Anneli Ott (Center) has resigned as Minister of Culture, saying the decision had been her own. Ott said she was unable in her role to put into place in the cultural sector policies drawn up by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform).
Ott made her announcement in an emotional statement to the media starting at 11 a.m. Tuesday and live-linked from Center Party headquarters in Tallinn.
Ott said: "It is my personal decision that I will not be continuing as Minister of Culture, and I am resigning."
Ott thanked members both of the culture sector and her party for the opportunity to contribute to Estonian culture as a minister, but acknowledged that in the light of several recent decisions, she could not continue in office.
Ott also used her resignation to criticize Center's coalition partner, Reform, which she said was focused only on restrictions and on placing the burden on schoolchildren, and should instead look for ways to agree on compensatory measures in a cultural sector damaged by the crisis.
She said: "My stance as Minister of Culture on how to financially support a sector where restrictions have been imposed that prevent them from earning income is not in line with the government's decisions."
"Unfortunately, a situation has developed today where my vision for supporting the sector today has not coincided up until now with the approach of the government's leading party, despite the fact that I have raised this issue repeatedly," she continued, according to a Center Party press release.
Any crisis management measures which reduce the scope to earn income need also to be addressed immediately during the development and decision-making regarding support measures, she added.
"The members of the [government's coronavirus advisory] scientific council have pointed out that the incidence of covid in children is rather low, and usually passes after mild symptoms. At the same time, we have been differentiating between unvaccinated and vaccinated children, and in my opinion paying too little attention to mental health issues of crisis management and in so doing giving young people messages which can lead to increased anxiety and misunderstanding."
She also hit out at the policy of abolishing proof of negative coronavirus test as means of going to work, in sectors where employees must present coronavirus certification.
"I think that extensive testing is reasonable both in terms of keeping everyone healthy and in terms of being fairer to those who for some reason have not wanted to get vaccinated, but are healthy and ready to prove that via testing," the minister said.
Ott had been facing mounting pressure over her stance on coronavirus vaccines, though in Tuesday's statement denied being an anti-vaxxer, adding that she has started a vaccination course.
She said: "To all those who have been called anti-vaccination and still have different labels, I have never said anywhere that vaccination is not an important measure in overcoming this crisis."
Vaccination is a conscious health decision which must be made based on a person's needs and in consultation with a doctor, she added. "Estonia is a small country where we all know each other, we are inter-connected, and the fragmentation of society here has been especially painful. We must do everything to ensure that families do not get broken up, so that business can continue to operate and so that mutual understanding between people remains."
Ott had consistently opposed getting vaccinated against the coronavirus and made vaccine-skeptic comments in the media in recent months.
She was reportedly the only government minister not fully vaccinated against covid as of her resignation.
The increasingly stringent restrictions meant that Ott had been unable to attend cultural events which fell under her ministry's remit, while she had also recently clashed with the representatives of cultural workers.
Ott was on vacation last week; Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) said that she would be speaking to the minister on her return, and reorganizing her work also.
From Monday, October 25, the only means of gaining access to a vast array of cultural, sporting, leisure, entertainment and catering events and venues is to present a valid coronavirus vaccination certification, or proof of recovery from the virus within the preceding six months. Proof of a negative test result is no longer acceptable.
As minister of culture, she had been strongly criticized by people working in the sector that she was not present either "physically or mentally" to represent them.
Ott's replacement has not yet been named. Competitive sport, as well as public broadcaster ERR, also fall under the culture ministry's aegis.
She is the first minister to resign since the current Reform/Center coalition entered office in late January this year.
Prior to becoming culture minister in January 2021, Ott had been involved in local politics in Võru, and was mayor of the South Estonian town 2009-2010. She joined Center in 2011 and became an MP in 2015.
It is rumored that the Center Party is also looking to replace several other ministers, weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress reported on Tuesday. The publication named Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik and Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets alongside Ott.
Imre Sooäär will vacate seat to allow Ott back to Riigikogu
Center MP Imre Sooäär must vacate his Riigikogu seat to allow Anneli Ott to return to the chamber following he resignation.
Riigikogu spokesperson Epp-Mare Kukemelk said this was on the last in-last out principle; Sooäär, formerly a Reform Party MP, was the last deputy to take up a seat from the alternate list of candidates – those waiting in reserve for sitting MPs from their party vacate, usually on becoming a minister, as with Ott.
As for himself, Sooäär, who is also a member of the foreign affairs committee of the parliament, had said last week that a bout with covid recently had virtually incapacitated him; ironically given today's developments, it was a vaccination which he said had prevented him from being even more unwell.
"I am convinced at this point that had I not been vaccinated, I would be in isolation by now, with a tube in my throat," Sooäär wrote on his social media account last week.
Earlier reports said it was Center MP Andrei Korobeinik who would have to make way for Anneli Ott's return to the Riigikogu, and vacate his seat, which would have maent doing so for a second time. When education minister Mailis Reps resigned nearly a year ago, he had to leave the position, only to be reinstalled when Ott was made culture minister in January.
While government ministers do not sit at the Riigikogu, the seat they vacate after being appointed minister is taken up by the next person on the party's list who did not come away with a seat at the last election. If the minister returns to the chamber, as Ott will be doing, the "benchwarmer" MP then has to vacate.
Center MP Aadu Must: Ott replacement should be someone younger and 'cooler' than I
Another Center MP, Aadu Must, told daily Postimees Tuesday that Center had approached him as potential next culture minister, but that he would be unlikely to take up the post at this point.
"Yes, they have spoken with me, but perhaps a younger and 'cooler' candidate can be found," Must said.
"According to my own ranking, I am approximately the fifth-string choice," he continued, though added that whoever replaces Ott should be appointed sooner rather than later.
"A new minister should be appointed quickly, there is no point in delaying," Must added.
Nonetheless, Ott's decision had been the right one, he said. "Ott's misfortune was that she ended up in the ministerial position at an extremely difficult time."
Must added that many people are not used to a changing world, particularly when this involves very abrupt steps and, presumably given his words, necessitated someone "cool" being appointed to the position of minister.
It has always been the case in history that after every crisis, the world ends looking up very different, he opined.
"I have had a lot of communication with colleagues from other countries' parliaments, and everyone agrees that legislatures do not have to deal with the question of how many injections someone should receive. All parliaments in successful countries are working to make their country strong, even after the crisis," Must said.
Anneli Ott's predecessor was Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa) in the preceding Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition, in which Center was the senior partner. Isamaa found itself out-of-office in January, following a corruption scandal involving Center, which on the other hand weathered the storm to remain in office, ditching its coalition partners in the process and going into government with Reform as the junior partner.
This article was updated to include further quotes from Anneli Ott on her stance on culture sector support, vaccinations and testing, as well as on reports of a potential Center Party ministerial reshuffle, and Imre Sooäär's, rather than Andrei Korobeinik's, stepping aside to allow Ott to return to the RIigikogu, plus comments from Aadu Must.
Editor: Andrew Whyte