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Kõlvart on Center Party defectors: Karilaid wouldn't even take my calls

Center Party chair Mihhail Kõlvart.
Center Party chair Mihhail Kõlvart. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

In a longer interview with Vikerraadio on Friday, Center Party chair Mihhail Kõlvart defended party mates Andrei Korobeinik and Andrei Kante, whose statements have drawn a fair share of criticism even within the party. Kõlvart has promised to speak with the party's internal critics, but noted he was unable to do so with Jaanus Karilaid, for example, as the former Center deputy chair and longtime member wouldn't take his calls.

MPs Jaanus Karilaid and Tõnis Mölder have both quit the Center Party after you became leader of the party. Regular members have resigned as well, such as retired Maj. Gen. Neeme Väli or former secretary general Priit Toobal. Center Party whip Tanel Kiik told ERR last Friday that if Mihhail Kõlvart can't maintain the current party line, there may be more resignations to come.

Mihhail Kõlvart, do you understand what words and actions in the Center Party under your leadership are the ones that have driven people to quit and may drive yet others to quit?

Two weeks have passed since the [party] congress by now, and honestly, the Center Party hasn't given a single signal in that time about which it could be said that the party has changed or intends to change its ideology. So I think the majority of those who decided to quit the party had already made up their minds about that prior to the congress already.

I have to admit that I unfortunately haven't managed to speak with every one of them. At the same time, I've also met with quite a lot of party mates over these two weeks as well. And there's a very broad range of emotions and differing expectations. But there are also plenty of people with a positive outlook and who are prepared for the fact that we've got a lot of work ahead of us.

But I addressed members of the party both before the congress as well as after the congress and made it clear that it makes no difference to me today whether someone supported me [in the party chair elections] or not. Or even whether they support me now or not. We're one party and we have common goals. I know that sounds a bit preachy, but it's true!

Tanel Kiik said that there may be more resignations to come. Do you have any idea who those people may be? Likewise from the Center Party parliamentary group? Have you spoken with them — tried to communicate one-on-one and face-to-face with these people?

I've spoken with quite a lot of people. I couldn't speak with Jaanus Karilaid; he didn't answer my phone calls. I'm genuinely very sorry that Tõnis [Mölder] decided to quit, because I always had a very constructive relationship and cooperation experience with him, both within the municipal system and the party.

There were other people as well who maybe too personally were critical both before as well as after the congress. But everyone was given a very clear signal: Let's forget about it! Let's start fresh!

This kind of situation definitely doesn't happen in the party where someone's now thinking about how to get revenge or punish someone. I communicate with various people, and perhaps most of all with those people who have questions. And the party has been given a very clear signal that if you have any criticisms, if you have any questions, then let's talk!

We're having a major meeting this week to which we've invited all the regional leaders, chapter leaders, MPs, board members. And the purpose of this meeting is precisely that if you have questions, if you have criticisms, let's talk directly among ourselves.

Jaanus Karilaid, Tõnis Mölder, Neeme Väli. All of them joined Isamaa. Does it make your life easier now that people with national conservative views leave the Center Party for Isamaa?

Well I believe I'm actually more of a conservative myself too. Whether [these resignations from the party] are a matter of worldview or a matter of previous agreements is difficult to say right now.

And Isamaa itself has actually survived the same situation. So many people quit Isamaa that they even managed to form a separate party. But the party is in pretty good political shape despite that. Yes, we're going through hard times right now, but we believe that we, too, can get back into or achieve good political shape.

But let's talk about the substance of the complaints that even Tanel Kiik raised last Friday. Kiik said that he's gotten the impression as though the party has decided on some sort of change of course that the majority of congress delegates didn't actually support. Kiik cited three examples. The coup you facilitated in Narva that unseated Mayor Katri Raik (SDE). As well as how your team member Aleksei Jevgrafov cited the removal of street signs named after Red Army members as one of the justifications for unseating Raik.

The second sign of a change of course that Kiik brought up was Andrei Korobeinik's apology to drivers of cars with Russian license plates. And third, Tallinn Deputy Mayor Andrei Kante's statement in the paper Pealinn that the transition to Estonian-language education may constitute a violation of human rights. These were three examples that Kiik cited. Why did we see words and actions like these immediately upon your becoming leader of the party? Is this the face of Mihhail Kõlvart's Center Party?

Well then! You, esteemed journalist, when you read an article, then surely the article's headline isn't the only sentence that interests you. And I think you also actually know in this case that that's not how things were. But let's talk about it in more detail, then.

First of all, the Russian plates. What Andrei Korobeinik said is absolutely not that for which he's being criticized. First of all, he didn't apologize on Russia's behalf or on behalf of Russian citizens. What he was talking about was the property of refugees from Ukraine. Cars with Russian plates. Quite a lot of refugees from Ukraine have arrived in Estonia with cars with Russian plates. And the confiscation of their cars would be unjust and wrong. That's what he was talking about and that's what he was calling attention to.

Nevermind the fact that the honorable minister of the interior initially said that we'll be confiscating and then a few days later said no, we won't confiscate. And for some reason we're not discussing the fact that a member of the government allows themselves such signals and then a few days later is already saying no, it won't be like that.

It was actually known from the start what Andrei Korobeinik said and what he was talking about. Why are we accusing him of something that hasn't actually taken place? Or do we truly believe that it would be normal for us to take Ukrainian people's property away from them? Or send these people from Ukraine to Russia to sell their cars there?

We forced them to travel to Russia, because for them that was quite a lot of money to lose. Why is no one taking responsibility for the fact that an entire slew of people from Ukraine had to travel to Russia? And what may have happened to them there. No one's talking about that.

I agree with Andrei 100 percent here that this was not normal. Was it necessary to phrase it exactly that way? That it would produce such a headline? Maybe that wasn't necessary. But it was sufficient for sending the people of Ukraine a signal.

Center Party chair Mihhail Kõlvart and previous opposing candidate Tanel Kiik in an appearance on ERR's "Otse uudistemajast" two months before the party congress and elections. July 20, 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Let's take the topic of Narva next — which is still ongoing. Former Narva mayor Katri Raik was on ETV's "Esimene stuudio" the day before yesterday, and talked about how you, Mihhail Kõlvart, visited Narva twice before the coup and helped organize it. Why did you do that?

Let's talk facts. First of all, the esteemed Katri Raik herself was in a coalition with the Center Party group, or a group that included Centrists. And she simultaneously negotiated with another group that likewise included Centrists regarding replacing [her] coalition partner. In other words, she was in one coalition with Centrists and conducted negotiations in order to form a coalition with other Centrists. And that seemed normal.

I'd like to recall that a discussion arose within the Center Party over why Jevgrafov was conducting negotiations in such a way as to form a new coalition. And I was criticized for not dealing with this issue. That Centrists are ready to express no confidence in Centrists and Kõlvart isn't dealing with it. I of course wondered why I should deal with it, given that the party chair [Jüri Ratas at the time] was supposed to be dealing with it.

But okay, I didn't advertise it, but I did indeed go [to Narva] and started dealing with it. And as a result, the Centrists agreed among themselves — why should Katri Raik or her list be part of one coalition or another in any case? The Centrists agreed that the two groups would form one group, and with that, they had no need to form a coalition either. It's one group that's in power right now.

Now the criticism that Jevgrafov gave an interview in which he cited one reason [they unseated Raik as mayor]. That is one reason we heard in the interview. But there were a whole host of reasons involved. There is an official document detailing all of these reasons. The fact that his interview wasn't very good — I've commented as much once already. But there were quite a lot of reasons involved there.

One reason was the lack of cooperation between the city government and city council. And the fact that the city government submitted documents two hours before a sitting that the council was supposed to pass. Imagine if this were to happen in Tallinn. How would Tallinn's opposition react? This isn't acceptable, because this has to happen at least a week ahead of time.

There were issues with procurements too. Or the fact that the esteemed former mayor Katri Raik promised ahead of the elections that she would do everything in her power to ensure that members of the city government would no longer be paid on supervisory boards, and after she became mayor, what did she do? Appointed herself to three supervisory boards and got paid by three supervisory boards. And we're not talking about that?! It seems to me as though there were plenty enough reasons to bring a no-confidence motion.

Other interesting aspects emerged from this Raik interview on ETV. Katri Raik described how Narva City Council members demanded corrupt-seeming actions from her as a precondition for remaining in power — which she went and spoke to the [Estonian Internal Security Service, ISS] about as well. How it was demanded of her that she would allow city council members who don't speak Estonian to continue serving as educational leaders in Narva.

When Centrist Jaan Toots now becomes mayor of Narva, will he then allow Narva's non-Estonian-speaking educational leaders to remain? Will you as leader of the Center Party condemn it or will you look the other way when non-Estonian-speaking Narva councilmembers belonging to the Center Party are given jobs in exchange for supporting Jaan Toots as mayor? Would such an arrangement be morally acceptable?

We can come up with a whole slew of various schemes, and what you just said — that's all theory. If there are any facts involved, then that indeed is a very specific case for the police to investigate.

Katri Raik claims that such a thing was demanded of her and she refused, and now she's assuming that maybe those non-Estonian-speaking educational leaders will get their jobs in exchange for supporting the other person.

Katri Raik likewise promised that she wouldn't accept or would put an end to the scheme altogether in which members of the city government get paid by supervisory boards, and then it turned out that she herself received this pay. Someone can say a lot of different things about and accuse someone else. That doesn't mean that this should be taken into account.

If you want my judgment, then my judgment is very concrete. This is a case that must be investigated by the police, if it happened. No mayor can allow such a thing. And I am certain that Jaan Toots definitely did not promise this; that simply isn't possible. This is a very simple answer and a very concrete judgment.

Center Party chair Mihhail Kõlvart. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

And the third topic is precisely the transition to Estonian-language education, which is allegedly now in danger of having its brakes pumped in Narva. Let's go back now to the [Tallinn deputy mayor] Andrei Kante example. Kante suggested that the transition to Estonian-language education may constitute a human rights violation. We remember how Jüri Ratas asked Mihhail Korb, for example, to resign [as minister of public affairs] after Korb made one dubious statement about NATO. Why haven't you asked Kantel to resign after such a statement?

First of all, that claim that you just made sort of in passing, that the transition to Estonian-language education in Narva is now under threat because it's getting a Center Party mayor — that is a very serious accusation. It seems to me that you have no grounds for making that claim!

No, I'm not claiming that. Katri Raik cited as an example the fact that one bill that was necessary for the transition — the bill for the establishment of a special education needs (SEN) support center — was immediately dropped from proceedings in the city council. The first example of the fact that the new coalition doesn't care about the transition to Estonian-language education — this is Katri Raik's example and claim.

That's her assessment. That isn't a statement of fact; that is her assessment. And that doesn't mean this can now be taken into account.

Therein lies the main problem — that right now it's very easy to say that we won't be able to manage it. We won't be able to manage it not because we're against it, but because there are no resources for organizing the transition. There aren't enough teachers in Narva. How is this supposed to be done — purely physically speaking? These issues need to be discussed. [Kante] is working to make sure that children will be able to study in Estonian and do so in a quality fashion. It's this person, this politician, this city leader specifically that is working on finding resources and establishing a corresponding system.

As for who's offering nothing but slogans, there's no meaningful benefit to that. In local governments like Narva or Tallinn, there's no time for or point in engaging in sloganeering. You have real life. These are actual students, actual teachers and actual schools you have to deal with on a daily basis in order for this actual transition to be possible.

Andre Kante is the one who is handling all of this most effectively. Because he is creating a system for this that the state hasn't created. He's offering various options for how to support students and teachers. And what he was talking about was the quality of education! He wasn't just talking about Russians; he was talking about Estonian children — their quality of education is going to go down as well.

And in light of this, he said that this could be taken as a rights violation — the decline in the quality of education, not the transition. The decline in the quality of education for both Russian students as well as Estonian students. It's going to happen. It's already happening. Are we going to just close our eyes to it and say that this issue doesn't exist or are we going to deal with it? Andrei Kante is dealing with this issue, and I support him!

Center Party chair Mihhail Kõlvart. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

But what are you planning on doing to get this message across to Tanel Kiik as well as your other critics who feel as though some sort of change of course has taken place in the party?

I've been speaking with our people on a regular basis over the past two weeks, and I intend to continue doing so going forward as well. I'm meeting both with our top politicians in order to discuss these issues as well as regular members in various regions. For me, that pre-election campaign hasn't ended; I'm still continuing to just as actively meet with people.

I explain and even talk about these specific questions you've asked me. Unfortunately, quite a lot of our fellow party members have drawn their conclusions based on headlines alone, without having read [the articles]. But there's nothing to be done; the only option is to likewise explain things and speak with people directly.

Can you reveal to listeners right now what steps, messages, statements we'll be seeing in the weeks and months ahead that would disprove claims made by critics within your party that the Center Party is turning into a pro-Russian party?

First of all, these accusations aren't fair. Nevermind the fact that then you'd also have to explain what that's supposed to mean. What's this pro-Russian party supposed to mean?

We just discussed Tanel Kiik's three claims, and in great detail!

I answered those questions and I will continue to answer. I'll say it again one more time: neither the party nor the party's members have given a single signal in these two weeks that could be criticized for its content.

I'm not going to start offering any slogans right now, or solving this issue with sloganeering. I see only one way here. Yes, it will take time. But I will make time to communicate, meet with and talk about things with people as they really are.

It isn't the host's job to propose anything, but it would be a significant step, metaphorically speaking, to replace Andrei Kante as Tallinn deputy mayor of education with some other Center Party specialist in the field of education, even former education minister Jaak Aab. I believe this would certainly be accompanied by a boost in reputation among native Estonian-speaking voters, where we're currently seeing a drop in ratings.

Are you, an intelligent person, seriously proposing replacing someone on the basis of their ethnicity alone? Am I really hearing this on an ERR radio program right now?

Let's start with the fact that for some reason I think that my good colleague and fellow party member Jaak Aab isn't prepared for that. He is an MP.  A very important MP in our parliamentary group. He's also deputy chair of the party.

And perhaps even more importantly, Andrei Kante has already shown that he is very effective. He may not be an effective politician, but he is a very effective expert. I'd remind you that he's a former teacher. And a teacher that taught in Estonian to boot. He was a school principal that organized Estonian language instruction at his own school and at two schools where he worked. He actually knows how to do this. And he's actually doing this to establish the system citywide. He is the expert.

I won't be making any more suggestions, just in case. But I will ask — what steps are you taking, that people will see in the coming weeks and months, so that the number of Estonian-speaking Center Party supporters would start to rise?

Concrete activities, concrete messages. I'm not going to start proposing political technologies. Time will tell. Voters and people will make their own judgments. This takes time.

Let's try to wrap up this interview by talking about the state budget presented by the government too. Your role as party leader is now also to provide solutions to the affairs and issues of the entire country. What do you propose in this situation? Take out a loan, cut expenses or raise taxes?

I believe that that's the problem — that these proposals are relatively linear. Right now we're considering the budget only in light of next year's revenue and expenditure lines. What's missing right now? What's missing is an understanding of how we're going to come out of the crisis. We eventually started to admit that we are facing an economic crisis. But not a single instrument is coded into the budget with the help of which we're going to start bringing the economy out of crisis.

Yes, I suggested a week ago that a loan might be a solution, but naturally not for covering operating expenses. We need to think about which sectors of the economy need investments. Or support to gradually establish a base for economic growth. The establishment of a base for economic growth needs to be tackled during the crisis already, not after the crisis. This discussion and these moves are absent, unfortunately.

And when we had our meeting of party chairs, then my message was that if we can't resolve this political conflict, then at least let's try to discuss what the economic formula might be that we could agree on. And if politicians can't manage to come up with one, then we bring in the experts. Directors of large companies, economic experts — let's get a group of people together and look for solutions. Right now there's only a political discussion going on, but what's actually needed is an expert discussion on the matter.

Center Party chair Mihhail Kõlvart. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

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