At times called the shadow prime minister, chairman of the social democrats, Minister of Health Care and Labor Jevgeni Ossinovski describes the Reform Party’s flirt with the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) as incredible and says he’s waiting to see what will become of coalition partner IRL after this fall’s local elections. “Estonia has several parties sporting vague worldviews; we must remain steadfast and take risks,” Ossinovski says.
Voices from the opposition as well as your own party have been saying you have disappeared lately. Are you simply standing back as the Center Party and IRL wage their in-house battles?
I haven’t gone anywhere. The prime minister aside, I am the most frequently quoted Estonian politician. That said, politics has different periods. Executing the things the government decided in November - negotiations and fine-tuning of decisions - has left little time for new public initiatives. Additionally, tax changes have been in the center of attention in recent months that, while emotionally powerful, are of modest significance in terms of Estonia’s future.
While we’re on the subject of tax policy, is there any truth to rumors circulated by IRL that President Kaljulaid will not proclaim the tax package in its current form? Any truth at all?
There is not. The president cannot dictate which laws the legislator can pass. I’m sure the president has read and has an opinion on various tax policy topics. However, legislative drafting procedure in Estonia will see the parliament pass legislation independently, followed by constitutional review by the president.
You have been in Helir-Valdor Seeder’s shoes in terms of changing the composition of the government - albeit the previous one - and the coalition agreement after being elected chairman of your party. Does Seeder’s tax policy include self-assertion, blackmail, or justice?
It is natural and understandable that a new chairman will bring about a review of some political questions. There is nothing peculiar about it. However, I do not believe it should reset all prior agreements, which is something that has not happened in the past. The coalition agreement was not between three people, it was between three parties. Credibility and consistency make for important values for a party as a political institution. Both in terms of democracy and government-worthiness.
Have IRL’s changes made the government’s work more difficult?
They have. In a situation where we had one set of negotiations six months ago and another now, immediately after the passing of the state budget strategy, changes surely weren’t the first choice of myself or Jüri Ratas.
What is your assessment of the general atmosphere in the government in a situation where we can hear about a female minister breaking out in tears in the middle of a government sitting? These kinds of rumors do not speak of a friendly atmosphere.
I have no idea where this kind of talk comes from. The atmosphere in the government is very good. This is my third government, and for the first time it is possible to discuss matters and reach agreements without the need to settle differences via the public and the press. The latter practice not only happened in the previous government, it was the conscious choice of some partners. There is none of that in this government, which is extremely positive.
In your opinion as chairman of a party - how well is Prime Minister Ratas handling a number of willful personas in the Center Party who are making attempts to weaken him, the party, and the government of Estonia?
Every prime minister’s job is a tough one, and Jüri’s doubly so as he also has to address certain in-house differences the management of which takes up a lot of time and energy. It has required if not superhuman, then at least great effort on his part.
It takes ministers time to settle in, be briefed, find their footing. Estonia is to become the EU presidency. To what extent will it engulf the government?
It has to be said that such a profound change in the makeup of the cabinet will have an effect on the presidency. Talking about legislation, the bulk of the work is done by officials, and that work has been pursued for a very long time. What is important is knowing your colleagues before running into complications in making political decisions. New ministers will have to work very hard on their network of contacts in the next three months. I wish them luck!
We will probably be seeing little of party chairmen and ministers in the coming months. Who will be left in charge of local election campaigning? What will be the distinctive character of these elections?
Even though the foreign minister will not be home often in the coming months, a large part of events will take place in Estonia, so we will also be bringing more Europe to Estonia, in addition to taking more of Estonia to Europe during the presidency. The main characteristic of local elections is what is happening outside of Tallinn; that is to say the administrative reform. Elections will take place in much bigger local government units that will surely have a distinct effect on the campaign. Local elections will become less local and more a matter of fundamental future trends for the entire country. It is important as the Estonian society must decide whether it wants to go forward or back. I believe we need the courage to go forward. Many other parties feel the grass was greener in the past.
Another important aspect is the fact that 16-17-year-olds will be able to vote this year, meaning there will be far more future-oriented dialogue; this is a positive thing. And of course we have the question of how the so-called new parliament parties will fare. The Free Party has already conceded the game.
Perhaps they’ve gone all in instead in hopes they will succeed in selling the success of election coalitions as their own.
Election coalitions do not equal the Free Party. It is forecast that election coalitions will take a third of the vote, and while the Free Party is free to send out a press release claiming they’ve won the election, it remains a fact that the popularity of local election coalitions has nothing to do with the Free Party. It will be interesting to see whether EKRE can manage the election threshold in Tallinn. And of course how IRL will do in general. These elections make for a critical junction for them.
Where will you run?
We have discussed the possibility of our ministers taking part of course, and we will focus on Tallinn; however, there are no decisions yet.
Will you run?
It is too soon to tell.
Do you have a secret pact to carve up the capital with the Center Party?
My God… This talk of secret pacts. It is not sensible to form coalitions before elections. It is up to the voter to decide where Tallinn should be headed. The exception here is that the social democrats will not form a coalition with EKRE. We cannot allow those who harbor hatred for people from different backgrounds to come to power in the multinational Tallinn of the 21st century. That is why we are troubled by the completely public pact between the Reform Party and EKRE.
In other words the alleged scheme between the two where the latter is hoping to convince some IRL members to defect to shake the foundations of the government.
Well, Free Party chairman Artur Talvik has been saying for years how he has half of IRL’s members writing applications to join in the next room. What EKRE is saying is quite similar. I do not see the government falling apart now. However, the Reform Party’s willingness to form a coalition with a de facto extremist party… that is an entirely new development. Taavi Rõivas (Reform chairman at the time - ed.) said in 2015 that he will not pursue a coalition with EKRE as the two parties’ visions for Estonia’s development do not coincide. It seems that all principles can be sacrificed on the altar of power. The fact these two are prepared to hold hands and rule Estonia is troubling me.
The Reform Party is afraid of its conservative voter leaving as they have morphed from a liberal party to a conservative one and taken votes away from IRL. The fear that these people will be lured away manifests in EKRE. Especially considering that the Reform Party is now in the opposition; how are they more than EKRE today? There is nothing they can do except yell hysterically in an attempt to maintain their electorate. Kristen Michal is trying to outperform Martin Helme himself in terms of extreme messages. It is a shame a liberal party has been reduced to something like that. I can only imagine how difficult it is for Kaja Kallas, Yoko Alender, and Imre Sooäär to breathe in that overgrown pond.
Tough words. Many say that your are the prime minister in Jüri Ratas’ government. Despite various problems hardcoded into Center’s DNA, Ratas has done a relatively good job as prime minister?
Jüri has done a brilliant job of steering the government. Considering he had six months to learn how to run a party and a country. There have been brittle moments; however, his ability to learn really is astonishing.
While IRL’s dance on the election threshold might warm the hearts of other parties, the rating of the social democrats is neither blooming nor wilting either. While the rating has been going up slightly in recent months, why is it your performance at elections always falls short of forecasts?
That was indeed how it was in 2011-2015 during which time we had three elections. However, it needs to be kept in mind our rating hovered around 25 percent back then as we had taken the leading role in the opposition, setting ourselves in clear contrast to Andrus Ansip. Many people were just tired of him, we offered an alternative and gained voters who weren’t social democrats at heart but were simply against the Reform Party. It is clear that once we moved into the government many of these people left.
It was my strategic choice when I became chairman for the Social Democrat Party to move toward greater ideological clarity, and that is what has happened over the past few years. Estonia does not need vague parties; we have enough of those. We must be clear in stating what we want and take the risk of losing a part of our electorate as a result. However, we will cherish and place our hopes with those who support us with sincerity come election day. We have gained much ground among young people in exchange for surrendering some of it with middle-aged men and to some extent the elderly.
There is no doubt one of the reasons for this is the registered partnership act regarding which we are the only party to have supported it as a point of principle. More specifically, we have stood for every Estonian person’s equal opportunities irrespective of their origin, mother tongue, or sexual orientation. While our principles are definitely not to the liking of everyone, we feel all the more strong and confident in knowing that the people who believe in us will vote for us.
Will we see a new party before the 2019 Riigikogu elections?
Rather not. Rather the question is how many of today’s parties will survive.
And the answer?
There will be fewer.
Will the government last until the local elections?
What about the parliamentary ones?
We will have little over a year between local and Riigikogu elections, and results of the former will surely influence new political strategies. No party, with the exception of EKRE, is happy to sit in the opposition today. Of government parties, IRL is in the most difficult position, and the local elections will be a signal for them in terms of the election in 2019. However, truth be told, I cannot see any other functional coalition combination today.