One can only imagine how Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) must have felt when the media wanted to hear from him on Election Day whether Estonia was really going to refuse an invitation to the upcoming G20 IT ministers' meeting in Japan. Ratas decided to go himself on the spot, but he didn't really have a choice, writes ERR's political editor, Toomas Sildam.
Estonia, once known as a smart e-state, has now made the oddities section, usually reserved for things that are ever so slightly strange, weird, or funny. The decision of Trade and IT Minister Kert Kingo (EKRE) not to attend the G20 meeting in Tokyo next month is all three of these things, and more.
The G20 (short for Group of 20) is a format in which the world's 20 most important industrial countries and emerging economies meet. They include a collective member as well, namely the EU. Two-thirds of the world's population live in G20 countries, and they contribute some 85 percent of the gross world product as well as some 75 percent of global trade.
This means that an appearance by our trade and IT minister at this meeting would have been a rare opportunity to introduce Estonia and Estonia's digital expertise to an extremely influential audience. Something like this could open a few doors, and in effect help our foreign trade. It is exactly what former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves as well as several governments have tried to achieve, an effort that has made Estonia bigger than plenty more boring countries, among those in Eastern Europe, anyway.
Another oddity is Minister Kingo's announcement a few days ago that she is planning to travel "only in extremely urgent cases" and generally as little as possible, and that she will delegate trips to others. She also said she would only speak Estonian when abroad, something which fits in with the world view of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), of which she is a member.
While it is true that German, French, Chinese, Italian, Spanish ministers may speak their own languages at such meetings, Estonia, much like other small states, cannot afford this sort of luxury. We need to be heard and understood right away if we want to get our point across and be visible. We don't have time to waste on an interpreter.
Perhaps Kert Kingo isn't comfortable speaking before the G20, even in Estonian, which is only human and also understandable, since direct responsibility for Estonia's image in the world weighs heavy. Kingo doesn't need to like foreign visits, and why should she. She is uncomfortable among people conversing in English, which would be the case where she needs to talk to colleagues. Again understandable: the lack of a common language is indeed awkward.
But then why did she accept a position of which it was clear that it would necessarily include all that, and of which she knew it would be beyond her skills? And why did EKRE do such a bad job checking their candidate's background?
At least for now, the party has sided with their minister. Chairman Mart Helme said on Saturday that "The job of a minister isn't to tick off as many countries as possible spending taxpayer money," and to do the job of all those people already connected with Estonia's foreign trade.
This sounds great with an election around the corner and votes to be gained, but we wouldn't expect Isamaa chairman, Helir-Valdor Seeder, to tell his fellow party member and Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu that he doesn't need to go on foreign visits and participate in international meetings because, see, Estonia has embassies in so many countries, and it isn't Reinsalu's job to do all that for which we pay diplomats.
Kingo made a small attempt at explaining things on Sunday evening, writing on social media that "The invitation [to the G20 meeting] wasn't for me personally, couldn't have been for me, as I was appointed just a few days ago."
Absolutely correct: the invitation was extended to the trade and IT minister of Jüri Ratas' first government, Rene Tammist (SDE). Attendance of the G20's Japan meeting has been prepared far in advance, even helping with the meeting's final communique. Changing ministers are commonplace in democratic countries, just as it is commonplace that there is consistency in government. The invitation was extended to Estonia's IT minister. That Kert Kingo never received a personal invitation doesn't free her from the duties of her job.
Of course Kingo was right when she confirmed on Sunday evening that "Estonia WILL BE (sic) represented there at the HIGHEST (sic) level."
But that isn't her doing. We can only imagine how the prime minister felt when, on EU election day, he had to decide on the spot how to rescue the situation. He did the only right thing: if his cabinet's IT minister doesn't want to fly to Japan, the prime minister will have to fly there himself.
After all, at the end of the day, this is his government.
Editor: Dario Cavegn