Ratas and Reinsalu: Another emergency situation is needed

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Jüri Ratas (left) and Urmas Reinsalu on Friday's 'Otse uudistemajast'. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The former prime minister and foreign minister say that another emergency situation should be called amid rising coronavirus rates.

Appearing on ERR News broadcast "Otse uudistemajast" on the anniversary of the declaration of last year's emergency situation (Estonian: "Eriolukord" - a constitutionally-defined term), Jüri Ratas (Center) and Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said that repeating the measure would both send a signal to society and strengthen governance, placing greater responsibility on Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform).

"An emergency is not the key to riches, but it is an important tool in sending a message to society" Jüri Ratas, who, as prime minister this time last year, was head of the emergency situation by default, told interviewer Toomas Sildam.

"It also sends a message to those young people who are partying. We cannot forget that people are dying, and our economy is locked-down. This – a declaration of an emergency situation - is one clear signal the government can do," Ratas added.

Urmas Reinsalu, foreign minister in the last administration, said that a recent opinion poll, where 70 percent of respondents said that a new emergency situation was needed, backed both of them up.

Reinsalu said: "One thing is the emotional category, but another concerns crisis management, at a time when the country is in a very serious situation. We are now in the toughest phase of the viral escalation, and we need to have a constitutional model of governance. This would be a personal responsibility model, where the prime minister is the emergency leader. This means a different and more operative management model."

Reinsalu added that if the spread of the coronavirus in Estonia has tripled in the last month (as reported), then something must not be working – in other words if the current model has not prevented the virus' propagation, then stronger versions must be out in place.

He said: "Every morning, it's a crisis again. The fact that the mutated [British and South African variants of the] virus were inside Estonia was actually known in early February. The scientific council's (the government's coronavirus advisory council – set up by Ratas' coalition and still led by the same professor of virology – ed.) recommendation was that we should defend Estonian territory, and establish total testing at the borders. This crisis cannot be managed with one's eyes closed."

The prime minister's rationale in not issuing a new emergency situation is that legislation changes have been made since this time last year which make enacting most of the restrictions possible without needing an emergency situation as a prerequisite.

Lecturing Kaja Kallas via social media

When asked as to why he seems to tend to lecture incumbent Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, and the entire government, via social media, Ratas said that it is his right and obligation to make recommendations.

"I see certain management decisions differently. And as a member of the Riigikogu, I have the right and obligation to point that out. In short, restrictions and compensation are the most important things for the economy right now. Plus that there is an emergency package for restrictions to work effectively," Ratas said.

Ratas continued that he also remembers a certain person who once donned a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "Sõna on Vaba", referring to President Kersti Kaljulaid, who was so attired when Ratas administration took office at the Riigikogu in late April 2019. The phrase could be roughly translated as "speech is free", more literally "the word is free", and was also a play on an earlier Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) slogan. EKRE were in office with Ratas' and Reinsalu's parties, Center and Isamaa. Center is still in office, with Reform alone.

Ratas continued: "Do those who leave the government have close down their Facebook account? I shouldn't think so. This is not some sort of child-like land that I would want to return to. Of course, I'm not looking to blame anyone, I just want to share my opinion and experience. If there is a desire for Jüri Ratas not to have an opinion, then that I will not do."

Why didn't lock-down come before Christmas?

While effective lock-down started this week, EKRE vice chair and interior minister for most of the Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition's life-span, Mart Helme, criticized his former government partners earlier in the week, for not agreeing to EKRE's call to lock-down the entire country for three weeks before Christmas; as statistics showed, the infection rate started to rise in December and January.

Ratas said that Helme, who made his remarks on an edition of "Otse uudistemajast" Wednesday, was referring to a cabinet meeting, where the possibility of locking down the whole country was discussed.

"Maybe locking-down the whole of Estonia. But this was a consensus decision of the government, that we would not do that. In retrospect, we can always say that we could have done things one way or the other. But the government always needs to find common ground.  At that time, we had received input from the scientific council and such impetus that we could lock the whole of Estonia was lacking.

In fact, late on in 2020 Ratas' coalition imposed stricter restrictions on the worst-affected regions of Estonia, first in Ida-Viru County, then Harju County, including Tallinn. Stricter regulations had also been imposed for a time during summer in Tartu, after an outbreak linked to bars and nightclubs there.

Reinsalu said this approach had been a more rational choice, and it had worked.

"Should accommodation on Saaremaa or in South Estonia have been closed if the virus spread only in Tallinn and Ida-Viru County?" Reinsalu asked rhetorically.

"So people could not travel there? It could be observed that the waves of infection occurred during school holidays. But as [Professor] Irja Lutsar, the head of the scientific council, said, do people travel from Tallinn to Rapla every night to eat dinner? Maybe there were some such outliers, but they were certainly in a minority," he added.

Reinsalu: The president could have postponed her trip to Afghanistan

Ratas and Reinsalu also disagreed with Mart Helme's call to vaccinate the entire government and all 101 Riigikogu MPs.

Reinsalu: "The state and its management worked even when there was no vaccine available at all. In a situation where every dose of vaccine comes at a premium, and certain groups are still at risk, vaccination of the state's leadership could still be avoided."

Ratas added that he agreed wholeheartedly, adding that health care workers and the elderly had to be vaccinated first and foremost.

"Urmas has been in close contact [with a carrier] and I have too LINK, but despite that, the government was able to work," Ratas pointed out, while Reinsalu added that President Kersti Kaljulaid could have postponed April's planned official visit to Afghanistan. 

"There was no acute crisis there. To say that a vaccine is needed on the pretext of going there ... The Estonian state and the Afghan state continue to function without her going there," Reinsalu said.

President Kaljulaid also undertook a recent one-day official visit to Spain, marking 100 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries – one of many such anniversaries which follow on the back of the centennial of the signing of the Tartu Peace Treaty – and met with criticism over a ski trip taken around new year, a story which broke only the day before the corruption scandal involving a Tallinn real estate development which brought down the Center/EKRE/Isamaa government.

Glossaries on other political issues

Neither of the two men wanted to talk further about the presidential elections taking place this autumn. Ratas, who earlier said he wanted things to get squared away in the Riigikogu ballots rather than moving to the regional electoral colleges, said that it was too early to talk about it, while Reinsalu found that the coronavirus crisis is a much more pressing issue than the presidential election.

Nonetheless, Reinsalu advocated Jüri Ratas as having the sufficient competence to perform the presidential role. He considered reports about his own potential candidacy to be purely journalistic speculation.

Commenting on the upcoming election Isamaa leadership elections, Reinsalu said that the current leader, Helir-Valdor Seeder, has done a very good job. At the same time, he said that another name touted as a potential Isamaa leader, former culture minister Tõnis Lukas, who was around 15 years ago leader of one of Isamaa's two forebears, Pro Patria, would be a solid choice.

"I support Tõnis, he will have a very interesting campaign in the local government elections in Tartu," Reinsalu said.

The local elections are in October. Tõnis Lukas was Mayor of Tartu in the mid-1990s.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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