Jüri Ratas, Lauri Hussar lock swords in heated Vikerradio head-to-head show
While a frequent criticism heard about this year's Riigikogu election campaign revolves around it having been somewhat on the pedestrian side, apparently Center Party chair Jüri Ratas, and his counterpart at Eesti 200, Lauri Hussar, did not get the memo, as on Wednesday the two engaged in what may well have been so far the most heated debate ahead of the elections.
Such was the extent to which the sparks flew that Vikerraadio hosts Arp Müller and Mirko Ojakivi ended up surmising that Eesti 200 and Center being in coalition together after the March 5 election was likely off the table, based on Wednesday's performance.
The start of Wednesday's broadcast saw Hussar expressing a firm conviction that Eesti 200 would be in the next coalition, which led him to expound on some of the electoral issues his party wants to address when in office, notably the green turn and the digital "revolution".
Meanwhile Ratas arrived a few minutes late, and came on air to set out the main question as being whether the post-election coalition will cluster around the Reform Party, as does the current government, or around his party.
"The issue is not support for Ukraine or security policy; these are areas where political parties see things the same way. The differences arise from how we can support people's livelihoods, and business. Questions of pensions, health care and regional politics," Ratas said.
This already prompted Hussar's ire, however.
He said: "When Ratas talks about how he has implemented Center Party policies [in past coalitions], I can't recall anything from his last government, other than that he implemented Isamaa policy."
Ratas was prime minister of the Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition and, while Center remained in office after that lineup dissolved in January 2021, he went off to become Riigikogu speaker. Center and Reform remained in a fractious coalition to June 2022.
Back to Hussar, the main Isamaa policy Ratas in effect sponsored, he said, was: "The demolition of the [second] pension pillar. Then, Jüri Ratas attempted to implement 'Putin's referendum', that is, to organize a marriage referendum that EKRE wanted, in so doing, dividing society."
"This is a realistic policy for Center. When you, Jüri, became the Center chair in 2016, you pledged that the party would change, but I have not seen that that happening. You continue to be dogged by issues of corruption, and your people have literally stood trial," Hussar continued.
Ratas became prime minister in November 2016, initially leading a Center/Isamaa/SDE lineup. In other words, Center has been in office with every single Riigikogu party over the past six-and-a-half years, save for the now defunct Free Party, and the as yet not represented Eesti 200.
Hussar was likely referring to the criminal hearings into former education minister Mailis Reps, of the Center Party.
Ratas retorted that Hussar still hasn't been ditch his former role as editor-in-chief of daily Postimees, "where he regularly span editorials insulting the Center Party."
Hussar stepped down as editor-in-chief of Postimees precisely to run for Eesti 200, then a newly formed party, at the last Riigikogu elections in 2019, and at the European parliamentary elections in the same year. In the more distant past, Hussar had also worked for Vikerraadio.
Eesti 200 narrowly missed out on Riigikogu seats in March 2019, polling at 4.7 percent, when a minimum of 5 percent of the vote is required to win seats under Estonia's d'Hondt proportional representation electoral system.
He became party leader late last year, replacing Eesti 200's co-founder, Kristina Kallas.
Ratas then enumerated his achievements in the last coalition he headed, adding that Hussar must have a selective memory, if he does not recall them.
"I have no intention of being mean or uptight in the way Lauri is. Eesti 200 is a good party, I really do hope they get to enter the Riigikogu this time.
"I don't want to be as mean and grumpy as Lauri. Eesti 200 is good, I really hope that they get into the Riigikogu this time. They have many politicians who offer a credible alternative to the Reform Party. I heard the presenter's question earlier that Eesti 200 acts like the Reform Party's lapdog. I would say, sincerely, that Eesti 200 deserves a place in the Riigikogu. As for [Lauri's] accusations, of course, the Center Party has changed. We have admitted our mistakes and paid huge sums of money. Yes, we cannot put up giant Reinaases and giant Hussars in the center of Tallinn, but we communicate with people directly, and talk about our ideas," Ratas went on.
The sums of money Ratas was referring to concerned fines the party had to pay last year of around €850,000, following work done around a decade earlier by a PR company which was subsequently adjudged to constitute an illegal donation.
The "giant Reinaas" referred to one of Eesti 200's most prominent candidates, Marek Reinaas – the party has been conducting a highly visible campaigning program via outdoor digital advertising hoardings and following a lifting on the ban on outdoor political advertising in the weeks just before an election.
The next topic, of transition to Estonian-language education, came up, and led to a somewhat calmer discourse...for a bit. Ratas criticized the transition to Estonian-only education, a policy which Reform, Isamaa and several other parties support, arguing an existing shortage of nearly 800 teachers in Estonia makes it impractical in the time-frame desired by those parties. Hussar considered that the proposed reforms are incomplete, and should be widened in scope and ambition.
This was a lull in the storm, in any case, as the issue of stripping Russian citizens resident in Estonia of their right to vote – in local elections, only Estonian citizens can vote in the current, Riigikogu elections – was next on the table.
Ratas accused Hussar of not adequately addressing the issue. "He is spinning things, there is no answer here," he said, adding that Center's line of not taking away the right to vote in this case has found support from the head of state and from the justice chancellor.
Ratas counselled against playing the "Russian card," a charge Hussar disputed – prompting Ratas to remind Hussar that he had not been a Vikkeraadio host for many years.
"Listen, calm down," Hussar interjected; "May I, Mr Hussar? Thankyou," Ratas fired back, in order to finish his thoughts.
However, the Eesti 200 chair kept the pressure on, saying "Since Jüri Ratas talked about my former editorial work here, I already asked in 2016 if the Center Party could cancel its agreement with [Vladimir Putin's party] United Russia. The chairman of the Center Party Jüri Ratas did not do so. This agreement was canceled only 10 days later the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, when the Center Party had no other option left. We read two weeks ago how Max Kaur, a current Center Party Riigikogu candidate, had praised this agreement in 2012, calling it very effective and functional. We have been lied to all the time about this Russian card, and screwed over, Hussar added, recalling that a year ago a Center candidate had defended the broadcasting of Russian TV channels during an election debate, while he, Hussar, and Raul Rebane, demanded that this be halted.
Following this tirade, presenters Ojakivi and Müller surmised that perhaps Eesti 200 and Center could never be in office together.
Ratas, however, said that during the course of canvassing this time, he had also come into contact with many Eesti 200 voters, saying the conversations which ensued had been "reasonable".
"But with the aggravation and anger that Mr. Hussar has just expressed here, things will not get very far. In my opinion, the leader of Eesti 200 is more concerned with the Reform Party and the Center Party than with explaining the long-term plans of his party. Why not do this; which is my benevolent suggestion as an experienced politician to you, Lauri" Ratas said.
With reference to the protocol between Center and United Russia, Ratas said Hussar needed to change the record, since it is common knowledge that the agreement never actually led to anything functional happening.
Ratas then called Hussar a liar.
"You utter false information. You even lie live on air, something a politician should never do. He lies when he states that we worked under this protocol, and the Center Party has based its activities on that. This is fake news. Then he brings in the year 2012. He might as well bring in the year 1997. This is the height of absurdity. Don't get aggravate things further!"
Ratas had also by this point made the signal switch from the familiar "you" form ("Sa" or "sina") to the formal, more distant form ("Te" or "teie").
"I would recommend you be less patronizing," Hussar answered.
The second half of the hour-long broadcast did, however, see a calmer atmosphere, with taxation, the economy, mineral resources and forestry under discussion.
Müller and Ojakivi also quizzed their quests on a recent article which appeard on international news portal Politico's site, and which alleged Russian oligarch and head of the notorious Wager Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, had used EKRE as a conduit for misinformation in Estonia at a time when EKRE was in office, under Ratas' prime ministership.
Ratas responded that there was nothing extraordinary in Russia and its various high-ranking officials carrying out information operations against Estonia, adding he did not remember the specific case of Prigozhin being brought up at the time.
"However, even today the Prime Minister [Kaja Kallas] said that she has no concern that EKRE would have really fallen for it. But to come out with it eleven to twelve days before election day... We have to think responsibly if we want to smear someone. This is not right. And the individual [Viljar Veebel] who made the claim [as cited by Politico] has now gone off-grid to the media, and is not answering his phone calls," Ratas continued.
Hussar and Ratas duked it out for one more round, on the issue of potential, possible coalition alignments.
The entry of Eesti 200 into the Riigikogu for the first time would not only mean a return to a six-party parliament (or more, if Parempoolsed or the Greens were to win seats) after four years with five parties, but would in so doing "upset" the balance whereby Isamaa has often ended up as kingmaker, able to pick between the conservative/populist wing (EKRE and Center) and the liberal wing (Reform, SDE and, if they win seats, now Eesti 200 too).
Hussar said his party rules out entering coalition with EKRE, though also signaled that Center would likely be off the table too, in saying that should any political party bear criminal responsibility, then the state budget support for that party must be shut off (all represented political parties receive financial support via the state budget).
Ratas replied that he had two messages for Hussar. "First of all, it's not worth lying. I don't think it makes sense to elect Eesti 200 to the Riigikogu if they'll then do the Reform Party's bidding. The Center Party was excluded from coalition for more than 10 years, and we know what that is like. My humble recommendation to Eesti 200 is that excluding anyone is not good for Estonian society."
Ratas added that there are whispers around the corridors of the Riigikogu, of which he is speaker, that a new coalition deal has already been inked, ahead of polling day, and which includes the Reform Party, Eesti 200 and the Social Democrats.
Hussar's response was that "we all remember what the EKRE-I-KE coalition was like," referring to Center's time in office with EKRE and Isamaa.
"So far as lying is concerned, Jüri Ratas has acquired that excellent tool of the demagogue, i.e. labeling. He pins the label of 'liar' on me. If I listen to Jüri's own views here, there is nothing on how to develop Estonia's economy and how to advance the country technologically. This may on its own make it easier to find agreement with the Reform Party after March 5," Hussar said.
Ratas read into Hussar's speech that his party had thus begun to exclude the Center Party as a coalition partner, in addition to EKRE. The Center chair added that there are also major differences between his party and EKRE - for example, regarding attitudes towards Ukrainian refugees in Estonia, while the Center Party also opposes EKRE calls for the removal of the Estonian Defense Forces chief, Gen. Martin Herem, from office.
Ratas added that while the Center Party still supports marriage between one man and one woman, a policy followed by EKRE, Center is opposed to holding a referendum on the matter, as EKRE wishes to do, following the general election.
Hussar encapsulated Ratas' spiel by saying that although the latter is trying to present himself as an experienced politician, all points towards a possible return to EKRE-I-KE.
Ratas responded by saying he ruled out neither that lineup, nor a return to office with Reform, for his party.
With that, Hussar said he would shake Ratas by the hand as the show wrapped up, which he duly did (though it was on the radio-ed.).
As soon as the show went off-air, the Center leader headed out of ERR's Radio House, while Hussar opted to sample the delights of the building's ground floor cafe – open to the public – for his lunch.
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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Urmet Kook