Mart Laar: We need to forget about Russia for a little while

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Mart Laar served as prime minister from 1992-1994 and again from 1999-2002. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Veteran politician and historian Mart Laar, who celebrates his 61st birthday on Thursday, finds that Estonia should not worry too much about Russia.

He also says that the more Estonia asks for the Estonia-Russia border treaty to be ratified, the less likely it is to happen, and worries about Isamaa's low support rating.

What is your outlook on life in the spring of 2021?

It's beautiful. The sun is shining in Tallinn in spite of the weather report.

Does nothing bother you about life in Estonia today? Are you satisfied with how our language and culture are doing?

Language and culture make for a constant concern in Estonia. It has always been with us and always will. For example, we should not send peculiar signals to suggest that commerce matters to the government and cultural institutions not so much. Such signs are always quite aggravating.

Perhaps the government is simply able to count money? It is cheaper to keep cultural institutions closed than it is supermarkets.

That is not what we are seeing today. Saving on culture will cost more in the long run as culture is like a plant that needs to be regularly watered. Not once in three years.

How has the new government managed?

The government needs to be given 100 days free of criticism. I have promised not to comment on its steps before that time.

The Reform Party is once again the lead coalition partner and has promised to go down the path of austerity. You have also been a staunch supporter of fiscal balance. All other countries are busy overspending, while we're looking to cut costs. Why is that?

I very much hope the government can keep its promise. Let us hope that promises to repay loans and dial back the budget will not be followed by even greater borrowing.

That is to say austerity is in order?

Yes, I believe it is always useful. We have borrowed a lot of money in the current difficult situation and clearly need to apply the brakes now.

How has Estonia fared in terms of managing the coronavirus crisis? Have we been more innovative than others at finding solutions?

Estonia has been short on innovation for some time. We are not talking about the current or previous governments even but must go back several cabinets. The problems we have today are caused by failure to do things a decade ago. What is especially sad is that we have failed to work with the sector that has offered solutions in the crisis. The state has not gone along with it. Estonia is doing everything much like everyone else. However, if Estonia wants to be successful, we need to try and do things differently. This tactic has benefited us always.

What is your view of the European Commission borrowing in the name of member states? The Conservative People's Party (EKRE) are resorting to obstruction tactics by introducing hundreds of motions to amend to derail the corresponding bill.

The European Union has contributed to these negative moods; for example, if we look at what is happening with Tallinn Hospital project funding. As concerns EKRE, it is more a political campaign for them that many are sure to welcome. It helps their popularity. Whether their actions benefit Estonia is another matter.

Let us talk about your party – Isamaa. What is your view of the current fight between the leadership and the Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) faction?

It is hardly anything new. I have survived worse in the party, so these developments are hardly surprising or novel.

Is [chairman] Helir-Valdor Seeder overdoing it, trying to ward off in-house opposition?

While mine is the esteemed status of honorary chairman, it is not my place to tell the current chairman what they must or shouldn't do.

Will Isamaa survive, as its rating is precarious again?

The rating is modest and I would like to see it climb. However, it has been low in the past, even though Isamaa had 22 seats in the parliament when I left. Those were different times. But change requires decisions.

Are you not afraid that EKRE will simply swallow Isamaa, considering how good they are at playing the game?

That's the thing about playing the game. Isamaa has probably never been very good at it. The word "play" says it all. I have never been able to play politics. I find treating it as a game detestable. But I would like to see some action.

What do you mean?

An integral approach that would see Estonia better able to cope and seize opportunities. For example, possibilities offered by changing climate policy. Our companies show great promise in the digital domain but can we seize these opportunities? It requires us to change our thinking, to see problems not as woes but as challenges. We have become an ordinary Western European country that borrows to solve problems. We could be more independent and stand apart. It has worked for us in the past.

Does what is happening in Russia worry you?

Just as with culture, Russia is a constant worry for us. Of course, we are concerned, while we wouldn't have time to do anything if we filled our days worrying about Russia. We need to forget about Russia a little. Russia is stewing in its own pot and Estonia, thank God, is living outside of it. The latter aspect is key. Until that remains the case, things are great.

Does Estonia need a border agreement with Russia? Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets has once again raised the issue.

The more we ask for it, the less likely it is to happen.

When will we see Mart Laar's new book on the shelves?

This year, I hope. It will be quite different.

Can you tell us what or who it will be about?

I will be looking at Karl August Hindrey this time. Not a single book has been written about him. I have been collecting material for 20 years, from archives, the press and from personal memory. It will be a rather proper and thorough book.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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