyond 11 p.m.
No one else is, which is why the government – also by involving the legislator – should try and solve these matters. Perhaps we need to say that it is no bad thing if a minister has someone helping them with everyday life. We have a lot of families with a single parent – should the person be cut off from pursuing a career because they do not receive help from the other side? It is not right. We need to make sure people have opportunities.
Mailis admitted that the frequency with which her driver took the kids to and from school was disproportional. No one is contesting that. But how to solve these things? They remain unsolved today, while they should be solved.
Could it end in Mailis Reps leaving politics?
(Pauses) Because the news is that [misdemeanor] proceedings have been reclassified as criminal, it can end every which way. We both understand that much. Should the matter go to court… Our courts are independent, strong and hand down just and well-weighed rulings. I hope that is always true in the case of the police and the prosecution.
You defended newcomers in the new government and said that "not every person who has gotten far in their field dares takes this step." What are people afraid of when asked to serve as minister?
Serving as minister is always a great challenge, interesting work where you shape an entire field…
But it is also a great risk?
Yes, working as a politician is a major risk. The line between one's private and professional life becomes muddled and then disappears. You need to be prepared to be in the spotlight not just when working but also in the supermarket, the beach, anywhere really – and a lot of people are not ready for that.
Thirdly – a politician's work can end overnight. The coalition falls and you're done.
Let us take the example of [Minister of Foreign Affairs] Eva-Maria Liimets – over 20 years in the foreign service, and considering how her career was going, she was looking at another 20. Or [Minister of the Interior] Kristian Jaani – talking about running the North Prefecture, there are just two more rungs on the ladder from there – one is Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) chief and then there is the Internal Security Service (ISS).
However, both agreed to contribute their know-how, skills and experience. And to take that risk. You are right to suggest they took a big risk.
Are Liimets and Jaani required to join the Center Party?
We discussed it. I told them that I want to see them help the party and Estonian society beyond those two years they can expect to spend as ministers.
Did they agree?
These have been private conversations, while I hope there will be a positive outcome.
To what extent is putting together a government a cruel period in terms of sidelining key members in favor of newcomers when it comes to the posts of foreign and internal affairs ministers?
Center does not have a lot of coalition experience from the past 30 years. It is a fact. We have always brought in ministers from the outside because adding experts to the mix brings new thinking and perspective.
These have been successful moves. (Falls silent) I'm thinking of Janek Mäggi who also came from the outside to serve as [regional administration] minister.
You said on the "Esimene stuudio" talk show on January 13 that sometimes a person needs to take a step back to be able to take two steps forward, referring to yourself. Two minus one is still one. Where will that one step take you from serving as prime minister?
It took me home on January 13. To my family, my children and my wife. But I do not think that is what you meant to ask me.
Indeed, because you were talking about resigning as PM when you said that a step back is two steps forward… Where will that extra step take you?
Jüri Ratas is currently working in the Riigikogu with a mandate from Rapla and Harju County voters.
Will you become speaker on March 18?
The post of Riigikogu speaker belongs to the Center Party in the coalition agreement. We have not decided who will run yet. But if the party and MPs trust me, I am willing to be that person. I worked for the Board of the Riigikogu for nine and a half years as deputy speaker.
Do I have it correctly that 43-year-old Jüri Ratas will not run in the 2021 presidential election and will not have to ask himself "what next" when he is 48?
One does not and cannot make such plans – writing down dates in a notebook – in politics. It is true that the Center Party wants to have a say in electing the president. We have said that the president needs to be someone who builds bridges, unites Estonia…
Do you want to have a personal say in presidential elections?
I understand that you want to know whether Jüri Ratas will run for president of Estonia?
The answer is that the Center Party will decide these matters in May. (Smiles)
I saw your call from Tuesday for people to say who they see as the next president of Estonia, while you added that the decision could be made in the Riigikogu this time. It takes 68 votes to elect the president in the parliament. Even if Center and Reform can agree in the coalition, it would require support from the [opposition] Social Democratic Party or Isamaa. Let us be honest and admit that they are not likely to support Jüri Ratas right now.
There is another opposition party – EKRE.
Yes, but it is difficult to imagine Reform, Center and EKRE finding a common candidate.
The Constitution tasks the Riigikogu with electing the president. If the parliament fails in this task, it falls to the Electoral College that is no great disaster by the way. But yes, we could try to elect the president in the Riigikogu this time.
Whether these lines of force follow party ranks as strictly as you claim… They do on the one hand, while on the other, an MP is free in their mandate, free to vote in line with their conscience… There have been no consultations yet.
The coalition today has not agreed on a common presidential candidate either. But making sure the person eventually elected in the Riigikogu or the Electoral College has broad-based support is a positive and worthwhile goal.
What matters is who will serve as president, their personal traits and vision. Looking at the Estonian society in 2021, we need to reinforce our strong foreign policy position, while it is equally important for the president to address domestic topics, serve as a president to unite the nation.
I was about to ask about building bridges. Should the new president build them inside Estonia or from and to Estonia in terms of foreign and security policy?
Both are important tasks. You cannot build a house without a roof or a roof without walls. You need both.
The president's role is to always maintain an image of Estonia. To help maintain the Estonian economy, help Estonian entrepreneurs and reinforce its security policy. That is definitely their task. But I also believe that the president needs to make sure Estonians are prospering equally in Piirissaar, Vormsi, Saaremaa and Narva.
The president cannot pave all the roads in Värska for example.
No president will be doing that. And I suppose they will also not be telling us where to build kindergartens or schools.
However, the president's [Independence Day] receptions and [Estonian Defense Forces] parades have been held in various parts of the country, in different cities. That is to say that Estonia is more than just Tallinn, more than the Freedom Square in the capital. Jõhvi, Kärdla, Tartu and Narva also make up Estonia.
As I suggested before, Estonia's fortitude does not lie in strength of arms but – and I will say it despite the fact it will sound idealistic – in how firmly we hold each other's hands, how close together we can stand. We all stand for Estonia despite having different worldviews.
Be honest and say who did you have in mind in your famous Facebook post where you wrote that hopefully the cold winter will take care of the invasive Spanish slug?
I was referring to those very slugs. (Laughs) Spanish slugs. Let us be honest, they are a major problem all over Estonia. Coming here from afar, taking over our gardens…
Now, let us take our zoologists who say that the thick snow cover will help them survive and that they are not going anywhere.
They are very probably right. But I hope the frigid weather will at least curb their population.
Therefore, we should not look for allegory and symbols in your Spanish slug post?
No. I was [in my country house] in Saarde municipality, the thermometer read 17 degrees below freezing and I imagined those critters climbing out when spring comes in a few months. They do not belong in Estonia, they are an invasive species. My message to the Spanish slugs is that I want them gone.
There are a lot of things in Estonia that do not directly belong here.
Yes, but these slugs are a recent development, the second decade of the 21st century and they are a problem. They are coming in through the windows and doors.
Finally, what did you wife tell you when you went to bed for two hours after announcing your resignation in the wee hours of January 13? Was it along the lines of welcome home?
Jüri, you are dear to me and I love you… Just as she has told me all these nights and mornings.
Your family got back its father and husband.
My family got more of my time. That is for certain. I also got more time with my family. It is a great value.
Editor: Marcus Turovski