While Center members leaving the party is a serious problem, time is needed to allow tensions to dissipate, new party leader Mihhail Kõlvart says.
Kõlvart's critics say that Center will become a "Russian party" under his tutelage, thought to be the cause of people, around 30 of them as of the start of the week, leaving the party.
Appearing on ETV politics head-to-head show "Esimene stuudio" Wednesday, Kõlvart, who is also Tallinn mayor, said while people have indeed been leaving, applications to join Center have also been coming in over recent months.
Kõlvart said: "It's not a one-way street at this time. However, every party member who quits now represents a very big problem. As far as is possible, I try to communicate with people, and I hope that tensions will diminish at some point."
Kõlvart was elected Center leader at a special party congress in Paide last Sunday, replacing Jüri Ratas, whose term had ended. Kõlvart received 543 votes to Tanel Kiik's 489.
"My belief is that some colleagues may have more emotion stored up than is the case with the average party. But you have to give people time. The 'soup is too hot' right now. To get to speak calmly, you need to give people time," Kõlvart went on.
The new Center leader also said that issues have been artificially created, via claims of a divide between Estonian and Russian-speaking people within the party.
"It seems to me that our main priority within the party is the individual. The greatest value for every society and country is the individual, but if we now start thinking about a division of Center Party members into camps, how we divide the voters into these camps, then this noble outcome will never materialize. In fact, our congress already proved that people within the party, regardless of their nationality, supported both Tanel and myself. Just as Tanel was supported by Narva people, Tartu supported me," Kõlvart continued.
Narva is largely Russian-speaking, Tartu, mostly Estonian-speaking.
"Ahead of the local government elections of [October] 2021, I was also the most popular candidate among both Estonians and Russian voters (in Tallinn, where Kõlvart ran – ed.) and in almost every district of the city. We should not be looking for problems when there is no need to create them," he added.
According to Kõlvart, Center's support among both Estonian and Russian voters has been in decline, since 2017. This can, however, be turned around, though only with cooperation within the party and via clear messages and pledges to the voters, he said.
"Perhaps we must start with making our messages and our promises clearer; when we promise something, are not being misleading. Much depends on that," he said.
The Center leader said that while he is not inclined to accuse anyone directly of lying, one example comes from the 2019 Riigikogu elections. "There is nothing to do about it, but in 2019 we promised that we would not form a coalition with EKRE."
Center did in fact enter office with the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and with Isamaa, in April 2019.
"This need not mean that EKRE has no right to enter into government. Any political party which receives the people's trust and a Riigikogu mandate has the right to do so. But we made our choice even ahead the elections; we said that we will not form a coalition with EKRE," Kõlvart said.
Kõlvart would not directly address presenter Johannes Tralla's question on whether he would ever enter a coalition with EKRE, however.
"I'm not going to promise this and I'm not going to lie. If you already promise, then still do as you promised. We all know that EKRE is very critical of me and I was critical of EKRE, but I will never say that EKRE is not worth it to be in the government. That is decided by the voter, the people of Estonia."
Kõlvart rejects besieged Mayor of Narva's claims
On Monday this week, one day after Kõlvart became Center leader, a new coalition born in Narva, actually dubbed the Narva coalition and which includes Center Party deputies who had earlier belonged to more than one group at the city council.
Narva had in former years been a Center Party stronghold.
This newly formed faction also initiated a motion of no-confidence in Mayor of Narva Katri Raik, a move which speculation has it that Kõlvart was behind.
Kõlvart told "Esimene stuudio" that all Center deputies should be together in the one grouping in Narva, to avoid mistrust among party-mates.
"Even before the [Paide] congress, charges against me started coming, whereby I do not have a grasp of what is happening in Narva, that I do not care about the fact that there is an internal discussion going on to the effect that we protect Centrists. I learned about this process via the media. Yes, I concede that when I found this out, especially when my good party colleagues started laying accusations against me, I didn't advertise that fact, but instead went to communicate with the people, both with the one faction and the other."
"Almost every faction within Narva city council had members of the center party, and while Katri Raik initially cooperated with one faction which contained three Center Party members, she then decided to cooperate with another faction. Now these two groups have come to an agreement with one another," Kõlvart noted.
"Indeed, yes, I have communicated with both factions, but my goal was primarily to ensure that Center members will be in the same faction, to avoid mistrust between each other. And it seems to me that this is also right."
Some politicians in Narva had charged Raik of starting to change Soviet-era street names too rapidly.
Raik herself says the no-confidence motion arises from her not extending the contracts of the managers of those educational institutions in the city who do not know the Estonian language at the required level.
Kõvart says this alleged "revenge" argument is too simple an explanation for the situation. "I think it is too simple an explanation that now there is some kind of revenge. I think it is not right and correct to simplify this situation in this way," he noted.
"I think it is neither right nor proper to over-simplify the situation in this way," he said.
"There have been other arguments put forward, that first of these being that there had been no cooperation, no trust; where bills and city government documentation arrived at the council chambers two hours before the session was due to start. I can't imagine were something like this to occur in Tallinn, what people would say about me. Construction of large objects dragged on [too]. I would say that there are enough arguments here for both the factions to want to bring a motion of no-confidence," he went on.
"However, this is all first and foremost a game of power. Just as Katri Raik cooperated with one faction of the Center Party, then with another, in the same way, there has been cooperation between those two groups. I would like to remind you that some time ago, Kaja Kallas decided that she would dismiss all the Center Party members of the government; all seven ministers, all of them were Estonians yet no one had any questions as to why Estonians had been kicked out of the coalition," he said.
Kõlvart: The government is trying to make the transition to Estonian-language education without either program or resources
Kõlvart also told "Esimene stuudio" that all municipalities in Estonia that have been experiencing issues with learning in the Estonian language are already dealing with them and are trying to organize the transition without damaging either the work of that school, or the quality of education.
The current government is trying to make the transition to Estonian-language education just via a slogan, but without any actual program or resources to accomplish it, particularly with regard to the teacher shortage, he said.
The presenter asked Kõlvart whether he thought that switching to Estonian-language education was the right decision would help to eliminate barriers in Estonian society.
His response was: "It is the right decision to provide all children with the opportunity to learn in Estonian; to get a high-quality education and the opportunity to learn the Estonian language. To learn both Estonian and in the Estonian language. But that needs to be done in such a way that it does no damage the quality of education."
He added that: "It would be so easy to say that you are either for or against the transition and then not talk about the details. But talking about them is needed, because it is people's lives we are talking about, so this is what local governments have to deal with – a situation where we cannot provide teachers to schools, they are simply not there, but we anyway have this slogan where we intend to do that. But we are working on that now, in the City of Tallinn. We are implementing additional programs to support teachers here."
Kõlvart would not reverse marriage equality were he in government
Kõlvart conceded that he was and still is opposed to marriage equality, which was enshrined into Estonian law in the summer, but added that he would not reverse that decision if he entered government at the national level.
"I don't think that was the right decision, especially with regard to the way it was pushed through. But I comprehend that creating additional tension in society by taking back a right that has been granted, would not be the right thing to do."
Host Johannes Tralla also asked if Kõlvart finds e-voting to be safe and if he trusts the system.
"I'm not an expert, so I don't know it at that level, but I don't have 100 percent confidence in e-voting. I vote on paper myself, and I think there is room for improvement. It's not that those who don't trust it are against progress and do not understand what is happening. The Center Party has made specific proposals here, for an additional server and personal identification," the mayor added.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael.
Source: 'Esimene stuudio," host Johannes Tralla.