Andres Tarand was among the first prime ministers of re-independent Estonia and his courage to do the right thing at the right time helped lay the foundation of the country's success story. A person is not raised to be an exemplary prime minister and has their own quirks from way back when, Tarand cheerfully says in an interview to Diplomaatia and ERR.
The blue, black and white is one beautiful flag.
It is. I had this image where I walked past the Tall Herman Tower with my father and he showed me [the Estonian flag on top] … But it was impossible. (Smiles) The flag was depicted on matchboxes manufactured in the first republic, which is where I saw it and I imagined the rest because my father was in Siberia by then.
I have asked several people lately whether the fact Estonia has been independent again for 30 years is a miracle, luck or the result of hard work.
It is all of those things. You need luck with these things. We can be very happy that bloodshed was avoided here as our southern neighbors were not that fortunate. For some reason, our great eastern neighbor left us alone at first, whereas I'm not sure what contributed. The Soviet army was here and would have overcome us by force, eventually.
Because we were full of gusto and Moscow was hesitant at the time… Gorbachev took steps that [Soviet] officers hadn't even considered a possibility before that laid a certain foundation for us.
We saw that things weren't too bad, while events in Latvia and Lithuania soon proved they could be.
But the people were… There was a whole new momentum.
More than one generation has now grown up in independent Estonia and lacks personal experience from living in the Soviet Union. To what extent should we remember and recall the period?
Historians are in charge of that and the slate is not completely clean. But people can get important events mixed up as some are more prone to writing about themselves than others. (Snorts) That is when you get material that needs to be analyzed.
It all happened very quickly in 1987-1991.
Yes. The mood was anxious but elevated throughout this period. It was not a time of muttering curses under one's breath. You did not have to keep it down any longer.
To what extent have people let go of the occupation, mentally?
Not completely. There is some residue.
One thing that comes to mind is how our political parties adopted certain Communist Party mannerisms. Attempts to intimidate members who refused to fall in line or push them lower down on election lists were widespread but shouldn't have been.
That those who stood up to party brass would not have a very long run?
Young members had to run around with posters and stuff fliers into voters' mailboxes before elections. Party life could have been organized based on newer rules, but hindsight is 20/20, as they say. It was not immediately realized.
Is mistrust in one's own country that is now amplified by local populists a vestige of the Soviet period when we did not have our own country and there was good reason not to trust what we had in its stead?
That could be. It always happens in dormant countries that have to restore themselves. More than a few people spot niches where they can get ahead.
However, looking at Eastern European countries in general, it is clear we did quite well for ourselves. We cannot say no one was angry or felt sidelined, but I believe we did better at the end of the day.
And yet, many are dissatisfied and are having difficulty coping. Do you understand their angst and displeasure?
It needs to be understood to an extent as equality will not just appear. The only way to render society more equal is by taxing the wealthy more than the poor. It is inevitable, while it has not often happened in Estonia.
Okay, we have good examples where people are not taken to the cleaners. The Health Insurance Fund works and schools are funded. Things aren't that bad…
There has been some talk of changing taxes, while it was quickly shut down during coalition negotiations [between the Reform Party and Center Party].
The new government promised tax peace.
Meaning that taxes will not be changed. (Smiles)
How much room is there for romance in foreign policy and international relations?
Not much because the world can get pretty strange from time to time.
My mother was a history teacher and told me that the Anglo-Saxons were quickest to develop proper states. While the UK and USA both missed a guess recently. One had a president the world only recently got rid of, while the Brits messed up when they left the EU and became independent. (Smiles) Say what you want about the EU, and not everything there has been successful, but they have never denied anyone their independence.
You have said regarding the Treaty of Tartu that it is beautiful and enchanting to think about Petserimaa and the territory beyond Narva belonging to Estonia, while "this romanticism would be difficult to bring to the real world." Those words hurt a lot of people.
Yes, and it is true that Petserimaa in particular feels deprived as they were simply cut off.
But the realpolitik of the day was that when we sought to join NATO, our opponents were high-ranking British and German politicians and generals who wanted to know how they were to defend the Baltics.
Had we included the demand… (Snorts) demanded a return to the old border with Russia, it would have clashed with the Helsinki accord (signing of the final act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki in 1975 – ed.) that stated that borders do not have to be changed and no [territorial] demands will be made.
The British generals would have picked up on that and the door would have been closed to us. There was that risk, whereas it has not been recalled in Estonia how difficult these negotiations were as their considerations were the same they had always been – that Russia has so and so many units, while Estonia had not proven itself yet.
The situation was critical and while it is always unfortunate when people suffer under such circumstances…
At the same time, you pleased many others when you were the first top politician to say at a press conference held in Helsinki in 1994 that Estonia is prepared to drop its Treaty of Tartu demands for Petserimaa and the territories beyond Narva.
That is true. I realized there would be a grand press conference and that I needed something to surprise them with. It was not a goal in itself, while I reckoned that the message would soon reach Moscow from the grand embassy they had in Helsinki. It played out that way.
Did you talk to President Lennart Meri before you made the statement?
I did not. It all happened very quickly.
Did Lennart criticize you afterwards or did he commend you instead?
No-no. I was not told off.
Which was more prevalent in the aftermath – praise or criticism?
Criticism always stays with one longer. I did not take a beating as such, while it tends to come up now and again. Not everyone has forgotten about it.
Would the EU and NATO have recognized our right had Estonia stuck to its guns concerning the Treaty of Tartu border?
(Smiles) NATO is not an offensive alliance. It is a defense alliance. Friends who have agreed to come to the aid of one another should one be attacked. It is not a pact for retaking everything this side of the Great Wall. That is not what NATO has been created to do.
Therefore, you believe that making territorial demands against Russia would have left us outside the EU and NATO?
The danger was real. International relations usually aren't about boasting but rather an attempt to politely convince stronger partners on whose mercy you want to live. And had the more hotheaded among us found themselves at [NATO expansion] talks, it would have been more difficult for us.
We would have been left facing Russia alone?
It already happened once [1939-1940].
That is what Russia wanted in the 1990s – for Estonia and the other Baltics to stay out of EU and NATO.
That is what they were aiming for. But their means of stopping us were limited for a relatively short window of time then.
Russia has still not ratified the new border agreement with Estonia. What does that tell you?
That they want to keep the pot boiling under us. It seems they are still dreaming of their sphere of influence.
We must not give up and keep the faith in terms of getting these territories back one day – that is the hope of President of the Riigikogu Henn Põlluaas. Is it in vain?
Well, at least he can make it look like he is a brave man and not afraid… (Laughs)
Around a dozen years ago, you told Õhtuleht in an interview that the time we concentrated primarily on Estonia is over and that the world needs to be seen more broadly. But we cannot shoulder the world's problems.
We have the EU to deal with the world, with China and Russia, not to mention the Americans. This way, our foreign policy has been quite successful on these headings.
The steps we take to try and show that we are also doing something – Mali and NATO operations in the Middle East that our soldiers have participated in and helped France that has considerable military ambitions.
I was just about to ask whether you ever wonder what are Estonian soldiers doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali…?
It would be better if there was another way, while we would not be as influential [without those missions]. It is positive involvement and a sign that we do not run for the hills when help is needed.
These are complicated matters and the Muslim invasion from Africa cannot be completely stopped. It seems almost historical pressure and the need to send young men to play war somewhere else lest they start causing trouble.
While there is faint hope they might calm down, it seems today that… Afghanistan is one place where all the major players have tried their hand, while no one has succeeded. The Taliban has been pushed back toward Pakistan now and again, but they always return.
Propaganda that there is a single and sacred religion and the others need to be taught a physical lesson easily finds traction with young men.
Estonia has applied for observer status in the Arctic Council. Can you tell me why we need the Arctic?
The game was started by the French. Putin dropped a ball from an airplane over the North Pole to show that the territory was theirs. No one knew the exact oil and gas reserves there, but that is when cooperation became the new focus.
The positive side of the Arctic Council has been the protection of northern peoples – Eskimo, Sami and others. However, it has become about profit again as it has always been.
We have things we can bring to the table as an observer if Russia can stomach it. We can contribute in terms of research and rescue. Not quite like Nansen but thereabout.
Our boys have gone not just to the Antarctic but also the Arctic and especially Spitsbergen. Research… The rest of the world has been more or less studied and described… However, in the age of climate change and the ice melting one feels tempted and has to work more closely with others. Our opportunities are limited of course as outfitting even a single expedition would be felt in our state budget. (Laughs)
It would be great if such work could be pursued. Of course, there are aspects to be considered, but we will see… It has been mulled and pursued at the foreign ministry for well over five years, while we have now made our bid known. There is little in it for me personally as they are not thrilled about bringing someone who is over 80. (Smiles)
Russia, USA, China and the EU – the four major players in the modern world. Which one is most important for Estonia?
I believe it is the EU and transatlantic cooperation by association. It has worked rather well since World War II, with the exception of Donald Trump.
A rift was developing until recently, even though he urged [Europeans] to also spend on defense. It was one of the few things he might have been right about. While USA stands behind us, it is not wrong to tell major European countries whose combined economy is bigger than America's that they could pay a little more.
How well do you understand or fail to understand Russia today?
Russia has always been difficult to understand, [historian] David Vseviov has pointed to various mystical aspects in his lectures.
Things are not great in Russia and it has gone after Ukraine through strength of arms, which reminds us of… I don't know whether Putin is talking about the near abroad, but the trend is clear.
I cannot say in terms of what it will mean in the long run, but [international sanctions or] punitive operations have had an effect as Russia is having trouble getting its economy off the ground unless oil flows freely.
The relationship between Russia and China is problematic. They have put on a good show of pretending to be great friends. They have tried fighting and had enough, while nuclear weapons are too serious to be used as threats. But land partition near the Amur River – there is all kinds of talk about how many Chinese have crossed the boundary. They are refraining from fighting for now. But China's ambition for the Arctic is no less than Russia's.
China wants to be everywhere.
They have tricked African countries. They are happy to borrow [from China], while they are asked for natural resources China has previously mapped out when it comes time to pay.
What should foreign policy have more of – values and ideals or realpolitik?
Realpolitik was used to justify imperialism when the Brits and French had colonies and Germany found it was not fair it did not have any. That is something a head of state could say at the time – that it is unfair for their country to lack colonies…
The global balance is a little better today than it was during the period of world wars when things went south right away.
The UN Security Council is… (Smiles) an empty council. It makes a fair bit of noise, while you cannot achieve anything meaningful there because of the vetoes [of permanent members]. However, it is still an interesting experience for Estonia and something we will have done on top of our e-state.
Main sponsor of the hockey world championship Skoda said it will not sponsor this year's tournament if it is held in Belarus. A sympathetic move?
It is quite safe to criticize the regime in Belarus as there is very little they can do about it.
But I wonder whether Skoda would have made the same statement with reference to the treatment of the Uighurs and democracy in Hong Kong were China the venue?
I don't think so. Such statements are made when there is hope and actual influence on one's part. While the tiny dictator in Belarus thinks he has influence, what remains unclear to me is how Russia sees the situation there. They have refrained from dispatching troops so far.
China matters in the world?
But it is not democratic?
Not really. They just couldn't resist the temptation to go after the democratic people of Hong Kong either.
China is also quick to take offense.
Yes, because they also want to be considered nice. Opening the door to free market economy while remaining in control of it and with help from industrial espionage, China has become the world's second largest economy.
Estonia can change neither Russia nor China?
Which is the better U.S. president for Estonia – Trump or Biden?
I cannot really think highly of Trump because of how we went out. The president of a major democracy should never do something like that.
But because he found admirers and imitators in Estonia, getting rid of him matters more to us as a demonstration that you cannot have a president based on complete nonsense. Right-wing populism has come far now because the left is stuck behind a rock somewhere. The radical right has come to dominate in America and Europe. It was Count Coudenhove-Kalergi who told us that fringes – left and right – will run rampant and turn wild if given the chance.
Trump is gone, while Trumpism is here to stay?
I'm afraid it is quite realistic. A game of ignoring knowledge and science is being played. That you must listen to me because I'm loud and come off as a tough guy. However, this can only lead to relatively stupid solutions.
Former Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said that steadfast U.S. support is an existential guarantee for Estonia – a guarantee that we will not be conquered either in part or completely. Is the world really that simple that we will survive with support from USA and might be conquered otherwise?
That is perhaps oversimplified. But it is what countries like us are used to that the balance after World War II saw the Yankees adopt a restrictive attitude toward more than just Russia… Their economy flourished at the expense of other countries, while the creation of NATO nurtured the hope that someone might actually come [to our aid]. Estonian forests were filled with such fantasies up until the Paris conference in 1946.
Talk of a white ship?
No one yet knew about the talks in Yalta [in February of 1945] where we had been sold wholesale.
The Yanks have played an instrumental role. We are friends and we demonstrate our sympathy from time to time, if only by sending troops to Afghanistan, while we cannot in all honesty expect to be a decisive factor. NATO does protect us and will fall apart as soon as Article Five is ignored.
How is Europe doing?
Europe is full of surprises. (Snorts) The standoff between the north and the south is a very natural thing. The Mediterranean has a more carefree attitude, which we saw when the Italians asked the Swedes why they are so grumpy all the time. They can live without it being such a chore all the time.
I hope that the EU will not fall apart at least. Like what happened to the UK.
Does Estonia rather agree with everything the EU does or are we more independent?
When it comes to America, it seems that we cannot emulate a nuclear power, a global superpower in everything they do. If you're small, you're small.
The situation is more even in Europe. There is no one major monster. While Germany towers above the rest in economic terms, it needs to seek a balance with others and cannot do what it wants.
I hope things will move toward all member states becoming actual members. But I do not think Europe will become a federation as a result of these processes – there are just too many controversies for that to happen.
Our domestic Euroskeptics complain of the dictatorship of Brussels and compare the EU to the Soviet Union.
These are slight exaggerations… This kind of mockery is where the Brits shot themselves in the foot. They are good at satire – "Yes Minister" and what have you. There is truth to saying that bureaucrats grow where there are greedy people. These examples exist.
But suggesting that the European Commission does everything wrong is not accurate. Prime ministers meet and often do damage – agree on the wrong thing. But their time is short.
We could have a federal structure similar to the United States, but there is not enough maturity for the EU to become a federation. Therefore, we will live another day if we maintain the ability to politely greet one another.
Had Kaja Kallas asked you what you thought was the biggest pain spot in Estonian society when she became prime minister earlier this year, where would you have pointed your finger?
Domestic politics that depends on political parties is where things need to improve. These things have not fallen into place automatically. Because cases where we all gasp after an entrepreneur spends a lot of money seemingly on nothing at all still occur. Such things should not happen. That said, colorful characters can be found everywhere and there are no innocent nations. But we should at least try.
Practical matters, whether to construct three- or four-lane highways can be negotiated – we hardly stumble there these days.
People everywhere will have to make do with less, while I do not think it will mean poverty and famine. We can produce enough to live and trade.
It sometimes seems there is a lot of noise around us in which ideas and the right words get drowned out.
That is true. All this terminology around the concept of the "deep state"… It creates a kind of schoolboy slang that means something to a certain group of people. What is this deep and how far does it go? Underground? Is the security service working underground? You cannot make sense of it.
It's like in school where you have to learn the lingo to be accepted as one of the boys. People who learned something else get confused and cannot understand what they're dealing with all of a sudden.
President Toomas Hendrik Ilves compared Estonia to a wild strawberry in that the country is ancient and small, hard to find and rather inconspicuous, but once you find it and make it your own, it is one of the best things that can be… You are a climatologist, to what or whom do you compared Estonia?
A wild strawberry is a good comparison. I also deeply respect the ritual of finding the first strawberry. While domestic strawberries ripen faster on proper fertilizer.
That is not my answer in terms of what is most valuable in Estonia.
It requires innovative administration while conserving that which is valuable.
Flexible and innovative are the keywords. As opposed to the market ruling supreme. The market never rules everything because nature conservation is based on different tenets altogether – that something other than people can be valuable, whether we're talking about wolves or rabbits. (Laughs)
What is your opinion of the people who followed you in the office of prime minister?
My opinion is that they have all lacked something. A person is not raised to be an exemplary prime minister and has their own quirks from way back when.
Jüri Ratas was very diligent in meeting with his predecessors. People get together and talk, whereas these conversations are usually quite civilized as there is little sense in digging up past topics.
Andres Tarand, thank you very much for this enjoyable conversation. All the best and good health.
My health is not too bad currently. (Laughs) But in a situation where the coronavirus is everywhere you look… I hope we will not see another year like that. We all hope that.
That said, the world might not be free of these things. The question of where did COVID-19 come from – it requires…
What say you – is it possible it escaped from a laboratory?
I believe it's possible as accidents happen. But that means there has to be a biological weapons industry and an accident had to take place.
I don't know. I am too ignorant when it comes to these things. A virus is nobody – it is not a bird or an animal, nor is it a bacterium. I cannot explain what it is, while there are people in Estonia who can and mankind has defeated them in the past. As bad as the Black Death was [the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century], it did not stay with us forever.
The coronavirus will be done one day.
It better. I cannot wait to wave it goodbye.
Editor: Marcus Turovski