Yana Toom: I'd prefer an Estonian Ministerial role to working in Brussels
Centre Party (Keskerakond) MEP Yana Toom was interviewed by ERR's Toomas Sildam recently, and fielded questions on topics including her national identity, the future of the Centre Party in Estonia, relations between the EU and Russia and the situation in Ukraine.
Here follows a condensed selection of some of her thoughts on these and other topics, starting off with the question of where her political career is to go next.
''I'd certainly be interested in participating in any future Estonian government with the Centre Party,'' Ms. Toom says.
There are elections on the horizon both to the European Parliament (in two rounds) and the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu) in 2019.
A return to Estonian politics would be preferable to continuing in the European Parliament, and she felt that serving Estonian citizens was somewhat more fulfilling. Nonetheless, the Centre Party would need to remain in Government (as it currently is); being just an MP in the Estonian parliament does not strike Ms. Toom as a good trade-off for the current European Parliament work.
''I'm sorry if that may sound a bit lofty, but there it is – being a 'rank and file' MP in the Riigikogu is not as interesting an activity as what I'm doing right now in Europe,'' she explains.
With regard to the Centre Party's prospects for the general election under the continuing leadership of current Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, Ms. Toom remained optimistic about Centre's chances over the main opposition party, Reform (Reformierakond).
She also expressed regret about the growing popularity of the Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE), suggesting that they can improve their position after the elections.
In contrast with various statements EKRE members have made with regard to ethnic minorities, Ms. Toom's time in Brussels has give her a more open worldview, it would appear.
''I am just a few hundred yards from the Matonge Quartier of Brussels,'' she says.
''This is almost like being in [predominantly Russian-speaking Tallinn residential district] Lasnamäe, so it's easy to feel at home here,'' she goes on.
''If Centre could get 51 seats in the Riigikogu, that would be it then I'd be very happy,'' she said answers ironically as to the question about her "dream government".
On Estonian Identity
When questioned about her own identity as an Estonian whose mother tongue is Russian, particularly with respect to historical events and Estonia's Soviet legacy, Ms. Toom had this to say:
''I love Estonia, as a country ... what happened in the Second World War was a very turbulent time and is a question of history, it was a very messy time. History as we know is written by the victors, and I even wasn't born then,'' she explains.
When asked whether the USSR occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Ms. Toom replied that ''some would say so. If they [the opposition Reform Party] want to rub their hands with glee and make something of that it makes no difference, they do that whatever I say,'' she goes on.
''Whenever we have these discussions we always end up at the descendants of those who occupied Estonia from 1939-1940 and we always run out of steam here,'' she says, without diminishing the significance of the topic.
''I read five times a day in internet comments that I am an occupant,'' she relates.
The status of those who hold 'grey passports', those people, in practice almost wholly Russian-speaking, who are resident in Estonia but do not have citizenship of it or any other state and who are issued grey-coloured passports as an international travel document, would be radically changed if it were up to Ms. Toom.
''I would give all grey passport-holders, with the exception of a few ex-Soviet military personnel, the opportunity to apply for Estonian citizenship without exams [currently applicants for Estonian citizenship are required to pass a language test at CEF level B1 – ed.] . Those who don't want to apply for citizenship don't have to, and the subject would be done and dusted forever,'' she said.
This is something which she can also use her position as an MEP to leverage on a European Parliament level as well as a national one.
Yana Toom does not want to follow the example of those leaders of the Russian opposition who complain about life at home while on foreign trips. However, she also rejects those who believe that she should not criticize Estonia when in Brussels.
''I do it when I am in Brussels because we are a Member State of the EU, of which Brussels is the capital. That is precisely where our problems should be solved, if we can not do so at home,'' she goes on.
Yana Toom's own Estonian citizenship had been recently called into question. She was granted it in 2006 by then-Prime Minister Andrus Ansip (Reform) via the special merit provision.
''Citizenship for special merits is a great acknowledgement. Who would want to give that up? It would be very strange,'' she says when quizzed about it.
''Here [in Tallinn] I am currently a Russian citizen of Estonia. In Brussels I am an Estonian,'' she explains.
On Russia, Ukraine, the Crimea, and the Donbass
On the question of an independent Estonia, Ms. Toom made it clear that she believed that Estonia regained independence in August 1991; moreover that state had lost its independence previously due to invasion and occupation by troops from Nazi Germany followed by the arrival of Soviet troops which she did not wish to refer to as an occupation.
Ms Toom takes a similarly nuanced line with regard to the situation in the Crimean peninsular since 2014: ''de facto, Crimea is a part of Russia, but de jure it is part of Ukraine,'' she explains, also adding that it is more likely than not, that Russia is supporting separatists in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine.
Nevertheless Ms. Toom lays more responsibility for the situation in the Donbass at the feet of the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, than with Russia, most specifically on the failure to maintain the ceasefire agreed in Minsk, Belarus, in 2015. This needs resolving, even with UN peacekeepers and/or an EU role if necessary, Ms. Toom believes.
In fact, Ms. Toom has sponsored four asylum seekers from Luhansk/Lugansk, a city in the easternmost region of Ukraine which has been a self-proclaimed republic independent from the Ukraine since 2014.
''For these people to get residence permission in Estonia I had to act as their guarantor, stating that I have the means to support these people should the need arise. Fortunately my MEP salary permits that,'' she says.
Yana Toom agrees that the agreement between Center Party and the pro-government United Russia party is not working, but she does not consider it right to break it.
''I don't find it necessary [some Centre Party members had seen the agreement as moribund – ed.] since they are still in office in Russia and Russia is our largest neighbour. And all things change over time,'' she noted.
Ms Toom has also faced criticism for visits she has made to another war-torn nation, Syria, in recent years, including meeting with President Bashar al-Assad, whereas she has not visited Ukraine.
''I tried to get permission to visit Ukraine but this was found wanting,'' she explains.
When asked about Syria she stated that ''it's interesting! Wouldn't Toomas Sildam [the interviewer – ed.] want to go there too if he had the chance? ... I do not believe anything on blind faith, but rather want to see things with my own eyes. And I'm doing what I feel to be right, it's as simple as that.''
On Edgar Savisaar
The other elephant in the room was relations with Centre Party co-founder, former leader and former Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar. Mr. Savisaar has reportedly suffered continuing serious health problems which meant that court hearings regarding corruption issues which he had been attending, along with other defendants, were finally terminated earlier in the week due to his inability to stand in court.
''I would not like to comment on Edgar Savisaar's current situation,'' says Ms. Toom.
''He has long been a central figure in Estonian politics and it is not fair, in scrutinizing the recent developments, to overlook his earlier achievements and what he did for Estonia in the 1990s [Mr. Savisaar played a pivotal role in the drive for Estonian independence – ed.] and in making people, especially non-ethnic Estonians, feel included in the political process,'' she explains.
When asked about the termination of the court proceedings on health grounds, Ms. Toom says that ''I felt relief, and was sorry this had not happened earlier.''
''There were only two possible outcomes, either we would not get a conclusion to the proceedings as we have here, or Edgar would have died in the courtroom ... Given the pace of our legal system and the way things have gone so far, the hearings could have dragged on for years ... whether he makes a return to politics later on I think is unlikely due to the health issues, but it is up to him.''
For the Centre Party's future, in particular the theoretical divide between its Russian-speaking supporters and its Estonian-speaking supporters, much remains to be seen, so far as Ms. Toom is concerned, regarding how things will change and what her electoral prospects are.
''I am certainly not a fortune teller,'' she says.
''But there is no such thing as an 'Estonian wing' or a 'Russian wing' in the centre party. Of course it's sometimes strange to see Yana Toom and [conservative Estonian MP] Jaanus Karilaid in the same party, but that is how it is. We represent a cross-section of society,'' she concludes.
The original interview in its entirety (in Estonian) is available here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte
Source: ERR Uudised