Alar Karis: Estonian president not being an executive takes getting used to

President Alar Karis in an appearance on
President Alar Karis in an appearance on "Hommik Anuga." March 2023. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

In an appearance on ETV's "Hommik Anuga" on Sunday morning, President Alar Karis, on his 65th birthday, spoke with host Anu Välba about the differences between being head of state and being a university rector, how he believes Estonia's prime minister should have more say in who is appointed minister in their cabinet and about his relationship with mice — both then as a scientist and now as a resident of the Presidential Palace in Kadriorg.

Do you occasionally allow yourself some serious lazing as well? Like on Sunday mornings?

Oh, lazing around is in my genes; I love lazing around. Usually I'm asked how I calm my nerves and maintain my mental health, and I say that I stare off into the distance as much as I can. I loaf around, figuratively speaking.

How much of an opportunity do you get to do so?

Depends on the day, depends on the week, but that time does exist for me to gather my own thoughts a bit.

Has holding the office of president been exhausting? Been more stressful than all those other important positions you've held?

Every position has its own pressures, really. Of course, the office of president is one where you are in view at all times. All the good things you say, good things you do, bad things you say, bad things you do are there for everyone to see. But the thing with stress is, however much stress you allow in, that's how much stress there is involved. So it very much depends on what position you're holding. If you take that position seriously, then it will inevitably generate a certain amount of stress.

But the formalities and etiquette that the president is required to follow — are these just restrictive or is there something enjoyable about it too?

In every office you should find something that fascinates and charms you. Even having to wear nicer clothes than you otherwise would has its own charm. Maybe in today's world we've gone down the path of everything being really comfortable. I want to be comfortable too! The first thing I take off is my tie.

But do you occasionally ever do the unexpected like stop somewhere you weren't actually scheduled to stop or unexpectedly startle someone or go in a door where absolutely no one was expecting you? Do you have any good stories to tell?

I suppose I have to be more careful with these stories. So long as you yourself don't startle. As long as you're starting others, it's alright if you yourself are able to maintain balance and remain calm. Everyone is burning up inside; it's all a matter of how they show it. Maybe it is a bit of a deceiving image that I'm a very calm person; I'm actually not a very calm person.

When do your emotions show?

I guess I release them a bit differently, then. Not that I would hurt anyone, but those possibilities exist.

We have established etiquette, established rules, regarding how a president acts and where the president goes and where they don't go. Now that you're president, I see you immediately began introducing major changes. You held the Father of the Year event in Rapla, and on Independence Day, you decided to change up how everyone's favorite — the handshaking ceremony [in which all reception guests shake the Estonian president's hand in a receiving line] — was organized. How do you view these decisions — were they the right ones?

I still think they were right; I wouldn't have made those decisions otherwise. There needs to be a little variety. We need traditions, and we need to hold onto them, but times change, and traditions should be varied a bit. With the [receiving line], for example, maybe one key reason is — imagine coming to the party, you attend the concert and then you definitely want to go to the party, but then you have to sit and wait another two or three hours there before you can go party. And then it turns out that half of them have already left and you can't even party together with them after all.

Are you living at the Presidential Palace right now?

It would actually be more accurate to say the [Kadriorg] Administrative Building — which was built in 1938. The palace is next door; it's an art museum. But yes, secretly it's still called the palace.

How's life at the palace? Can you invite friends over there too or turn up the music a little sometimes?

Oh, of course I can, although the building is so old and you can hear everything through the walls. But you can turn up the music as loud as you want, and there isn't very much time to do so during the day.

Is it comfortable living there?

Look, you get used to everything. There's a certain convenience to waking up in the morning and already being at work; you don't have to drive anywhere. But I've also accidentally gone to work in my house slippers. It hasn't gotten as bad as leaving my pajamas on.

Are there mice at the Presidential Palace?

There are mice. Or there are mice around the palace, at least; I've seen them from the window myself. There are rats and there are squirrels too, so you can indeed do some nature observation. Rats and squirrels use the same tunnels — that I've been observing.

Aren't you as a scientist afraid of a revenge of the mice?

No, I don't think so. I've atoned for my guilt by, if I ever find any mice at home, not killing them, but catching them and taking them outside, although I know then they'll be back in ten minutes. But I don't want to bully animals anymore.

You've conducted quite a lot of experiments involving mice in your lifetime, back when you were still actively working as a scientist. Your field back then was developmental biology.

Molecular geneticist, or transgenic technology. In other words, I altered these mice's genes.

Why did you conduct these experiments with mice specifically? Aren't pigs genetically closer to humans?

Pigs may be physiologically and sometimes also behaviorally very similar, but mice are actually very similar to humans as well. Second, their gestation time is just 21 days. They can be bred very easily.

Would you also like to talk about the business you did with those genetically modified mice — where one mouse cost half a million, so I've read?

Well that was in kroons. It's not exactly a business; it was a necessity. Medicine needed the corresponding models, models with certain diseases, or research institutions needed specific animals with modified genes on which to conduct their experiments. So that kind of startup, as they call it today; back then it was a spinoff, i.e. a company that grew out of university. That was indeed how I got my start.

That was a time when very little of this was done in the world. I was fortunate to have worked in England and the Netherlands, where I learned such techniques, and when I came back, because there was demand for it, this spinoff kind of had to be done. But I sold my stake in it. I didn't get rich. I sold my stake in it when I became rector.

Will genetics really be one of Estonia's most important scientific fields in the future?

They're all important fields. Genetics had a certain advantage at one point, as we had the opportunity here in Estonia, rather, in Tartu to launch a new field in which no training actually yet existed. That provided a certain advantage. That also led to the [Estonian Biobank] and everything that followed. So these advantages need to be recognized and they need to be taken advantage of.

Will we soon be able to manage all those diseases among us partly for genetic reasons and which currently don't have a cure? Cancer, for instance?

Cancer is both a good and a bad example, in a way. You yourself know how much cancer has already been studied and how they've tried to find solutions. Medicine is developing, and we're discovering more and more diseases in early stages. That means that we're increasingly seeing new rare diseases. Treatment for them is expensive simply because there are so few of them. It can sometimes take a decade to develop new drugs. The one who develops them wants to cover their costs. So on the one hand, it's good that medicine is developing. On the other hand, again, it isn't keeping up in terms of these drugs being accessible for everyone.

If you were to want to return to the life of a scientist, would that be possible, or has that ship sailed already?

It's long since sailed. Even serving as rector I understood that it isn't possible to serve as rector of the University of Tartu (TÜ) and then continue on as a professor. You'd be fooling yourself; you'd be fooling the students; you can't keep up, you can't spend time in the lab, you can't advise doctoral student as much as you'd like. Once you leave there, you have to leave for good.

The latest news that everyone is talking and writing a lot about is the ChatGPT artificial intelligence [chatbot], which very soon could be writing your speeches as well. Maybe soon you won't even need those advisers anymore.

Why "soon"? I'm sure it could write that speech already. I haven't downloaded it onto my computer yet. But that reminds me that when my term as rector ended, my final opinion piece in Postimees had been about ghostwriters. That actually means the same thing — that students had someone else write their essays; it was possible — to this day it's still possible — to commission a thesis for money. It mentioned some well-known names too, who have themselves said that they're still writing at least one master's thesis each spring.

A little over ten years has gone by since and now it's a machine doing it; there's no real big difference here. And banning this machine or machine-generated opportunities — I don't think that's going to get us anywhere. The English tried it back in the day with the Luddite movement too, but they didn't get very far with their machine-breaking. A couple dozen were killed or shot and that was it. Machines are still continuing to evolve.

Are humans continuing to evolve? You've talked about a more educated Estonia and the fact that people should be smart. When machines like this appear, what will happen to us?

We have to recognize and take advantage of the opportunities involved there. You can't panic that the machines are going to seize power — although it seems pretty easy to do — that machines will ultimately start writing these programs themselves.

I don't know if people are going to get more foolish as a result, but if we continue to think under current conventional thinking that that's what's going to happen, then we may simply evolve more slowly. But think back to a couple thousand years ago for a moment — how much smarter are we really? Walk around Rome or somewhere; look at what magnificent buildings have been built. They had the smarts and the brains to do things.

Technological advancements seem to have made us feel like where are we developing now, where is there for our brain to still develop? But these are all technological solutions. Our brains have still remained more or less right where they are.

How much do you enjoy these new technological solutions? Do you have all those modern apps on your phone?

My phone is full of apps, but I don't use them all. Of course I give them a try; I've still got that curiosity from my life as a scientist.

But you have Wolt and Bolt and all of those downloaded?

I have the app; I have indeed ridden a scooter around here. It's not as simple for me as going out the door and grabbing a scooter. But I did pull that trick once; I booked it through the app and they didn't catch up to me as quickly as they'd have liked.

Isn't it one of the joys of living in a big city to be able to ride a scooter along smooth streets and then order delivery? But not everyone living in more remote areas has that opportunity, unfortunately. In your Independence Day speech, you also spoke about how perhaps one of the most crucial objectives of the new government actually is to draw attention to life outside Tallinn and Tartu. Aivar Mäe, mayor of Põhja-Pärnumaa Municipality, sat on that very same sofa a week ago and said that it's only a matter of time until it all comes crashing down. What lies beyond that?

If we let it come crashing down, then it will, but really those very same technological solutions that we sort of fear on one hand may also provide an opportunity to breathe life into these areas. And life has sprung up ⁠⁠— that is what needs to be considered, not uniformly along the lines of here's a 50-student school and there's a 50-student school, and if we close this one down, then we must therefore close that one down too. Environments are very different, and communities differ. This requires some analysis to consider where it would be reasonable to close down [a school] and where it wouldn't be reasonable to close [a school] down and what opportunities exist. Nowadays you can find teachers on Youtube too; not all of them have to be those smart and good teachers — although all teachers are good and smart, just some are just more skillful and brilliant. These can be utilized, and perhaps technological means could be used to provide instruction in rural areas.

And another thing. Young people are moving to the countryside today. But we have to look at whether they'll still be there 15 years from now as well. If we start rebuilding infrastructure there, will that community persist? What often happens is that very same community ages, the children have already grown up and then you think, what am I doing out here in the country anymore? The kids are gone too already, and you move back to the city.

In other words, it's of paramount importance who will become our new minister of rural affairs and our new minister of education.

All ministers are important.

But highlighting those two, who might end up our new education minister or rural affairs minister?

I'd be one myself, you know, but I can't. No, I don't know who might; that's for them to decide. The sad thing about these ministers, of course, is that the prime minister, whoever they are, doesn't have very much say in who will be this or that minister. It really shouldn't be that way. It really should be that it's discussed first with the prime minister, and maybe various options are offered. Not that one minute you suddenly have a set lined up and you may only find out the names of some ministers a couple of hours before coming to Kadriorg. Some room should be left for the prime minister here as well.

And for the president so they can discuss who's suitable?

The president doesn't interfere on the matter of who's suitable. But — I certainly have an opinion, and I can say for example that they aren't a good fit, but then there needs to be a justification for why I said so.

Do you ever feel like the president's powers fall short? The president is very much rather like a figurehead after all.

In previous offices, where I've been rector and in other positions... In English there's the word "executive." That means that you yourself decide, you adopt decisions, you do everything yourself. The president doesn't have that, and that is perhaps the downside that takes a lot of getting used to. That you aren't the person holding the pursestrings and who can then reallocate those funds according to what you find reasonable to do during a given period. But that is our Constitution.

How much a president intervenes or not is also highly dependent on the times ⁠— and the same goes for foreign policy too. If we had prime ministers and foreign ministers who couldn't handle it or did foolish things there, then the president would evidently have to take on a bigger role in foreign policy as well.

You've traveled extensively around Estonia and visited various institutions, schools and people. How are these people living? What are they telling you?

It's even been somewhat surprising that people aren't really whiners. Times are tough and difficult, but they're moreso looking for solutions. And small business owners that I've met are also saying that yes, things are hard, and that things are very difficult, but we're still trying to get by.

It isn't the case that people immediately take to the streets over every little issue like in France and burn cars. In that sense we still have a more peaceful people here that tries to get by on its own, although I think lately there's been a lot more of relying on the state again. It's gotten a bit skewed. One should do and consider some things for themselves, not expect help from the state in everything.

You've met with kids as well. Have any of the questions you've been asked by children been particularly memorable?

Children ask interesting questions. Of course, sometimes with kids you don't know whether that was the child's question or a teacher's question, but there are fun question.

One asked me where I'd gotten such beautiful shoes as we were talking about something else entirely onstage. I told them that they were an Estonian product, Estonian shoes, and that I could give them the address later for where you can buy them.

And they've surely also asked you what the hardest thing is about the office of president.

It's been asked. You asked as well. Perhaps the hardest part of this job is that there is this superficiality in some areas or in some things. That you don't have the time to delve into things. Sometimes you have to trust what you've been told or given, although there have been situations where it's turned out that that wasn't quite true, but that ship had sailed by then already.

Ever feel sometimes like you just don't have it in you to go to some more boring meeting? That you simply cannot be bothered and you say you have a headache or can't make it.

That's what advisers who make these choices are for. If I had to attend every meeting that someone wanted...

But if the advisers recommend it and you've said you aren't going?

That isn't quite how it works, this office obliges you. And I wouldn't say that any of my meetings have been boring. Meetings are always two-sided. If you can't manage to get your conversation partner talking or talk about what interests you, then that's a problem unto itself. Anyone can be brought to life by asking the right questions.

Spring is here and summer time [Daylight Saving Time] arrived as well. We moved the clocks forward and summer time has begun. Are you affected at all by this changing of the clocks?

It affects all of us, I suppose. I'm fairly old already; I'm already accustomed to waking up at a certain time. Then you just wake up an hour earlier or an hour later. But that continues for some time. But in itself I do believe this clock changing should be discontinued. It isn't actually strictly necessary.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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