Dialog with Russia, a need to address social inequality and a stemming of 'brain drain' were just some of the issues presidential potential candidate Tarmo Soomere covered in a meeting with the big hitters of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDE) Tuesday.
Soomere has to present his candidacy to four of the five political parties, with a view to garnering enough votes to get elected at the Riigikogu via a fairly swift process – as Riigikogu speaker Jüri Ratas (Center) has requested.
Soomere also said that he did not oppose Estonian citizens also having citizenship of another state, and that he did not oppose marriage equality, expressing regret over the maltreatment of same-sex attracted people in the past, including computer science pioneer and code-breaker Alan Turing, who he mentioned by name.
Soomere met representatives of the two coalition parties, Reform and Center, on Monday, and is to meet opposition party Isamaa Thursday.
His meeting with the Social Democratic Party (SDE) is also significant – party leader Indrek Saar has not ruled out backing Kersti Kaljulaid for a second term, at least in his public statements, while the support of Reform and Center together, with 59 seats, is not enough to reach the 68 or more Riigikogu votes to get elected president.
The other opposition party, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), has opted to go it alone with its own candidate, former speaker Henn Põlluaas.
SDE's two MEPs were both present and asked questions of Soomere.
Marina Kaljurand, a former Estonian ambassador to the Russian Federation, asked about that country, its relations with the EU and the border treaty between it and Estonia.
Soomere said that there must be a dialogue with Russia, adding that Estonia could at least participate actively in shaping relations between it and the EU.
On the border treaty, which would see the Estonian border follow what was delineated in the original 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty, Soomere, 63, said he didn't think the matter would be resolved in his lifetime.
The other SDE MEP, former defense minister Sven Mikser, asked about China.
Soomere called the China-led 16+1 format, which sees cooperation with some of the EU's member states, predominantly those in Central and Eastern Europe, divisive and not something which Estonia should take part in in full, adding that the country should still keep up-to-date on what China.
Europe's economic growth should outstrip China's as well, he said.
As to foreign policy in general, a matter seen as key for an Estonian president and very much in focus in recent weeks, Soomere said that Estonia cannot have multiple foreign policies, but one and one alone, something which he as president would act in step with the foreign ministry.
Soomere, who is head of the Estonian Academy of Sciences (Eesti Teaduste Akadeemia) also addressed the environment and energy, and said that a proposed pulp mill would be beneficial to the country and could also be constructed without damaging the environment.
SDE MP Kalvi Kõva asked Soomere about the future of the oil shale sector, which, Soomere responded, was the only means of meeting Estonia's energy security needs at present, though developments with energy storage may help spell the end of oil shale, at least for firing power stations, while the mined mineral may have other applications in the chemicals industry.
He was also warm on the idea of a nuclear power plant in Estonia, which he called a manageable and relatively safe means of production notwithstanding societal fears.
In general, Soomere said that Estonia's energy portfolio should be as wide as possible meaning it is not wise to rule anything out right from the beginning.
Soomere said he would also involve more scientists in academics in political decision-making, even as their advice need not be heeded, adding he would attempt to reduce societal inequality and perceptions of it.
At the same time, he would not be drawn on SDE leader Indrek Saar's question on whether to install a progressive tax system, calling that a matter for the Riigikogu.
Soomere also said that he would not use presidential veto in the case of a law which was not unconstitutional – in that case a law must either be promulgated by the president, or that president must resign.
Soomere made these comments in response to a question from SDE MP Eduard Odinets, who referred to a statement by current president Kersti Kaljulaid that she would refuse to sign into being any law which would repeal the Registered Partnership Act – colloquially known as the cohabitation act and the main piece of legislation granting legal recognition to unmarried couples who live together, including same-sex couples.
Nonetheless, Soomere decried a what he called a lack of understanding of marginalized people, noting that the world had been changing rapidly with regard to sexual minorities, and bringing in the case of British pioneer Alan Turing, whose premature death he regretted.
He also answered in the affirmative when Indrek Saar asked him whether he supported marriage equality,
Soomere said: "I have a duty to be relatively equally unpleasant to all parties. But that's one of the principles that goes hand in hand with my worldview."
Th meeting started just after 10.00 a.m Tuesday, lasted an hour-and-a-half, and was conducted via video link-up.
Soomere reiterated statements he has already made on his view of a president as, ideally, a conciliator, who does not get involved in day-to-day politics.
He also said he saw no reason why individuals should not have dual citizenship.
While dual citizenship is not banned as such in Estonia, those taking on Estonian citizenship (as opposed to those who had it by dint of recent Estonian ancestry but who also had citizenship of another state) have to renounce their previous citizenship(s). Years prior to becoming Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves had had to renounce his U.S. citizenship, in order to become Estonia's ambassador to the U.S., the country he grew up in.
Soomere, as a scientist, also addressed the issue of academic "brain drain", the lack of Russian-speaking professors at Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech), and forestry and tree-felling – which he said required more dialog among scientists.
SDE leader: I would have liked more specific answers from Soomere
SDE leader Indrek Saar's evaluation of Soomere's performance was that he would have liked more specific answers, adding that the marriage equality issue was a given anyway, since it has been on the table for so long.
Soomere said Tuesday that he was in favor of marriage equality.
Saar also pointed out that there has been a discussion in Estonian society for some time about equal rights, including marital equality. This means that so far as presidential candidates go, their worldview and values cannot be overlooked.
Saar said that SDE has not withdrawn its support for Kersti Kaljulaid returning for a second term, pointing out that Soomere is not an official candidate of any political party yet, but was only Jüri Ratas' proposal.
As to whether the two coalition partners, Reform and Center, may be putting up Soomere as a stalking-horse candidate who cannot get elected at parliament, leading to the process moving to the regional electoral colleges, Saar said that: "I would very much hope that this is not the case. I like to play by fair rules. But of course I can't rule it out. I can't read these people's minds."
Saar added that the public also expect to get an idea of the person who may be their next head of state, and what his or her values and views are, even as the mass of the populace does not get to vote for the president.
"The expectation of the public is to get an idea of the values that this person, who might end up being the president of the whole of Estonia, will carry in the future," Saar went on.
This article was updated to include Indrek Saar's comments.
Editor: Andrew Whyte