Kaja Kallas: i’m not a leader for some people yet

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

Kaja Kallas (40), elected chairman of the Reform Party on Saturday, says that politicians who promised an extraordinary €60 pensions hike should ask themselves the true price of that move.

“While it might be popular, it is much more difficult to answer the question honestly. We know we have an ageing population and falling number of working-age people, in other words, people whose taxes are used to finance pensions. It is a truth we must face,” Kallas says in a frank interview.

Kaja Kallas, you became chairman of the Reform Party yesterday (day before yesterday – ed.) Do you see yourself as Estonia’s next prime minister?

No. Ambition is the death of thought. We have a lot of work to do before we can say we’ve earned that position.

Has it ever been your dream?

(Shakes her head – J. V.)

Never?

I’ve never prioritized positions. When I was a lawyer, my brother asked me whether I wanted to make partner.

I did not set that goal for myself. I just went to work, and I was eventually so good at it that I became partner. If you set a position as your goal, you start doing things that serve the purpose of getting there.

There is a saying that power is not given but taken. Were you given power in the Reform Party, or did you take it for yourself?

I’m not a leader yet for some members of the party and its Riigikogu faction. I have work to do in terms of proving myself. Today, my goal is for us to win the Riigikogu elections, and it is something people are willing to make efforts for. Why things turned out the way the did is a question for future analysis.

How much of a surprise was it to discover everyone suddenly wanted you to run the party, even though there was no need for a new chairman: the party had achieved a strong elections result and enjoyed a very high rating under your predecessor?

People took it up with me some time before, and I always told them that we have a chairman, and that I would not spin intrigues. But when Hanno Pevkur threw that ball in the air himself, I had to run.

Things got very ugly in the party a month before the in-house election? Why is that?

It was fierce elections struggle. All 27 people running for 13 positions took it very seriously. Indeed, it led to situations that benefited no one. I hope it is all behind us now.

It has been a tradition of the Reform Party to find the outgoing chairman a dignified place to land. This time, you contributed to Hanno Pevkur losing the Riigikogu deputy speaker’s position. Why did you feel the need to write that letter when it was clear what kind of a reaction it would spark?

Experience is the best teacher, but it asks a high price. One would have to look at preceding steps; however, I would no longer dwell on that. We all made mistakes in that process, and the important thing is how we’ll move forward.

How secure do you feel on your first day on the job, and the secretary general’s first day? Riigikogu elections are in less than 11 months.

It is not a one-person job. An elections victory requires cooperation between the faction, board, regions, and the secretary general. The important thing is for that band to find its tune so to speak. There are both new players and old-timers. We need to make use of all our strengths.

The Reform Party has always relied on national conflict in its election campaigns. Pevkur said it should be left in the past after the previous elections. What is Kaja Kallas’ position?

Firstly, I do not agree that we’ve incited nationality-based conflict. We have never done it and will not be doing it in the future. We also plan to continue observing our principle of not going along with a neighboring country’s propaganda.

People, regardless of their ethnicity, who live in Estonia and regard it as their home cannot have fundamentally different interests. They also want it to be a safe place to live, to have a good income and education for their children.

The Reform Party has run elections ads that specifically point out that Russians vote for this, while Estonians vote for that.

We did use an ad like that at local elections once, but it was found to be wrong also by our own members. Citing studies does not equal incitement of nationality-based feud.

You said you do not want to go along with propaganda from a neighboring country. You feel Estonian politicians have gone along with it today?

American historian Timothy Snyder recently published a book titled “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America”. The entire book shows that (quotes J. V.) “if Russia will not become the West, the West will become Russia”. That is their policy. Reading this book and keeping an eye on background, I can see such developments.

I’m not saying it is a conscious course of action for some Estonian politicians; it is possible they are using similar tricks out of ignorance. We see things Vladimir Putin’s administration has done to weaken the European Union being done in Estonia, and it is frightening.

You should be more specific.

For example, how the Putin administration is trying to paint the West as morally corrupt. Claiming, for instance, that there is massive gay propaganda afoot. Looking at statements and moods some people represent, it is more or less the same cast of mind.

Who are these people?

The Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) has clearly deployed the same rhetoric. As illogical as it sounds, that’s how it is.

Their voters like it.

They do. They represent those kinds of voters; however, looking at emerging patterns, they are dangerous.

Russia might have all sorts of ambitions, but the soil is fertile in Estonia for such rhetoric. If you say that cast of mind is a problem, it is a problem with those people in Estonia.

The real problem is that Estonians tend to believe everything on social media. Recently, a Eurobarometer study was published that looked at how readily residents of EU countries believe fake news and whether they see underlying patterns.

Estonians were not found to be critical of their sources. This means they believe blindly what they read on social media. Estonians also use social media more frequently than other Europeans.

Thirdly, Estonian people have a hard time identifying fake news, unlike the Dutch for example. This regulates whether people only believe public broadcasting and Postimees, or whether they also believe random things that pop up on social media.

Such a person is very easy to manipulate. People’s inability to think critically is a problem. Another problem is that increasingly relying of technology is reducing our ability to think critically. We cannot even feel smart device addiction working its effect.

Constant interference from smart devices means we have difficulty concentrating. The latter disrupts the continuity of long-term memory. Its absence makes it difficult for us to see connections as we do not remember where we saw or read something. It is a problem.

How to improve that situation?

I believe we need to talk about the dangers. We also need to place more emphasis on sources of information. If a person believes something, there’s really nothing you can do about it.

When U.S. President Donald Trump is told in an interview that things are not as he claims, he simply replies: “the President has reason to believe they are.” That is how high the problem goes.

It is galling how the latest technology can be used to have, let’s say, George W. Bush say anything on camera. If a person who trusts what they see and hear absolutely sees an image of me talking in my own voice, they will not believe me when I later tell them I’ve said nothing of the sort.

Having tools like that in the wrong hands, imagine what it may lead to. It is frightening.

It is frightening; however, doesn’t it make you feel like banning some things?

As a liberal, I’m not in favor of bans. People should be educated to see dangers. Especially parents. Young people use their smart devices a lot in Estonia. Asian countries are already tackling these problems, and we should learn from them.

Allow me to give an example from South Korea. Minors must have their data connection switched off between midnight and seven in the morning, as staying online means children do not sleep and cannot concentrate.

Another example. French President Emmanuel Macron’s platform sought a ban on smartphones in schools. They keep interfering, children do not communicate with each other and do not develop basic communication skills. At the same time, the workplace of the future needs us to be able to communicate, emphasize etc. – things that robots will not be able to do for a long time.

Number three. Taiwan passed legislation in 2015 that allows parents to be fined if they allow their children to use too much technology, so they would understand that smart device addiction is worse than heroin addiction. Just as they do not give their children heroin, they should not allow them to use smart devices without limit.

All three examples could be summed up as something a nanny state would do.

They are just examples of what countries that are having corresponding problems are doing. China has major camps where they try to rid children of smart device addiction. On the other hand, some futurologists say that every generation is preparing itself for what is to come. We do not know what it is, but it might be good for something new.

I want people to be free in their choices and able to see the risks. Parents have a responsibility, and they must know the risks of the new world and how to protect their children from them.

What are the biggest social problems in Estonia?

Major social problems are tied to the fact people cannot make ends meet. Excessive alcohol consumption is another great problem. Also, mental health: we have a lot of depression. The question is whether alcohol comes before depression or vice versa. It is an important question why we are unhappy if everything is fine in the big picture.

People’s income needs to grow. The cost of living is high, while income remains modest. We have not taken the necessary steps to develop our economy.

We have lived as a subcontractor, and there is nothing wrong with that; however, for a small country, having a knowledge-based economy is the only way to go. That is not created overnight. We need to look at our research and development funding and why we occupy a very low position in the global innovation index.

Will an extra €60 for pensioners help them?

People should also solve the other half of the equation. Having promised pensioners €60, where are you going to get it? Will you cancel transport subsidies or hike a tax? I will give an example from Switzerland where people were asked whether they want to get paid a 1,000-franc citizen’s salary.

Imagine that question put to a room full of people: who wants to get an extra 1,000 francs every month just like that? Everyone would raise their hand. However, the question was phrased like this: would you like to get paid 1,000 francs if it meant higher taxes. 73 percent of people said no.

Whenever anyone comes out with slogans like that, the voter must ask for the other half of the equation.

Promising people €60 seems incredibly cynical to me. It addresses no real issues but looks at pensioners as a uniform mass: let us also promise them something good.

That’s what it is. The elderly are very active voters. It does seem cynical and wrong to me. While it might be popular, it is much more difficult to answer the question honestly. We know we have an ageing population and falling number of working-age people, in other words, people whose taxes are used to finance pensions. It is a truth we must face.

One study showed that 25 percent of people believe that the state will not ensure them a pension on which they can live as they are used to. The rest are counting on the state. While 82 percent of people believe they will work after retirement, only 32 percent really do.

The current government’s policy is doing everything to keep retirement-age people from working. It is not sensible.

What is the greatest achievement of the current government?

(Thinks for half a minute – J. V.) That they are demonstrating what a left-wing government brings. All parties have a mandate from voters, and it is good for democracy when rulers change.

That would have been my next claim: The Reform Party’s exit from the government created much fiercer competition on our party landscape as it brought Center out of isolation which has been beneficial.

I agree it is healthy for democracy. Rulers need to change. Center having the support of 27 percent of people but no chance to execute its policy surely breeds frustration among their supporters.

Your predecessors said the Center Party is not fit to rule. What is your opinion?

I rule out all manner of ruling out. Otherwise we might find ourselves playing alone in a corner.

A few standard questions. Should Rail Baltic and the new pulp mill be constructed?

Rail Baltic is surely needed and shouldn’t be given up. It is very easy to be against something, while it is much more difficult to be in favor of something and develop an idea.

What about the pulp mill?

We should hold a debate, get our facts straight, and discuss potential consequences of decisions. How is it possible to develop anything if everyone is yelling at everyone else before we’ve even discussed the matter? That way nothing gets done, and we will fall behind other countries.

We do not have enough information for a decision as concerns the pulp mill. There are two sides to this. One is about the forests, the other about the mill.

We haven’t even agreed on the facts we’ll use when it comes to the former. One side is talking about A and the other side B when it comes to increment and felling volumes. We could set about solving problems if we could get our facts straight.

As concerns the pulp mill, we should do the studies. A knowledge-based economy would do well to accumulate some knowledge. It is also a chicken or the egg dilemma: it is said we don’t have scientists versed in wood chemistry, and if we don’t have entrepreneurs in that business, we also won’t get the scientists. I don’t know which we should have first.

It is not sensible that a third of the wood we cut is sold out of Estonia as is and gives us no value added.

Locals cannot be steamrolled. Their opinion needs to be heeded, but their positions must be based on arguments and facts.

Should the Reform Party and the Social Democrat Party get more than 50 seats between them at elections, will the implementing provisions of the registered partnership act be passed?

In a situation where we have passed the law, holding back its implementing provisions is wrong. The law has been passed, it is in effect, and the provisions are necessary for people whose job it is to implement the law.

Estonia’s immigration quota is set at a little over 1,300 people. Is that limit sensible?

We need to look at jobs when it comes to immigration. Migration policy must favor positions that create more value added.

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