Feature: Five years of Kersti Kaljulaid

End of the year interview with President Kersti Kaljulaid.
End of the year interview with President Kersti Kaljulaid. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

On Monday, Kersti Kaljulaid handed the presidential chain over to Alar Karis, bringing her single term in office to a close. But what did Estonia's fifth president achieve, how was she viewed domestically and internationally and how will she be remembered? ERR News asked the experts.

After five failed rounds of voting, Kersti Kaljulaid was put forward as a compromise candidate at the presidential elections in 2016. The Riigikogu, facing an unprecedented situation, looking to bring the situation under control and save themselves from embarrassment, voted 81 in favor with 17 abstentions.

Thus, on October 10, 2016, the presidential chain was lifted from around the neck of two-term President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Estonia received its first female, and youngest, president. 

Kaljulaid's term in office spanned both five years and the globe, taking her from Kadriorg to the United Nations in New York, to the Kremlin in Moscow, the front line in eastern Ukraine and scientific research stations in Antarctica. She made 138 foreign, seven state and countless domestic visits during her term.  

As president, Kaljulaid is widely credited with winning Estonia its two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, boosting the country's image abroad and continuing Ilves' work promoting the e-state. 

Former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves handing power to Kersti Kaljulaid in 2016. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

At home, she dared to tread untrodden paths. Kaljulaid made highlighting domestic violence a priority - even raising the subject in an Independence Day speech. She moved her office to Narva, Estonia's most eastern city, with a majority Russian population, for a month and emphasized tolerance and integration in her public addresses.   

But things were not always rosy. She clashed with radical right-wing populist party EKRE and former Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center), plunging president-government relations to an all-time low. The resulting fallout meant the parties refused to back her for a second term in office. 

But how was her term different from those who came before her? 

Navigating the conflicting tides of domestic party politics

"It's a little cliched, but each president has truly been different from their predecessors," Vello Pettai, professor of comparative politics at the University of Tartu, told ERR News. "Not only was Kaljulaid's gender an important milestone, but also her elocution and straightforward style."

Kaljulaid was not a complete unknown when she took office; she had earlier been a prime ministerial advisor to Mart Laar, but she had also spent the preceding decade at the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg. Her scrambled, snap election didn't give the parties much time to get to know their next president.  

Asked if the Riigikogu got the president it expected, Pettai said: "I think they might have expected to get a serious-minded analyst and administrator. And in part, they got that." However, she also knew how to take a stand against the government, which "proved fatal for her re-election prospects". 

Other areas she highlighted during her term included healthy lifestyles, caring for others, campaigning against domestic violence.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Kaljulaid by the Center-EKRE-Isamaa government (2019-2021) was that she overstepped the limits of her presidential duties, refusing to promulgate legislation and criticizing the coalition both domestically and internationally.  

However, Pettai doesn't believe Kaljulaid overstepped the mark. "The trickiest role of any president is to navigate the conflicting tides of domestic party politics," he said, adding: "The president is always vulnerable to antagonizing one or another party."

He said during Kaljulaid's term Estonia's domestic politics became "much more complicated with the rise of EKRE". These included comments made by EKRE politicians about immigration, LGBT+ rights, NATO, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and U.S. President Joe Biden, which were all reported internationally and required a response from the president.   

New coalition takes Riigikogu oath Autor/allikas: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

"Many of the faux-pas and upsets that surrounded the [Jüri] Ratas government were among the most difficult ones Estonia has faced. Kaljulaid was in an especially tricky spot having to comment on them," he said. 

Professor Andres Kasekamp, Department of History chair of Estonian studies at the University of Toronto, said the end of Kaljulaid's time as president started with the entry into office of the Center-EKRE-Isamaa government.

He said the president of Estonia, while having little real power, is looked to as a "moral authority" and she "put her principals ahead of trying to get elected".

"She's said she would do it again," Kasekamp said.

"Active and visible" abroad 

While things didn't always go smoothly at Toompea, abroad Kaljulaid was "active", "visible internationally" and strongly promoted Estonia's reputation and interests abroad, Dr. Kristi Raik, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute told ERR News. 

The role of the president is largely ceremonial, but they're also handed the foreign policy brief and expected to act as the country's spokesperson. 

Did Kaljulaid's approach to foreign policy differ from previous presidents? Raik said the interests of the Estonian state do not change when a new president takes office.

Asked if Estonia's foreign policy was in a better or worse place after Kaljulaid's five years in office, she said: "Generally, I don't see dramatic changes." 

Speaking about EKRE's impact on Estonia's reputation and Kaljulaid's response in the media, Raik said as president she "stood up for democratic values when she saw they were under pressure".  

"The level of polarization that we saw in Estonian politics and society in recent years was unprecedented, and to some extent had a negative impact on Estonia's international reputation," she said. 

President Kersti Kaljulaid in Antarctica. Source: Office of the President

"At the same time, the president should work towards reducing polarization and enhancing societal cohesion – in this regard the trend was negative."

Raik believes Kaljulaid's most important contribution was the leading role she played in the campaign for Estonia's non-permanent member's seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). 

This involved Kaljulaid traveling the world to promote Estonia's candidacy. "The goal of UNSC membership was decided well before her presidency, but she dedicated much energy to it and did it successfully," Raik said. 

Another stand-out moment was Kaljulaid's visit to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019, which is still viewed as controversial. While it was viewed positively abroad, the way the visit was prepared - without involvement from the government - was criticized at home.

"This is one of the most delicate and difficult questions for any Estonian president, how to communicate with Russia and how to ensure domestic backing to any new moves in that direction," Raik said, who said she approved of the decision to open a dialogue with Russia.

President Kersti Kaljulaid on the Crimean administrative border. Source: VPK

But presidents can also prioritize their own areas of interest, and here Kaljulaid being Estonia's first female president may have made a difference.

"Kaljulaid often raised the rights of women and children globally and was nominated the first Global Advocate of the United Nations Secretary-General for Every Woman Every Child," Raik said. "So yes, being a woman made a difference for her areas of interest. Women's rights is an important issue for global security and wellbeing, so this has raised her global profile."

Andres Kasekamp said, internationally, being a woman was "only a plus". Kaljulaid's election showed Estonia was "catching up to the rest of the world and the region". The country was the last Baltic state to have a female head of state.

"Milestone" first female president

If Kaljulaid being Estonia's first female president made a difference internationally, did it play any role domestically? 

Dr Maarja Luhiste, senior lecturer in politics of gender at Newcastle University, said it is probably too early to tell. However, she may be a positive role model for young girls. 

Luhiste said research has found that women in positions of political leaders often have little impact on encouraging women to go into politics in the short term, but the long-term effects show if children grow up in an environment where women and men both hold positions of authority then boys and girls interests in politics is the same.

"This gender gap we usually see is not there for adolescents growing up in environments where men and women share power," she said. 

Kaljulaid's role in raising awareness of domestic violence - especially around holidays - also had an impact. Before her term, high-profile politicians had not raised the topic. But by bringing the issue into the spotlight, Luhiste said this has changed the way the Estonian media now covers the subject. "There is no excuse for it anymore," Luhiste said. 

President Kersti Kaljulaid and leader of the Belarusian opposition Svetlana Tsihhanovskaja. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Kasekamp echoed the same thought and said she "shattered the silence" around the issue. "This wasn't something people wanted to hear," he said saying people viewed the subject as "awkward and painful". 

At times, the way members of the Riigikogu spoke about Kaljulaid also seemed dependent on her gender. 

"There were periods where she lacked some of the respect a president should enjoy from other politicians. Especially from right-wing parties. I find it difficult to imagine that when Mart Helme was minister of Interior, he would have called a male president "an emotionally heated man", which he did to Kaljulaid," Luhiste said, speaking about the infamous "Sõna on Vaba" (Speech is free) sweatshirt incident. 

While there was tension with the government, Kaljulaid was popular amongst the general public. Polling published in January 2021, shows the president was the third most trusted politician in Estonia behind Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (Center) and MEP Marina Kaljurand (SDE). She also had higher support among people aged 35 or below and Estonians.

Kasekamp said this respect took time to form. Kaljulaid was unknown to the general public when she started in the role but became more popular over time. He described her activities as "super energetic and active" which may be owed to Kaljulaid being Estonia's youngest president to date.

He said: "She has simply been much keener to be out and about everywhere meeting people."

President Kersti Kaljulaid at the "Free Estonia!" Night Song Festival at Tallinn Song Festival Grounds on August 20, 2021. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR


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Editor: Helen Wright

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