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Andrus Ansip: Kaja Kallas must be replaced as party leader

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

The ruling Reform Party needs to replace its leader, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, MEP Andrus Ansip says, calling changes tot he party more broadly a "matter of national security."

Ansip was Reform's leader 2004-2014 and prime minister of Estonia from 2005, going on in 2014 to become Estonia's EU commissioner, holding the digital single market portfolio.

He was elected an MEP at the May 2019 European elections; his latest statements are not his first criticisms of Kallas as party leader and prime minister.

Speaking to Vikerraadio Thursday, Ansip also said the Reform party is itself in need of reform, in the substance and manner of its policy making.

"Clearly this change of leader has to be carried out sooner or later. I would prefer to think sooner," Ansip said, adding the party has a roster of several "strong people" who could replace Kallas.

He also noted that the party had brought forward a strategy day by several weeks.

"The Reform Party board has brought its strategy day forward, to the start of the New Year. Initially this had been planned for the end of January. The plans now are to initiate discussion on what to change and how to change it. How the content of [Reform's] politics can be changed, how the way of conducting politics can be altered, and how more people might be involved."

"This does not merely concern politico-technological matters, and it it surely related to national security," Ansip said.

Ansip also bemoaned Reform's recent slump in the ratings. While the party had long been most-supported in the land, according to more than one polling firm it is now as low as third place, and behind two opposition parties, and only a little ahead of the third opposition party – the Center Party, which has also been experiencing a decline.

The "majority of Reform members and supporters," feel the same, he said, "as it is an abnormal situation to have support levels of already 15, 16 or 17 percent." Reform's rating exceeded the 30-percent mark as recently as summer 2022.

"This is not characteristic for the Reform Party. Change is needed, and we cannot carry in the same vein we have been. With economic life as with social life, there is no guarantee that a low ebb will be followed by a rising tide; a low tide can in fact mean that the situation ends up instead with extinction," Ansip went on.

"A business can disappear for good, after a downturn, and so can a political party."

This was not a given, yet, however.

"I don't think that this is happening with the Reform Party, because Reform is strong in the regions and has some strong actors, but a change in direction is certainly required," the MEP continued.

Ansip: Poor public support for the coalition also a 'security risk'

While any resignation by Kaja Kallas is a matter for the Reform Party board, Ansip said, he also noted her trustworthiness credit rating has all but evaporated.

This was not solely the result of media reports in late summer and autumn, that the prime minister's spouse had business interests linked to Russia.

"The cause is not only the Russian business scandal, but a more general attitude and way of conducting politics. This has disappointed the people, so the issue is no longer only the 15 percent support rating for the Reform Party, but the fact that 70 percent of the Estonian people desire the prime minister's resignation; this is a very strong signal."

This percolated through to the Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition's estimation by the public, also, he said.

"If the government's support is only running at 33 percent, it has to be considered a security threat to the Estonian state, since if we are threatened with a clear and serious danger, but trust in our state leaders is running so low, then this presents a hazard for the integrity of the Estonian state," Ansip said.

Ansip is one of two Reform Party MEPs from Estonia, the other being Urmas Paet. They sit in parliament with the Renew Europe (formerly ALDE) group.

Vikerraadio interviewers Kirke Ert and Taavi Libe also referenced an interview with Isamaa leader Urmas Reinsalu which appeared in Eesti Päevaleht's (EPL) pages earlier in the week, and in which Reinsalu said either Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur, or Minister of Climate Kristen Michal, would most likely be Reform's next chair.

When quizzed on this, Ansip responded in somewhat Nietzschean terms: "Reinsalu could have stated the name there and then. One of these has been a party leader (Hanno Pevkur was Reform leader 2017-2018 – ed.) and the other has not been – thus one has been weaker than the other."

Former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, whose two terms in office largely coincided with Ansip's time as prime minister, had a few days ago told Eesti Ekspress, EPL's sister publication, that Kaja Kallas' strong performance internationally was sufficient.

On this, Ansip said: "I don't believe we should suggest to ourselves that when a person is not overly compelling for people domestically, they can definitely be so internationally."

While the controversy over Kallas' husband's business interests did, gradually, find its way into the international media, the coverage was relatively muted compared with earlier coverage in which she was an ever-present, even before the invasion of Ukraine began, and was often presented quite uncritically.

"There is still a large dose of wishful thinking going on," Ansip said, with reference to foreign relations.

"A year ago, it was certainly more or less the way as is claimed, but as of now now those days are long gone. If we now consider the presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which we had been supposed to take on, but it ended with Estonia being left out in the cold, with only Latvia, Lithuania and Poland joining us out of solidarity. And that was that."

"We know from our experiences of 50 years of occupation that our goal has always been to never stand alone again. But the fact is, we were once again completely alone, and for a lengthy period of time. This should sound the alarm bells loudly, and prompt the revision of our current attitude and a review of foreign policy priorities."

Ansip also said that the current coalition has displayed internal communication problems.

"Clearly that is what this is all about. It is surely often the case that when there are problems, the first thing to do is to deny these problems and blame someone else, instead of looking in the mirror. In this case, I also see many of those trying to defend the government's completely failed decisions going on to blame the media – ie. that the media in general is biased, and ERR and Postimees in particular are biased," Ansip continued.

"In my opinion, this leads nowhere, as the journalism is not biased; it reflects what is happening in society, and reflects it very well. Estonian journalism has served democracy in our country very well. Let's stop the blaming and try to correct our mistakes," he went on.

Ansip also contrasted the current issues the coalition is facing in hiking taxation and searching for ways to reduce the debt burden, with the situation he faced as prime minister in the economic crisis starting in 2008.

"In 2008-2009, when we made cuts, but also raised taxes, which in general terms should not be done during a crisis, we did so largely under the conditions of a minority government, yet there was no obstruction."

The Reform-led coalition at that time became well-known internationally for its austerity approach.

"There would have been no opportunity or need for [filibustering], because if the opposition had voted against the government, the government would have immediately fallen so the administration would have come to an end."

As for public opinion on the government's fiscal policy at the time: "The people knew what would happen if we did nothing. There were the examples of Greece, and of Latvia. The public also knew that when they made this decision, what would transpire, and what would have happened had they made another decision. People had choices. But now? A decision lands, coming from somewhere and that decision is incomprehensible, abut followed nevertheless by relentless efforts to ram it through as is, without correction."

Government ministers seem to be acting autonomously and without communication and consultation, Ansip added.

"We are debating the €10-million wage rise for teachers, and at the same time, one minister says, without any coordination, without consultation with the government partners, without negotiation within the party, that we will ditch this €400-million tax increase and replace it with something else. But with what, well no one knows. This will be a complete surprise to all. But this is not how you manage things."

"This debate between [Finance Minister] Mart Võrklaev and [Foreign Minister] Margus Tsahkna was quite unseemly and unsettling to watch," Ansip said.

"This is how the ministers of government parties can act when that government no longer exists; when they break up, acrimoniously.

"The question is not only about communication, but about what kind of decisions are communicated, and it is generally known from marketing that even a bad product cannot be sold with good advertising. Quality is the way into the market, but if you don't have this quality, you can communicate things as much as you want, people still won't buy it."

A good example of this is the much-panned proposed car tax – which should if it is to be put in place be based on emissions and in the interests of a cleaner environment, rather than simply as a way to boost state revenues.

Ansip said the proposed tax has also been communicated very unclearly in relation to, for instance, the status of the mass and age of vehicles, which have an effect on the level of tax to be levied.

Even on national security and the situation with Ukraine, things are not quite as resolute as some might like to think, Ansip pointed out, noting that according to Eurobarometer surveys, support for Ukraine is slightly below the EU average, in Estonia, and below that seen in, for instance, Finland.

On the other hand, this should not be taken to mean talk of war-weariness in relation to Ukraine is correct, Ansip aid, noting that the EU has managed to take on four million permanent refugees from Ukraine (out of a total of 10 million, the remainder of whom have returned or gone elsewhere), with no major issues, compared with the hue and cry over the one million refugees taken on in the 2015 migrant crisis.

"I don't see any signs of fatigue, signs of fatigue, but I see that they are rather full of determination and many people realize what this possible loss of Ukraine would mean," Ansip said, pointing to the growing support for Ukrainian accession to the EU as evidence for this.

Prime Minister: Ansip criticisms being made with next year's EU elections in mind

In late October, ERR reports, Kaja Kallas had drawn the dots between Ansip's criticism of her leadership and next year's European election, adding that Ansip had been primarily using the media to air these criticisms. Speaking about domestic issues even in an EU context always tends to get more airtime, Kallas added, noting the difficult decision her cabinet has had to take.

Editor's note: This article was updated to include Andrus Ansip's comments on potential candidates for next Reform Party leader and his comments on the internal coalition issues compared with his time in office.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mari Peegel

Source: ERR Radio News, interviewers Kirke Ert and Taavi Libe.

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