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President Karis: The government's capacity for empathy could be greater

President Alar Karis.
President Alar Karis. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

The government should admit not everyone finds it equally easy to cope, tone down its arrogance in favor of more empathy. Understanding and putting in a good word is a good start, President Alar Karis says in his end of the year interview to ERR.

Hello, Mr. President. I must start with my favorite question. How are you doing?

I believe I am doing just as the rest of Estonia is doing. I let all of Estonia flow though me, and that means I'm doing as we all are.

We are sitting in the old Nõmme Railway Station building, with trains whizzing by us. Railway stations are cozy places in terms of having a sense of anticipation for new adventures but also seeing loved ones again. We all have expectations for the new year. Was there an expectation you had for this year that did not manifest?

We're starting with the difficult questions right away I see... I'm something of a realist, meaning that I do not harbor great expectations. Rather, I'll see what comes and try to be the best me under the circumstances. More specifically, one wished for the war in Ukraine to end, while this is clearly not the case. So that is one expectation that has not come true.

That is an expectation everyone shared. Instead, we're seeing new wars. What is the significance of the Israeli war for Estonia?

War is war, be it near or far. But the further away wars are, the more alien they appear to us because we don't know the background, what started it all. Still, we have a pretty good idea in the case of Israel and Hamas. But history is the history of wars, and the hope we perhaps had in the early 1990s of a long peace in Europe has not manifested. Therefore, the war in Ukraine is a reality check of sorts. And others are trying to manufacture conflicts in the shadows of the ongoing wars, which is something we need to be prepared for.

How will it shuffle the deck?

It already has. The world has become disjointed, and we do not know how to put it back together. But we must make the effort and give it our best nonetheless. We also feel that the world is diverse, including Europe. I believe it is one of Europe's values that we are a little different, which is something we need to keep in mind when talking to one another. [Asking] why a country does what it does, it pays to do our homework before throwing around accusations. Every country has its own history, just like people do.

Unfortunately, there is fatigue. Countries tire and so do people. This is perhaps a taboo subject but there is quite a lot of complaining about how we always support others with nothing left for our own people. What could we say about such complaints?

Talking about supporting Ukraine, we are actually supporting or defending our own country. It cannot be seen as supporting someone else. Instead, we are doing everything we can to end the war and keep it from escalating elsewhere. This activity is a future guarantee for us. But it is clear that we must also look inward, at how our own people are doing and where they are perhaps not doing as well. Also at what the government could do to help. On the one hand, money hasn't run out in the world, while, on the other, finances are inevitably limited and choices need to be made.

We have contributed quite a lot to national defense since the start of the Ukraine war. But let us hark back to the Nursipalu [Training Area] saga this spring. What went wrong in that process that caused people to oppose the expansion?

It is the case with many things in this country, and not just in this country, that we fail to explain why they are needed, including to the people directly affected.

In the case of Nursipalu, explanations got very technical early on. People started talking about how many trees need to be cut down and where exactly before the political need for the expansion was explained, that there were no alternatives – in terms of efforts to drive this point home. For example, that it would have been impossible to expand [the training area near] Orava instead.

I believe people would have understood. Fears that having NATO boots on the ground in Nursipalu would amount to provoking Russia are groundless. Rather, the opposite is true, as we have seen in Ukraine. Had Putin imagined Ukraine would put up this much of a fight he would not have taken his tanks there, at least not yet. We need to show that we are prepared to defend our country, whereas being able to defend it requires preparation. One way to prepare is to have training areas.

President Alar Karis. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

Were the people of Võru done an injustice when they were called Putinists and accused of being pro-Russia (for opposing the expansion – ed.)?

I believe it is always an injustice to verbally abuse people, especially using such expressions. We are quick to stigmatize and label people we dislike or whose argumentation does not sit well with us, which leads to calling them Putinist. It is hopeless to have a sensible conversation after that happens.

You've said that Estonians have become less enthusiastic while also becoming meaner, especially toward one another. You are a scientist – is it a genetic issue or what is wrong with us?

Oh, let us not bring genetics into this. Genetically speaking, we're more European than the Europeans. There is no mean gene in us. And we're not mean everywhere and in everything. But we can see it manifesting also in our humor – and humor always helps weather difficult times – which has become mean, especially in social media, less so when talking to people face to face. So I don't know whether we are meaner than anyone else, but perhaps we are a little sensitive. We don't really know how to move on when someone says something very critical.

Mr. President, have you lived in poverty?

I dare not say I have lived in poverty, but I have lived in the 1960s when it was not possible to get certain things, also because I lived just with my mother and grandmother for a time. Grandma was not paid a pension, so care was needed to make sure everyone ate, especially when the boy became a teenager. But I dare not say I have experienced poverty, because true poverty is something else. I have lived not well.

Absolute poverty is up two and a half times in Estonia, with young people 18-24 years of age and single parents hit hardest. What to do so our young people and single parents would have an easier time of it?

We like to think that throwing money at a problem always helps. But putting in a good word can be even more important sometimes. That said, it is clear we need benefits as we have families who cannot cope and need support.

It is one thing to live in poverty [statistically], while what a person can afford makes for another indicator. It is possible they cannot afford the things the general level of development of the country would suggest. It is somewhat surprising to see outdoor plays that take place in Estonia in the summertime so packed. We'll have to see how well they'll do next year. People make choices, and it seems culture is high on the list of things they want to consume, while I'm afraid not everyone can afford it.

The problem with benefits is that they don't always reach the target group, specialists say. But looking at economic forecasts, they seem to be deteriorating. The latest one from the Bank of Estonia is cause for considerable uncertainty. What should we prepare for?

Everyday life will suffer somewhat, but what I find more disturbing is that it has become more hectic. Things being one way today and different tomorrow is hardly cause for confidence. It is this background of uncertainty that is keeping people from growing their families. You tend to postpone having children and starting a family without a measure of certainty. I was born in 1958. It was fifteen years after the war as my parents waited a long time to be sure it was safe to bring offspring into their world.

Lower income and higher prices have a very different effect on people in Estonia. For some, it means going on holiday once a year instead of twice, while others struggle to put food on the table or pay their mortgage. What to do about this income gap?

First, we need to admit that the gap exists and see where it is. Life is what it is in the periphery today and people are leaving these areas. It is becoming a matter of security – having fewer people living in Southeast Estonia also means fewer pairs of eyes on the border. We need to admit that people sport very different levels of income, and the government might dial back its arrogance in favor of a little empathy. Understanding and being supportive in words, saying, we know you are having problems and we'll try to do what we can even though our resources are limited, would already go far. It would be easier than telling people to make it work because, look, I can.

Mirjam Mõttus. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

I talk to a lot of people in my work and some say, also in Võru County, that we've been having quite a party. We consume a lot. Perhaps things aren't as bad as they seem and we've created this air of misery by complaining too much?

We do consume a lot. Going to the shops and looking at all the shelves – whether we have the money to buy or not – at all the things we might consume, including things that seem completely pointless and make us wonder why we bought them when we get home...

It is natural to want to consume more of everything. And how should we take that away from people? It is not an easy task, which is why environmental issues seem more difficult, because it means giving up something we are used to having. It may be easier to skip a phase in places where people are not used to consuming as much.

You already touched on birthrate briefly and concern is not misplaced there. Births are at an all-time low again, while we perhaps have the best family benefits in the world. Something seems to be missing.

I believe it is a problem for the whole of Western society that not enough children are being born in terms of society's needs. Not just in the West – there is also concern in China, even though they had their one-child policy only recently. We need people to be able to go on living as we have, to do different jobs. Perhaps technological advancement will help us and we can get many things done with the help of tech or AI. We might not need as many hands for our countries and peoples to develop in that case.

Should we worry about what will become of us, what will become of our people and language?

I'm not too concerned when it comes to our people and language. We have seen tougher times than these. And I believe we are ready, while parts of language might be lost gradually. It doesn't always have to be an order to speak another language. Instead, we may be losing bits of our language ourselves. But languages develop – they are not static. It is the same story with cultures – they change, become richer for different reasons. But as long as we exist, I don't think it will disappear or become something we only show tourists in an open air museum.

That's one aspect where we don't need to panic then. But in addition to the birthrate, life in rural areas is also dwindling. Looking at the Estonia of today, it seems we have not enough people for services in some places and not enough services for people in others. How far is the day when services will only be available in major cities and centers?

We have been suffering from structural unemployment for some time, where we have people with no work in one area and vacancies in another. But we cannot solve it by relocating people. Rather, we will need to bring jobs to where people live.

I do not believe everyone will eventually move to cities. But that is largely where the jobs are. One reason for meeting in a railway station is to avoid an Estonia of dead ends, make sure we have connections, not just rail connections but all kinds.

We are a part of the world and must not find ourselves in isolation. These [transport] links are necessary for people in Võru commuting to work in Tartu to be able to get back home at a sensible time and be a part of the community where they live. These connections are key. We know that people commute to work in Tallinn from Paide, which may take less time than going to the city center from the outskirts of Viimsi. We can talk about environmental footprint, but I believe that there is nothing wrong with getting people home from work.

I have to ask, do you know what an alternating current is?

I do. I managed to go home for a few weekends, and I counted eight times the power "alternated" last weekend.

So you are part of the Estonian people.

Some of the outages only lasted for 40 seconds, but they did occur. The prime minister recommended getting a generator a year ago, which is what I did. I can now switch it on when I need to.

President Alar Karis and Mirjam Mõttus. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

Many have been relying on generators since early December, some are still sitting in the dark with little hope of seeing power restored. At the same time, government ministers tell us to be better prepared and look to our own devices. How has it come to pass that the state is struggling to offer a vital service? We are not talking about a few days here, we're talking weeks on end.

That is just what I'm referring to, talking about my little adventure. Reading the news, we learn that entire farms are without power. While generators can keep the lights on in the sheep barn, they are not enough to heat entire buildings, which would end up hugely expensive in any case.

It is work we have not done. We know what part of the world we inhabit, despite climate warming. Something needs to be done, we need to make the necessary investments gradually if that is what it takes to avoid such situations. It scares people and that is when we see them leave their farms behind and move into an apartment in the city where they are less likely to have to go without electricity.

Is that what we are aiming for? For people to leave their farms in favor of flats?

A rhetorical question. We clearly do not want that. We hope something will be done to prevent what this would mean in general.

We talked about war, but if we cannot heat our homes or make sure we have water in the house, which often requires electricity, how ready are we for crises really.

The worst aspect is that I can see a lot of arrogance in such situations, suggestions that no one forced these people to move to the countryside. Is it time to draw up a national document to say that living outside so-called golden circles (areas around major cities – ed.) is one's personal responsibility and that it is normal not to have access to basic services there? That you need to be able to cope independently for a week or two.

There is nothing normal about it. Also, I'm not sure we need more documents, we have enough of those. But how to answer your question? I have lived 20 kilometers outside of Tartu since 2001 and I know something about what it means to live in the countryside, especially if you have kids.

Having to drive them to school and practice, which are often in different places, you need two cars instead of one. Many cannot afford such luxury and find an easier way to live and educate their children if it becomes impossible in the country. It is the role of the state to ensure that the proper living environment and services are available to everyone in Estonia, irrespective of where they live. Our country is not that big. It is relatively small, so we should be able to pull it off.

But what is your message to people whose local school was closed? The outgoing year also saw major reorganization in the field of education.

The network of schools needs to be reorganized, while we need to look at each school separately. It is perhaps easier in the case of high schools as the children are older there. We have high schools with very few students, and it is clear the local government cannot afford the maintenance. Such schools need to be packed up, while it needs to be made sure children [who have to go to another school] have transport that does not depend on their parents.

Things are different when it comes to smaller schools. We need to look at every school separately there. People who live in cities sometimes drive their kids to smaller country schools because the child does better there. It is also something of a special need, as someone put it. A haven where you can escape to from a larger school.

These schools are necessary even if they will only be useful for another ten years. Let them remain for as long as there are teachers, as long as the quality of education is maintained. We can keep small schools open until then, and there are examples.

There used to be a school in Võru County maintained by the local community. It was closed in 2019 as the children grew up and it probably proved impossible to maintain it. But it was those kids' best shot at an education for a time.

Why cannot we pay our teachers dignified wages?

There was an education conference where Jaak Aaviksoo (former minister and rector of TalTech – ed.) said that the money exists but it is not sent to the right place, doesn't reach teachers. Our local governments have very different financial situations. Compared to the regional average, teachers' salaries are lowest in Tallinn.

Talking about the average wage of teachers, let's not forget that a teacher needs to have a master's degree. Therefore, teachers' salaries should be compared to the average wage of people with master's or at least bachelor's degrees. And that will paint a very different picture than comparing them to the national average salary.

President Alar Karis and Mirjam Mõttus. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

The problem is that we are investing too much in concrete and too little in people.

Yes, but I would refrain from setting concrete and people in contrast. Sensibly investing in concrete, or wood as the case may be – the Tallinn Pelgulinna School is made of wood – gives you a new schoolhouse the resources and opportunities offered by which help attract teachers versus operating out of a crumbling old Soviet schoolhouse.

Do you believe the teachers are doing the right thing by striking during a time the whole country is said to be doing badly? We do not have money.

I have my own relationship with strikes. How would a strike even work in these fields, whether we're talking about medicine or the university – you cannot stop your research or thought process, it keeps going. In the end, the people you teach are the ones who suffer. A warning strike is sure to serve its purpose, while a longer strike in schools is impossible as children need to be taught.

The mental health of our children, our people also weighs heavy on your heart. What have we learned in terms of why the mental health situation keeps deteriorating?

There are several reasons. In the case of children, social media is definitely one factor as it only portrays success stories. A child looks around on Facebook or Instagram and only sees beautiful things. Everything around them looks so pretty, which makes their problems and loneliness seem worse. It contributes to depression.

Another reason is the pressure we put on children these days, if only in school. I have visited my fair share of schools and everyone complains of problems children are having. I was told in one school that there had been ten suicide attempts that semester. These are terrible figures and stories, which may not always show to the outside.

There is also pressure from parents on children. Our success cult works in tandem with the internet to affect our children's mental health. And help is not available in many places. Children cannot just go to the school psychologist because not all schools have them. We need to make sure teachers are able to recognize when things start going wrong for a child, find them help or at least put in a good word.

By the way, what was the tradition at your house? Did you all sit down for a meal together at least once a day?

We have that tradition, and I know that many families do not. But starting from my childhood, a meal meant that people sat down and ate together. Not always, of course, but it was also not a case of people grabbing something to go from the fridge. We had that one meal.

We are fast losing this tradition in Estonia. Studies say that perhaps one in three families eats together, while it is considered to be among the more important mental health vitamins so to speak. It is a place where the family comes together, steps out of virtual reality for a moment to talk to one another. Why have we stopped eating together?

The reason is the general pace of life. Everyone is so busy and has so much to do at all times that it's difficult to come together. But the end of the year and the Christmas holidays is where families should come together. And I believe it is more than one-third of the population. The Estonian custom is to leave the Christmas dinner on the table overnight, also to spend the night and be together, if only once a year. It is enough to feel like a family. We have a tradition of meeting once a year, no matter where in the world we are at other times.

Do you really think it's a matter of time? It seems to me it is rather a matter of priorities, how we've stopped prioritizing, valuing family.

Like running a country, it is a matter of choices. If you choose something else, it is meaningless. But there needs to be someone who keeps it going, it is not created automatically. You need to say that our family's priority is eating together, or going for a walk together once a week, or something similar. Someone needs to be the leader, someone who feels the need. Nothing is created or gets solved automatically.

What do you do to stay healthy?

Hard to say. I listen to music and like just looking far into the distance, when I have time.

And does it help?

It is a great help! Doing nothing is brilliant when I feel I need to freshen up my brain.

President Alar Karis. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

We got a new government and parliament in spring, while it had been rendered more or less paralyzed by early summer. It still is. The government and Riigikogu's rating is at an all-time low, and people feel the administration has delivered them a low blow in the form of tax hikes and failure to heed voters. How much and what do people tell you when you travel the country?

You know, strange as it may be, people do not really complain when I tour the country. Perhaps I've visited the wrong places, but people usually try to stay positive. You can see that they might not be doing great, while they still tell you that they will get by. Small business owners also say that while things are difficult, they will get by.

Verbal abuse is reserved more for social media and comments sections, while you try to rely on yourself in real life. You have no choice but to get by when there is no help from the state. So I have not really seen destitution, even though I know very well that we have our fair share of people and families who are not doing well. I'm not wearing rose-tinted glasses, but people rather try to show me their positive side.

Yes, because you are the president, and I also haven't seen people launch into how bad life is when the president visits. But what is the risk when people feel their parliament has let them down, conned them even?

It is always possible to fix things when politicians feel something has gone amiss. Say, yes, we missed the mark, but we'll try to do something better now. Admitting mistakes is not a sign of weakness, while people are still afraid to do so and fear the opposition, which will take advantage. But I believe that if a politician admits they were wrong and proposes a solution, their rating will soar. I firmly believe that.

Making a habit of admitting you made a mistake doesn't work, while major isolated blunders where you also feel things did not turn out well can indeed be fixed. If you are in a situation where you have to keep defending a mistake you've made, you won't even start to think about how to make good on it.

Fridtjof Nansen has suggested, quite astutely, that a people is only as strong as its leaders. How strong are the Estonian people?

Our people is just as strong as its rulers. I'm no worse than Nansen and I try to learn from the wise people who have come before me. But is it strictly true? A people can also be stronger than its rulers. The latter come and go, but the people endures.

In your view, how are people doing in Estonia, how are they coping?

That depends on who you ask. There are those who are doing very well, those who are not doing well, and those who are doing terribly. I recently visited the Bethel Lutheran Church.

We do not have homeless people anymore, but they used to pick up homeless children and help them go to school. They could spend time and the night at the church if they just went to school. They have saved quite a lot of people from going down the wrong path, while there have been those who have not been saved.

You listen to those stories and think that some people, most of us really, have done very well in life, while there are those who haven't. But also that there are people who maintain a place without help from the state where children can come and stay the night. I do not mean to advertise the Bethel Church here, but they have eight people on location at all times, and dozens of people go there after leaving home when their parents start drinking. They have a place they can go, they can do their homework there and spend the night if need be.

Visiting such places, you get a feel for just how different people's situations can be. I have spent my time living in the academic world, which is a bubble unto itself because you are surrounded by smart people. And it is easy to get the impression that the Estonian people are smart already. But while there are smart people, there are also less smart and downright foolish people.

It is good to have an idea of the big picture when trying to place yourself. What is Estonia's position in the world? What are the saying about us?

I believe our position is excellent, and we have been able to demonstrate our quality to the world. I have not met a single leader, colleague to tell me that you're living poorly over there in Estonia. The term Eastern Europe does come up in political rhetoric, and we need to keep in mind it is a political, not a geographical term, or talk of post-communist countries. That way we could also refer to France as a post-fascist country because they were under German occupation for a time.

These expressions surface when countries want to appear better than others. But, generally speaking, our position as a country is solid. The question is where will we be in ten years' time, whether we're doing everything we can today to feel secure a decade on.

We have made various proposals in terms of how to help Ukraine or what to do about Russia. Do the French or Germans like us telling them what they should do?

Teaching is a peculiar art. If you want to get your message across, you need to pick the right time and way to say it.

Yes, we are a small country, and we've done some things much better than larger counterparts, while we must try to understand why they have made different decisions before delicately suggesting they might try it our way.

Politics is part of diplomacy, which is another craft you need to master. It makes no sense for us to make enemies among friends by pointing fingers, not least because we'll also need them ten years from now. So we would not find ourselves friendless and out in the cold.

We are coming to the end of our conversation. But first I have to ask how do you see the triumph of the movie "Smoke Sauna Sisterhood" making Estonia bigger?

I believe all of it contributes. All the small things. The world of film helps make countries bigger. When we end up in a film, and it doesn't even have to be an Estonian film, then I believe interest in Estonia grows, provided we've not been portrayed very negatively.

The sauna movie, I believe, will spark interest in Estonia. Even though I was one of only two men in the theater when I went to see it, so it is a complicated picture.

It is an Estonian tradition to go to the sauna on New Year's Eve. Folk wisdom tells us that one needs to leave all the bad things outside the door when entering the smoke sauna. What is your relationship with the smoke sauna?

I do not have a smoke sauna myself, while my friends have them. I used to go as a child and I hated it because you came out dirtier than you were going in. A child couldn't help rubbing against the [soot-covered walls].

But entering it, there is a whole new air. A sauna that has been heated all day stays warm practically until the next day, and the walls radiating heat also let heat into your heart.

Mr. President, thank you for these thoughts and I wish you a happy end to the outgoing year!

Happy end of the year to you and the entire Estonian people! (It is not customary to wish people happy new year before the new year has started in Estonia – ed.).

President Alar Karis' end-of-year interview set. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

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Editor: Mari Peegel, Marcus Turovski

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