Alar Karis will not be straightening politicians' ties or buttoning coats

President-elect Alar Karis.
President-elect Alar Karis. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

President-Elect Alar Karis (63) is packing his things in the office of the director of the Estonian National Museum to open the door to Kadriorg Palace 40 days from now. The former auditor general, university rector is still balancing on the narrow footbridge between insecurity and confidence.

How to describe Estonia?

Estonia is a successful country that needs motivation and a goal to keep developing. And for spirits to be lifted, because while we can see people rejoicing and celebrating during holidays, it's somewhat of a different story on ordinary days.

People still ask, 30 years after we regained our independence, whether it was inevitable, a miracle or just luck.

It is a miracle, thinking back to how and when it all happened. And, of course, it is also inevitable as Estonians or citizens of Estonia would not imagine it any other way. The Estonian state must exist and persist.

A small country on the border between the East and the West in a highly multicultural and globalized world, afraid to open its door to aliens, hardly compassionate as a state. Is this description rather unfair or accurate?

Certain elements therein can be acknowledged. We are careful. We are more closed than we should be. We are open economically, while we are hesitant when it comes to strangers.

Eesti Ekspress published the story of a young woman living in Kabul who worked for civil society and government organizations and asked for asylum in Estonia during the second week of Taliban rule because she is afraid for her life. The quota is full, she was told.

The question, which I have also sought to answer, concerns the meaning of this quota. If it is a foreign quota, it is not how these things should work – we should be able to determine how many people in need of international protection we can bring here without it impacting our security. We have clever people in charge of relevant calculations.

These figures swelling out of hand or a lot of people arriving at the same time could create tension in the country that no one wants.

How should we look at people who helped Estonia in Afghanistan? [If they want to move to a safer environment.]

We need to help them. We have participated in the NATO mission, and one should count on setbacks and having to help those who helped you even before embarking on such missions.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, when he was sworn in as president 15 years ago, dreamed about an Estonia that no longer reflects 50 years of occupation by the end of his term. Are we there mentally?

The occupation is not easily removed. It will live on in future generations, also in terms of mentality. And it needs to be remembered to make sure future generations know what happened.

We are not there yet. Some things have been left undone for Estonia to be as President Ilves described.

President of the Riigikogu, head of the Center Party Jüri Ratas called you on Monday, August 16 to ask you whether you would consider running for president. You were elected in the Riigikogu on August 31. What were those two weeks like?

Very tempestuous. It was very unexpected, I was not prepared… It was a shorter distance than 100 meters, 60 meters spring rather, with unrelenting tension from morning to evening. What is more, I had to leave for the capital where I was alone. Luckily, I had a few kind people to help me, someone I could bounce ideas off of and discuss matters.

And, as you can see, it is not over yet.

Was it like the state described by [Estonian poet] Doris Kareva where "you exist without leaning on anything, without a single guarantee, no knowledge or certainty – nothing at all"?

I had certainty. Not in terms of winning the election but concerning life going on. I have my work and my family. I did not have any great concerns in that sense.

There was no great emptiness or the like.

At times, it felt as if I was looking on as an observer, from the outside. I tried to bring parties together so they could make a sensible decision. I believe that parties did converge, at least for a moment. Let us hope they will not drift apart again.

How long would you have stayed in the race? In other words, were you prepared to run in the Electoral College had the Riigikogu proved unable to elect the president?

Once you set foot on that path, you need to follow through. Moreover, the parties that nominated me expected as much. They kept asking me whether I was willing to go on.

You said in an interview in April, then as director of the Estonian National Museum, that you do not see yourself possessing personal characteristics necessary to serve as president. I have often wondered why you said it, considering the fact that your potential candidacy had already been mentioned at that time.

My name had been mentioned… It was mentioned even before the election… But it was hypothetical then and not something you really think about. I said at the time that I had very high expectations for the president…

Have they come down?

No, on the contrary. They have become even more stringent, seeing oneself in that office. There is some concern as to how to live up to them.

It was an honest answer back then. However, people around me managed to convince me that I had what it takes and could perform as president.

You became president in a span of two weeks. Turbo proceedings. Is it quite right?

Turbo is a comfortable pace for me. Turbo proceedings were the best scenario for me, even though it might not have been the case for the people – I'm not sure I would have agreed to run in March, knowing that the matter would not be decided before August.

A last-minute decision, rapid action and result – turbo proceedings is a very good expression. (Smiles)

What do the 72 votes you got in the Riigikogu speak of?

They suggest I got more votes than I needed. Even though I got 74 votes the last time, when I was picked to serve as auditor general [in 2013].

What they tell me is that you got votes from four parties – in addition to the Reform Party and Center Party [that nominated Karis], also from Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party. Why did they vote for you?

Answering this question would require deeper knowledge of the human soul to be able to say why people voted this way. More so as the ballot is secret and we don't know who voted how or whether everyone in Reform or Center voted for…

You have doubts?

No, I have no doubts because there is nothing to doubt. If someone pats you on the shoulder and tells you they will vote for you, that is what you need to count on.

Were there more people patting you on the shoulder than the 72 votes you got?

There were few chances for shoulder-patting. Everyone wished me luck, including people who likely did not vote for me, whereas one party simply abstained from voting.

But it does happen sometimes that people saying "yes" after the fact outnumber the votes one got in the election.

Toomas SIldam interview with Alar Karis. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Conservative People's Party (EKRE) leader Martin Helme said that everything has an ulterior motive in politics, that they must have gotten something in return. What might Kaja Kallas and Jüri Ratas have promised Helir-Valdor Seeder or Indrek Saar?

The only promise they could have made is that they believe Alar Karis to be make a good president.

You promised to address the Russian community in Estonia in Russian if necessary. Eesti Ekspress asked whether that was the price of Center's Russian vote?

No. I would also address Estonian Latvians in Latvian had I knowledge of the language. It makes it easier to approach people.

However, it in no way suggests that I believe our Russian community does not need to learn Estonian. We need to find what motivates them and offer them the opportunity, because the situation today does not.

Therefore, it is merely courtesy. I would address every community in their own language were I proficient.

The presidential election made you the centerpiece of Estonian politics. How is the view from up there?

I've seen politics before…

That was then and this is now.

Now is now… Everything changes, it depends on political parties, their relationships, the general atmosphere. Today, we have major polarization not just between people in general but also between political parties. Fixing it will not be an easy task, while I have said I want to try. I will make the effort.

To the best of my knowledge, President Kersti Kaljulaid also tried. I will try again, perhaps using different tricks. It is difficult to say how it will turn out, but I am not one to give up easily.

Is it true that Estonian politics is characterized by constant suspicions, mistrust and gambling?

There is increased mistrust. People do not trust anyone, whether inside their own party or in others. Mistrust is also created between the people and politicians. This leaves us with a picture of MPs, the government and the president as the elite, far removed from the people and wanting nothing to do with them.

Perhaps one of my tasks will be to show that the elite does not necessarily mean alienating oneself from what is taking place in the country.

And then there is polarization, society coming undone at the seams. Is that the cause of the wretched grimace traveler Tiit Pruuli perceives in Estonia?

Yes, that grimace is perceptible. Everything is immediately split in two regarding any topic. There is no place for discussion, talking about things before determining the level of polarization – people immediately jump to opposite extremes coming back from which is very difficult. Even family members have fallen out on various topics, if only vaccination, which is of crucial public health significance.

President of Latvia Egils Levits has set about alleviating sharpening differences in the coronavirus era by presenting the parliament with nine principles of vaccination. Will you follow suit?

I cannot propose such principles myself. Perhaps it could be considered if I had clever advisers to help me. However, we can see that even clever advisers have fallen out, become polarized.

It is a difficult task and great responsibility to tell people how they should be. However, if the Latvian president is convinced and knows the necessary steps, I will study these principles to see whether they include a message to the Estonian people.

Can you negotiate with populists?

It is possible to talk to populists. And we must talk to them. And if the opportunity presents itself to negotiate with them, that too must be done.

They will still tell you that a presidential election sporting a single candidate is akin to North Korea or the Soviet Union.

A very unfortunate expression that already made its way into international media, that the election was a Soviet vestige or that Soviet days have returned. In Soviet times, there would be a single candidate from a single party and everyone would know the outcome.

I dare not say Soviet days have returned. Two parties were hesitant, one was clearly opposed [at the presidential election]. Richard von Weizsäcker was elected president [without an opposing candidate] in Germany in 1989. And accusing the Federal Republic of Germany of Soviet tendencies would be a slight exaggeration. (Smiles)

You've opined that society has more emotionality than rationality, while the former is somehow inward-looking and perhaps even suppressed. A dangerous mix?

It is a dangerous mix, yes, when people… I do not want to say are afraid but are cautious when it comes to expressing their opinion. It's not good. We can see that many people are willing to turn out with posters. But sometimes, people who should come out and say rational things don't. Perhaps they say those things at home.

They are afraid of being hurt?

Indeed. And being afraid of getting hurt is a sign of danger. These days, social media is enough to discourage people from speaking their mind.

Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Jonatan Vseviov said on the "Plekktrumm" show four years ago that we need to find a way to have a dialogue as a society. According to Vseviov, the first prerequisite of dialogue is the participants finding each other, while the second is agreeing that the other side has the right to disagree. Without it, it becomes simply a shouting match.

A very astute observation. I definitely agree. This [presidential] election also showed that convergence is possible, that we can listen to and acknowledge different opinions and accept that people and parties disagree. That is how it should be.

Influential diplomat Matti Maasikas and former Justice Minister Jüri Raidla described Estonia after joining the EU and NATO as having "lost the taste for reforms" and "dropped the trowel." Do you agree?

Well, such metaphors are very interesting and everyone interprets them differently.

But basically… I joined the state reform foundation because I saw that reforms were necessary, had to be taken forward. It is a part of the president's task to channel these reforms, to make sure they get somewhere before being dropped as it were.

What kind of reforms does Estonia need?

They are included in the state reform plan. Some reforms simply need to be taken forward, such as the administrative reform. I could clearly feel the need when meeting with parties. To avoid a situation where certain regions miss out on European subsidies and fall behind. Local governments need to be big enough to have financial autonomy.

You are a proponent of the "one county, one local government" principle?

Yes, I have said that is how it should be from the first. They can include – however we would call them – municipality districts or parishes. But we could have 15 local governments nationwide.

Alar Karis. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

You referred to your home city of Tartu as quite close and not one to debate Tartu in 2050 and beyond in April. It applies to the whole of Estonia, does it not?

It does to an extent, yes. Because I stand closer to Tartu, I can see some goals, such as Tartu for European Capital of Culture 2024, while there is not much talk about what comes next. Tartu will not end in 2024 and should keep developing.

It is the same for the country. The problem is likely that we have not considered the goals we should be pursuing. Pragmatic things of crucial importance have been achieved: our own currency, followed by the EU and NATO and then the euro… Clear things, clear goals. It has all become somewhat ambivalent now, in terms of where we are going. And it is not the case only for Estonia, there is confusion in terms of where we are and where we're going also on the EU level.

At the same time, the "Fit for 55" package has rather a clear goal – to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Will the green turn happen?

We need to elaborate what it would really mean for us, what it means in the Estonian context. It is clear that environmental matters are crucial and problems acute in places. However, we are not in a great position as concerns Ida-Viru County. Thousands of families there depend on oil shale energy and we should consider their alternatives. We need to talk about it before we offer them retraining.

Would they have to find work somewhere else or can we find them work on location? Some steps have been taken with young people in mind. But what about those employed in the sector today? Putting an end to oil shale energy is not a cheap thing to do. One option is paying people of a certain age 75 percent of salary until they retire for as long as they do not have a job.

All of it needs to be considered to give these people certainty. Shutting down a sector – I do not want to say overnight but over a relatively short time – will have an effect on them. But what will it be?

We cannot see 5,000 miners becoming startup entrepreneurs.

Definitely not. That's just the question, what to offer them. And how to go about it. Whereas the clock is ticking – it's September 2021 already.

Is Man nature's crown or is he in opposition with nature?

He is neither. He is part of nature.

We are a part of nature, and many species have spent a far longer time on this Earth than we have. We also need to keep that in mind.

How careless and arrogant are we when it comes to the natural environment?

We are… There is polarization here too. One side is very mindful of nature, down to making economic activity impossible. While the other extreme is using up everything there is.

How would you take it were forests clearcut around your home in Tartu County?

I have little forest there as it is. I have even cleared some brushwood from the edge of the valley to have a nicer view. (Smiles) However, I have found myself searching for the right turn-off to my country home after the forest was cut down there.

But to provide an assessment… What is happening around one's house is one thing. Suddenly not seeing the woodpecker you have seen for the last 20 years might not mean things are all bad. We need clear data: how much [forest] is cut, how much could be cut, how to restore biodiversity. Replacing it with monocultures might look fine on paper, while it can hardly restore recent biodiversity.

Estonians believe in education. It is how we were taught. Now, you say you want to turn Estonia into the most educated country in the world. Are you referring to higher education?

No, on the contrary. Education does not equal higher education, a doctoral degree. It is necessary to be educated or become knowledgeable in every field. We can even see people with higher education enrolling at vocational schools to complement their education. Even simpler work requires different know-how these days where picking up a shovel and working until lunch and from there is no longer enough.

That is to say education is necessary and one constantly needs to retrain and complement their skills these days. That is how education happens, whereas this process must be continuous.

Education is no longer linear, starting in 1st grade and ending with a university diploma at best. It is much more versatile. The idea of alma mater is becoming dissolved even in universities as people obtain bachelor's degrees here before continuing their studies in several places abroad. The question of what's your alma mater no longer has a simple answer.

Does education equal subsistence?

Education helps one make do. The most important thing is the ability to cope when times are difficult.

To what extent should heads of state make decisions according to public opinion or ignore it should they find it mistaken?

(Snorts) "Public opinion is wrong" is a good one. To suggest there are people somewhere who know how everything works? (Snorts again)

No, I believe public opinion needs to be heeded, that is what is meant by dialogue. I can have an opinion and you can have an opinion, while a conversation can lead us to a third opinion. That is the point of dialogue.

Alar Karis. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Assistant professor of political theory at the University of Tartu Eva Piirimäe recently told ERR's Novaator portal that the president is a symbolic manifestation of the state and stands separate from the desires of the masses. What sense do you make of that?

It is a very philosophical thought. The president is an institution and does exist beyond the person.

I completely understand that such institutions must look at everyday life from a distance. Not from an ivory tower, do not get me wrong, but from a distance, to be able to see the bigger picture. That is when they can reflect that picture for others.

Eva Piirimäe proceeded from Edmund Burke's idea of virtual representation where the representative prioritizes the interest of the state as a whole and is not constrained by narrow expectations of voters, to suggest that the Estonian president does not have to proceed from the interests of the parties that elected them.

That is absolutely right. The peculiarity of elections is that someone nominates you [as a candidate]. University rectors are also nominated by one or two faculties. That does not automatically make the incoming rector their representative. On the contrary. There is even an expression according to which beating those closest to you keeps the others in line. (Smiles) In truth, one must represent all fields.

Is that to say the Reform Party and Center Party [that proposed your candidacy] should feel the most threatened?

No, it is a metaphor. One needs to deal with all parties, while none of them need hope I will be representing their ideas. Which is not to say there will be no moments in which I will have to agree with the parties that nominated me. Consciously ignoring their plans or ideas would be peculiar indeed.

Do you think that wagging your finger at and admonishing politicians would merely merit a shrug these days?

It would if done like that. Lennart Meri straightened [politicians'] ties and buttoned up their coats. The president could not do that today.

Every president serves in their own time and has their own style. Wagging one's finger does not have to mean wagging one's finger, and it is always possible to say things without insults or coming off too strong. If that does not work, one needs to turn up the tone to drive home the message.

Are you prepared to publicly say that the government is wrong or a minister lacking in their position?

Not using such a style. I will point it out, while I will not suggest someone is wrong as that would suggest I am infallible. However, these things need to be said if one feels others are on the wrong path and has reason to believe so. We are emotional creatures, we react, while we need to make sure our reaction is grounded in reality first. If it is, things need to be said.

Are you also prepared to tell incoming prime ministers that they need to replace a ministerial candidate because they are not fit for the job?

The first step is to encourage the prime minister to introduce ministerial candidates before showing up at Kadriorg. And if there is reason to believe ministerial candidates could be unsuitable for whatever reason, might cause problems in the government and beyond, we can discuss it and urge the candidate for PM to consider the matter.

I understand it is difficult to do because the PM does not really form the government. They ask [coalition] parties for candidates, and it is difficult telling them they picked the wrong person after the fact. But we must try.

And should you be ignored?

Then I am ignored. At least I will have sent my message and can say it was discussed before the government was approved in Kadriorg.

What are your criteria for people?

I expect people to be honest in their relationships and statements. This honesty does not have to be reflected in extreme statements.

But I believe that honesty is where it starts. And if something goes the way it was not supposed to, that too needs to be said. Only then can it be changed.

What are the values that matter to you, looking at society?

One important value – and I emphasized it when meeting with parties in the Riigikogu – is equal treatment in all matters. That is a core value of mine.

[Estonian children's writer] Leelo Tungal once said on the "Plekktrumm" show that a boy asked her which she would rather surrender to a robber, money or a book. What do you think Tungal said?

I would part with the money. Let them have it as I doubt they have a good use for it…

I can't say. The situation is very different when one is under real duress. One probably tells a different story compared to sitting comfortably behind a desk and sipping water.

Leelo Tungal said she would surrender the book. "Firstly, because I have more books than money. And secondly, because perhaps the robber will read the book and change his ways." What can we learn from this?

It is an innocent kind of attitude. I believe that a person who has chosen the path of a robber is hardly interested in books.

Is the president part of politics in Estonia?

Inevitably. We might ask whether the president is a politician. But here too the answer would be yes. It is the first time I will play the role of a politician.

It's adjustment that makes politics complicated – a thought of yours from a few months ago. Will you have to adjust as president or will you retain the autonomy and independence of rector and auditor general?

Autonomy I will retain. However, adjusting to the situation is a mark of intelligence. Every situation is different, which is what you need to keep in mind and act accordingly.

Autonomy and independence have been with me my whole life. A scientist needs to be independent, they cannot offer a hypothesis and change the results if the experiment shows something else. It was the same story when I was rector, universities are autonomous as is the institution of the National Audit Office. I have experience running an autonomous institution.

How to best describe what you are feeling today? Is it uncertainty or confidence?

A mix of uncertain circumstances. I do not know precisely what is waiting for me, while I have a vague idea and am thinking about how to serve that function… There are elements of uncertainty involved, while confidence will come once I get down to work.

Alar Karis, thank you very much and good luck.

Thank you, I will do my best.

Alar Karis. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Editor: Marcus Turovski

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