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Jaak Jõerüüt: Too much stability a threat for democracy

Jaak Jõerüüt.
Jaak Jõerüüt. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Writer, long-time diplomat and politician Jaak Jõerüüt tells ERR in an interview that ratings are supposed to fluctuate, giving the example of Sweden where a single party remaining in power for a long time has created both prosperity but also dangerous naivety.

In your opinion, do our politicians have a clear goal of where we are moving as a society?

We need to keep in mind that Estonia is not located on a remote planet somewhere, but is rather a part of Europe and the world in general. And the term global village was coined some time before the communications revolution.

And because we are tied to faraway countries both economically and politically in the EU and NATO, we should start by keeping in mind global developments and how they affect us.

It has only been a little over 30 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe. Barely enough time for an apple tree to grow. Talking about our neighbor who is currently relevant in almost all matters that have to do with us, let us recall the effect of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decision to fire at this own parliament in the middle of the 1990s.

They destroyed their fledgling democracy.

They nipped it in the bud. And what is the meaning of democracy? It means having different opinions. But as soon as things got heated, they started firing on the White House in Moscow. And the whole world was watching via CNN. I was serving as ambassador to Finland at the time.

Next came the EU's expansion. Finland joined in 1995, together with Austria and Sweden.

After that, NATO expansion, also to include us. Because I was appointed Estonia's ambassador to the UN for a year around the time Estonia joined NATO and the EU, I saw how it affected our position in the global organization.

From there came the great migration, and I can assure you, based on my posting in Italy, that it began long before it blew up in everyone's faces last decade. The Italian migration pump had been working for quite some time. You could see hundreds of people crossing the Strait of Ontranto and moving north along the boot every week. All this on the backdrop of climate issues the Club of Rome has been talking about since the late 1960s. Environmental matters and then the coronavirus, followed by the new escalation in Ukraine.

I won't even go into the economy here. Suffice to say that all of it keeps bubbling and affecting our lives, connections and needs.

That cauldron is keeping us from setting goals?

It is mostly disturbing would-be messiahs who would like to unite the people behind themselves through singular goals. We have already seen such characters in Estonia. But it is also a hindrance in causing constraining positions.

I served as defense minister in 2004-2005, and I remember the attitude toward defense spending. I will refrain from naming any names, while it's downright anecdotal thinking back to it today. We have public consensus for greater defense spending today, while it's affecting every other walk of life in Estonia.

Our society is also more polarized than ever before. Wouldn't it be wiser to face the pressure of global problems united?

The thing about democratic states is that too much unity tends to leave democracy in tatters. Different opinions and needing to meet in the middle is a core characteristic of democracy. That's how elections, different platforms, ideologies, desires etc. work. And it is completely normal.

How should we measure polarization and where does it cross a line? One such divide or the effect of there being two Estonias is quite visible. One can be found on Toompea Hill and often seems to consist of little else than political skirmishes and slogans. The other is happening away from Tallinn, in small Estonian towns. I know Viljandi the best, where people are busy living their lives the Estonian way – always fixing, improving and making things more beautiful.

The Reform Party's sinking in the ratings is perhaps the most recent drama in Estonian politics. What is the Reform Party's problem?

The Reform Party does not have any special problem. What we are seeing is what has always been happening in the world. As pointed out by Indian and other oriental philosophers and teachers – life tends to undulate. Everyone can take the example of their own life and the ups and downs therein. There's nothing we can do about it as that's just how life is.


Kaja Kallas is among the most hated people in Estonia today. Aren't we being too hard on her as the message that seems to irritate us the most is that there is no money. But the money was spent by previous governments and she is just the messenger. Or is there a specific Kaja Kallas problem?

When it comes to the prime minister, certain people are critical of topics that others just don't care about at all and vice versa. The ratings of the Reform Party and Kaja Kallas were just fine for quite a long time since the "eastern transports scandal," as if it never happened. And we didn't know whether they would be coming down.

But different things are affecting the ratings now. Some are bothered by the scandal, others taxes, the general economic course or lack thereof. And some do not like her statements or conduct.

Personally, I have been most bothered by the two recent incidents which the older generation would clearly condemn. First, when she told teachers to advertise the car tax plan should they decide to go on strike as that is where money comes from. It baffled me just how out of touch a person can be in terms of how others live and feel.

Second, the international incident where Kallas threw down an ironic gauntlet to her colleague Mark Rutte, saying during a panel discussion or interview that when people talk about the new NATO chief coming from an eastern member state or being a woman, they clearly mean Mart Rutte.

To pull such a stunt with a close colleague... who will of course smile afterwards instead of slamming the door in your face. But it's just not done. /.../

It is possible to wax ironic more generally, using figures of speech but refraining from making the matter personal. The latter never gets you anywhere. People remember things even if they don't show it, and it could come back to bite a small country like Estonia when we least expect it.

While Reform is headed downhill, Isamaa seem to be coming up. People are defecting from other parties, its rating is soaring and Isamaa can promise the sun and moon in the opposition.

I'm sure journalists will remind [Isamaa chair] Urmas Reinsalu of his sweeping promises years from now. Isamaa are climbing the podium, while it's anyone's guess how long that will last. Whether it will last until the next election.

But elections also see protest votes. I make no secret of the fact that I have also, on occasion, when turning up to vote... felt so angry about something or so determined to support certain things... rather ended up making emotional decisions.

This recent wave of support for Isamaa... I get the feeling it means being against the Reform Party's bloody conduct as much as it means backing Isamaa. People who sport a right-wing worldview are demonstrating they want change, and that it can be brought about.


Isn't it a little tragicomic, achieving peak form six months after the Olympics?

Correct. I would be quite concerned in Isamaa's shoes. As we've found, political popularity and life in general tends to happen in waves where you usually have little control over it. How to consolidate this rise for the coming years?

Could Isamaa swallow EKRE? For a time, it seemed the opposite would happen. Is there anything between them?

I don't know and would refrain from making predictions. We don't know what will happen to EKRE next. Several political analysts have suggested that we are seeing a major breakthrough in Estonian politics. And it has been said that developments have become unpredictable. That those who were on top yesterday will not be there tomorrow, and that the whole picture will change.

Jaak Jõerüüt and Astrid Kannel. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Have obstruction tactics benefited the Conservative People's Party (EKRE)?

They can at least take solace in knowing it has given them a solid rating.

But I have a different theory. It occurred to me after elections that they could have gone another way.

They chose the victim's position, that they were wronged, their victory and the election stolen. But we have seen no proof to suggest any of it is true.

Therefore, while it may have worked for them at first, I believe they have largely stopped using it themselves now. Their modus operandi now is to talk about removing Reform from power and holding extraordinary elections as a way to fix Estonia. But it's still a victim's tactic of blaming things on bullies.

It would have been much more mature to, instead of appearing in front of voters looking glum and saying that it's all over, to declare immediately on election night that while we wanted to win, we still managed the silver medal. While our victory was postponed a little, we overtook a major competitor [Center] by a wide margin. /.../ That Center and the others lost much more. It would also have been true. They should have adopted a position of success and made themselves out to be winners.

I don't know why they decided to go for the role of martyr or how long they plan to keep it up?

What has happened to Eesti 200 that is also losing ground and seems to have dissolved in its alliance with Reform?


What I noticed from the first, and this is nothing personal... is that if you find yourself not just in the parliament but also the government for the first time, proposing to have someone who might be a nice person otherwise but has never even served as an MP for the role of speaker, the country's number two according to the Constitution, is not a good idea either practically or symbolically..

It betrayed inexperience. Experienced politicians would not have done something like that. They set about making amends by electing a new leader, while this brings us to another nuance of politics where it is suggested party leaders could serve as ministers. It makes it much easier to participate in a coalition government. /.../

We started this interview by finding that international life is a very strong influence on things in Estonia. Donald Trump could become the U.S. president again in a year's time. Perhaps the Ukraine war will not end as we would have it end. We also have to contend with such partners as Hungary and Slovakia in the EU. What do you forecast for the near future?

I offer no forecast. We are living in an age where past experience comes in handy and we don't have to figure out why something is happening from scratch. But, paradoxically enough, we are also living a time when memories and past experience are of little use. Because the world has changed so much. It is something Putin scholars have pointed out, how he not just consciously but very professionally takes advantage of the chaos of information in which we live.

I'm reminded of Catherine Belton's "Putin's People" that describes in great detail how during the Soviet period, when Vladimir Putin was still stationed in East Germany, spiderwebs were laid out all over the world, looking to the future and foreseeing the collapse of the Soviet Union but also knowing that the Kremlin would still need its networks of people in different parts of the globe. Those networks are working today, and the people in them have plans to conquer the world in the long run.

Another thing is that this terrible chaos of information doesn't come about on its own. Parts of it do, but some of it is also manufactured. While the use of the term is debatable... talking about world wars, we know that the first and second were Europe-centric and the term was coined in Europe. The jury is still out when it comes to the third world war, but the information world war, if not fully underway, has at the very least started. That much is clear. Good luck making any predictions in such a situation...

I have tried to urge my friends to keep this in mind and a mental filter in place when sourcing information from anywhere, including Estonian news. Doubt as much of it as you physically can. And this is based on my experience as a diplomat where this attitude is simply mandatory.

Finland is a NATO member today. Who would have thought it a decade ago. Finland has also started saying out loud things it used to keep quiet. They have become even more hawkish than us in certain areas. You have also served as the Finnish ambassador. How do you see the change? What might be going on in the Finnish mindset and do they understand us better now?

I don't think they understand us much more than they did. They are a relatively different people. Our language barrier may be modest, but our genetic code... Do you know who are Estonians' closest relatives genetically speaking? The Latvians. Academician Richard Villems has done a lot of research on this. It is a bit different for the Finns, as is their general mentality or character. History affects all of it.

We do share one trait with the Finns though. Our total introvert character, inward focus. But Finnish politicians, officials and all manner of other players were working on preparations to join NATO a long time ago, much sooner than Sweden did. Sweden's rapid reaction came as the bigger surprise for me.

I was the ambassador in Helsinki from January 1993 until the summer of 1997. And I discussed these topics with all kinds of different people, including soldiers and Ministry of Defense staff. It was suggested in Finland and internationally already back then that Finland's military and political preparations were far enough along that the decision to join would only have required flipping the switch.

One of the most visible steps on that path was Elisabeth Rehn becoming defense minister in the first half of the 1990s. That is when Finland took the rather striking step of replacing their Saab fighters with American Hornets. It was quite a bombshell.

We should also mention Finland's post-war history where it was Finlandized, under the Soviet Union's sway and not allowed to have jets of any kind for a time. But I believe they had a deal in place with the Swedes whereby they could scramble Saab jets from Sweden if necessary – and we can all guess what that necessity might have been. Finnish jets stationed in Sweden, ready to take off.

I still know people in Finland – top officials, analysts, influential people who were NATO proponents and worked for decades to make the accession happen.

I can name Pauli Järvenpää who was appointed ambassador to Afghanistan by President Tarja Halonen, who opposed NATO, after Pauli became too insistent on moving toward membership at the Defense Ministry.

Jaak Jõerüüt. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

We have already mentioned Sweden, where you have also served as ambassador. Sweden's problematic migration policy tends to stand out these days. Why have they ended up where they are?

We need to hark back to Swedish history. If you've not had a war on your home soil for 200 years, such extensive periods of peace can affect one's cast of mind, and not always in a favorable way. That migration policy was made up of different elements over the years. I recall a retired politician telling me how the Swedes were simply looking for qualified engineers, that they had the money for it. That it was not a humanitarian effort, but quite pragmatic. And then immigrants from Chile or Poland were taken in during certain periods, which also yielded a little benefit next to the costs.

In all, extensive periods of peace, which Finland and the other Nordic countries have not experienced in such a way, make you drowsy and naive. I came across incredible naivety in what people told me.

The other thing that laid the cornerstone for this migration policy and launched it last century was one-sided rule. We discussed whether democracy should be allowed to become too stable. It cannot. Individual decades are irrelevant, while social democracy basically ruled Sweden for a century.

The good life was very good

It was excellent. A welfare society. The effect of social democracy, even though Sweden has also had more conservative governments, is extensive. It no doubt has its upsides too.

Should the lesson then be that things need to be painful and horrible every now and again for them to stay on track?

Yes, suffering is mentioned as a path to wisdom already in the Bible. But I would say that suffering opens eyes.

There is another detail about Sweden many might not know. Henrik Liljegren, a Swedish diplomat with Estonian roots, writes in his memoirs, giving plenty of facts to support his claims, that there was a time when Swedish politicians were so enamored with East Germany they went there to study economic and political models.

I have a book in Swedish called "Stalin bygger" (Stalin builds) at home.

I can believe it.

Talking about literature, in the Wallander stories (Henning Mankell's series of criminal and action novels – ed.), Mankell started writing about how the police were being cut back both in terms of funding and their rights to chase criminals back in the 1990s. That is another reason why things are what they are today.

I served as ambassador to Sweden 2011-2014, and there were parts of Malmo and Stockholm where the police dared not go already back then, which has become commonplace today.

So it all started heading in a terrible direction, and people, politicians especially, tend to react to awful things too late.

Talking about literature, young people do not really read books anymore. They play computer games these days. Have you made your peace with it?

As a member of the August 20 Club (members of the Estonian Supreme Council who voted for the restoration of Estonian independence on August 20, 1991 – ed.), I can tell you that now that you've got your freedom, you can do with it as you will.

Living free might be too much for some people.

I'm no judge. Everyone needs to live their own life. And this makes for a far more philosophical conversation of another four hours. Everyone is different, that much is for sure. What do people tend to regret the most before dying? That they lived for someone else and didn't give enough thought to what they wanted. Let everyone live their own life.

Besides, not everyone has to read books. Reading and being involved in the world of literature is a luxury.

Jaak Jõerüüt. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR


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Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Marcus Turovski

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