A single minister's moral considerations shouldn't be the deciding factor in whether to release extra funds to the Office of the President, former PM, MEP Andrus Ansip told ERR.
Ansip's fellow Reform Party member, Estonia's Minister of Financial Affairs Mart Võrklaev told a Riigikogu select committee on Monday that President Alar Karis' internal affairs adviser Toomas Sildam's controversial conversations with him and Secretary General Merike Saks created a moral dilemma for him where he did not deem it possible to make additional funds available to the presidential office. Võrklaev suggested that granting the request would have amounted to a trade as that is how he interpreted Sildam's words (Toomas Sildam has been accused of suggesting that the office of the president could expedite the promulgation of laws if additional funding was made available –ed.)
Andrus Ansip said that a constitutional institution's funding cannot be decided by a single person based on their personal moral convictions in Estonia.
The former premier also said he does not know what was meant by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) when she suggested that is how such matters were handled years ago.
Kaja Kallas said last week that she learned of conversations between Toomas Sildam and Mart Võrklaev as well as Merike Saks around the Midsummer holidays. She told "Aktuaalne kaamera" news that she considers it to be something that may have been commonplace years ago, while that is no longer the case, similarly to how making any comment that pops into one's mind in professional company is no longer common. The PM was summoned to the Riigikogu State Budget Control Select Committee on Monday. She did not show up, with Minister of Finance Mart Võrklaev appearing in her stead. He was asked what had the PM suggested with her comment. Võrklaev's answer was that Kallas probably meant that organizational culture has changed over the last 10-15 years. This also aims the claim that certain things might have been done differently at you. A rather serious allegation...
I do not know what Kaja Kallas had in mind when she pointed to the style having been different 10-15 years ago, while I can assure you that as prime minister my relationships with presidents Arnold Rüütel and Toomas Hendrik Ilves were professional and above board. We never permitted ourselves to joke about additional funding in exchange for promulgating something that might not even be constitutional. There was never anything like that.
I believe that the way the state budget is put together in Estonia is effective and ensures the independence of constitutional institutions. The government is responsible for fiscal balance and must always be the one to present the parliament with the draft budget. The law provides, at least it did back then, that requests for funding from all constitutional institutions need to be added to the state budget bill. So the Riigikogu could make the decision regarding these requests. That ensures the independence of constitutional institutions. It is the Riigikogu that passes the state budget in the end in the Republic of Estonia.
But also regarding communication – there was never anything of the sort during my nine years of communicating with presidents Arnold Rüütel and Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Refresh my memory, did Toomas Sildam serve as the president's PR adviser when you were PM and Toomas Hendrik Ilves was president?
You never had any such contact?
Where I was asked for funds in return for illegal action?
It's a categorical no on that account. Never did anything like that occur during my day. Over the nine years I served as PM, there were never even such jokes.
The whole affair looks rather sordid from the sidelines, and it seems there is no simple solution in sight. What is keeping the PM from phoning the president and clearing this matter up? The finance minister (Mart Võrklaev) says his moral compass does not allow him to allocate any more funds to the president's office. This in a situation where the president might need to make important state visits – an absurd situation.
Things do not work like that in the Republic of Estonia that the moral considerations of a single person, even if they are a government minister, are what allow or prohibit the financing of a constitutional institution. Their funding is subject to a fixed procedure. The Office of the President must make an official request, which the government can consider or overlook when putting together the budget, while the request itself must be forwarded to the Riigikogu in either case so MPs would know what individual constitutional institutions have sought and hear from the government in terms of why some requests were not granted.
It is not up to a single person or minister to decide whether to finance constitutional institutions or not. Claiming that one's moral compass is keeping them from financing an institution is moot because a single minister does not have such jurisdiction in Estonia.
Estonia is a tiny country one of the advantages of which has always been the chance to speak to other people directly. Why has there not been a conversation between the PM and the president to clear the air? We are seeing committee sittings, with involved parties summoned to provide explanations – it is not really an extremely complicated or insurmountable problem.
There were situations that required clarification during my nine years as PM, and there were simple tools for that. I could always phone Kadriorg or the president could call me, and we never allowed situations that were open to more than one interpretation to fester for months. It is best to solve problems when they crop up, instead of allowing them to balloon.
In this case, I agree that both the Government of the Republic and the presidential institution have suffered damage. It is regrettable.
Would you recommend the sides clear the air post haste, no matter what is decided in the end?
It is hindsight at this point as I believe both sides have had clarity for a while. They should have communicated two months ago, instead of allowing this thing to grow into a scandal.
That if someone concluded that a representative of the Office of the President had behaved in a controversial or clearly illegal manner, the President of the Republic should have been informed immediately.
Editor: Marcus Turovski