Isamaa chair: Kersti Kaljulaid expressed interest in NATO top job

Kersti Kaljulaid
Kersti Kaljulaid Source: ERR

Former President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid expressed an interest in the post of NATO secretary general late on last year, then-foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) says, as reported by daily Eesti Päevaleht (EPL).

Reinsalu was foreign minister most recently from July 2022 to April this year, having already served in the role April 2019-January 2021, when Kersti Kaljulaid was in office as president.

Current NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's potential successor has not been named; in July, it was announced that a fourth extension to his term was in place, meaning he will be in office to October 2024, making his tenure at least a decade long and the second-longest of any NATO secretary general to date.

Both the changed security situation following Russia's invasion of Ukraine and a perceived need for continuity in this light, and the lack of any clearly obvious successor, are factors here.

Back in Estonia, Urmas Reinsalu, EPL reports (link in Estonian), says that: "I met with Kersti Kaljulaid last year (last autumn – ed.) on this matter, and she expressed interest in being a candidate," adding that he took that interest seriously given the ministry's concern of a lack of Estonians in influential positions.

Another source from top officialdom told EPL that: "Kersti wanted a team from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense to be assembled, in order to promote her candidacy."

A memo sent from the foreign ministry and Reinsalu himself to the government office in January this year, following the conversation, however, did not reach a cabinet meeting agenda, via the prime minister, Reinsalu said.

Urmas Reinsalu. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

"Now I hear from Vikerraadio's "Reporteritund" that there had been other business going on in the background to all this – a trade involving Kersti Kaljulaid becoming a member of the Reform Party," a quid pro quo which Reinsalu called "petty," but which Kaljulaid herself denies. 

While Estonia cannot dictate to international organizations who should be appointed to what position, Reinsalu noted, a bare minimum needed is prime ministerial support, yet, he said: " Kaja Kallas did not do this, and did not even discuss the matter."

Another diplomatic source told EPL that Kallas did not take the matter seriously because she did not see that candidacy as a sensible move, in part given that a Riigikogu election was coming up just a few weeks later (in March this year), and so the issue foundered.

Government office sources told the paper that the matter in the context of the upcoming elections was political – while Reinsalu's enthusiasm for a NATO secretary general candidate from Estonia was "understandable," this was "not wise" in terms of timing.

Kersti Kaljulaid, when she was president, had been instrumental in the successful campaign for getting Estonia – as a nation and not with regard to any individual – elected to the non-permanent UN Security Council seat it held 2020-2021, but by January 2023 as a figure in terms of the NATO top job she had been somewhat eclipsed by Kaja Kallas, whose name was linked with the role also, EPL argues.

In any case, again, the timing was not ideal with the election upcoming; Reinsalu's January memo had not been confined to referencing Kaljulaid, and Kallas too, but listed many other possible candidates, including then-British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and other leaders, EPL reports.

The original EPL piece is here.

Speaking to Vikerraadio's "Reporteritund" a week ago, Kaljulaid said the Reform Party had invited to run in the Riigikogu elections last spring – it had already been widely reported that Eesti 200 had canvassed the former president to run in its ranks; in the event, she did not run for the Riigikogu at all.

Kaljulaid told "Reporteritund" that she and Kallas had spoken privately on two separate occasions on the possibility of the Estonian state backing a candidacy for NATO's top spot, but that this had ultimately never worked out.

Kaljulaid rejected a joining of the dots between her not running for Reform and the government not backing a NATO secretary general bid, however, citing the complicated situation ahead of the election.

"As Kaja Kallas has said herself, that she doesn't believe that an Estonian could ever get this job. She may have not actually believed that either. But we indeed have a discussion that supporting me is politically dangerous should I not get it and end up entering Estonia's domestic politics after all."

Kallas herself has also been linked with a possible bid in the past; in May, she said that this was unlikely given she was from an Eastern Flank nation – by extension a qualifying factor which, if true, would need to be applied to Kaljulaid too.

Controversy which erupted in August over a company belonging to the prime minister's husband being involved in logistics services provided on behalf of an Estonian company exporting manufactured items to Russia likely pushed the candidacy off the table altogether, if it were ever on it.

Earlier this week, the prime minister hit out at what she says was a more lenient approach from the media to Kersti Kaljulaid's position on the board of Alexela, which imports fuel from Russia and which Kaljulaid stepped down from last week, compared with that same media's treatment of her and her husband.

"The only position in which Kersti Kaljulaid is genuinely interested is that of NATO secretary general, as she mentioned herself. However, I am not in a position to offer such a post," Kallas said.

Kersti Kaljulaid was President of Estonia 2016-2021. Towards the end of her term, she was also put forward as a candidate for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), but this was later withdrawn.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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