Kristina Kallas: Eesti 200 misjudged public opinion on Lehtme saga

Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200).
Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200). Source: ERR

Coalition party Eesti 200 did not accurately perceive public expectations in the wake of embezzlement allegations relating to a former MP from the party, and an NGO set up to aid Ukraine, the party's vice chair, Kristina Kallas, says.

Appearing on ETV politics head-to-head show "Esimene stuudio" Tuesday, Kallas fielded several questions on the rough ride Eesti 200 has seemed to have since winning its first ever Riigikogu seats, on March 5, and subsequently entering office with Reform and the Social Democrats.

Kallas conceded that the coverage of the Slava Ukraini scandal, which led to the NGO's chair, Johanna-Maria Lehtme, having to quit the Riigikogu, was a concerted media campaign, as the party's Riigikogu chief whip Marek Reinaas had claimed.

Reinaas was in error making that claim, Kallas said, though stated that his intentions were well-meant.

"From the point of view of the party, having been in this process and when you are in this situation, your gut reaction is that you want to protect the person. When she is still on your team and she tells you that there are no big problems, just some confusion which she is willing to work to resolve, you feel like you want to trust him and protect them. This is completely natural behavior," Kalla said.

"The lesson for the party is that the public does not see things from the inside, while you also have to perceive the public's expectations much better than we did perceive it in this case. I believe that the party has learned its lesson from the episode: That the public's expectation for politicians is quite different than it is in a regular situation, and we have to grasp that very well. We certainly did not perceive the public's expectation correctly at that point," Kallas, who co-founded the party in 2018 and was its first leader, went on.

"I understand this emotion. I think that all entrepreneurs are feeling this emotion today. Go ask the entrepreneurial members of the Reform Party what they think about tax hikes and the present economic policy. No one thinks that a tax increase is good for the economy, and neither do I. But it is good for the economy for the state's finances to be in order. If that is not the case, then we cannot increase the support for the economy and business, because we would then have a constant deficit which would keep on getting bigger and bigger," she went on.

Emotion has also played a part in pushback against planned tax increases, she added, particularly from business.

As to leading party member, but not MP, Joakim Helenius' disappointment with Eesti 200 as recently expressed, Kallas said that Helenius, a Finn-Swede businessman who took Estonian citizenship, is a man with a very broad vision, but the fact is that things with a broad vision can only be accomplished via the state budget.

"We have a little more than half a year to make the decisions that will fix the state finances, and from that point, we can start making the decisions that Joakim is waiting for," she went on.

Helenius also said that while Reform Party policies made it into the coalition agreement, Eesti 200's had not, which prompted him to say either the negotiating team from Eesti 200 had been weak, or its members did not understand economic policy.

In respect of the Lehtme case, Kallas said she had been unaware of warnings issued by Annika Arras, a former boss of Lehtme's, who alleged she had embezzled funds during that time – at least ahead of the election on March 5.

The first inkling that something was up in relation to Slava Ukraini and its partners on the ground in Ukraine came to her just before polling day, Kallas said, adding that the Arras claims she had read via the media.

Another controversy to have recently hit the party is the allegation that Tarmo Tamm, one of its MPs, being appointed to the Riigikogu environmental committee represents a conflict of interest given he is the subject of two misdemeanor actions in relation to his timber industry work.

Kallas acknowledged that such a situation was not pleasant, adding that Tamm didn't think he had done anything remiss – in thinning out and getting under control forest which he himself owns, and distributing the proceeds to villagers in Kasmu, as firewood.

At the same time, whether Tamm should chair the environmental committee was: "A legitimate question," Kallas noted.

The rest of the "Esimene Stuudio" appearance concerned the pushing through of tax hikes unveiled by the coalition just as it entered office.

Kallas denied that this was a "turbocharged procedure," adding that this was simply rhetoric the opposition had used on the matter and the process is: "going on as it has always been, with all legislation."

The tax hikes and cuts to large family allowances also need to be expedited since they need to be passed in June 2023, to come into effect in January 2024 – which in turn is needed to fit in with the state budget process, she said

Kallas also said that school closures and reduction in sizes as decided by some local governments in rural areas of the country was a pity, and as a more wide-ranging principle would harm Estonian education – Estonia has just been listed in the number one spot on the PISA reading proficiency table.

"Actually, the state also helps municipalities financially to run these smaller schools, but we just need time to plan this financial model in next year's budget, we cannot do it in this year's budget. The message from the state is to keep your horses and carriages all in the one place; let's not rush to reform the school network now, as in the long run this will actually be harmful to this municipality itself," Kallas said.

Three schools have received preliminary legal protection from the court.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov

Source: 'Esimene stuudio'

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