President Karis: You can be for peace when the war is over

President Alar Karis.
President Alar Karis. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

You can be for peace when the war is over, said Estonian President Alar Karis in an end-of-year interview. Karis said, that in a democratic country, it is important to tolerate different opinions, as long as they do not incite war.

The times we are living in now, in 2022, are very troubled ones and have been hugely impacted by the war in Ukraine. At the beginning of the war, in the early hours of February 24, you posted a tweet, which said the evil was real. What thoughts were going through your mind early that morning?

Those exact thoughts: the evil is real. Nobody expected it.

After all, I had been in Ukraine just a few days before. Of course, the signs were in the air and the fear was oppressive, but that it would happen two days later and in the way it is happening today, was something that nobody could have imagined.

You were in Kyiv before the war and were also among the first heads of state to go there at the very beginning of the war, together with the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. You have been in close contact with other Western leaders. How do you feel now, do they understand that the evil is real and must be stopped, or is it still seen as more of a rumor that is going round?

Whether the evil is real, I think, has certainly come home to us and to the majority (of people) here in Europe. Understandably, everyone is looking for a way out of this situation. The only way out is to win the war and to help win the war, which is what Estonia and many other countries are doing.

However, at some point the war has to end, and then we have to sit down at the table and see what is left. How do we move forward from there? What will become of Ukraine? What will become of Russia? Although Russia should not be our major concern at the moment. Though certainly, what will happen to Ukraine, and perhaps to Europe as a whole.

Estonia has excelled in helping Ukraine as much as it can, both militarily and also, in fact, diplomatically. Now, our voice is perhaps as clear as it has been in decades. It has been said, that the things we were saying before were right. Could this strength of Estonia, this voice, which has emerged in the context of the war in Ukraine, also be the one we use for other foreign policy issues? Could it be that our voice is loud, and  that we don't always just nod along with the big countries and agree with everything?

I think our voice is heard best, when we are together with others. Estonia is a small country. Yes, we can be flexible, and perhaps we can also react quickly in what we say. But, at the end of the day, we still need allies with whom we can speak together. This is something that Estonia has done and has been looking to do, not only here on our eastern border, but also further afield. So, for me, it is still important that we have allies, because speaking out alone is not enough to speak out alone, at least not in the long term.

How do you view the statements made by the leaders of our European allies Germany and France, and the broader foreign policy direction they have taken? How much reassurance do you have that Estonia, here in this corner of Europe, still has the support of its allies?

I think we have the support, but obviously we also have to listen carefully and talk to these big countries too. Each country has different rhetoric, different statements and different interests. The most important thing is, that we are not left alone at some point, and that means that we have to engage with them all the time. Statements are one thing, but what is actually happening, what these actions are, is another. What we see today, when it comes to actions, is that we are still very, very united.

What can we say to those people who say that Estonia should not give weapons to Ukraine, because by doing so, we will become a target ourselves?

I do not quite agree with that. If we do not give weapons, then perhaps we will be the next targets. We are giving weapons to stop this evil, to stop this aggression. Then, there will definitely be peace and quiet, at least for a while. But if we don't, the tension and threat will continue to be there. You don't need to be a big oracle to see that. Let us look back in history a little and we can see what has happened before.

There has been quite a lot of talk over the last year or two about this type of broader crisis management and how society at large would deal with it. If you weren't president, what would you do, how would you behave? How (well) would you be prepared for a crisis?

It's hard not to be president in this situation, you inevitably have to think this issue through. You have to look for example, at whether it is possible to buy a generator for yourself or for a neighbor, so that in a crisis there will be electricity in the house, or that there is water. We saw this recently with the example of Saaremaa, where there was a lack of simple things, like generators.

I believe, that it is easier in rural areas. On the one hand, they are used to an occasional power cut. There is also not so much dependence on where the water comes from or where the sewage goes afterwards. When the electricity goes off in apartment buildings however, there is actually chaos. So, because of that, you have to make sure that there is electricity, at least after a period of time, so that you can get water and do everything else you need to do. It's really a lot easier in the countryside. As far as the islands are concerned, they are isolated in these situations, and perhaps it is worth considering what could be done if ferry traffic was also disrupted, making it impossible to bring rescuers to Saaremaa. So, the islands should certainly be prioritized in this situation.

One element of this is the state's (level of) preparedness for this kind of crisis, which is not directly a military one, and the other is the military threat, which we also cannot avoid. If we talk about the Nursipalu training area for example, the expansion of which has been very much in the spotlight over recent months, then on the one hand there is the need to expand it so that our allies can also train there and improve their cooperation, and on the other hand there is the issue of people's homes. What could have been have done differently in this situation?

Both are important. You can't pick sides here, whether we do or don't expand the training area, or whether people have homes or not.

I think a lot of these issues that come up here from time to time, come down to communication. We cannot seem to find a way to explain, talk and reach solutions together. If we are talking about a couple of dozen houses, then we should approach (these people) individually (to discuss), who wants a plot of land, who maybe wants a new house somewhere, and who wants their house to be moved. It has to be an individual approach and it is still not too late.

We are not the only ones, who are building (military) training areas. I spoke to the President of Latvia recently and they are also building a completely new training area next to the Lithuanian border. Admittedly, that area is mostly uninhabited, but the same problems are bound to arise there as here. You have to talk to people and explain why it is necessary. However, understandably, a person's home is their home. I certainly believe that, even if a positive solution is found, these people will still feel some resentment. However, I do not believe that this resentment will be the kind that means they will either turn against, or not want to defend their country. 

These people still have homes, but one in four Ukrainians have had to leave their homes this year, and one in two Ukrainian children have had to flee the war. A huge number of Estonian people have opened their homes and their hearts to refugees this year. Were you in any way surprised by the generosity of the Estonian people, and what does that say about us?

I said quite early on, that it had come as a (pleasant) surprise to me too that we are so open, and - let's face it - good people. Even if, during out everyday lives, amid the hustle and bustle, we perhaps don't always behave in the best way towards each other, when it came to the Ukrainian refugees there was a very strong consensus that this help was needed. And we had to give it, because what was the alternative?

It is true that now there are almost seven million Ukrainian refugees, who have been displaced from their homes. Three and a half million of them are in Poland by the way, which is bearing most of the brunt. We, too, have a border but we cannot, after all, keep accepting Ukrainian refugees indefinitely, because we cannot guarantee places for all of them to live here. But again, fortunately, there are neighbors who are coming to the rescue. Finland (for example) has shown willingness to help and is ready to take on some of the refugees.

We know that there are people, who see history and the war in Ukraine very differently. What can you tell people who say they are for peace, but also say they are not interested in politics? Is it okay to have that attitude?

You can be in favor of peace when the war is over, then peace will come. This means that, first and foremost, we must help to end the war there. After that, there will be peace, and so then we can talk about peace.

But to talk about peace in very general terms, I do not think is very constructive. Unfortunately, in the situation that we are in today, you have to choose sides. And, there is no choice: there is the aggressor and then there is the other side, which is being attacked. There is no in-between.

The fact that people have very different perceptions is, in some ways, understandable. On the one hand, of course, it depends on where they get their information from, and one reason here, is the historical background. In a democratic country, we can tolerate differing opinions, as long as they do not incite war or turn against the country itself, with their views or, for God forbid, their weapons.

President Alar Karis. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

At a rally held in support of Ukraine on Vabaduse väljak (Freedom Square) at the beginning of the war, you said that it was Putin's war, not that of the Russian people. Do you still think that?

I still think that this is Putin's war, but with one small addition: the Russian people also have to choose sides here. They cannot stand by and watch what is happening. So, there is a small addition here. However, understandably, it was not the Russian people who started this war, it was still the Putin administration and they are the ones responsible for it.

We know from history how the German people have carried a sense of guilt and shame for generations since the Second World War. Will we see something like that in Russia after the end of the war, where people take on this sense of guilt?

We certainly need to avoid that.

We know that from history, from the Treaty of Versailles treaties and other such agreements, which also emphasized certain feelings of guilt. But national guilt, I think, should not be placed on anyone, because it means the same aggression carries on.

If we also put this responsibility on today's generation, who live in Russia and think differently, or even those who have gone to the West, perhaps due to the war, (to avoid) mobilization, or because they do not support Putin, then maybe they will turn against us. This is an extremely delicate issue, and one that it is not so easy to resolve in a single end-of-year interview. But, I do think that these issues also need to be discussed.

In light of this war, the issue of Soviet-era monuments in Estonia, which concerns a great many people, naturally came up almost straight away. On the one hand, there are those who associate them directly with the fallen, and on the other, perhaps the majority of Estonians, who say that for them, they are very directly associated the occupying power. To what extent can a Soviet symbol or monument be neutralized in some way? Is that even possible?

No, it is not possible, of course not. They are part of that history. We should, perhaps have dealt with this a little sooner. By that, I mean those Soviet monuments. But the war in Ukraine has brought some clarity.

I, too, walked past that Russian tank (in Narva -ed.) with (a feeling of) relative neutrality, but having since been in Ukraine, and seen what those tanks have done to the homes and people there, that is no longer possible. That monument had to go.

But to fight a red star on the barn wall of a former collective farm somewhere? I'm not so sure, I think we have more important issues to deal with than to fight such small objects.

President Alar Karis speaks in an end-of-year interview with ETV. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

It has often been said that Estonia is Ukraine's rearguard in this war. However, being a rearguard has led to price rises for the Estonian people, and it has become very difficult for many people to make ends meet at the end of the year. How can the state help these people?

It can and it has helped, and it always gets better. But, again, we are afraid of what might happen in January, February, March, when the weather gets even colder or there might be power cuts, when people lose their jobs, for example, or if inflation is high. That is where the help has to come in.

Help must also certainly be forthcoming for businesses, though understandably not for everyone. Here too, certain choices have to be made. There are companies, which are, doomed to die, so to speak, only to reemerge again, but perhaps in a different form. I do not envisage there being any subsidies (for this).

There has also been a saying amongst some members of the public regarding those price rises, that by talking about them, people are furthering Putin's agenda. How do you look at it?

The way I look at it is, that a person must not hold back if they want to express their opinion. I see a certain danger here in trying to suppress it.  It is like saying, that if you have a slightly different opinion, then you are immediately Putin's mouthpiece or an agent of the Kremlin. I think that this is a very dangerous tendency.

There have to be differences of opinion, as well as debates, on a very wide range of issues, including difficult ones. If we suppress (these opinions), then I do not think we are in the kind of country, that we would like to be.

To continue on the subject of power cuts, how do you, as a scientist see the situation, whereby we in Estonia are told that prices are rising, and electricity prices are high precisely as a result of the war in Ukraine, yet, at the same time we have not been able to increase electricity generation capacity here over the last decade, and have been instead relying more and more on our neighbors?

That is exactly how I see it, that we have not been able to develop. It is regrettable that we have not looked for alternatives, knowing full well, what is going to happen at some point.

Let's hope that we have learned that lesson now, and that we can manage with wind farms and solar energy, along with some other new forms of technology maybe.

I think that, with the war in Ukraine, if it is possible to see something positive there, as awful as that sounds, it is that we have started to look for alternative ways of doing things. And the alternatives can be more environmentally friendly than those we have had in the past.

Over the last year, we have also seen a dispute between a private company and a state company in relation to LNG (liquified natural gas) storage facilities. What do you think this is really about, in a broader sense?

In some ways, this speaks to the fact that we are such a small country, where everybody knows each other, and perhaps that also helps us to find solutions to disputes. I went to see the terminal while it was under construction and I was talking to my colleagues in other countries about how good we are for being able to build an LNG terminal in such a short time.

So now we have a terminal, but, at the moment, we don't need it. Although, I do not believe that it will not be wasted. A use for it will be found, in one way or another.

But if we look at all the bickering on the sidelines - it's embarrassing I suppose, because it affects all our lives.

In a few months' time, the people of Estonia will go to the polls to elect new representatives to Riigikogu. What do you think are the issues that voters need to ask about and get answers to?

There are the issues that most of the political parties have already mentioned. However, one thing that perhaps people do not want to talk about very much, is the tax system - this is something that you might have thought would become an issue, but it probably will not.

However, security and people's well-being are certainly two issues that every party is talking about at the moment.

But once again, we must look extremely carefully at the promises the various parties will make and ask a very simple question: you have made a promise, but where will the money come from? We need to start asking the political parties for answers and not just accept empty slogans.

President Alar Karis speaks in an end-of-year interview with ETV. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

When announcing the upcoming Riigikogu elections, you said, that recently we have been hearing proposals to impose certain restrictions by law, as if they are justified by security threats. What did you mean by that?

What we are seeing is, that we are looking for excuses here and there to rush laws through without having debated them thoroughly, perhaps (in some cases) to the point where it could be unconstitutional. What is important here is that I, as president, am guided by the Constitution, and when I became president, I said the same thing: if it comes down to a choice between the Riigikogu's approval of me and the Constitution, I will choose the Constitution. That's how it is.

Which laws are we talking about here?

There are already quite a few that have been put forward with a little less preparation. I am not going to name any of them here. Those people who draft the laws, know them for themselves. And, certainly, it cannot be an excuse for one proposal or another to not to be considered, simply because it was not in the coalition agreement.

[This interview was recorded before the president announced he would not proclaim the proposed Family Benefits Act - ed.].

We haven't had a chance to talk about the coronavirus at any point during this interview, and yet this year it has been said by the Chancellor of Justice on several occasions, that a number of Covid restrictions were, in fact, unconstitutional. How do you, as president, assess whether somebody should simply apologize and admit that not everything was done correctly?

One can always apologize, but let us think back to that situation for a moment. These decisions were made very much in the context of a great deal of uncertainty about what the future might hold, about what this virus even meant. Everyone was trying to 'survive', we didn't know what the virus would bring.

Today we are wiser. We are also in much better able to assess that, some of those steps may have been unconstitutional.

Now, understandably, I'm going to slightly contradict what we were just talking about a few questions ago. But situations are different and they have to be assessed on their own merits.

This year will also see a very important decision taken, and one that is perhaps 30 years too late. The Riigikogu has decided that, over the next few years, all general education schools in Estonia will switch to teaching only in Estonian. In what year, will we no longer have to discuss whether or not children at some schools in Estonia are able to speak Estonian?

I do not know the precise answer to that. We have set a deadline for this by law. Deadlines can be set, in fact they have to be set, but I have always been interested to know how we are going to reach this goal.

In the case of this law, too, I would like to see where these teachers are going to come from, how the quality in schools will be ensured. This is very different in different regions, especially when we are talking about cities such as Narva, where the environment is, after all, completely Russian-speaking. It is all achievable, but it will not be cheap.

There are now a lot of Ukrainian children, war refugees, in Estonian schools. How can we integrate them into Estonian culture and is it even necessary to do so?

Certainly, some of these young people will stay here and they need to understand where they are and what the country is that they have ended up in because of the war. But we all have to do what we can to make sure that most of them are able to go back to their homeland. It's always nice to learn Estonian. Learning a language is always nice, even if it's the language of only a million people. I have visited different schools, I've visited this Ukrainian school (in Tallinn - ed.) and everyone there is very keen to learn the (Estonian) language. But that's the way things are at the moment, and I don't think it's a problem if, for example, they lose a year of Ukrainian (study) because they are learning Estonian. In that case, they will continue to study subjects in Estonian and that's it.

Writer Viivi Luik recently said, that reading books together helps to create a common cultural bond, or national consciousness. If you were to recommend a book to the people from Ukraine, or to their children, that they should read in Estonian or about Estonia, so that they could understand us Estonians, what would it be?

It is difficult to recommend a book, especially for children. Children should read as much as possible and keeping picking up books one after another. But, to understand what kind of people we are, "Rehepapp" ("The Old Barny" by Andrus Kivirähk) is definitely worth reading. It is really worth reading history books about Estonia.

That is one of our shortcomings. How much did we, as ordinary people, know about Ukraine and Ukrainian history? Perhaps the war brought Ukrainian history closer to us, at least to the extent that we might look up Ukrainian history on Wikipedia. The point is, that we should have more information about different countries, and certainly about Estonia, in different languages.

Finally, you have been president for almost a year and a half now. How much have you been able to address the issues or areas that you hoped or wanted to when you took office?

Of course, the war in Ukraine has overshadowed everything, but the first year (of the presidency) is often one where you have to go a lot to neighboring countries, as well as countries further afield, that is part of the job. Perhaps we have not been able to engage as much as we would have liked to with all the intelligent and educated people. But certainly, nothing has been left undone.

There is perhaps one issue, which has come up that I did not realize was so important, and that is mental health, especially the mental health of children. I believe, that this is one of the key issues for our young people and the statistics for this do not exactly make for good reading. That is something, that I would prefer not to have to talk about at all in an end-of-year interview.

Hopefully, this wonderful winter weather will continue and give all of our mental health a slight boost. Thank you very much for this interview. I wish you a wonderful Christmas and a wonderful New Year.

A happy new year to you, and to all the people of Estonia.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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