Interview: Indrek Tarand, back from Europe and running for home elections

Indrek Tarand MEP.
Indrek Tarand MEP. Source: Ann Vaida

Indrek Tarand is a politician with a pedigree. Expelled from Tartu University during the Soviet era for lighting candles at the grave of Julius Kuperjanov, the Estonian patriot who fell in the war of independence: Journalist, presidential candidate and most recently an MEP, he is running for the Social Democratic Party (SDE) in Pärnu in the March election. Indrek still shuttles back and forth between the Estonian capital and Brussels, so we were lucky to get to catch up with him on a snowy Monday morning in a Tallinn café.

''I'm going to Brussels tonight, back on Thursday,'' he explains, after thoughtfully asking our waitress to turn down the piped-in music a notch. ''I'm flying with Nordica, I don't know for how much longer. They're always cheating, same as ever,'' he says of the cash-strapped airline, itself a replacement of the bankrupt Estonian Air.

''It's difficult to have a carrier in a nation of one million people of course. They should have negotiated a special deal from the beginning,'' he says (Nordica leases its fleet of planes).

Presidential candidacy

But we have an hour to get into it, so I start with his 2011 running for Estonian president, when he ran against incumbent Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

''My goal wasn't to become president then – of course you have to demonstrate you are serious about it, but at the same time, my aim was to highlight how much in need of reform the presidential election system was. We have effectively a one-candidate system which is almost like in the Soviet era. Following the current pattern, the next president would be [former prime minister] Juhan Parts''.

The current president, Kersti Kaljulaid, was appointed by a Riigikogu ''council of elders'' as sole candidate after several rounds of voting at the Riigikogu and the regional electoral colleges proved inconclusive, being elected in October 2016.

''I'm recommending having an advisory referendum on what type of presidential electoral system we should have, assuming presidential powers remain the same. The current president has been quite good in my opinion, but a major part of her job is calling and sending ambassadors, signing laws she has no say in, opening a few ski centres etc.''.

''One thing she did well was taking a reasonable approach towards the Lutheran Church. The Archbishop [Viilma – another recent interviewee-ed.] was acting a bit like a pope, in this non-religious country, but she maintained her stance''.

President Kaljulaid had turned down an inauguration service conducted by the Archbishop, as her predecessors had enjoyed.

''Whether you go to church at Christmas, Easter etc. that's up to you, but a special ceremony where the Archbishop 'crowns' you – over my dead body! In fact the Lutheran Church is perhaps in the worst era in its history right now. I remember as a student meeting a lot of high-ranking church people with whom we kept the faith that Estonia would one day be independent, but now we have something more like some rather mediocre real estate people''.

A people's politician?

Such an unequivocal statement, however, Mr Tarand does not reserve to café chat – he also gets out there on the barricades, so to speak. The most recent example of this was the Toompea incident in November. In the midst of a government split on the UN Global Compact on Migration, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) – not a coalition party, but staunchly opposed to the compact and what it represents, was having a rally outside the Riigikogu, during business hours.

Indrek Tarand arrived with other leading members of SDE including party chair Jevgeni Ossinovski, foreign minister Sven Mikser, and culture minister Indrek Saar.

What happened next has been filmed from multiple angles and so is not particularly open to interpretation. After some good-natured banter (the crowd itself appeared somewhat less friendly, however) between the SDE leaders and those of EKRE, including party chair Mart Helme, and his son Martin, also an EKRE MP, Mr Tarand mounted a small platform set up by EKRE in order to address supporters. Taking a microphone used for the same purpose, Tarand started addressing the crowd, whilst Martin Helme tried to take possession of the mic. A small shove from behind by an EKRE supporter caused Mr Tarand to hop off the platform, continuing to speak. Within seconds the microphone was more forcibly removed from him, as were his own sunglasses, and he was wrestled away, soon falling to the ground and receiving at least one kick from a crowd member.

The incident did not call a halt to the rally; Martin Helme was able to remount the podium and speak, and other SDE members were on hand to dialogue with the crowd, who were carrying a variety of neatly made placards, portraying, amongst other things, President Kersti Kaljulaid in a full on al-qaeda style head-dress, and bearing slogans making claims such as around 275 million refugees were headed for Estonia (population 1.3 million), directly as a result of the compact.

Indrek Tarand himself was escorted from the area by security personnel. The Police pressed no charges, but in the fallout which followed, EKRE accused him of being drunk or high on drugs, something which at the time of writing he was seeking an apology for (EKRE is seeking its own counter-apology).

At the time of writing, no such apology from EKRE has been forthcoming and Mr Tarand says he is about to file a court case on the matter.

So what was it all about? Was it just a publicity stunt, something which Mr Tarand and SDE as a whole are better at doing than most of the other parties, including EKRE?

''I planned being there, yes, but not the outcome. I've been doing this kind of thing for 30 plus years so I am not wet behind the ears. My intention was to calm things down with oil on the waves, as it were, not oil on the flames. But so many factors meant it did not turn out like I had intended. All I wanted to say was: Leaders like this, who claim to represent the nation, are in fact dangerous, hence why you have to listen and understand the nation comprises a range of differing viewpoints, even if you disagree with them. I could have presented people with relevant literature which shows the other side to the debate. Those leaders who opposed me are afraid, since I am a better 'priest' than they are altogether. That was one good thing to come out of this – it causes those leaders to reflect on what kind of people they actually are''.

''Ultimately, that video got 100,000 views or more – an ordinary party would pay millions to get that degree of exposure! But if you mean did I foresee how the event would pan out and its aftermath, of course not''.

An asset to SDE?

SDE was not the only party to support the UN Compact; Centre, the prime minister's party, did too, as well as the (non-partisan) president – pursuing a non-permanent spot on the UN Security Council for Estonia has been a major focus for her in fact. But is it not also the case that with SDE in particular, people start to see red, quite literally, and associate it with everything that is bad about Estonia's past?

''Well the Social Democrats are actually quite the opposite of communists. The original Social Democrats [formed in 1917-ed.] were the first people the Bolsheviks started shooting, and were midwives of Estonian independence [with leaders such as Mihkel Martna and Jüri Vilms-ed.]. The promise of land reform post-independence was regarded not only by the old Baltic German aristocracy as radical, even crazy, but even in Paris or London''.

''It's also the only party which could adequately respond to climate change and other environmental issues; the only one which has 'democratic' in its name,'' he goes on, explaining how he came to choose to run for the party in the general election in the first place (Mr Tarand is not a party member, and is an independent in the European Parliament, though sits with the European Greens group).

Indrek Tarand in the ERR newsroom last summer. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

''Real Madrid and Manchester City might both be good teams, but players have to pick the team they are likely to have the most chemistry with; in my case that would be SDE. Yes, some people, especially in the forest, so to speak (or literally) equate our party with the Soviet era – even when they learn it is the only party which would provide them adequate dental care, even for those without teeth who would vote against us!''

European experience

Indrek Tarand has been talking about domestic politics a lot, necessarily, since he is running in the general election, but he has spent most of the past few years as an MEP (he was first elected in 2009). This is someone who grew up at a time when such things would have seemed inconceivable, needless to say.

''After the injustices done to our country during and after World War Two, we got to become party of a European family. With everything wide and open here, you can go directly to Portugal, for instance. You don't need to read about it in Finnish travel books and the like. But on the other hand it means fewer younger people speak Finnish [Finland was Estonia's, or at least Tallinn's, window on the west in the latter part of the Soviet era, with Finnish TV, including the British and American shows it carried, being widely, if illegally, watched-ed.].

But the EU is not quite as much of a happy family as it once was, is it?

''I'm strictly for remaining in the EU, which doesn't mean I think it isn't in need of reform. I've noticed this in the 10 years I've worked there; do we need 28 national representatives to the court of auditors, for instance? Or the huge payout in pensions. But at the same time, it was the EU which helped in the 2009-2011 economic crisis, when free movement of labour allowed those who would otherwise have been jobless to move elsewhere''.

''We have all sorts of obscure things that shouldn't even be there, though. There was a lack of imagination on the part of those who named all the institutions [the Council of Europe, the Council of the EU, the European Council, the European Commission etc.-ed.]. And then people get comfortable. Which was why the Brexit referendum was such a kick up the backside for them – and they didn't react quickly enough either. Two weeks after it, they could have snapped into action but then over time it just became the case of 'we in the EU did everything right, you in the UK did everything wrong'''.

''But the paradox of the EU is that you cannot have a compromise, because it is so diverse – you have to give sweeteners to every distinct place, be it Britain, Germany, Spain etc. And then with the eastward expansion of the EU – it sort of ran out of steam with Ukraine, as it did with Turkey before – I remember David Cameron speaking passionately about Turkish membership a few years ago and now everyone seems to have forgotten about it – there were a few people trying to keep Ukraine on the map, such as Rebecca Harms, the German Green MEP, but not many''.


''With Brexit, there was no likelihood of Britain getting to talk to each country in turn, and the tendency towards drift has been reversed and replaced by a sort of unifying effect. So by default it has to be no-deal: Remember, in the case of Canada it took seven years of debate to get their trade agreement with the EU, and that was hardly half-hearted, there was a lot of debate, the UN was involved etc.''

''At the moment in Britain it's looking a bit like a recalcitrant teenager, especially with their parliament, but at the same time it might be a good idea to be nicer to the 'loser' if we want to avoid a repetition of the Versailles Treaty or something [and ensuing sense of unfair treatment which arose in Germany in the inter-war years-ed.].

''It's a strange situation, and of course MPs there are most concerned about their seats. We tend to think of the UK being in the forefront when it comes to the rule of law etc.. What they could do, or rather should have done, in the case of a referendum would be to set qualifying rules: For instance the turnout should be above a certain percentage, the winning margin beyond a certain point etc. We don't want a new Jaanipäev tradition, however! [the result of the 2016 UK referendum on EU membership came through on 24 June, Estonia's midsummer holiday, known as Jaanipäev-ed.].''

Estonia's Soviet legacy

So we've established that the EU is definitely not like the Soviet Union, as some claim. Whilst Estonia may have come a long way since independence, a lot of the people are the same old communist party members. What should happen to them? Isn't it the case that people who did well out of the old system, do well out of the new one too?

''I hate these old commies – they don't deserve any respect, even if they played a positive role in independence; this would simply mean pardoning them on the basis of having done something good, a bit like a stopped clock being right twice in 24 hours''.

''But nothing like the Nuremberg trials happened – in fact even in Germany, most of the middle and lower-ranking Nazis were integrated into West, or East, Germany without punishment. You can't exclude 10% of the population, but a lot of them, because of their contacts etc. were able to flourish after independence too. In any case, people adapt to circumstance''.

''As regards the Russian minority in Estonia. It relied on the occupational powers and the Russification system under Brezhnev and co. This has left us with a situation a bit like the Pieds-Noirs [ethnic French loyalists living in Algeria when it was a French colony-ed.], who can often be more loyalist minded than people at 'home'. You can see the same phenomenon amongst unionists and loyalists in Northern Ireland. Thus Putin's approval rating amongst Russians in Estonia is higher than it is in Russia itself, a lot of the time''.

Nonetheless, Estonia's independence took place bloodlessly, did it not?

''You know why? Even though there were more Soviet troops (142,000) in Estonia, than in Afghanistan at any one time, during the Soviet war there, there were a few things which worked to Estonia's favour. The commanders, such as Zijautdin Abdurahmanov were from one of the various ethnicities in the southern part of Russia; Dudayev [Dzhokhar Dudayev, first President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, killed by Russian forces in the first Chechen War in 1996-ed.], was a Chechen, later president of that republic and perhaps its only successful one. Having those national minorities on board, as it were, is a bonus because they understand what it's like to be in a minority in the Soviet Union. So the troops were disciplined, and well behaved. Add to that the proximity of Finland that we've spoken about, this gave us a good model of how to be an independent country with a plan, even whilst it was difficult for foreign media to get on site, still less to report out (there was one singe fax machine for the whole of Tartu University at the time, for instance)''.

''But generally, the wired nature of today's society, for all its plusses, means we have social media where it's almost like having a broadcasting company or paper without an editorial staff, where each guy, however crazy, can just post and post away. That's what we have now''.

This brings us almost full circle back to the Toompea incident. So have these elections been as bitter and divisive as they, at times, have appeared?

A divisive election

''Well regarding the UN Compact, we muddled through a lot better than some other countries. Not just the Visegrád countries like Poland and Hungary, but Austria and Belgium too.

''Those EKRE supporters are somewhat tormented by their social status, especially when they are in a herd. They feed off social media, and since they are not so well-educated, they are easily manipulated. But if you got to talk to them one-on-one, many of them would in fact turn out to be more reasonable''.

Of course, EKRE is not the only party in the election, even if a superficial glance can sometimes make it seem so.

''Well none of the other parties, apart from SDE, even talks about ideology or values – they just talk business. Jevgeni Ossinovski is about the only leader with some sort of convincing plan, and he has made a commitment to no-deal with EKRE for as long as they continue along the same trajectory they have been.

''Kaja Kallas is still dreaming about the prime ministerial role; if cooperation with EKRE was what would make the difference between being in office and not being in office, they would do it in a heartbeat. It's all about the food chain – if you don't get the resources, the food chain is at threat, so you have to be in office. They see themselves as the natural party of government, having had 17 years in office, then two out, for a game of musical chairs, before they come back in again''.

''In general, talking about right and left is not relevant any more,'' Indrek says, a statement I have heard from several quarters.

''I could illustrate it this way – behind the wheel of the car you have to turn wherever the road goes. Pure ideological steering in a fixed direction can happen only on a racecourse like the Indy 500 or Tallinn's Hippodrome: You keep your wheel always to the right and make an actual landscape, it is very different, however''.

''For instance Reform claim to be liberal but they are not. They have always been about using power to maintain their own business interests. EKRE so far as its economic program goes is communist, in effect. It's the same in the rest of Europe – there's very little to distinguish between the Greek communists and the French Le Pen-ists, if you listen to their speeches''.

''As for this election in Estonia, I don't think EKRE will be kingmakers, as some have suggested. The only party who would really cooperate with them is Reform; and I suppose Artur Talvik's party [Richness of Life-ed.] might, since they're democrats, but they're at under 1% of support at the moment''.

''The system is difficult to get into – the establishment knows how to stop new actors, since the system has been in place for 25 years now. I'm running in Pärnu, which has a bigger land area than Paris, but with just 80,000 people, it is struggling. Most of the economic activity, and of course nearly half the population, resides in or near Tallinn, so Pärnu is not a walk in the park by any stretch''.

We will see on 3 March of course.

''I'd just like to sum up, something I do at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, but we need to find two things. First, a professional politics, with people living for, and not from, politics, if we recall Max Weber's now 100-year-old Munich lecture 'Politics as a Vocation', and to rekindle the spirit of the early 1990s, at least to give it a shot, come what may''.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: