KK: No, it was not like that, really. It is true that I did observe the presidential election and the campaign with greater interest, since I had been asked whether I would agree to become a candidate. At that moment it was about being one party’s candidate. I did not agree, but this attracted my attention.
Q: Let us reveal then the secret: who was the first politician to approach you with the proposal to run for president?
KK: It is no secret that the there were some people in the Pro Patria - Res Publica Union, even in summer, who thought about approaching me or (the diplomat and politician) Jüri Luik, but those talks did not reach any further. It was (Riigikogu Speaker) Eiki Nestor, who asked, whether I would be willing, if…
Q: What was your first reaction?
KK: Somebody has to. I was very sad that the election of the president by the electoral assembly failed. It was because people had gathered from all over the country, it was a festive day, everyone was excited and them someone burst the balloon. I was a sad moment.
Q: How often do you wake up with the feeling that, oh damn, I really am the president of Estonia?
KK: No, I do not wake up with such a thought. I did consider very seriously when Eiki approached me what this post means. I thought about the responsibility. The responsibility every politician feels or should feel: if we make a bad mistake, our little nation will suffer. I believe that those thoughts can be read from my face when looking at the photos of the election day.
Q: What have the first months in office given you?
KK: A lot of support from people I have men in Estonia or abroad. It was a fantastic moment, when the president of Germany Joachim Gauck said that he liked the way I think. He believes that Estonia’s politics could benefit from it.
Q: Joachim Gauck himself is not a regular politician either. He has a very original way of thinking.
KK: We had a very nice dinner conversation. One aspect, which links us, is that his father returned from Siberia three years before my grandmother did. He is a person of our kind and understands us well.
Q: Talking about bursting the balloon, the bang must have been quite loud.
KK: I did not hear that.
Q: Yes, the bang came somewhat later. Following the presidential election the ruling coalition began to crumble and after Edgar Savisaar was voted off from the Center Party leader’s post the government changed as well. You have talked to all the people involved with the exception of Savisaar. In your opinion, what brought down the government?
KK: I do not know. I have kept apart from all that, since my role is to treat all parliament parties the same way. It makes the neutral decision-making simpler for me if I am not emotionally involved in some party’s problems.
Obviously I read newspapers like all people, but I do not use my meetings with the parties’ chairmen to concentrate on their internal affairs. I acted like that even before the crisis and intend to continue like that during my five years in office. Doing something else would not be proper. It would be mere curiosity. The post of the president has no room for that.
Q: And you did not study the parties’ internal affairs even when running for office?
KK: Oh no. When? I did meet with all of them ands answered their questions, but I had little time that week for more than being on the air all the time.
Q: Would you agree that Estonia’s politics is mainly a game of tactics and strategic thinking can be rarely observed? Even the reasons for the change of government were predominantly tactical. And the new government hasn’t shown a strategic, broader view either. Why is it that way?
KK: I think that it is not quite right. It need not be deliberate action. If we look at the objections to politicians raised by the middle class all over the world, it comes down to the fact that the benefits of globalization are filling fewer pockets that they could have.
Although the per capita GDP has nicely increased, the middle class is hit by a stagnation of income. And people do not think at such moments that most consumer goods have also become cheaper and they can actually afford more stuff and travel, cheaper airline ticket even at that stagnated income. But a person only realizes that his income is not growing.
Q: This is not Estonia’s problem at present, since our wage growth has been quote rapid and clearly outpaces the growth of productivity.
KK: Yes, but we are still a part of it, where our open economy and our international success have brought a regular Western standard of living to many people – but for a number of people they haven’t brought it. I think that in such a situation I would be quite reasonable of us or others to see that those earning too low income would not have to pay disproportionately high taxes.
One very important aspect – the states have a couple of main tasks they must perform: medical services, medical insurance and education, which should not depend on where the parents live or what kind of work they do, since some professions are more highly paid than others. If the basic matters are properly arranged, it will ensure the people the basic freedom to live the life they want.
If we look at the plans of the new coalition, they are trying to redistribute the tax burden so that the low wage earners would benefit from it. I believe that this is a quite early reaction to a global trend. I am not sure whether they express it that way. Therefore I dare not say that there was no strategic thinking in the forming of this coalition. Maybe the fact that one quarter of Estonia’s voters can see their elected party in the government after ten years will bring along a vital piece of social cohesion in the society. We do not know it today, but it may be so.
I do not believe that someone makes very definite ten-year strategic visions and drafts coalition agreements based on them. It is just that some things succeed and others need to be corrected later. This is how it happens.
Drafting strategies, about which I have spoken in the context of pension reform and future pensions, is that we have to think about the current trends of work, for example, the changing nature of work. That people do not work in a certain place at certain time, that they do not work for 40 years in the same firm until retirement, that they may take a year off, for example. That they are not paid every month, but once a year. Or that they work for several employers.
All these changes are happening today, we must consider that and what it all means is that the terms “work” and “retirement” will change so much in the next 20 years that we cannot make plans today and be sure that this is what will happen.
We have to deal with different scenarios in order to be able to react quickly when the moment for deciding arrives. And we need the wisdom to recognize these moments.
Q: One of the main reasons for the change of government was the stagnation in Estonia’s economy. When comparing our economy with our Southern neighbors, then Latvia’s and Lithuania’s economies are growing faster, but they forget the thirty-percent wage gap with Lithuania, for example. Is it the much-discussed stagnation or has the incessant self-flagellation just created one more problem, which will become even more troublesome in the future?
KK: Clearly, if we had the same kind of wages as our low-wage competitors have in the euro-zone, and the tax system we have, then we would still be attractive to entrepreneurs moving here with their technologies and production models and hiring our labor. But our wages are already so high that this model no longer works in Estonia.
What we are seeing is the stage of reconsidering, understanding and restructuring. If we want to escape from this situation, we need, figuratively speaking, a million inventors. In order to become a leader of innovation and to hire people from lower-income countries. To cooperate with our closest partners, the Finns and the Swedes in a new way.
The model of “let’s work for them” no longer works. Now we are doing things together.
Q: This is a matter of dreaming.
KK: This no longer is a matter of dreaming. ICT services amount to 4.6 percent of GDP; this is no dream. But there is a problem and looking at the macro-indicators we can see that solving that problem would help us get going again. And this is not related to using our e-success. We have to keep on doing it and that will provide many highly-paid jobs as well, but Estonia is relatively unsuccessful in using modern technologies, including ICT, in the traditional sectors. We rank twentieth in Europe and this is one sphere, where we could definitely do better.
Q: There is room for development, but when comparing ourselves with the Finns, watching how many Finnish businessmen are visiting Estonia and what ideas they propose, some of them seem almost crazy. For example, the idea of the “Angry Birds” creator Peter Vesterbacka that the Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel could be built in seven-eight years – one thing we cannot deny is the scope if thinking. While we are arguing, whether Rail Baltic would cut Estonia in two. At some moment we go to the other extreme, which does not allow us think big.
KK: And at the same time we have a project manager of e-residency, who wants to have 40,000 new e-residents next year, who travels around Europe and the world and claims that in Estonia one could establish an enterprise one can carry along, that it is in the EU space and one can operate it anywhere. You can have that enterprise.
Every society has some conservative people and others willing to move faster. As for Rail Baltic, I believe that the closer ties we have with core Europe via transport and energy networks, the better for us. It is economically useful, but also safe.
Q: What is then the reason of such opposition?
KK: It need not necessarily be opposition, but some people simply believe that Rail Baltic should run elsewhere. The main debate is not whether to do it or not, but whether that one extra hour of travel caused by the detour to Tartu poses a problem. It certainly would.
We have selected the route, debates have been completed and it is now important to go on with the project as quickly as possible. Our partners in Latvia and Lithuania, more importantly, in Finland and Sweden should see that Rail Baltic is offering them business opportunities. Involving them more closely is important for us. I do that work myself when I visit Finland or Poland and ask them to keep in mind that they would benefit from the project just like we would.
Q: You have been trying to learn about Estonian economy’s success stories when traveling around. How many unknown treasures are there the public does not know about?
KK: Yes, I have tried. I have been initially only to two counties, but even that allows me to mention the Palmse mechanics workshop as an example. I was aware of that enterprise even before and knew that they had deliberately decided to pay wages well above the market’s and the region’s average, just so that their local people could have a good job. And they are very proud of it!
There must be a lot of such stories, but I was very glad to meet with these people and to see their business model – which is producing relatively small series of high-quality machinery for smaller timber processing firms all over the world. If an Australian farmer has a forest on a slope, he does not need heavy equipment, he needs a nice, high-quality machine, which would last for generations. And there are already very few firms left able to offer equipment, which would last for generations.
Q: What more could the state do for entrepreneurs? Socially responsible policies are very important on the one hand, but on the other hand we should not restrict business, but help them spread their wings.
KK: I cannot dictate answers in my present office, but I consider it very important that enterprises be allowed operate freely. I am not certain whether the quite popular method of the European model – supporting large enterprises in some sectors – really is the best idea.
It would be much more practical if the state would concentrate its resources on economic diplomacy rather than on specific support systems for enterprises. We have seen, say, from the Finnish example, that when excessive emphasis is placed on paper industry or electronics – we all remember Nokia – if the state issues a clear signal that some sectors have priority, it tends to reduce the diversity of the economy’s structure. And that results in a more vulnerable economy, less resilient to changes in the world economy. It still seems to me that the “hands-off” policy is the best economic policy.
We have to deal with education, with people. So that they were educated and healthy and could accept good job offers. Sometime one has to tell the entrepreneurs that if the state’s tax burden is 34 percent, the state cannot offer them services provided by states with 50-percent tax burden. This is a matter of choice.
If we want relatively low taxes, the state has to perform the basic functions: education, health care, social cohesion. I am really sorry that this last expression has been abused in Estonia, it is a very nice expression. This is the mission of the state, the entrepreneurs have their own missions.
Q: Social cohesion has provided a lot of laughter to the people…
KK: …but this is a serious issue.
Q: Does one have any fun as president?
KK: There is some fun, but social cohesion is an important issue for me. I believe that it is a major part of my work to meet with people and to talk to them, to explain what is happening in the world, how our diplomacy works in difficult times. It is my job to increase the people’s sense of security, that we can manage, and to keep them in the common information space. I go there and tell the people the same things I am now telling you and I can feel that they are happy for it. This is a large part of my work.
Q: There was a popular sketch in the Postimees TV some weeks ago, where the US president-elect Donald Trump calls you, but the call breaks up. Have you seen it?
KK: No. I rarely click on videos in the Internet. But I’m quite sure that our quality of speech on both sides is good enough to communicate, I have no doubt about that.
Q: The whole Western world is worried that telephone calls to the United States will be like that sketch: people at either end of the line say something entirely different.
KK: It is not. This is too dramatic an approach. Let us wait until president Trump has formed his cabinet and the ministers take office. I do not believe that the edges will remain as rough as they are now. I can never believe that the US would give up transatlantic cooperation the way they have been running it so far. It would be in no way in the US interests. And neither can I believe that our bilateral relations with the US would seriously deteriorate.
Estonia has traditionally many contacts with the republicans, including those who are currently important. Our diplomats are working, finding these contacts, explaining things. There are no indications that something could radically change. One can always speculate and the role of the media is to be that canary in the coalmine, but sometimes the canary returns alive. The role of the media is to warn about threats and the politicians’ role is to show, why the threats will not become real.
Q: But is we are dealing with someone as unpredictable as Donald Trump…
KK: …one person is never a soldier on a battlefield. It is always teamwork, a single person cannot lead a country well or bad. What matters is the quality of leading the country and we can be certain of America’s long democratic experience and very competent officials.
Q: On the other hand, looking at the bigger picture, we can say that this year has been momentous and there have been changes in the way the public views democracy, participates in democratic processes and how decisions are made. The examples are Brexit, Trump’s victory, as well as the recent referendum in Italy. What is going on?
KK: One of the reasons is the generation, which has lost due to globalization. But there are other important issues as well. During Brexit I happened to read, quite by accident, an article about the London Docklands of the 1950s. I understood that although the people had voting rights at that time, they lacked resources to obtain access to information and time to keep up with the society’s affairs. For example, a large share of them did not know that they were entitled to free medical aid. Probably most of them never voted either. Or if they did, they never wondered how they would benefit or lose from their voting choice.
Information is cheap today and easy to purchase. Everybody possesses information, but its quality is another matter. I would not blame those who can make their message simple and easy to understand. I would find out, whether the other side, the values I consider right, could be explained in a simple and clear manner.
For example, a traditional question they always ask: isn’t Brussels telling us too much what to do and what is the use of them? I answer with a question: can you name a big problem, a concern we have, which we could solve more efficiently alone? Nobody can do it, because all the big problems are cross-border.
We must be able to take that message to the people in a similarly simple way. Just like the other side does by creating a new important paradigm and winning with its help. It is important that the messages of those carrying the values of the open world, those who are willing to protect democratic values outside their home country, became sufficiently simple and clear. My message is that the challenges of present-day world are too large for each individual state.
Q: But cohesion has suffered badly in Europe. As well as Europe’s solidarity if we watch the ongoing processes or how people exhausted by mainstream politics have given up thinking along and debating and are looking for simple, populist solutions instead. Some cure must be found before the monster grows too large and we shall no longer be able to control it.
KK: First, it will not grow too large, because as soon as those offering simple, populist solutions come to power, the same thing will happen everywhere, which we saw the morning after Brexit. Very many people all over the world noticed that. And those having to realize the decision were seized by huge perplexity. No one knows yet how this decision will be realized. There are so many legal complexities.
It takes a couple of more similar cases for the people to see that the promised simple model was not observed. Then the pendulum will swing back. But it will not move by itself. The other side should not blame the populists, but make their own message clearer, easier to understand.
Q: The Dutch security expert Marcel van Herpen said in an interview to Postimees this month that it is no longer the case where information moves towards the people through the elite. The skilled propaganda of social media does it directly and in a less complicated way and some people exist in a totally different information space. Looking at it in Estonia’s context, this is a dangerous situation, since this leaves the Russian propaganda machine opportunities to do its work and turn up emotions.
KK: It is like that everywhere; one has to be able to see the tendencies of trying to influence the public opinion about something in somebody’s interests. It is turning into a separate branch of the social science – strategic communication, understanding its tools and dealing with them. By the way, a strategic communication center of excellence has been established in Latvia.
The best way is to recognize these questions and to announce clearly that such a process is underway is the best solution. People must know which media channels can be trusted. I have nothing against infotainment and it has its consumers, but discerning people know that these are funny news, that their production is something else than presenting facts.
Q: Which are the subjects on which the president should not express her opinion or comment?
KK: We already discussed one of them – the parties’ internal affairs. No one will hear my opinion on that subject. I believe that maybe I should not promote my economic and social political views too actively in the public media – otherwise it could create an expectation that I could actually do something about them.
Q: Then what is the mission of President Kersti Kaljulaid?
KK: The keep Estonia safe together in cooperation with the prime, foreign, defense and finance ministers and all the other ministers. We must together enhance each other’s influence outside Estonia and we are doing it. And we must keep the people as close as possible to the political decision-makers.
Politics is the art of leadership, it is not part of the entertainment sector. You cannot do only what superficially seems to be exciting for everybody. You have to make complex decisions and also look behind over the shoulder so that the people would not remain too far behind.
Explaining is the main business of a politician and the president as well. Leading. We hope that we can do this and also point out the vulnerabilities of the society. To travel around and to point out capable people who are tackling these problems. For example, dealing with troubled youths, people with difficulties, battered women, depressed children. We must talk about all that here in Kadriorg as well.
But naturally there are positive aspects which the president can support: capable cultural workers, inventors, volunteers, organizations, which also concern one important issue – that the post-administrative reform Estonia would be improved by the common efforts of the local governments and the residents of the municipalities. I have tested that idea when visiting the local governments and after the completion of the administrative reform we shall face the question of what can be done locally.
The easiest way is to involve the people willing to do something and to grant them opportunities. This means that eventually you are offering them the very same service they have always wanted. And with the support of public money they will do it. It is a radically new form of cooperation between the public and private or third sector. A sort of seamless society.
I believe that this is our next great state innovation after e-government. On the one hand the e-state moved away from the citizen, who communicates with the state via the computer, but on the other hand we now have a unique opportunity, because there are no laws forbidding relying on local governments and creating the state everybody wants. To offer the service a person wants at the moment he or she wants it. It’s the best model for the sparsely populated Estonia! The best model for a 21st century state, where everyone has the opportunity to be part of the state, unlike the Western Europe, where the state unrolls a thick, comfortable blanket of services. But under that blanket there are services, which we really do not need and their administration is complicated and expensive.
Instead we can recognize and support the voluntary initiative, which can only emerge from local needs. I hope that next elections will see a vigorous discussion about how to furnish the administrative reform. I really recommend thinking about that, since I can already see a serious social innovation emerging from it.
Q: The president’s role is largely related to daily matters, yet the state holidays are also influenced by the president. Have you already decided about February 24, 2017, the 99th anniversary of the republic?
KK: The honest answer is yes, the concept is there, but I rather would not speak about it. Let it be a surprise.
Q: Will there be major changes?
KK: Traditions have a value of their own. The changes will not cause a feeling that the traditions have been made unrecognizable. No fear. But there will be innovations.
Q: How much should we really hold on to traditions, considering the rapidly changing society?
KK: There are some traditions the people would not give up. We can see how the February 24 flag-raising ceremony is appreciated, how whole human rivers flow towards Toompea that day, how the students’ fraternities like their parade, then the military parade and the evening reception. Such things cannot be changed.
Q: Many people also like the greeting ceremony.
KK: They do. I would not worry about that.
Q: President Toomas Hendrik Ilves awarded 99 medals every year. On the other hand, I have heard an opinion that the number of awards could be increased, since otherwise the lack of decorations could become noticeable at ceremonial occasions and leave an impression that we do not have many deserving persons. Could that practice be revised, since we know that awarding 900 decorations per year was another extreme case?
KK: I am not a formalist and won’t set such limits. The number of awards will depend on the number of deserving people being recommended. The presidential chancellery receives the recommendations, we analyze them and the number does not matter. It is their actions, which matter.
Q: Let us sum up some issues. Considering the events in the world, the voters’ behavior at democratic elections, can we call this year momentous?
KK: History will show. We cannot say it today.
Q: The EU is certainly facing another difficult choice – how to continue. On the one hand several member countries are in a complicated situation, on the other hand the British exit decision and amidst all that the EU has to find a fulcrum for wording the policy for the future Europe. Does the European politics need a restart, refreshment, a new approach?
KK: If complex events take place in the world, in Europe, it is inevitable that it initially seems like a chaos and then some order emerges from that chaos. There is a saying in the EU – muddling through. This is one of the basics of the operation of the EU. There is an agreement – whatever happens, we shall muddle through together. And it has always happened. It does not need too many reforms.
Another important aspect for me is that the European agreements contain the principle of solidarity, but also the principle of subsidiarity. And that means that the EU does what individual countries cannot do: major infrastructure projects, as well as handling the crises around us, for example the protection of the Baltic Sea environment. Such things cannot be done alone.
The European Union began to think sometime around the turn of the century about how to be close to the ordinary citizen and therefore has fragmented its activities into spheres, where the subsidiarity principle actually does not apply. Brussels is thus spending its energy and resources on matters, which should be handled by the member state’s government or even the local government.
I think that the EU should take a serious look at everything it is doing and concentrate on matters it can definitely do better than individual member states.
The European Union should be more flexible and respond faster, it should shake off the unnecessary and refer it back to where is the proper place for handling a number of issues. It seems to me that there are a number of states and heads of state in our corner of Europe, who think the same way. I believe that with the help of concurring states we can get those ideas to the European Council, although I will never go there. It is the prime minister who represents Estonia in the European Council.
Q: Returning to an earlier subject, we have seen a curious political process: a party, which experienced an internal crisis and should undergo some purge, but instead of that it gained the post of the prime minister. It is almost unprecedented. What is your opinion? Is that party ready to purge itself in a situation, where it is carrying the responsibility of government and can it adopt the rules of clean politics?
KK: The judgment will come from the voters at the next elections. This party has the second largest faction in the parliament. This is why it is now the prime minister’s party. And any government formed by parties represented in the parliament is the will of the voters.
Q: But is the voter smart enough?
KK: I believe so.
Q: What is your wish for Christmas?
KK: Joy and peace and some free time for everybody.
Q: Do they grant the president free time during Christmas?
KK: They do, a bit.
Q: One of the problems of the president’s office is that there is no vacation. The previous president’s vacation remained at the end of his term. How will you solve that problem?
KK: I believe that there must be some free days. Taking vacation is a matter of rules in our country. I shall certainly need some days to gather thoughts and to be with my family to keep then from forgetting that they have a mother and a wife. To have some rest so that I could regain the rhythm.
I feel sometimes that when I return home on Friday, it takes a lot of time to tune in with the family. I know too little about someone, for instance, who has a football tournament over the weekend. This needs to be compensated.
Q: Are they used to their mother being the president.
KK: I do not know. I hope. But my children must always keep in mind that my work may take me away for some days and I shall return only next week. Actually, my travels are shorter now than during my work at the European Court of Auditors.
Q: How much do you talk at home about domestic and foreign politics, the president’s challenges?
KK: A lot, quite a lot. I have to test my ideas somewhere and I receive a lot of inspiration from my family.
Q: What do the children think about things, which should be done in Estonia?
KK: They have lived in Estonia for a couple of months and I can say that they are sincerely happy! We shall hear complaints probably sometime later. But the Estonian children’s freedom to do things on their own – they like it. There are much fewer restrictions for children here. They can walk in the streets on their own from the first schoolyears, they have more freedom to decide for themselves, they are expected to take more responsibility, they are treated at school as responsible citizens and not as somebody, who must be pointed in the right direction via the parents. I think that they like Estonia.
Q: Isn’t one of Estonia’s problems that we demand too much from ourselves and are unable to enjoy what we have already achieved? And this prevents us from finding new and exciting goals?
KK: I believe that constructive criticism is never unnecessary. But that must always contain some positive element. This is important and should not be forgotten.