Kaljulaid: Estonian society has improved over the last five years

President Kersti Kaljulaid at the presentation of her speeches collection
President Kersti Kaljulaid at the presentation of her speeches collection "Sõna on vaba" (Speech is free). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

President Kersti Kaljulaid sums up her term in office in an interview to Marko Reikop. Kaljulaid says that Estonian society is not broken and that after five years of efforts, Estonians have more courage to also glance into the darker corners of life.

We have sat down in the Office of the President in Kadriorg where previous presidents have also resided. You decided to stay in your Nõmme home. How many nights have you spent here?

I have quarantined here twice, to avoid potentially taking the virus home. However, I did not come down with the virus on either occasion.

My family stayed home because we had just returned to Estonia and my children had enrolled at Nõmme High School, Nõmme Kalju FC, Audentes. The Nõmme Children's Music School is nearby. It is far more sensible for me to move twice a day than it is for the entire family to have to commute.

What were your thoughts during the two-week period between your name being put forward and becoming president?

It was the same idea that has stayed with me for the last five years. What to do today after waking up in the morning and seeing the president of Estonia in the mirror? Becoming president is not mission accomplished. On the contrary, it is a chance to do something important for Estonia and the Estonian people.

That is precisely what I was thinking for those two weeks. I also tried to put these thoughts into words.

If only that I will never be silent when the weak are hurt, when our freedoms or security are at risk. This phrasing is also from that period and has prominently framed what my team and I have been trying to accomplish here in Kadriorg for the last five years.

To what extent did you know what the job would be, now that you do know five years later?

I had a pretty good idea. I have served as adviser to the PM for three years and know the agenda and workload of a top executive. I know who I can lean on, how to solve logistical problems. I also know President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, so I had some idea.

Knowing that the president's willingness to communicate with people outside Estonia, tie the country to the rest of the world is valued highly, it seemed like an exciting challenge. That said, it seemed easier than what I had been doing at the European Court of Auditors. There, I only had bad news to take people, as is often the case for auditors.

You said in your inauguration speech that Estonia will have more understanding and less disapproval, more courage and fewer fears in five years' time. Has this come to pass or is it the opposite?

I very much hope it has come to pass. Thinking about it, we have had more courage to glance into the dark corners of life, such as domestic and sexual violence, mental health problems.

We have discussed these topics more often, meaning more understanding and care has been automatically created.

Unfortunately, the price has often been the feelings of those who have come forward first.

Let us think, if only, how people who have admitted falling victim to pedophilia have been treated. Those reactions have not always been easy to bear, while we have had the courage to discuss matters as a society and are better today at helping everyone who has suffered in this country.

We have more support to offer weaker members of society. But it is not yet enough. Our local governments have fewer resources at their disposal compared to other European countries. This means they often cannot help people even when they perceive problems. They cannot help how they could and would like to because they lack the necessary resources. That much could still change in Estonia. That help close to home is at times unavailable.

The concept of a seamless society also belongs to you. Looking around, our society seems to lack any kind of seams in certain areas and still requires patching up.

I do not agree. Reading daily news comments, one easily gets the impression that disagreements are what define our society, while that is not really the case.

Talking to people in Estonia, we tend to get along quite well, while these debates tend to be far more civilized in real life. People debate things more calmly and also debate slightly different things than dominate the political arena.

I do not think our society is broken. However, I do agree that those five years included a period of high-level attempts to break society.

When very controversial debates are brought to the government level – and the voice of members of the government carries in society – they suddenly seem very important.

Let us take the abortion issue. The debate did not exist before and has since vanished into thin air. It is the same for many other such topics. They were not important to Estonians. There were attempts to make them important from on high. But it has not been a significant debate in Estonia and no longer is.

I do not believe Estonian society is all that broken.

What happened between you and PM Jüri Ratas? When and where did you fall out?

I have worked with four different governments in five years. Although very briefly with the first one.

I have always felt the same in terms of how the work needs to be done, constitutional values protected. Going beyond checking whether bills are constitutional or not. To also make sure other values included in the Constitution remain intact.

It resonated in me what Mailis Reps said in her "Pealtnägija" interview last week. She said that coalition talks tested our fundamental values for the first time.

That is what concerned me greatly regarding one of Jüri Ratas' governments. Just what Mailis Reps said.

But beyond that, no quarrel should be sought.

Could it happen again?

That depends on the Estonian voter. I believe it is good Mailis Reps talked about it openly as it allows the Estonian voter to think, to read the Constitution and really think.

What I took away from that difficult period is that we should have debated those matters back in 1992, when we passed the Constitution. Whether liberal democratic values need to be included therein or should the Constitution be phrased differently. But we didn't. Because it was our own Constitution. We approved it because it was not the Constitution of the Soviet Union.

We have more time and resources to think today, having developed as a society. People have more free time and money. We have fewer common concerns, many people – not everyone but a lot of people in Estonia are still struggling financially – but we have moved forward. We had the debate 30 years later. It was difficult.

The result? It is hard to find indicators, while one could be that the discussion increased the number of people who believe same-sex cohabitation could be recognized through the Registered Partnership Act.

Therefore, the people of Estonia rather gravitated toward those liberal democratic values included in our Constitution being characteristic to us, a part of our DNA. I find it to be a beautiful result and am very-very proud of the Estonian people.

You promised to also be EKRE's president when you appeared on "Ringvaade" after becoming president. What happened?

I believe I have also been their voters' president. I remember a lovely incident that happened at a municipality council where we had been discussing foreign and domestic policy.

A person came up to me and handed me a piece of paper. They told me that while they had written a speech it was not necessary to give it because I had proved different than what they had been told about me. Therefore, I have also been the president of EKRE and EKRE voters.

You have also talked about a common Estonian space of customs. Where is that common customs space that includes EKRE leaders Mart and Martin Helme, Kristiina Kallas from Eesti 200, Reform's Kristen Michal and Jaanus Karilaid for Center?

The space of customs of the Estonian people is not defined by politicians. It is what we take with us from home, school, university and what is cemented by social experience. It goes beyond the space of culture.

Situations where people say "that is not done" or "this is how it has always been," knowing that Estonians are quick to blush when praised. That is what makes up our space of customs, not just what politicians think and say.

However, it does provide that squabbling is not polite. Therefore, politicians can also err against the natural field of customs.

I believe that Estonians' customs space is considerate, leaves room for others. We need a lot of personal space. This space of customs can also be problem as we also tend to leave each other room by not interfering in what we deem to be family matters.

Tackling domestic violence has been difficult. We need to admit that staying out of other people's homes is part of that space of customs.

However, it is also the Song Festival, the procession and cornflowers people take with them. That we always break out in tears when it is time to sing "Ta lendab mesipuu poole." It is a relatively new song but has already become a natural part of our customs.

All our beautiful rituals and traditions are part of that space of customs, including the president's December 31 speech. Those things make up the sunny side of our customs space. But it definitely cannot be defined solely through political debate.

You have visited a lot of places without cameras present. Women's shelters are among them. What have you seen there?

Things that would make anyone cry. I have heard stories that are difficult to listen to. I believe that the president of Estonia must have the courage to also face these problems. Who else? I believe that it matters to people who are suffering when the president comes and admits that it is a real problem and one that needs to be addressed. Sometimes simply listens.

I believe it can change society and helps those who are still behind the wall of silence to come forward. Not as effectively as Mari-Liis Lill's play about domestic violence, but perhaps I have also had a hand in tearing down that wall of silence.

Your term also covered some beautiful moments for Estonia. We celebrated the republic's centenary. What is the first thing that comes to mind thinking back?

Oak-woods. I find it absolutely beautiful that we planted a lot of oak-woods. Thinking about it, that is the message we are sending Estonians when the country turns 200 and 300. Oaks are beautiful and live long.

That has been the greatest symbolic value for me. I also remember that hike, the first event, where Estonia was sown together into a single area.

Perhaps not so much in the Estonia 100 context, but when 100 years passed from various War of Independence battles, local people gathered at monuments and thought back to those days. Visiting a monument to a battle on a cold winter day, placing a wreath at the base of it, the battle enacted. Cold snow around a monument near Valga where, if memory serves, the commander of the 2nd Infantry Battalion said, imagine lying down in the snow here and crawling all the way to Narva, friends.

Those real moments with real people, celebrating our very real centenary have been greatly moving and will probably stay with me forever.

Let us also talk about foreign policy as no other Estonian president has traveled as much as you. One achievement is Estonia being on the UN Security Council. What other use has it been?

I believe that anyone would have campaigned for that as president. The only way to pursue such a campaign, going up against a competitor as serious as Romania, is to do it on the highest level.

It was our trump card and key to success, and any president would have done it. The campaign has greatly benefited our businesses that have often struggled to break through to saturated markets participants of which prefer to rely on established and stable major partners.

Our companies are mobile, they are doing great work and making attractive offers, while a society needs to be slightly different for what they are offering to seem attractive.

Developing markets have therefore offered our companies an important opportunity to expand. That is definitely what we got from that campaign – courage to look beyond home.

One of your crowning foreign policy moves was meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Simply because you should always talk to neighbors.

Preparing for the meeting was done in cooperation with our foreign ministry and ambassador. We knew there were those in Russia who were quite happy with the Baltics remaining wards so to speak, not talking themselves and merely being talked about.

We were quite convinced that it would never happen through regular foreign ministry channels. At least not inside five years.

Therefore, we had to find a way to ask Vladimir Putin directly. I told him that I'm the president of Estonia and it seems to me we could talk from time to time, even though it is clear we will not be able to agree on anything and sport different ideas of the world. But we have a newly renovated embassy in Moscow and I plan to attend its opening. The choice is yours.

The presidents found a way to pass one another by, which is when Putin said he would send an invitation. And it changed Estonia's place. Firstly, in the eyes of our European partners. We were behind the table now, and I can assure you that we remain there.

I also spoke to Vladimir Putin when the coronavirus pandemic began. I liked that it seemed completely natural by then that I will call the presidents of Finland and Latvia. We are closing the border with Russia, of course I'm also calling the Russian president. That is how it should be.

But talking never means abandoning one's principles. We are simply a part of the network that communicates these principles and positions to Putin.

Do you regret Estonia-Russia relations not having normalized since then?

No. I believe we're all sorry the hope we had 30 years ago… only I never believed Russia would go down a different path than Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania.

I thought all western former Soviet republics would achieve something similar to what we have. It is a great shame in general.

But the meeting served its purpose. We are staying in touch with our neighbor while sticking to our principles. And I believe we will in the future.

You are also an energy expert, have spent a lot of time talking about the green turn and worked from Narva for a month. However, the green turn has and will continue to render life much more expensive than previously, and it concerns a lot of people.

That is a completely lopsided view. Life is not becoming more expensive because of the green turn, it's happening because we failed to anticipate it.

Whereas it is difficult to understand why we failed. Because the EU wants to become climate neutral and, with an increasingly big part of the global economy covered with green promises, it's up to 60 percent by today. The process has been going on for a while.

I have talked to people who want to develop pumped hydropower storage in Estonia. The project has been around for ages, while construction still hasn't begun.

We know how difficult it has been to construct wind farms in Estonia, with hopes now on the wind farm on the border of Latvia and Estonia taking off with help of EU subsidies.

We should have done all those things much sooner but haven't, which is why electricity is expensive today. Not because the green turn is happening.

How did the coronavirus pandemic impact your term?

It impacted it greatly. Luckily, it didn't happen during my first year. The world was already full of friends and it's easy to keep friendships alive, also using only channels.

The president has one role in such situations: to be there for the people. To make observations and ask questions when it seems measures might not be fully in line with constitutional values.

But the president can only shine a light on those matters.

It has worried me throughout the pandemic to see the Riigikogu reluctant to take the reins. The task of phrasing those questions has been left to me. In truth, it is the Riigikogu where the balance of rights and freedoms should be debated.

When the pandemic began, I believed that all the steps we were taking could be justified because the situation was new. It is always sensible to err on the side of caution in an unknown situation.

Questions arose when other political goals – such as foreign labor – were restricted and the pandemic given as the reason. It made an already difficult situation worse. Let us think of all the agricultural work not done last summer. How farmers using Ukrainian labor were treated.

A potential candidate for president needs 21 votes to be set up in the Riigikogu. Why did you not have them?

I could have found 21 votes. However, what is needed is a candidate on whom the coalition and opposition can agree. For them to get elected. That is how presidential elections work in Estonia, and I believe it is a pretty good yardstick for our political culture.

Such an agreement is needed once every five years. And the Riigikogu did brilliantly. I sincerely commend the parliament for pulling it off.

Will Estonia get a good president?

Absolutely! Alar Karis will make an excellent president for Estonia.

All our presidents have been different. I have often wondered how history has always given us presidents who got done the important things that needed to be done during their time.

I sometimes asked myself at night what that fateful moment would be for me. Why have I, such as I am, been chosen for the office. Of course, we have also talked about stable development, people noticing and caring, all of which has improved over the last five years.

But eventually I got it. The answer is that I'm not afraid for my own political future. I do not compromise when it comes to protecting constitutional values and freedoms, when the weak need protection, when our liberties are threatened.

You are only 51. It is indeed too soon to think about retirement.

I will be doing good and exciting things with cool people.

Businessmen belonging to the 2 Percent Club and I have discussed how better to motivate Estonian companies to contribute to research and development. I also hope I can continue working with the Jõhvi Code School.

I have a number of such things and there will be more. I also believe it is important for the outgoing president – who really is too young to retire – to be able to shape that role freely.

I do not rule out any future moves: working for a company, going into politics in different ways. Everything is possible.

Could Kersti Kaljulaid also become prime minister of Estonia?

I believe she could if she wanted to. Why not, I'm prepared to serve my people in different ways.

Will you be taking any steps to that effect?

Definitely not on October 12.

Could Estonia one day yield the NATO secretary general?

I believe that the NATO secretary general coming from the Baltics would be considered too much of an irritation, trying to analyze the question rationally. The Politico article your questions stems from was a purely geographical incident and one people should not get too excited about.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves compared Estonia to a wild strawberry. He said that Estonia is small but tastes like home. What would you compare Estonia to?

Estonia is big, plays an important role in global diplomacy, dares to today. It is difficult because no one asks you anything if you're not on the Security Council. Questions like what about conditionality, what about our values when you go and feed starving people in Afghanistan or Yemen? We dare take that responsibility.

I believe that it is important for Estonia to be confident, an ordinary wealthy country. I find it very important to have the right idea about our place in the world.

We are not small or unimportant. We can affect, support and spearhead processes. That is how Estonia looks from the outside for me.

On the inside… it is truly warm and friendly. All the people living here. It is… it rather looks like everyone here – hopeful.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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