Kaja Kallas: Together, we will always win

Kaja Kallas at the Reform Party general assembly.
Kaja Kallas at the Reform Party general assembly. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Kaja Kallas' speech at the Reform Party general assembly on January 14.

Four years ago, I stood in front of you at the same moment – with 50 days to go until Riigikogu elections. Many of the things we discussed are still relevant today. While much has also changed. We are looking at new elections today, while this also requires us to take a look back at the last four years.

The last four years have been more turbulent and eventful than any of us can remember. In that time, we won an election, were left in the opposition, formed a government, saw a war and the energy crisis. Allow me to touch upon just a few aspects from those four years.

The Reform Party won the 2019 Riigikogu elections. Despite this, we were consigned to the opposition. This seemed ugly and unfair to us, after winning the election with a fair margin over Center and getting a mandate from the voter to form Estonia's next government. That said, it happened in accordance with the Constitution and the game of democracy. You can win the election and still find yourself in the opposition. Could we see a rerun? Absolutely.

What have we learned from this? While you can win the election, one needs partners to form a coalition. We have tried to maintain good relations with all parties but just as we ruled out working with EKRE last time, we will rule it out after March 5, 2023. Believe me – it is better to spend four years in the opposition than a day ruling with EKRE.

It took just one day for the EKREIKE government (made up of EKRE, Center and Isamaa – ed.) to start falling apart after it was sworn in in 2019 and its first minister was forced to resign. This was followed by an endless row of resignations, lies, cakes, drinks in the car and vilification of minorities. Insults were thrown at all of Estonia's close allies, lies and subsequent apologies became the new norm and the government finally imploded in early 2021 when it turned out members had not forgotten to line their own pockets when squandering public funds.

We had little choice in January 2021, and what could have happened back in 2019 finally did – we formed a government with the Center Party. The new coalition's chief challenge was the coronavirus crisis and to keep Estonian society from closing. I am proud that we managed to keep schools open so that children could attend and their parents go to work. We kept the restrictions to a minimum. The result was reflected in our economy – during a time when the Latvian, Lithuanian and Swedish economies grew by 4.8 percent and Finland's by 3.3 percent, economic growth came to 8.3 percent in Estonia.

While our coalition with Center was dubbed the sunrise government, the reality was less sunny. Though cooperation was just fine on the government level, Center MPs soon started to sabotage the cabinet's efforts.

By early 2022, it was clear Center had virtually resigned from our government and was working to bring back EKREIKE. This might have succeeded had Russia not invaded Ukraine on February 24. The attack shook and changed the world. It also changed more than a few things in Estonia.

A day before the war broke out in earnest, the Riigikogu was processing a statement concerning Russia's aggression toward Ukraine. Ten Center MPs could not bring themselves to supporting the initiative, making Center's ability to remain a part of the coalition even more questionable. The only reason I refrained from dissolving the government at that moment was belief that stability should be sought in the conditions of war.

However, I had ran out of options just three months later. When it turned out in early June that false-national EKRE and Center had joined forces to block a bill that would have ushered in universal Estonian preschool education, which mattered a great deal to Reform, I went to the president to request Center's minister be released from office.

Estonia's education is among our strongest security guarantees and I am proud we passed the bill in the next government where we were joined by Isamaa and the Social Democrats. We got done what no government had managed over the last 30 years. We can all be proud of that.

However, I will now conclude the history lesson and look to the future. We are heading into Riigikogu elections during very difficult times. The war continues and affects the whole of Europe, the entire world, really. I do not know when this war will end – no one does – but I know that Putin will not win it. I do not believe Russia will ever be a trustworthy partner for the rest of the world again. We need to get used to the idea of living in the shadow of a terrorist pariah state and we must remain at all times vigilant.

This is especially important meeting elections. It is clear by today that this election's great confrontation will be between Reform and EKRE. We represent two diametrically different directions for Estonia. A choice between a free and open society and a close and isolated mean little country.

For a long time, we believed that Estonia had made these choices when we restored our independence and joined the EU and NATO. Never again alone, never again under Russia's thumb, never again without allies and friends – these were our choices.

And yet, 30 years on, we find ourselves in a situation where Father Mart [Helme] forms a Riigikogu support group for leaving the EU, Son Martin [Helme] demands allied airmen leave Ämari Air Base because they're allegedly spreading gay propaganda and Saint Varro [Vooglaid] opines that it doesn't really matter what flag flies on top of the Tall Hermann tower. A lot of interesting ideas, as the advertising slogan from the day used to go. What is terrifying is that these ideas and plans follow entirely sober considerations by heads of a party aiming for the prime minister's seat.

It is very likely that one of the two parties [Reform or EKRE] will form the next government. The Reform Party will do everything in its power to win the election and avoid Estonia going down a disastrous path, which EKRE seems intent on putting us on. The party promotes a worldview that would see Estonia separately from the EU and NATO. We believe that being alone is the quickest way to losing our independence. If this is not a head-on collision between two different directions, I don't know what is. That is the choice the people will make on March 5.

I believe it vital to note that the Reform Party is willing to form a government with all other parties that will make the next Riigikogu. Our red line runs across EKRE's door, which threshold we will not be crossing. We are willing to look for common ground with all other political forces, with [parliamentary] mathematics rather than lack of willingness possibly standing in the way of cooperation.

We cannot lose sight of major future challenges when addressing short-term crises. We want Estonia to be a progressive country sporting a smart economy where no one is left behind. We have done a lot of work and involved experts from many fields to put together a good election platform. Its focus can be summed up in four words – security, coping, innovation and freedom.

Security is an existential concept for Estonia. Every Estonian in their right mind who values our independence and the blue, black and white flying atop the Tall Hermann tower understands that without security, there is little point in talking about anything else.

On the one hand, Russia demonstrated on February 24 that its unpredictability and aggressive greed makes it a danger to all neighbors, the entire rules-based world order. On the other, paradoxically, the war truly awakened Ukraine as a nation and made possible its entry to the world arena. If anyone had not yet realized that the Ukrainians are not Russians, they have now.

Contrary to its aims, Russia's aggression against Ukraine bolstered our security. As a result, the Baltic Sea area will get two new NATO members – Finland and Sweden – which will render all of us less vulnerable. The Russians also shed light on areas of defense we need to strengthen in Estonia. Air and coastal defense and increased physical presence of allies are but a few examples.

That is why it is the goal and promise of the Reform Party to maintain our defense spending at 3 percent of GDP in the next four years. It is a considerable expense for sure, while it is also the price of freedom.

We must support the Ukrainian society in its struggle against the aggressor on all levels. We cannot remain neutral in this conflict because we cannot just look on at this barbarity.

Neutrality is not an ideology, it is indifference. Indifference in the face of injustice and violence. Indifference the results of which will be felt once we find ourselves in trouble and notice no one coming to our aid. And let us make no mistake –allowed to come to power, EKRE will betray Ukraine and through it Estonia's future.

Estonian diplomacy must continue to demand the restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity and compensation from Russia for the full extent of damage. Breach of international rules and war crimes must not go unpunished. Russia must suffer a strategic defeat in its war to destroy Ukraine. Peace and security all over the world hangs in the balance.

Another cornerstone of our security is a united society operating in a single information space. Such a society requires a common language space. We have passed legislation necessary for switching to universal Estonian education and will do everything in our power to bring it into full effect over the next four years.

Another important promise – to ensure Estonia's national security, Constitutional order and values, we will suspend the right to vote (in local elections – ed.) of citizens of countries facilitating terrorism. Those opposed to the change claim that local governments have no say in national security matters.

This claim is absolutely false. Among other things, local governments are primarily responsible for matters of education. Recent experience also clearly demonstrates that some local governments have made efforts to obstruct the transition to Estonian schooling.

It is a paradox of the era that security is the leitmotif in almost all walks of life. Talking about coping, we're still largely on the subject of security. The coronavirus crisis altered the mechanisms of market economy, and not for the better. If competition used to be over better prices or efficiency, it now feels competition is only for subsidies. Unfortunately, this trend has carried over to the economic crisis caused by the war.

It is clear that no state can use taxpayer money to alleviate market turbulence endlessly and sustainably. Even the wealthiest countries' coffers will be depleted eventually. In the long run, myriad state support measures pose a threat to market economy based on free competition. The Reform Party has always represented free market economy and low taxes.

These are topics we need to raise not just domestically but also on the EU level. Can a small country like Estonia change anything in this regard? We absolutely can. We are heeded more than ever before. And we need to seize the day in order to put the EU back on the path of market economy.

Of course, the state must come to the aid of those who need it, especially in times of crisis. We have done this in the current government and will in the future if it proves necessary. We have supported strategic enterprises and made energy support measures available to households. We will leave no one behind. However... The state cannot bear all of the responsibility. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what the state can do for you, but what you can do for yourself."

Everyone, every person and company is responsible for their coping. We are that state, there is no other Estonia outside us. There is no mysterious benefactor picking up the state's bills. Whether we're talking about defense or social spending.

In the end, tax money, which the state distributes to the best of its ability, comes from every one of us. Again – neither I nor the Reform Party are indifferent to people's concerns over high energy costs and inflation. And we will help those who need it. But in doing so we must avoid a situation where the state becomes part of the problem by raising taxes. And where possible, support needs to be aimed at those who really need it.

We must cope, without leaving our successors with nothing but debt. And we must also remember that the government cannot overcome crises alone. It is only possible if we do it together, by sticking together and living economically.

Our state budget is in deficit – a situation which is not sustainable. That is why we will balance the state budget in four years if we see solid growth return. Revenue needs to be boosted without hiking the tax burden through innovative and knowledge-based economy, smart spending and structural reforms. The state and local governments need sufficient buffers and credibility to borrow at favorable rates should it prove necessary. Having a low loan burden is a competitive edge, not a burden we need to shake post haste.

Problems of coping cannot be solved through progressive income tax or living in debt. It is more sustainable and fair to hike the basic exemption for everyone and pursue responsible fiscal policy. We have promised to abolish the tax hump (Estonia's gradual income tax exemption system – ed.), which amounts to switching back to a flat income tax rate. The current disaster, with its thousands of steps, is not just complicated and ineffective but also detrimental in terms of motivating people.

A large part of recent inflation and economic problems are caused by a sharp hike in energy prices following Putin's energy war. That is why we deem it important to create an environment of energy supply security and favorable prices for the Estonian people and entrepreneurs. We have removed obstacles from the path of renewable energy to expedite new solutions for reliable and clean generation.

The Reform Party supports the adoption of nuclear energy in Estonia. Should the relevant analysis arrive at a positive conclusion, we will make the necessary preparations for opening a nuclear power plant in Estonia as early as 2030.

The green reform is not just a matter of energy but the most innovative change in our economy.

Striving towards more value added and innovation is a constant process that has always occupied a prominent place in the Reform Party's vision. Estonia's small size and location means we cannot be a country of low-paid workers and mass production.

Our strength and opportunity lie in a knowledge-based approach and innovation. The world is undergoing another industrial revolution as we speak. I am talking about the green transition, or if we're being honest – the green revolution. We know from history that the first industrial revolution gave us the Luddite movement that saw workers destroy machinery and murder industrialists who adopted power looms.

People are also trying to fight against the green revolution, mainly on the political level. Mainly people who have no faith and who fail to understand that progress cannot be stopped. In Estonia, this resistance has become the watchword of EKRE. What they've failed to realize is that every major paradigm shift in society, economy and technology always comes with myriad opportunities. Also risks, but it is the former that we need to concentrate on in the current situation. Those opportunities usually end up benefiting those who are first to seize them. Allow me to recall that electricity is cheap today in countries that invested in renewables when the time was right.

Neither in nature nor in the economy is is true that the big swallow the small. Instead, the rule is that the fast will swallow the slow. This means that Estonia, despite our small size, has immense potential to emerge on the winning side of this industrial revolution. We are small, while we have demonstrated on numerous occasions that we can be fast. It has brought us success in the past, and I am sure the green revolution will also become a token of our success.

Politicians and the state play a crucial role in the green reform. We need to create a legal framework that favors green technologies and be ready to invest, working with the private sector. But above all, the state must not be an obstacle in the path of adopting new technologies.

Plans need to be approved at record speed in the conditions of energy war and the green reform. Innovation in the green economy will improve Estonia's competitive ability, investment environment and prosperity. All so that our natural environment would be preserved and sustainable economic practices would ensure our people's well-being.

Finally, a few words on freedom. I am glad that we have come to the same place as the rest of Western Europe in 30 years, where freedom and being free are taken for granted. Unfortunately, there is still cause for concern and we cannot overlook EKRE and their populist-nihilist attacks on rule of law and people's fundamental freedoms.

I have been watching, with growing anxiety, EKRE leaders purposefully question the capacity of our police, prosecution and courts. Such efforts knowingly undermine the founding principle of our rule of law – the separation of powers, and that power needs to proceed from what is right, as opposed to right being on the side of those who are in power.

We have no reason to believe EKRE would cease their attacks on our democracy and Constitution should they come to power. I'm sure we would see the heads of judges roll, with everyone unwilling to follow the political will of EKRE leaders labeled criminals, next to doctors, police officers and prosecutors simply doing their jobs.

This cannot be allowed to happen. EKRE must not become a government party.

The only realistic way to avoid that is to take part in the March 5 elections and vote for the Reform Party. On our side, we must make sure the Reform Party does win the elections because a lot more is at stake than taking the day on March 5. At stake is also what Estonia will be in 10, 20 or 30 years' time, what kind of Estonia we leave our children and grandchildren. Will we be an open, friendly, Western, successful, smart, independent and internationally respected country or a close, self-absorbed small state.

Dear friends, before I finish, I must share with you another well-kept secret. You all know and remember that Estonia has been looking for its Nokia over the years. We have searched for that mystical Nokia everywhere, from our oil shale to the e-state.

We can hereby end the search because we have found our Nokia. It has been right in front of us this whole time, while it required the arrival of extraordinary events to recognize it. Russia's aggression and Ukrainians running from war arriving in Estonia showed once more that the Estonian people are our Nokia.

The warmth and willingness to help with which we received war refugees, the generosity we're demonstrating in supporting Ukraine in its ongoing struggle – it is a testament to our greatness. It shows our people's mettle and depth. It tells us that this patch of land's greatest treasure, its Nokia is the Estonian person. We might fight and argue, be angry and close among ourselves, but our hearts are in the right place. And it shows when trouble is nearest.

Sarah Churchill – daughter of Winston Churchill – said the following when describing her father's motto: "In war you must give without keeping count, fight despite your wounds, toil without demanding rest and work without asking to be paid." There is major war in Europe again. A war that concerns us all, whether we want it or not. And it will result in suffering also for us, even though our suffering is endlessly smaller than that of Ukrainians currently fighting for all.

If we want peace and not to become Russia's next target, we must support Ukraine. This war will not end tomorrow, and its woes will probably stay with us for some time. But we must weather them, we must not and will not surrender. Never again alone, never again under Russia's thumb. That is why we must be prepared to give without keeping count and fight despite our wounds.

We are great and generous when we help those who are in need and small and narrow-minded if we only seek self-benefit. Together, we will always win!

I am grateful, proud and very happy to have been the prime minister of such a country and people. I assure you, Estonia is in safe hands.


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Editor: Kaupo Meiel, Marcus Turovski

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