Who is Estonia's next president Alar Karis?

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Alar Karis being congratualed in the Riigikogu after the ballots had been counted on August 31, 2021. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

On Monday the Riigikogu will hold the first round of voting to find Estonia's next president. There is only one candidate - Alar Karis. ERR News gives an overview of his life and views.

Alar Karis, 63, is an Estonian citizen by birth, a native of Tartu and the current director of the Estonian National Museum (ERM).

He is an Estonian molecular geneticist and developmental biologist who embarked on an academic career after graduating from the veterinary department of the Estonian University of Life Sciences (Eesti Maaülikool) in Tartu, and became a professor there in 1999.

He served as rector at the Estonian University of Life Sciences from 2003-2007, and as rector of the University of Tartu from 2007-2012. He was appointed Estonia's auditor general in March 2013 and, after completing his tenure, as director of the ERM in October 2017.

Karis was first suggested as a potential candidate in spring, but did not put himself forward for the role. On August 16, after discussions collapsed with the President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences (Eesti Teaduste Akadeemia) Tarmo Soomere, Chairman of the Center Party and Riigikogu speaker Jüri Ratas approach Karis to run as a candidate. He agreed to do so two weeks ago.

Karis suggested in an interview with ERR in April (link in Estonian), while talking about presidential candidates, that the best person for the job is never picked.

The president's role consists mostly of representing the nation abroad. However, as head of state, the president is also the supreme commander of Estonia's armed forces, formally appoints government members, signs laws to make them valid and has the power to veto legislation.

What does Karis think about...

Karis has given several interviews over the last two weeks, ERR News has summarized his answers on several important issues.

His role as president

Karis denied he would be a convenient president for the government and would not criticize them: "It is assumed that the president has to fight the government, the parliament, I don't think so. /.../ But I don't think I'm a comfortable person. Don't count on it."

Speaking about issues he sees as important, he said he would highlight themes from his career which he has a strong background in such as education, science and innovation.

His worldview

Karis said on some issues he holds conservative views. "Yes, of course, because I like traditions. Language and culture are very important to me," he said.

The future of Estonia

When asked last week what direction the next president should take Estonia in, he said (link in Estonian): "Estonia should be a smart and educated nation. Perhaps we should set ourselves the goal that the Estonian state could be the country with the most educated people. Not just to move into the top five educated nations, but to be number one in the world. And I think the prerequisites for that are there, because looking at our PISA tests, young people are actually at the top." 

Estonians

When asked who he thinks is a true Estonian, Karis replied this is a person who respects the Estonian Constitution. "The Constitution says everything, and especially in the preamble. I think it says a lot," he said.

Priit Sibul (Isamaa) told ERR that Karis and the party have similar views on Estonians. Sibul said: "There were issues where we have a common understanding, one of which was that this Karis sees that Estonians must remain the majority in Estonia, and that Estonia must move towards an Estonian-language education system."

He said Karis believes there needs to be a discussion about dual citizenship.

Uniting society

Asked if it is possible to unite society and to speak to all voters, he said (link in Estonian) it is: "We are all human beings and with our own views. It is not possible to find such a president, which would satisfy everyone one hundred percent."

"That means you have to communicate with everyone, no matter what the worldview, unless it's really extreme, which threatens national security."

Foreign policy

Foreign policy is a key area for the president and there have been concerns that Karis has little experience in this area. He said (link in Estonian) he would be happy to follow Kersti Kaljulaid's example and learn on the job with a good team of advisers. Karis acknowledged that "security policy and foreign policy in today's world are very important for Estonia".

He said Estonia has a strong foreign policy, when asked what he thought of the subject. Asked what could be changed, he said before reacting - especially towards Russia - there need to be discussions about whether Estonia is reacting alone or with others, such as the Baltic states.

Estonian-Russian relations

Asked what the point of Estonian-Russian relations are at the moment, Karis said (link in Estonian): "We have a lot of practical things in the air, be it the border issue or citizens here who look to Moscow rather than in Estonia and their situation. There are some issues to talk about with the Russians."

Asked if he would meet with President Vladimir Putin, he said: "To hold such an important meeting, you first need to have a very clear reason, you need to know the outcome, and you need to be very well prepared. If these criteria are met, this can of course be discussed." He said any meeting must be first discussed with the Riigikogu and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Estonia and the EU

Karis said (link in Estonian) Estonia needs to keep an eye on how the EU is changing, the direction it is moving in and new trends. He said Estonia could speak up more.

Asked what is Estonia's interest in the EU, he said: "It is in our interest for the European Union to survive. That we have such a place where we feel safe. We do not have many alternatives."

Registered Partnership Act

Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) told the media that Karis has said he would refuse to proclaim a law repealing the Registered Partnership Act if there were legal arguments to declare it unconstitutional.

The Registered Partnership Act, also known colloquially as the cohabitation act, entered into force in 2016. It legally recognizes couples who are cohabiting, including same-sex couples. However, it has not been put fully into effect as implementing legislation has not been passed by the Riigikogu. Some parties, such as EKRE, want the act to be repealed.

Coronavirus vaccination and restrictions

Karis said he had received the coronavirus vaccination and is in favor of vaccination. But he said a balance needs to be struck between public health and civil liberties.

Estonia's education system

Karis said changing the entire system to Estonian language overnight is neither reasonable nor possible. "We can't say that we will start teaching in Estonian overnight, knowing that there is a shortage of teachers, the environment is not favorable, there is a lack of motivation. These things have to be solved," he said.

Changing the presidential election system

Karis said a discussion is needed as soon as possible if the system is to the amended.

"Whoever becomes president should end the debate. This must be negotiated now, not when the next election is on the doorstep," said Karis, but added he did not dislike the current system and said it was constitutional. He said what devalues ​​it now is that the process is discussed more than the candidates.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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