The war in Ukraine is having a negative impact on the Center Party's rating, but a bigger concern right now is maintaining the peace in Estonia, which means calling off the witch hunt and putting an end to pushing the country's Russian-speakers to a point we don't want them to reach, Center board member and MEP Yana Toom told ERR on Wednesday.
ERR: The board of the Center Party convened on Tuesday night. Was the replacing of Minister of Economic Affairs Taavi Aas, which has been written about in the media, discussed as well?
Yana Toom: No, that wasn't discussed at all.
ERR: But would there be any reason for replacing him?
Toom: I didn't ask anyone about that [on Tuesday]. I'm in Brussels. There is one meeting after another taking place on Zoom. When there are around 100 people on screen, then you don't start asking what is going on over there. Personally, I see no reason to replace him. Yes, Taavi Aas isn't the best media person; he's rarely quoted, and his photos aren't published by the press very often and so on. But those who know how to communicate well with the media may in turn not be good professionals.
If we look at who was our most often mentioned minister, that was Martin Repinski [who served as minister of rural affairs for just over two weeks in late 2016]. You need to consider the balance between media suitability and professionalism here. I certainly don't believe Aas is the number one candidate for replacement.
ERR: What was the goal of the party board meeting? There was talk going around as though you wanted to discuss Oudekki Loone's comments about May 9.
Toom: We didn't discuss Oudekki Loone. The board convened at my request to discuss the political situation that has developed in Estonia. We spoke more abstractly. The info that everyone read in the media on [Tuesday] night was not addressed at the board meeting.
ERR: But you did still talk about how to behave on May 9 as well?
Toom: It was discussed, but by a couple of individuals. We tried to understand what's going to happen on May 9. That much is completely clear that people may and will turn out on May 9. So natural discussions like that, nothing extraordinary. But the topic of May 9 was not a dedicated item on the board's agenda.
ERR: Does the Center Party board have an understanding of how to behave on May 9 this year? We know, of course, that your party includes politicians who visit the Bronze Soldier [in Tallinn] that day.
Toom: If you're asking whether visiting the memorial is prohibited, then there is no such ban, of course. That wasn't discussed at all. Everyone understands that people go to the Defence Forces Cemetery of Tallinn [where the Bronze Soldier statue is located]. But we hope that they will go there in an appropriate mood for commemoration. We're calling on everyone to refrain from the potential escalation of tensions. It would be best to refrain from wearing any sort of symbols, regardless of from which side, so as not to further exacerbate a situation that already isn't good right now.
But it is abundantly clear to everyone that May 9 is going to take place and that people are going to observe it. There aren't any kind of bans on this.
ERR: Are you yourself planning on visiting the Bronze Soldier on May 9?
Toom: That will depend on if I am in Estonia that day. If I am, then I will. But I usually stop by there on my way to the airport, very early, when no one is there yet. I don't go there to chat, but to lay flowers. If I should go this year, then I'd do exactly the same.
ERR: The Center Party is preparing for next year's Riigikogu elections already. Where will you be running in March 2023, considering your two successful runs in Ida-Viru County?
Toom: Most likely in Tallinn.
ERR: What are your expectations for the upcoming elections?
Toom: I haven't had any expectations whatsoever thus far. I can see that Center Party voters are very torn over the war taking place in Ukraine. We're losing voters. I am also losing them, starting from the moment when I condemned the war. It began after that. I receive quite a lot of unpleasant letters in which people express their disappointment and such. I hope that this wave of misunderstanding subsides in time.
It's possible that once we start receiving more information regarding what is happening there, that something will change. But maybe not. It's difficult for people to give up their steadfast convictions. Although I personally find that it isn't a very good sign if someone's convictions never change during their lifetime; we all need to change and develop. But someone finds that if they believed something in 1986, then they will take that conviction to the grave as well. People are different, and I can't predict these things.
But right now, my primary concern isn't even related to the elections. We need to keep the peace at home. It would be worth calling off the witch hunt. Putting an end to pushing our Russian-speaking people to a point we don't want them to reach. But if we constantly state that we don't trust them and talk about a loyalty test, then there is a lot we will certainly achieve from this. We cannot allow this.
ERR: According to the results of the Norstat polls published Wednesday, support for the Center Party stood at approximately 16 percent. Can this be explained solely by party voters' differing views on the war in Ukraine?
Toom: The Center Party has always been a conciliatory force that in some way has united Russian- and Estonian-language societies. In the conditions of the war in Ukraine, that is of course difficult to do.
Our corruption scandals as well. These are so foolish that you start to think, "Good God. I'm going to express public regret. Because I was the one who personally got Martin Repinski onto our electoral list in 2015."
Then he was named Farmer of the Year — young and promising. But what happened with him later was like some sort of nightmare. On that note a more and more incredible one, as someone famous put it.
Of course stories like this hurt our rating. Because, as odd as it may sound, if someone steals €1 million, then that doesn't have as much of an impact as smaller tricks that are easily understood by people. Because then they're talking about amounts and things that are perceptible. Which is why the Martin Repinski and [former education minister] Mailis Reps matters don't help us any.
ERR: Do you truly regret bringing Repinski into politics right now?
Toom: No. I think I did everything right at the time. The issue is that we weren't capable of stopping him in time. If we consider Martin Repinski's political activity — and there was some, to some extent — then it is completely overshadowed by these stupid scandals and personal life dramas, which for some reason take place out in the open. This is all very strange and not very respectable. All of this affects the [Center Party's] rating. But our main problem right now is nonetheless the war in Ukraine.
On the other hand, 16 percent is still a very solid rating.
ERR: Politically speaking, you have been tied to Narva and Ida-Viru County for years. How do you consider the Center Party's prospects in the region that for years was considered a Center Party stronghold?
Toom: To be honest, I left there following the latest party events in Ida-Viru County. The  local elections didn't go too well for them. We'll see what happens now. Personally, I hope to gain a better understanding of locals' moods after I visit Narva.
We have an agreement with [ERR correspondent] Anton Aleksejev and Aleksandr Astrov to speak at Narva College on April 22. Astrov is a smart man who knows how to very precisely analyze the identity situation of Estonia's Russians. We're going to meet with people, talk about the war and other things going on. About what it means for us, what we can expect and so on. After that I'll be able to talk about moods as well as perspectives.
I used to go to Narva once a week, but now I haven't been there for several months already. It is very difficult for me to gauge how people there feel about what is happening and what their voting preferences are as I sit in Brussels.
ERR: Several Estonian politicians, including your colleagues from the European Parliament, have recently visited Ukraine. Do you plan on traveling there?
Toom: I do not. From what I understand, they are shown more or less the same things. They have fairly similar routes.This is of course easy to explain — it is very difficult to ensure guests' security during a war. There aren't many places you can go. I know this from my trips to Syria. It's understandable that if there is fighting going on, then your guests are on your head. This is why you can't let them go where they want. And ultimately guests are participating in a program that they themselves cannot influence. It seems to me as though all visitors are seeing more or less the same thing in Ukraine. Only [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy's messages change from day to day.
It would be interesting for me to see what is happening in the Donbas, but right now it's not easy to reach there. That is somewhere that I would actually like to speak with people. Because although there is information regarding people who have left the Russian occupation and either gone to Russia or come to us, then we don't know what is going on with the Donbas residents who have remained there. We don't talk to them, because we just don't have access to them. Although now that would be truly interesting.
Editor: Aili Vahtla