Ansip: Kallas' Russian transport scandal statements 'don't ring very true'

Andrus Ansip (Reform/ALDE).
Andrus Ansip (Reform/ALDE). Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas' (Reform) statements regarding her spouse's Russia-related activity don't ring particularly true, Reform/ALDE MEP and former longtime prime minister Andrus Ansip said in a longer interview with ERR, urging journalists to demand clearer answers on the matter.

Speaking at a conference organized by [distribution network operator (DNO)] Elektrilevi last week, you said that you don't see a strong case for separating Elektrilevi and [parent company, Estonian state-owned energy group] Eesti Energia. But it's in the coalition agreement, and the government has promised to move forward with it. Also included in the coalition agreement is the idea of banning the burning of wood at Auvere Power Plant. All of this has Eesti Energia employees asking fairly publicly already why the state is throwing spanners in the works of its own companies. Do you understand it?

No, I don't understand it either, and I'm asking exactly the same thing — what is the point of all of this? What all should the people of Estonia gain with the banning of burning wood at Auvere or then in two fluidized bed combustion (FBC) boilers? We have a total installed capacity of 730 megawatts (MW) where you can burn wood — true, to half the extent of that 730 MW, but nevertheless that's actually significant mitigation for Estonian energy and for our energy prices if allowed. So I certainly see no point in banning it. And that's what Auvere was built for, wasn't it? So it can burn local biofuel as well.

This separation of Elektrilevi from Eesti Energia is a real old story, and one that goes back a very long way — to 2013 already. I don't believe separating Elektrilevi from Eesti Energia could somehow significantly improve the competitive situation, because Elektrilevi already has its own supervisory board, the Competition Authority watches its every move, its every price, its pricing, so this separation will hardly bring us better competitive conditions.

But of course there are some positives to be found in this separation idea. If Eesti Energia wants to take out a loan but has already taken out a loan, no one really seems to give fossil fuel-burning energy companies time, and if they do grant a loan, they do so fairly expensively. And if Elektrilevi is only involved in networks, then it can probably get a loan for cheaper.

But what I've said and what I want to draw attention to is the fact that Elektrilevi cannot be separated from Eesti Energia just by dividing things up into two piles and saying one is Eesti Energia and the other is Elektrilevi. If the Estonian state honestly wants to split Elektrilevi off from Eesti Energia, then it should be buying it out. Just as we once bought out [transmission system operator (TSO)] Elering from Eesti Energia.

In other words, the state has to have €1 billion with which to buy Elektrilevi from Eesti Energia. Eesti Energia can pay back the loan it's currently taken with that €1 billion, and then it will end up a debt-free fossil fuel company while Elektrilevi will simultaneously likely have the ability to borrow from the market, and for cheaper than Eesti Energia could right now.

So there may be some point to this after all. But this idea that the state won't buy out Elektrilevi and will just let Eesti Energia divide up everything into two piles is not going to fly, because no lender is going to sit back and watch as a large part of a company securing a loan is removed from it; of course it will then demand the immediate repayment of the loan. Further loans would then come at a much higher interest already, if they came at all. And that would only hurt the Estonian state.

Let's talk about money for a second. Minister of Foreign Affairs Margus Tsahkna (Eesti 200) likes to recall that he's an old "cuts crocodile" and that he just made some huge cuts together with you [all]. Those are all his words. And yet Eesti 200 politicians have doubts regarding whether the government will manage to find the €200 million in savings written on the year after next's budget line in the state budget strategy.

Everyone is saying we're not cutting from education, we're not cutting from national defense, we're not cutting from healthcare. Social benefits will remain. What do you think — will this government manage to find the strength to cut back on social benefits?

If they're a government, then the government should be able to manage. Right now we're seeing that our budget will be growing by 12 percent a year, and even with all of that, we can't raise teachers' salaries by more than just €25 million. In other words, if the budget volume has already increased to €17.7 billion in terms of expenditure and government borrowing has likewise grown to €6.8 billion, then they're talking about a smattering of millions they're short, and cutting back on even current spending seems to be quite difficult for the current government, but we can't do without it, unfortunately.

From time to time we still have to reexamine whether everything the government sector is doing is the most sensible thing to do, and whether it all still serves the interest of the people of Estonia. Are these expenditures proportionate to the income received? But just like in 2009, cuts seem to be vital now as well.

At what point do politicians have to start gauging social mood? When government politicians are asked about their bad ratings, they always say they don't look at the ratings; that this is the period between elections. That it's easy for populists to reap cheap popularity in the opposition. But still. Should politicians at some point, when they have to decide on new tax hikes or new major cuts, start keeping tabs on ratings, or are they actually already keeping one eye on them?

 Of course they should take a look at ratings, and that social mood needs to be constantly gauged. And that social mood should be attempted to be shaped by proactively providing information. If we look back once again at the global financial crisis, the cuts of 2009, we made the majority of cuts with a minority government, and it wasn't possible to employ any sort of obstruction, because it would have sufficed for the entire opposition to vote against the government's bills. Then the government would have fallen.

The people weren't exactly wild about these cuts, but because the people were informed, then the people understood what would happen if absolutely nothing were done as well as what would happen if something were done that has been suggested by one or the other side. This information was available, and the people accepted what the government did. And the consequence, of course, was that in the 2011 elections, both the Reform Party as well as Isamaa actually earned a very strong popular mandate in 2011.

But why has the Reform Party's rating now gone into free fall? Do the people suddenly not understand the wise actions of the head of state anymore?

I wouldn't call this drop a free fall, but there is indeed a downward trend. I'm sure there are objective reasons. Party ratings go up and down. And there are surely subjective reasons as well.

Back in the day, it was common practice for government parties to engage in preventive communication. They told the public about what was going to happen, or what would happen if absolutely nothing is done. But right now I think that communication is more reactive — they try to explain something that has already happened, about which a decision has already been made, and typically even this communication isn't very effective and convincing.

There are probably several reasons why the party's support ratings have started falling lately, and surely directly subjective reasons as well.

The Reform Party's general assembly convenes in mid-November. What do you think — is anyone there, even just during the open mic round, going to say that the fact that Kaja Kallas' spouse Arvo Hallik transported goods to Russia throughout the war is actually a problem?

I don't know if anyone's gonna start saying that into the microphone, but I think everyone understands that this is a problem. When 66 percent of Estonian residents are calling for the prime minister's resignation, one would have to be a real cynic to say that this isn't a problem. This is without a doubt a problem.

Kaja Kallas says that it isn't a problem. That it's the opposition that has demanded the prime minister's resignation.

It's not quite like that, that it's the opposition demanding the prime minister's resignation. The opposition can also tacitly support the election of the prime minister to office and their holding of the office. The opposition could have very easily overthrown the minority government as well, but when the people at the time saw this as clearly unpatriotic behavior, then the opposition didn't do that which would have been easy to do.

In order to govern, you don't need only majority support in parliament or majority support in society. This also definitely requires that there be no obstructive minority in either society or in parliament. But right now we're unfortunately seeing that the work of the parliament is incapacitated; there's no effective functioning of parliament to speak of under the current circumstances. In other words, that obstructive minority is present in the parliament.

What choices does Kaja Kallas have here, and what would the right choice be?

These choices aren't the kind that I can remotely recommend from afar here, that would yield immediate results. My first recommendation is certainly to talk more — including about these budgetary decisions, tax hikes, various cuts. You need to talk more so that people know exactly what is being done and why. About what purpose this car tax serves, who's in favor of one or another component that they want to include in that tax, who's against what and so on.

Right now we're really just guessing and we don't actually know. We're given some sort of ready-made solution, and that certainly doesn't look anything like inclusion. Yet everyone's talking in a sloganeering way about inclusive decision-making.

What's ultimately important in politics after all is the impression of appearances. What is your impression of the prime minister in this Russian goods transport scandal?

Am I now the right person to criticize my successor? Doubtful. There are plenty enough opinion leaders in Estonia who could talk about their impressions. But since you've asked the question directly, I'll answer directly too that it's not looking good right now.

I have to commend the current prime minister's behavior to some extent, of course. She's been criticized for poor communication, but in a way this communication has been working rather well. You just now spoke of Russian transport, but overall this scandal has gained the name of "eastern transport scandal."

It's a bit of a euphemism, isn't it. Russia, which has a distinct negative undertone, has become the eastern transport scandal. Eastern transport could mean transporting something to absolutely any eastern country, One Thousand and One Nights, whatever. The focus on that has actually been lost by now, and in that sense, I must admit that Kaja Kallas has indeed succeeded in managing the crisis.

Is it critically plausible that she didn't know that her spouse's company transported goods to Russia for a year and a half?

The thing with this now is that that's up for every individual to believe. 66 percent of people apparently don't believe it. But more important than believing or not is still whether this matter even allows us to focus on solving the important issues facing the country.

We know that just a few days ago Norway's foreign minister resigned because her spouse had been trading with shares in state-owned companies, among others. And everyone is inclined to believe that this foreign minister was truly unaware of her spouse's activities. But upon resigning, the foreign minister herself said that this whole scandal was keeping her from focusing on her duties as foreign minister. And that secondly, she herself should have been aware of what her spouse is involved in.

Should Kaja Kallas resign, then?

Now I am not the right person to say whether she should resign or not resign.

Would it make anything better if Kaja Kallas were to resign?

Well, then it's a question of alternatives. There are actually some situations where you don't ask whether things will get better or worse. If the president in the U.S. were to lie, then it would be certain that they should resign.

Let us recall Bill Clinton's Oval Office scandal. In the end, it didn't matter whether he had been unfaithful or hadn't been unfaithful; what mattered was whether he had lied or not when he claimed that he hadn't had sexual relations with that woman. Then linguists debated whether this statement was true or false.

We can't just lower the bar either and say that in our case, a small lie is acceptable, and then somewhere along the line a boundary is drawn.

Kaja Kallas says that she can't even lie because she's no actor and it would be immediately obvious if she were lying.

This is a claim I've heard quite a bit, and I truly admire her for how she still manages to convince journalists that that's the case. And journalists don't ask anything at all after that. Because what would make sense would be to continue asking yes or no questions, not content themselves with "Aha — she's no actor and therefore she can't lie — which doesn't actually answer a single question.

There are still unanswered questions for you in this story?

I actually long since haven't expected any answers whatsoever, because silence is also an answer. Some questions, some episodes haven't been explained. That very same Maarjamäe interview [with Kallas on August 23] highlighted several discrepancies that still actually haven't been answered.

Does it look like Kaja Kallas is telling the truth or Kaja Kallas is lying?

There are some things that still remain unexplained, and those may seem like lies even now.

When it was claimed right there at Maarjamäe that goods were only transported to Estonia, and nothing was transported to Russia — that they only helped move an Estonian company out of Russia that ceased its operations there — and then later it turned out that from the outbreak of the full-scale war [in Ukraine] through the end of November alone, 484 cargos went from Estonia to Russia and absolutely nothing was brought back, then all of that doesn't ring very true.

And of course Kaja Kallas also had the opportunity to not offer a moral judgment of her spouse's activities in Russia. And yet she did.

You fundamentally cannot force someone to testify against themselves or against someone connected to them, but Kaja Kallas said there that the companies owned by her spouse aren't engaging in any sort of immoral activity in Russia. And yet we know that goods subject to sanctions this year were transported [there] — and moreover transported through the last possible day, and sanctions were actually announced long before these sanctions entered into force. And further, after sanctions had been imposed, they then took details there from which it was easy to manufacture sanctioned goods in Russia.

And to say about all of this that this isn't immoral runs completely counter to what Kaja Kallas has previously said, and it also runs completely counter to the Estonian people's sense of justice. That's probably where that 66 percent comes from — who can't make sense of such a moral judgment.

We on the radio hear your criticism, but the Reform Party's long bench, meaning [Kristen] Michal, [Hanno] Pevkur, [Urmas] Klaas, [Urmas] Paet, [Liina] Kersna — all of them are saying that they stand united behind Kaja Kallas, and that none of them will raise their hands at the congress.

Yes, to what extent they stand behind [Kallas] or to what extent they're against [her], I suppose that's for them to explain, but within the party, this whole scandal is nonetheless considered to be quite personally tied to Kaja Kallas as a person; it's considered a personal matter, and that's also why no one wants to get involved.

But when does it become a party issue?

I suppose it's already directly become a party issue. When support for a party falls, then the party's ability to carry out any structural reforms in society is thereby reduced, and of course that's increasingly a party issue as well.

A lot of politicians believe that Kallas is nonetheless preparing to leave. Posts in Europe will be distributed following the European Parliament elections [in June 2024], and Kallas may seek the position of EU high representative for foreign affairs currently occupied by Josep Borrell or European Parliament president Roberta Metsola's position, or why not that of the president of the European Commission. How high do you see Kaja Kallas flying out in the world?

Every prime minister leaves office at some point, and no doubt Kaja Kallas will too, but I don't want to be the one to start setting the bars Kaja Kallas certainly isn't capable of exceeding. Well, president of the European Commission is clearly an exaggeration; that surely won't be going to a representative of a liberal party in Europe's current political climate. But anything's possible in principle.

How significant is the echo of this eastern transport scandal worldwide? Will this stay with Kaja Kallas forever or will it be forgotten in time?

I think that echo practically doesn't exist anymore. Other, more topical issues have come up. But this echo is likely going to follow Kaja Kallas for a very long time, especially whenever she ends up in a competitive situation somewhere — then [she'll] be reminded of this scandal.

And I'm pretty sure these reminders won't start sugarcoating it as some sort of eastern transport scandal; rather, the question will still be whether she told the truth when she claimed that transport operations were only conducted from Russia to Estonia and not the other way around. These questions will no doubt be posed sharply.

For some reason, it's ended up the case that when looking for a clearly critical statement like this regarding Kaja Kallas, then for at least two or three years already, you've been the one to call. Why has this ended up being the case? Have you deliberately shaped this circumstance? Has it turned out this way by chance? Why are you so critical of Kaja Kallas?

I'm not critical of everything; for a period she has been very effective after all. But that first criticism came when we were facing the [COVID-19] crisis, and vaccination in Estonia was failing. It was carried out very clumsily, and that came at a very heavy price for Estonia.

As we know, there was a very strong correlation in 2021 between a country's vaccination rate and excess mortality. Where vaccination [efforts] were successful, there was virtually no excess mortality, such as in Denmark. And where vaccination was an utter failure, excess mortality was very high, such as in Romania and Bulgaria.

Vaccination [efforts] failed in Estonia, and while Estonia typically sees 15,500 funerals a year, in 2021 we had 18,500 of them. And of course when you see that things aren't going the way they should, you criticize that process.

For whatever reason, Kaja Kallas felt it necessary at the time to defend both [Center Party Minister of Health and Labor] Tanel Kiik, who was responsible for vaccination, as well as [Center Party Minister of Culture] Anneli Ott. And of course I criticized both of them, and Kaja Kallas took this as a personal attack, which it most definitely wasn't.

I was just thinking that perhaps you [two] have a longer grudge going back to around the Silvergate scandal and when Kaja Kallas led the Reform Party's so-called internal opposition.

I have supported Kaja Kallas in her election as party chair, and in politics, longer grudges generally don't make for good company. You can't remain stuck in the past.

When I was chair of the Reform Party, we took in a lot of people who quit the Coalition Party, who quit the Center Party, and they were treated no differently than our old party members. Many of them have gone on to serve as ministers, and we've always assumed that people have the ability to change their views as well, to improve, and because of that you don't always have to be stuck in the past and recollect what someone had said at some point.

If I had constantly recalled what someone had said about me at some point, these one-time Coalition Party members or Centrists would hardly have been so welcome in the Reform Party.

Will you be running in the European Parliament elections?

If you ask me now, the answer is clearly yes. But that doesn't mean that that answer can't ever change. But yes, I plan on running. I like working in the European Parliament, and I definitely don't have any other ambitions.

Has the thought not crossed your mind to come home and go for the role of leader of the Reform Party?

No, absolutely not. I'm very grateful to the Estonian people for the nine years I had the honor of being prime minister, and I can't imagine returning to that office; I don't consider it likely either. That much is a very clear and definite no.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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