Andrus Ansip: PM must be sure keeping government together serves a purpose

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Andrus Ansip. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Veteran politician Andrus Ansip does not beat around the bush. The galloping interview with the former prime minister and European Commission vice president races through Estonian domestic politics where more than a few players get slapped, touches on the coronavirus crisis and fall presidential elections, before arriving at a recipe for casting off the shadows of doping in Estonian skiing.

Did you ever feel that the second government of Jüri Ratas – the coalition of the Center Party, EKRE and Isamaa – could stay together for four years as they managed to sort out all their scandals and stick together?

I was against the coalition from the first and I'm glad it finally ended. Considerable damage was done to Estonia.

Did I fear the previous government might stay together for another two years? Yes, because it was a possibility.

Have you gotten used to the new government?

Not really as they have not been around for long. But the fact they took over was good news also for the rest of the world. That instead of a bunch of angry men, they are now welcomed by cheerful ladies who are open and focus on innovation – good news.

A picture of our president, prime minister and members of the government standing together speaks louder than a hundred words. The fact that Estonia is open again will eventually translate into economic gain and investments.

You have said that your first preference would have been a corruption-free coalition of the Social Democrats, Isamaa and Reform. Why, seeing as you have shared a coalition with the Center Party in the past and it was not bad at all?

The Center Party was quite different back then. Center stopped being a suitable coalition partner in my eyes after the moving of the Bronze Soldier and its aftermath.

However, it was not an easy choice to make. Suggesting that there are parties out there completely untouched by corruption would be a clear exaggeration. Center was not alone in deciding to support the Porto Franco project. It was somewhat misguided of me to try and suggest other parties are free of corruption. (Smiles)

Why did Isamaa shy away from working with Reform as you suggested in mid-January?

Isamaa and the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) would have gladly continued in the previous coalition as demonstrated by [Isamaa chairman] Helir-Valdor Seeder's behavior and reluctance to even contact Kaja Kallas. He was trying to hold on to the old coalition and I'm sure would welcome the chance to restore it.

You are acquainted with Seeder. Did you ever ask him why he wanted to stay with Center and EKRE until the last minute and beyond?

No, I have no such relationship with Helir-Valdor Seeder. Especially not these days. We do not bump into each other or call.

Why do you rule out Reform working with EKRE?

I'm not the head of the Reform Party or even a member of the board.

You are a council member.

And a single council member does not rule out or greenlight cooperation with other political forces.

Personally, I find EKRE as we saw them in Jüri Ratas' government to be wholly unacceptable. I believe that the Estonian people should no longer have to put up with insults hurled at various social groups, doctors called murderers, universities said to be training horse thieves, that certain people should run to or in Sweden or attempts to insult neighboring countries… Who should find that acceptable? Only rantipoles, while I believe the latter only form a tiny part of the population.

What should EKRE chairman Martin Helme do to be able to share a government with Reform in 2023?

It would be a long road indeed, but EKRE would definitely have to become a normal and civilized party, one looking for common ground instead of potential conflict. We can see no such change today and it is unlikely such cooperation will prove possible. But nothing should be ruled out completely and everything is possible in this life.

"The government's task is first and foremost to restore political culture, manage the tensions and angst that have been created in society. To put an end to hatred. Set society free." This was your recommendation for the new government. To what extent has Kaja Kallas succeeded in doing those things?

Kaja Kallas has been open and refrained from seeking antagonism. The fact that the government changed already eased tensions, while the coronavirus brought new angst and from an entirely different angle. The prime minister's role in the latter is another matter.

We are living in an era where one can create a false narrative in ten days after which all manner of arguments against it become powerless. Kaja Kallas' government has been accused of immediately alleviating measures and ignoring the COVID-19 scientific advisory council upon coming to power. There are even attempts to move these alleged actions back a month…

You aim to criticize the previous government?

No, I aim to set the record straight. Let us take [Eesti 200 board member] Lauri Hussar's article ("Kaja Kallase teine ajalooline viga," EPL, 25.03 – ed.) where he accuses Kallas' government of relaxing restrictions in January. [Deputy head of Isamaa's Riigikogu group] Priit Sibul and others have done the same.

Let us recall that while Kallas' government took office in late January, their first Covid-related decisions did not enter into force until February 3. Or looking at the Oxford index of severity, we see that measures have been eased, while it was done during the days of Ratas' government, starting on December 15 [2020] and again on January 15 when a lot of restrictions were lifted.

In other words, Jüri Ratas was the first to incriminate Kaja Kallas for his mistakes and the PM did not respond forcefully enough.

Do Reform and Center still trust one another?

I believe that trust exists in the government. Even though what I think matters little as I am not a member of said government.

What about the onlooker's perspective?

From the sidelines, it seems there is cooperation in the government.

I believe that Jüri Ratas' solo where he first decided to ease measures by no fewer than 13 points on the Oxford scale and then started demanding Kaja Kallas move in the opposite direction was inappropriate.

Andrus Ansip. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Your colleague in the European Parliament Yana Toom (Center) recently said that for many Russian speakers, the Reform Party stands for Andrus Ansip and the Bronze Night as it was your decision to remove the Bronze Soldier monument from Tõnismäe in April of 2007. Do you perhaps have an apologetic-explanatory message for Russian speakers?

It was the right call, while it came too late. Based on what I know today, I can say with even more certainty that the decision should have been made much sooner as we all know what happened in Crimea, Ukraine, Donbas. It is the same pattern where tensions were fanned from outside Estonia, from Moscow. We tried to find a compromise but unfortunately it was impossible.

Tensions had escalated to a point where people couldn't even go there – the very heart of the city center – not to mention waving the Estonian flag. The decision to move the Bronze Soldier from Tallinn city center – where it was a symbol of the occupation – to the cemetery where it stands for grief, compassion and solidarity with all fallen was the only possible decision.

There is nothing to be sorry about or apologize for. I believe that Russian speaking people living in Estonia understand that we did not need anything akin to what later transpired in Crimea and Ukraine.

Many people in Ida-Viru County are distrustful of the new government also because the Reform-Center coalition is promising to put an end to oil shale energy. Do you understand the concerns of the locals?

Of course. Every person cares about their work and there being enough of it. Unfortunately, hiding our heads in the sand cannot help us. If we know the trend is for certain sectors to fade away, there is no sense trying to fight it with no way to win.

Oil shale energy will be uncompetitive from a purely economic perspective in the future. While subsidizing green energy could be possible for a limited time, there is no such long-term solution, especially on the common market where we now have energy links to other member states and largely guaranteed supply security. We need to realize that this [oil shale energy] thing will end one day. And decisions for the future need to be made based on this reality instead of denying the inevitable.

What about shale oil?

I'm not enough of an expert on shale oil production. The general trend is to move away from fossil fuels, whereas it matters little whether the oil comes from a rig or whether it's made from oil shale. It is likely we will see more electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines etc. in the future. We should try and emulate the rest of the world instead of trying to fight global trends.

EKRE is fixing to go after former Center supporters in Ida-Viru County. Should the Reform Party be content to simply look on?

It should not look on…

But it is also not fair to lie to the people and promise things you cannot deliver.

Did it come as a surprise when Jüri Ratas resigned in January and disbanded his government?

I was not particularly surprised. Rather, I was unpleasantly surprised by how long he allowed himself to be humiliated by his partners, how he kept apologizing and sending people cakes… That was a nasty surprise. But the fact he finally had enough and decided to pull the plug – I would have expected it sooner.

Journalist Vilja Kiisler compared the Reform Party's 2012 financing scandal and the recent one involving the Center Party and commended Jüri Ratas: "Ansip did not resign at the time. Ratas did." What would you say to Kiisler?

I saw no reason to resign back then nor do I perceive one now. All the suspicions and allegations [against Reform] proved baseless, none were confirmed. Including the story about the mother-in-law's bedside table. Eesti Ekspress (link in Estonian – ed.) proved in a journalistic experiment that money was borrowed from a person's mother-in-law and later paid back via bank transfer, also that the money was used in the campaign.

It all came to nothing in the end. Well, it did leave blemishes on the resumes of several promising politicians.

Former PM Mart Laar told Postimees that Kallas' government can offer Estonia peaceful and stable corruption and elegant thievery. Is he being unfair?

Yes, he is. I do not regard Kaja Kallas as someone who condones corruption. Rather, the opposite is true.

Perhaps you were yourself unfair to Jüri Ratas when he was PM? For example, by suggesting that Ratas has no vision for Estonia and should admit he has failed as head of government.

I do not feel I've been unjust. I have seen no vision from him either in the past or recently. What I see is what most people have seen – desire to hold on to a position.

Listen, you are talking about your coalition partner, head of the Center Party.

I should not be identified as part of the coalition or that part of the Reform Party where decisions are made. I am not at that table.

Is it about the golden rule of elections that you mentioned in Eesti Päevaleht, that clear differentiation is necessary moving into elections and that one should give less heed to potential coalition partners and more to how to reach as many people as possible with one's messages? Is it also true in between elections?

Yes, I believe that clear distinction is needed. So that people would know what to expect from different parties and politicians. It is also the honest approach and one that makes it easier for people to make decisions.

Still, it also seems sensible to consider potential partners and not burn all the bridges.

You do not have to burn all the bridges. I believe that the people also need to be sent a clear message, as opposed to a select few from certain parties.

Let us recall the global financial crisis. Estonia had a minority government in 2009-2011 that remained operational simply because it had the support of the people. As a minority government, we had to explain decisions in much more detail than coalitions that can rely on a strong parliamentary majority.

Correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't it a case of having a minority government on paper while you always had the votes you needed in the parliament.

Those votes were changing all the time. Coming from the independents one day and from the Greens the next… We had the necessary votes, while we could not rely on a steadfast majority that would press the green button as one upon seeing a green pen raised up. (Smiles) We had no such certainty.

Many criticized Ratas for keeping the previous government together at all costs. But isn't that what a PM is meant to do once they have formed a coalition?

The prime minister must try to keep the government from falling apart, while they must also be convinced it has a purpose. This brings us back to the question of vision – what one wants to achieve.

Let us look at the actions of Jüri Ratas' government… Well, you said that I should refrain from criticizing our partner in the government of which I am not technically a part…

Excuse me, but are you still a member of the Reform Party?

I remain a member of the Reform Party, while I am somewhat removed from party politics in Estonia. But still… Simply squandering reserves during years of economic growth. It is not a responsible thing to do. Is it reason to keep the government together? Hurling insults at allies…

The entire world has borrowed.

They have now. But do not take it back to the good times when the entire world was busy collecting reserves. Germany was accumulating reserves and lowering its loan burden. While Estonia was living on reserves left over from the global financial crisis. There is no justification. The coronavirus crisis arrived as a suitable fig leaf with which to cover past financial folly.

Andrus Ansip. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

You know full well that it is both the appeal and price of coalition governments. You have kept several coalitions together through thick and thin. Center Party, People's Union, Isamaa Res Publica Union, Social Democrats – all have been Reform's partners.

Let us take the coalition with Center and People's Union. Aivar Sõerd was decorated as the world's best finance minister. Why? Because the state budget boasted a solid surplus and we set aside considerable reserves for leaner times. With Center and the People's Union! The years 2006-2007 were instrumental in terms of state finances and making preparations for tougher times. And those times came.

How strongly can the office of prime minister take root in a person?

The connection can be very strong. It is completely natural for a person to identify with their work. Someone who does their work with heart and love cannot really be separated from it. Whether we're talking about journalists, teachers or doctors, dedication means growing into one's profession. The position of prime minister is no different here.

Was it difficult for you to let go of the position?

I made the decision myself, so it was not difficult for me. Having done the same job for nine years, it requires strong discipline to constantly keep up with new circumstances and work your way up and the risk of becoming complacent and making decisions based on past experience starts to grow.

The way I left suggests it was the right time and didn't happen too late. Prime ministers who serve for a long time usually leave only when all popular support is gone…

After their "best before" date?

Yes, long after. While I'm not saying my "best before" date had not expired, I was still fresh enough to be elected to the European Parliament. (Smiles)

A colleague of mine who recovered from COVID-19 was recently measured to have over 7,000 antibodies. How many do you have?

I do not know how many there are now. To say that I recovered from Covid would be a clear exaggeration – my left nostril was not completely blocked and I developed a slightly more nasal voice…

You should not make Covid out to be a trifling matter…

That it certainty is not. People die of it and there can be very serious complications.

But it was not an ordeal for me. You keep waiting and worrying about people you were in touch with… It is depressing as it is but waiting for the virus to finally attack and… it never does.

My antibody count was 1,254 AU/ml, whereas the reference value, I believe, is 50. Enough to be protected then. I have received an AstraZeneca vaccine shot as part of a pilot project and might have a much higher antibody count now, but I just haven't measured it.

Should one plot a liberal or conservative course for overcoming the coronavirus crisis?

(Pauses) The distinction is not easy to make here. I would plot a liberal-conservative course, whatever that means. (Laughs)

Andrus Ansip. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas warned that Estonia will remain locked down in summer if current restrictions fail to bring down the rate of infection. At the same time, Jürgen Ligi (Reform) has proposed gradually opening society again from April 12. Who do you support?

Both are right in essence. I sympathize with Ligi's statement. I have been critical of the way this crisis has been managed from the first. Because we have gone down the path of blanket bans instead of trying to make targeted decisions to minimize damage to society.

The situation was one of relative chaos but…

It was chaos everywhere. Everyone had to learn as they went. I find it very difficult to criticize people for their decisions.

No one said we couldn't be smarter than everyone else.

Planned treatment was dialed back. It took bringing Ralf Allikvee back to head the East Tallinn Central Hospital; he gave an interview to Eesti Päevaleht where he said not all hospitals need to stand by for Covid patients of whom there was no flood then. However, over 3,000 people missed planned treatments with permanent negative health consequences…

Andrus Ansip, hospitals in the north of the country are forced to send patients down south because they have no free beds.

Yes, but hospitals were put on standby in spring and it came at a price.

Dental offices were closed with a single letter – the justice chancellor found the move illegal. An OECD study has now found that dentists are among the better protected groups in society as they use protective goggles, visors, rubber gloves, suits etc.

I would have expected a set of targeted measures by fall, something to show we've learned from the first wave… I do not subscribe to this approach of closing restaurants two hours early because there is an outbreak in a prison, figuratively speaking.

Restaurants are closed to the public today.

But for a time, there was a debate over whether they should be closed two hours early.

We are reacting in places where closures have no effect on whether outbreaks are created.

I would have expected us to use our know-how to have targeted measures.

Should Estonia start easing restrictions in April?

There should be a sensible level of mitigation. The message should be that people need to keep their distance and wear masks, if only as a sign of solidarity. We could think about the people fighting for their lives in the hospital today. Families that are grieving and have lost a loved one to the virus. Even if we do not believe in masks ourselves, we could demonstrate that we care about people by wearing one. The mask needs to remain a rule for a long time.

Hygiene, washing our hands – that too must remain a rule. We mustn't equate allowing Jürgen Ligi to use a swimming pool alone to everyone going to the pub, without social distance, basic hygiene or masks of any kind.

We should definitely dial back mass restrictions. Keeping hardware and gardening supplies stores closed in springtime… The previous government was sensible here by giving people something to do in terms of fixing up their house or apartment. It is not sensible to keep people stuck in a confined space for long.

How did you interpret the prime minister's words according to which Estonia could remain locked down for the summer if restrictions are not complied with and the infection rate fails to come down – was it a threat as many are suggesting or simply a warning for people to maintain discipline?

(Sighs) The prime minister was simply stating a fact. That if we cannot stop the spread of the virus, we may be forced to live in the current situation also come summer.

I see nothing extraordinary here, not even in the European context. The German interior minister said the same thing – that society can expect to open from July and even that will only prove possible if people are responsible and the pace of vaccination picks up.

Accusations of blame that follow a person simply stating facts speak to the overexcited state of society.

How has your previous employer, the European Commission, handled the coronavirus crisis?

One can always do better, while I believe that the decision to have joint vaccine procurements was a good one for the EU and for Estonia.

We would not have been able to secure vaccines alone?

Definitely not. Estonia's financial and political influence is too modest for us to get ahead of the major players.

Head EU transport official Henrik Hololei hopes that the European Union's digital Covid certificate, complete with information on whether the person has been vaccinated, has recovered or tested negative for the virus, will be completed by June. Do you share his optimism?

It needs to be done. And I can see protests against a universal digital certificate or vaccination certificate, that it clashes with data protection rules, discriminates against those who have not been vaccinated, basically makes vaccination mandatory etc.

However, in the past… (Smiles) A year ago, everyone who wanted to go to Africa needed a piece of paper with a yellow stamp on it to suggest they had been inoculated against yellow jaundice.

The problem is that we already have a black market for PCR tests. For example, seven people have been detained at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for selling fake test results for quite a reasonable sum…

You have served as digital commissioner and know how to put together EU-level databases that could show who has been vaccinated and who hasn't.

I believe it is a manageable task. Instead of trusting pieces of paper or yellow cardboard as vaccination certificates, there could be something far more secure.

QR-code-based certificates, either in printed form or in mobile applications that would be easy to read and would require no great database. Similarly to how the X-road works in Estonia where you can query various databases.

Allow me to ask a few more international questions. Should Estonia leave or at least distance itself from the 17+1 cooperation format between China and Eastern European states?

I believe so. I have attended a 17+1 meeting and I must admit that it does leave one feeling important – you are there with the president or prime minister of the largest country in the world in terms of population and there are two-way meetings. While they only last for 15-20 minutes, the other side is always prepared…

It gave Estonia the chance to meet with the leaders of the largest country in the world and put Estonia on the map for them. It was of some use.

However, the political damage it causes is also considerable. Why should Estonia pursue foreign policy separately from the EU as part of a group it would normally not be affiliated with… I perceive it as an attempt to undermine unity [in the EU].

Estonia could pursue common foreign policy in the EU and maintain a mutual relationship with China. The latter have always said that they treat everyone equally, irrespective of how big or small the country. Therefore, let us have a 1+1 format with China instead of 17+1.

Do you see potential for better EU-Russia and Estonia-Russia relations?

Optimism is a moral duty for us. We must always hope to see better days. But I cannot see anything with the potential of improving relations in the short term. Unfortunately.

Finally, has Joe Biden lived up to your hopes in following Donald Trump?

It is too soon to say.

But it is always easier to have a relationship with a predictable partner. I believe U.S. conduct will be predictable under Biden. Having the world's most influential democracy act predictably is a great value.

[Trump] Casting aside the Kurds as former allies by saying that they did not fight with the U.S. in World War Two suggests something like that could one day be said about Estonia that did not fight in WWII because it was occupied. /…/

One should not expect too much from an unpredictable partner because one never knows what they'll do next.

Andrus Ansip. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Some Estonians fought on the side of the allies in WWII. But let us now turn our attention to the coming fall. You have said that your name should be left out of any presidential elections speculation. Why is that?

Because such speculation is pointless.

Has Reform really learned from its failure in 2016 – you did not get the president you wanted and ended up in the opposition?

No, it has nothing to do with lessons. It is a personal matter in my case. A purely ceremonial role is not one I would feel comfortable in after nine years at the head of executive power.

Secondly, I realize that the patience of the Estonian people has been tested quite enough (Starts to laugh) and I would refrain from adding to it.

The people's patience has been tested with Andrus Ansip?

Yes. Precisely. Everything has a beginning and an end.

Secondly, while I may be counted among the elderly when it comes to vaccination…

You were born in 1956.

While I still feel like a little kid, that year remains a fact.

It seems to me that we have two facts regarding presidential elections, namely that neither the Reform Party nor EKRE will yield the next president. The latter do not have enough political capital and Reform already holds the keys to Stenbock House.

Yes, I completely agree.

But coming back to my age. I am not old enough to give up having my own opinion. I would like to be free to feel about politics as I do. A person who aims to become president needs to be more malleable in their words aimed at various political forces. I have never been that person and let it serve as yet another assurance that I have no presidential aspirations.

Let us analyze Kersti Kaljulaid. Has she been too outspoken on domestic issues as suggested by her critics in your view?

No, certainly not.

But there are more than a few people who could run for president in Estonia. I believe that person should transcend political parties. After the level of social division we saw in Estonia, I believe they cannot be a current or former party chairman or clearly affiliated with political forces. I would like to see someone of a more scholarly persuasion, from outside party politics. Someone who would be capable of uniting Estonia and serving as a moral beacon again.

Give us a name as it seems that President Kersti Kaljulaid does not have enough political support for a second term.

I'm not the one to be naming those names. [President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences] Tarmo Soomere is a scientist… I dare say that Jaak Aaviksoo has been the strongest minister in my governments in terms of his hardworking character and ability to see the big picture.

However, I would not like to put people on the spot and force them to refute speculations.

Could the Reform Party get behind a Centrist candidate?

Of course, while it would depend on the candidate.

Do you believe the president should be elected in the Riigikogu or the Electoral College?

We should at least try to elect the president in the Riigikogu. There would be nothing amiss with electing the president in the Electoral College. But failing to even try to get the president elected in the parliament would be wrong.

You made me think… So, you would bet on Jaak Aaviksoo?

(Pauses) I merely gave you one possible name. But why not. While he is headstrong, he is a scientist and capable of defending different political positions, also on the international arena. He is outspoken… It was not a random name. I truly believe he would make a good candidate, while you should not conclude that Aaviksoo is Reform's man. (Laughs) I haven't discussed this with anyone and that includes Jaak Aaviksoo.

But we can say that it is Andrus Ansip's two cents on the matter.

Yes… Another one my ideas is Ülle Madise. I regard her a very strong personality. She has been active in public administration for a long time and has a clear idea of how the Estonian state functions. She is also not someone who would bend easily and has her own convictions. That is the kind of person I would like to see become president. Someone who refrains from taking populists stands and trying to meet the public's expectations but would speak their mind even when knowing that it is not what the masses want to hear.

Before you rush off to catch a plane to Brussels, do you have a recipe for absolving Estonian skiing of the shadows of doping?

(Pauses) What recipe could there be… (Sighs) Life goes on. There have been many such scandals in different countries. In Finland for example. You get up, dust yourself off and keep moving.

We had a lot of snow this year and I was glad to see so many people skiing. I'm glad the Tartu Marathon took place, even though I'm no longer one for participating. One understands that it would be a series of statistical disappointments with every passing year and I would break no further records. (Smiles)

But I'm very glad to go skiing there, seeing so many young people on skis over the weekend. They will yield new Olympic winners and world champions one day.

I'm sure people can learn from mistakes and refrain from seeking an unfair advantage.

Have you had the chance to ask Mati Alaver, why on Earth…?

What is there to ask.

Everything is clear enough?

It is clear for me. What he did was wrong. He must have found excuses for himself, that everyone else does it too or whatever. I do not know how people think… He soiled himself and soiled the reputation of Estonia.

He can no longer learn from these mistakes [Alaver is prohibited from working as a coach] but let them serve as a lesson to others who have considered doing something underhanded [in sports].

Andrus Ansip. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

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