President Kaljulaid: the most important thing is to notice and talk

President Kersti Kaljulaid takes a seat behind a table covered by a Christmas-themed oilcloth and says: “I would like to sit in front of the Christmas tree.”

Following the president’s suggestion, we meet in the kitchen and living room of the Astangu Vocational Rehabilitation Center for our end of the year interview. The president says, with confidence and certainty in her voice that echoes throughout the interview, that the center teaches young people with difficulties in coping how to make it on their own. “This apartment and center suggest we must care for and take notice of people whose physical or mental circumstances have placed them in a situation where society needs to come to their aid,” Kaljulaid says. The weak come first is a principle the president repeatedly emphasizes during our conversation.

You have been talking about the need for a seamless society for the past year. What does it stand for?

This center for coping is not seamless society. This center is a public social service: professionals helping teach people who need it. What is seamless society is you and I thinking about it and finding ourselves here. At times, coming and perhaps teaching these people how to make a Christmas decoration or prepare food – as people who do not encounter these problems on a daily basis. It is especially nice when it is done by people who do not have painful experiences of their own.

A large part of this seamless society deals with social problems and helps disabled people in Estonia. There is a lot of volunteer initiative. Several centers have been created following personal concern and needs of people, especially parents. These people have made great efforts to help themselves and their families. We must be thankful as their projects and initiative have tested a lot of what our country does to support people with disabilities today.

I’m sometimes saddened to hear a local government official say that a successful initiative will be closed because project funds will run out. People have failed to realize these projects constitute an opportunity to test innovative solutions – methods that might be traditional elsewhere but untested in Estonia. Once they have proved their merit, it is the role of the public sector and local government to include them in their packages if there are people who need the service in the area.

We have bigger local governments from this year. Has the administrative reform rendered them more capable?

We do not know. Last year I made it my mission to visit all counties; now I will try – in perhaps a little more than one year – to visit all Estonian local governments and talk to the people there. Also about our foreign and security policy to give them some background on Estonia’s position in the world and what we are doing to secure it.

I will definitely talk about local governments’ possibilities to make the lives of their residents as good and comfortable as possible. Including the lives of people who need more than the average person. Even though their voice does not carry individually, it is very important how a society treats its weaker members.

If we want to promote consideration and the habit of noticing, the best way to do that is to care even in situations where services have not been prescribed by the law.

Luckily, our legal environment is very flexible and does not dictate steps local governments should take, for example in the field of social services. I believe that the more we include original ideas by locals, the better these services will become. I have never seen the non-profit sector address anything for which there is no need or try to keep alive fields where there’s no more demand. That way we will get a true necessity-based system.

A sentence uttered at the Opinion Festival stuck with me: “Seamless society – it needs great transparency and a low level of corruption.” Today, we rather have reason to fear Tallinn’s corrupt practices will soon be employed all over Estonia.

We must not tolerate inability to understand how decisions are made. We definitely must not settle for having no picture of how public funds are used.

I believe we should do something about audit committees. There are no competence requirements for them today. We need to ensure council members have sufficient access to rural municipality contracts, documents, tenders. The audit committee must be able to reach the conclusion as well as convince others that everything is aboveboard.

That said, we must not go overboard with funding small initiatives. For example, when the local government supports a village association’s efforts to get something minor done. Decisions should not get stuck behind whether €130 or €150 is fair.

We must decide what is admissible. For instance, can you pay an old lady support if you ask her to take a neighbor’s firewood up to their apartment? What are the conditions on which it would be okay? Based on what do we proceed? Is it a matter of choice, or do we need a more specific procedure for making these kinds of decisions?

Today, the central criminal police investigate corruption cases in smaller local governments. We will address this issue once more now that the reform is about to be completed and try to explain to local governments how to use their resources in cooperation with the voluntary sector. I’m scheduled to meet the head of the central criminal police, and we will also discuss these matters to make sure no one is caught in the gears. We cannot proceed on a case-by-case basis; it would hurt society too much. We need to clear up this matter.

Coming back to the state level. Do you share in the concern that the ignorance we saw in politics in Tallinn has made its way to state policy? Decisions are not explained to a sufficient degree, the decision-making process is illegible, and we often see decisions made without any kind of analysis and reasoning, simply because it seems right or necessary for the party.

There are several things here. Everything I said about transparency of decisions and use of money on the local level also applies to major cities and the government.

As concerns decisions made barring serious analysis, it is undoubtedly also a problem. I believe a lot of people were surprised to wake up to our new tax system. Let us presume you are paid dividends that are already taxed. Now, this taxed income will be counted for the second time and affect your income tax rate.

I believe that if these kinds of decisions were weighed for longer they would result in something that is simpler, more legible, and better able to be forecast. The latter aspect is the most important. The main problem with the new tax system is that people do not know their annual income in advance. Selling one’s apartment could also qualify as income.

I believe it is vital for the new law to have a development plan and effects analysis. It is important; however, it is a different matter. The transparency issue is not quite the same.

What about the quality of decision-making? I wrote a few weeks ago how decisions are made in a way as to be comprehensible only to the people making them. As if they’re made by ideological fumblers.

That is coming too late to the debate. For example, the discussion concerning the use of EU subsidies in the next budget period. I feel it is high time to debate where we will use that money and how we’ll contribute to EU climate policy that states every fifth euro must be spent on combating or adjusting to climate change. Perhaps we want to use the next period money in a more concentrated manner, so its benefits would manifest more clearly? Perhaps we want to use it in a certain field that concerns mobility, road construction for instance? That debate does not exist today.

I tried to launch that debate with Siim Kallas. We failed. Whereas we attempted it at a venue where debate is encouraged – a debate competition.

I believe that sometimes one cannot help decisions being made hurriedly and without due consideration. Whenever governments change, and an important paradigm shift takes place, there is desire to make things happen quickly, and some things have turned out right.

I have said on numerous occasions that I support hiking basic exemption. It is also no secret I would support a simpler tax model that would sport a higher tax rate.

That said, I presume people who come to power have their own path they want to walk. One problem today is that we have three paths in the government. They all have their own ideas and need to compromise at times.

I believe the new tax act is one such compromise born out of the desire to observe different interests and cover everyone’s bases that turned out awkwardly and will probably have to be amended in the future. It is an important problem.

It is not too soon to talk about EU subsidies. All parties must be prepared to contribute to that debate.

What is your opinion of free public transport that was presented as an idea virtually overnight?

It’s nothing good.

There were numerous arguments in its favor in Tallinn: a major city, frequent traffic jams. It was probably calculated that if everyone living in Tallinn would register as residents and pay taxes to the city, free municipal transport wouldn’t perhaps be all that costly. I cannot say how successful this has been. I do not know how much more Tallinn must pay.

One can understand free transport in densely populated Tallinn. As concerns places farther away, I believe we should rather consider flexible solutions and models not built on large coaches departing at certain intervals. We could bring together people who have business in the city. Someone can look out for groups of people who need to go from one place to another and organize public transport accordingly. This should not be too complicated using modern technology – even pensioners are quite crafty online these days.

I would like it far more were we talking about a flexible “call a coach” digital solution that would work everywhere in Estonia instead of offering what we have for free. We know that what we have does not satisfy people’s needs in commuting to work, going to school or the shop. This must change.

We could spend a little more time talking about this, because it seems to me funding the current system from the state budget is not right. I believe we should leave the private sector room for competition and coming up with new solutions even in something like public transport. Whether we’re talking about solutions like Uber or something else entirely.

This year’s alcohol excise duty hike decision makes me wonder why decisions are made only to be changed again soon. There is a lot of instability.

I would not accuse anyone of instability here. Practice is the best criterion of truth. We hiked the duty – the process took off – now it’s deepening – let’s do something about it. I don’t believe we can say that we shouldn’t react.

I don’t know whether an analysis exists. If it is based on salary advance, the price of alcohol should be hiked accordingly. That would make sense if you don’t want alcohol to become relatively cheaper. Minister Ossinovski (Minister of Healthcare and Labor Jevgeni Ossinovski – ed.) has pointed to that from time to time.

If the analysis shows alcohol should be more expensive, and you decide to go down that path, but you live next to a country where the average income and prices are much lower, you get an alcohol rally. Lower prices of alcohol and other foodstuffs are not based solely on differences in excise duties; life is generally less expensive in Latvia.

Now, you must make a choice: whether to try and avoid that process no matter the cost by keeping prices low or accept that a part of commerce will indeed move to Latvia.

Border trade is common. I believe that this fact cannot be the only argument in the excise duties debate.

Why is ethical guidance in short supply in Estonian politics?

What do you mean by ethical guidance? If we want decisions based on what’s best for the future, people need to be thoroughly explained why individual decisions are the best suited to Estonia.

I’m talking about several things. Including the level of political debate. Looking at the recent episode of the “Foorum” debate program on ETV, I realized the level of political debate has deteriorated further – everyone is busy talking, while no one listens.

Yes, interruptions reflect poor quality of debate. Even if the debate uses arguments based on calculations and analysis, it looks better without people cutting in.

If that is what you are referring to as political debate, perhaps it is a sign of the times. Pronounced media presence is largely a sign of the times. It is a question to all who represent what we know as mainstream politics. All moderate politicians have realized that in a situation where the fringes use pronounced vocabulary and tricks, one must communicate one’s message at least as expressively to remain in the picture. So, in a way it is rather a sign of the times.

That is to say you agree with Ott Lumi when he says radicals have changed our political debate culture?

I believe radicals were the first to realize that information is cheap and plentiful, and that it reaches a far greater part of society than it did in the 1950s and 60s when familiar democratic processes were developing in Western Europe. Back then, a large part of society paid no mind to these questions. Life was not all butterflies and sunshine in the industrial age. The working day was long, information costly. You had to work harder to get it than you do now. Let’s say the political course was plotted by people who had more resources and time to think.

While you do not need a lot of resources to access information these days, its quality is an entirely different matter.

It is probable the political fringes realized this first. The mainstream has no choice but to come up with striking ways of promoting balanced policy-making. I believe the case of Brexit helps us out here. It shows that an unbalanced major decision based on incorrect facts will not make anyone happy upon its execution.

What’s the solution?

To talk about it and give explanations. The work I pursue, and I hope many other levelheaded politicians do as well, is also not in vain. We go around and talk to people. People will eventually understand that slogans aren’t instruction manuals. The latter must also come from somewhere. We must come up with them ourselves; slogans are not enough.

The radicals usually only have slogans. Which is something they have been able to afford as they are mostly not expected to explain how they plan to put these slogans into practice. It was quite a lot of fun to watch the bafflement on people’s faces on the day following the Brexit vote as they had never considered they would have to take responsibility for what they said.

It has been suggested that radicals have been activated by another country. There has been a lot of talk about information warfare launched by Russia in recent years. Estonia seems to think it rather does not concern us, or that we can handle it. Communication expert Raul Rebane begs to differ and recently wrote in Postimees that spending public funds on buying air time on an unfriendly country’s networks – for example PBK – should be ceased immediately.

I agree.

As concerns influencing public opinion, it is clearly in Russia’s interests to spread conviction that Russia is not all that bad. We have no reason to believe Russia is not doing everything in its power to erode European unity. The simplest way to do that is to spark doubt and insecurity in the people.

One must have the courage to stand up for oneself when one suspects the other side of manipulating public opinion to serve its interests.

It is said on several levels that PBK helps take messages to the audience as it’s the only network people watch.

All things have an effect and side-effects. It is also something you must keep in mind. If we say that PBK is important for us because it helps us reach our people, what else does it say about us? That we cannot reach our people using our own channels! We need to work on improving our networks. Give the money to ETV+. I believe Tallinn Television should be closed and merged with ETV+.

What if that person does not tune in to ETV+? How could we communicate with our Russian community? We must reach them somehow.

It takes time for these channels to have their own audiences. Radio 4 is quite popular for instance. That did not happen overnight. We need to work and not despair.

Our Russian-speaking population is interested in being able to find information from Estonian channels. We should not constantly tell people apart based on native tongue. The language barrier is not as serious for young people, and they have passive language skills. Simply because you speak Russian at home does not mean you are incapable of getting information from Estonian sources.

The conflict is artificial?

It is outdated.

You signed the convention on preventing and combating violence against women in September. What did you feel at the time?

I saw that the convention was not passed unanimously in the Riigikogu, and that not all delegates voted in favor. I gather the reasoning was that our legislation already covers these things. However, that is not the point. It is important to be in the same sphere of values as your allies. We have international allies who recognize everyone’s right to feel safe and protected in society also in this matter. That is also why we join these conventions.

When I signed the convention, it was necessary to once again point out what I said in my February 24 speech: our society has too much violence that goes unnoticed. I believe we have achieved a small breakthrough in that we have discussion now.

The ball you kicked in your anniversary of the republic speech was sent rolling?

Indeed. I believe it has changed society’s attitude. It supported people who have been dealing with these issues for years, for example in the police and prosecution. They’ve told me they don’t feel as alone anymore.

I would like us to reach a situation where no one would look the other way. It is something we can all do. We have to start noticing these things and acting as a society. And if that is impossible without jeopardizing one’s safety, to notice and call for help.

There is a recent less than encouraging ruling – the court found that the school was not responsible for violence on its territory.

Individual rulings aside, the entire society is responsible for the level of violence and malice in society. No one is exempt from the duty to act.

We have spent more time talking about human relations this year. Time magazine chose the #metoo movement as its person of the year, and Estonia had its own harassment scandal. Is it happenstance or progress that people suddenly have the courage to talk about these things?

I believe that it is quite typical things eventually reach a boiling point. That happens once society gives the victim confidence to overcome the silence. It is our task as a society to chip away at that wall of silence to free victims of the fear of being accused or ridiculed upon coming clean. It is very good that wall has crumbled and people who feel harassed can come out and say it.

There is another matter tied to human relations, and relations between men and women especially, that has caused public discussion on values and attitudes this year. We have learned that many of our more beautiful women are willing to climb into whichever bed in exchange for money and honeyed words. Unfortunately, the situation is appalling. Is it something the media has blown out of proportion, or is it something society should discuss?

If these things happen, they need to be discussed. If only so mothers could teach their daughters, talk more about self-respect, and warn them. It is good these things have also come to light.

We can talk about decisions a grown woman can make.

What about the moral aspect?

Women are free to make these choices and decisions. What we do not allow is mediation – that is punishable. And that is how it should be seen.

It is a similar situation to how young women were made drug mules some years ago. It has not happened again as people now know to be careful and pay attention.

Where do Estonians’ value judgement and attitudes fall the shortest today?

We cannot say there is something wrong with the Estonian people. There are no taboos, and discussion covers all aspects. That is good.

I see that local governments and people could cooperate more, be friendly and supportive to each other, and base arguments on facts. All of it needs to be addressed every day. I do not believe we can say the world has gone down the drain.

We cannot forget we’ve had a very successful economic year. A wealthier society has more time to consider itself and fix shortcomings it finds.

What are the three most important changes in Estonia this year?

That’s tricky. We often learn what changed much later. We have learned that Estonia’s foreign security bearing transcends parties, that our will to defend ourselves and preparedness to fund our defense is strong. Our economy is also strong. I believe the culture of taking notice will also have improved a little by the year’s end.

I’m made very happy by the fact we have discussion on how voluntary action and the public sector can work together to offer a coherent society where both sides feel they are doing the right thing.

I admit that we need to involve more people in those processes and the feeling something depends on them.

Estonia has rather had a good year?

Estonia definitely had a good year.

Our EU presidency was largely a success.

Absolutely. I have access to opinions on the grass roots level of European institutions. I have a lot of friends there, and they all say Estonia has been a good and balanced presidency that has not avoided addressing certain things because they are not popular back home. Mainly migration, but also the posted workers directive that is perhaps less than popular here.

We are very close to European defense cooperation becoming reality. We have added military mobility to that peach tree. We have approached it with great enthusiasm.

It has always seemed to me that we could use our presidency and enthusiasm to spark discussion on whether the EU is really in such a bad place. I believe that today more people believe the EU is working.

How can we make use of our successful presidency in future foreign policy?

We have used the presidency to promote our UN Security Council campaign. So we could improve our international relations. The presidency delivered a strong impulse there.

What is the mark Estonia has made on the world this year?

There can be no doubt it was e-Estonia. While it has not reached everywhere in the world, there is hardly anyone in Europe who does not know e-Estonia.

What was the significance of the small earthquake we saw in connection with our ID-card?

We hoped we could turn it into a success story, as we did with cyberattacks in 2007. We demonstrated that a digital society means people no longer accept paper alternatives, which in turn showed that we need a digital alternative to the e-state and access to it. Our solution demonstrated we can defend ourselves against these kinds of unexpected situations.

We have officials and the government to thank for that?

Yes. It went well. The fact it was publicly discussed is also valuable. Transparency helps in situations like these.

Next year will be very special and important for Estonia. We will celebrate our country’s 100th anniversary. What are your expectations for 2018?

It will definitely be a major celebration. I would borrow a symbol from the Estonian Ornithological Society that chose the great grouse as next year’s bird: the grouse sings until someone comes and eats it. We will have a celebration, and that is very nice; however, we must now think about how to make sure the next 100 years would be at least as successful as the past 25. We must get up every day and make sure Estonia is as safe in the evening as it was in the morning.