Jüri Ratas: Center a liberal party

Jüri Ratas.

PHOTO: Eero Vabamägi

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas is not one to throw in the towel when things are going south but will rather turn the ship around. The prime minister gave the interview in Stenbock House on December 10.

I did not see a single elf on my way up here. Do they not visit Stenbock House?

They’re behind the windows, watching. Good children will not go unrewarded by them.

Santa Claus visits the Riigikogu every Christmas. What about Stenbock House?

Stenbock House is a more modest place. The Riigikogu represents the people, and it is very nice Santa Claus visits them. He has always gotten broad-based feedback. The Santa Claus that visits the Riigikogu is very well versed in life in Estonia and the convictions of parliamentary groups. Stenbock House has its Christmas events, but they are somewhat more modest and less public.

You’re a father of four, and I’m sure elves visit your house. What did they bring today?

I believe they didn’t bring anything this morning. Letters to Santa were on a windowsill. They weren’t there anymore one morning, and now Santa has to think about whether the children deserve presents. The elves usually bring mandarins, and one time they even brought three pieces of candy.

You’ve been prime minister for two years. What have they been like?

They have been stormy, but that storm has not managed to capsize the ship. The ship continues on course. The people of Estonia have made it a diverse time. It included Estonia’s EU presidency, a brilliant and humbling experience. That is definitely one thing the current government will look back on. Also, Republic of Estonia 100 (EV100) centenary events. Major change in society: the government has managed to overturn dogmas. We are no longer talking about the impossibility of incentives for different economic sectors or how taxes are not to be tampered with. The government has treated local governments as partners. We have carried out some major reforms: healthcare, regional policy and administrative reform, pension reform, agriculture and rural life reform, basic exemption hike.

What was your toughest moment this year?

It was when the news broke that a missile had accidentally been fired from a fighter jet. My first question was whether it has exploded, whether anyone has been hurt or killed. If so, then where and why. Thank God everything ended well.

Your second year as prime minister has been strikingly successful. I believe much of it is owed to a lot of hard work. What have you done to become as influential as you are today?

I cannot say who has more influence: a store clerk, handyman, music teacher, policeman or prime minister. One needs to work with heart and dedication. Every person grows in the process. I would take this moment to thank my team in the Government Office for supporting the prime minister and government every day.

My father once told me that a person should not give themselves marks, that others should do it. Meetings need to be prepared for, and it has helped me grow. I’m very grateful and feel responsible in my office.

Whose advice do you take when you do not know what to decide?

Advice is conflicting in most cases. You have to decide yourself in the end. It comes from somewhere inside. Decisions need to be solid and provide society with certainty.

You have been forced to replace a number of ministers inside the past two years. Whose departure has saddened you the most?

I’ve been sad every time. All three coalition partners have lost ministers for different reasons. I will not single anyone out. But newcomers have shown dedication. One does not have free time in my government.

You are the only chairman of a coalition party who is also a member of the government. Helir-Valdor Seeder (Pro Patria) and Jevgeni Ossinovski (Social Democrat Party) prefer to pursue politics without taking executive responsibility. To what extent has it made life harder for you?

It is a challenge: more meetings and more compromises that need to be found. Yes, I do believe that heads of parties should be members of the government. Heads of my coalition partners have chosen a different path today. That is their right. I have tried to maintain a trustworthy atmosphere and succeeded. While we did experience a government crisis recently, Center’s partners were also interested in moving forward together.

How do you get along with your ministers? Are any of them your friends?

A person perhaps has between two and four very close friends in their life. There are people in the government today whom I can call friends in the deepest meaning of the word. The climate is good, and all 15 ministers feel responsible.

You just solved a government crisis most analysts believed to be unsolvable. How did you do it?

Teamwork can never be done alone or by acting alone. You need to see the entire field. Finding that solution was the common effort of every minister, the government and party chairman. It has been teamwork.

I’ve learned teamwork at the European Council that is made up of representatives of 28 countries and where common elements must always be found. I have learned how to find that balance, and that is what I am looking for also in Estonia.

Your image is that of a balancer, conciliator, someone looking for common ground. But you are also human. How often do you feel you’re all out, want to throw in the towel?

One has to resign when that moment comes. I have never felt like throwing in the towel when things have started to go south in those two years. I have always felt the urge to turn the ship around instead. Sport and politics are alike in terms of getting results. That fact has lent me strength. I’ve never felt I don’t want to go to work. And if a meeting has lasted for hours without an agreement in sight, the important thing to remember is that you need to build a bridge at the end of the day. Politics is not a one-man or one-woman show. You always need to consider broader interests and they are those of Estonia.

People who do not share your views have gotten used to a Center-led government, and it is said increasingly often that the Reform Party will have a hard time thwarting you winning the March elections. What are the Reform Party and Kaja Kallas doing wrong?

To believe the recent (one before – V. K.) Postimees-commissioned poll, support for the Reform Party stands at 29 percent and that for Center at 25 percent. They have the lead. We need to work harder. I’m working on Center becoming better at explaining its points and more importantly at listening. Every minute I’ve spent as prime minister, I have tried to be the prime minister of every resident, village, city and rural municipality. One cannot be a prime minister of a single party or county.

I see you are reluctant to speak ill of the Reform Party and Kaja Kallas, even though she is not holding back. Still, do you have a recommendation or wish for your biggest competitor?

I wish Kaja Kallas and the Reform Party good luck. We come from our childhood. And in our culture, it is not customary to tell your neighbors how to live. We need to keep our own house in order. It is up to the Reform Party how they want to act. My role is first and foremost to maintain peace and balance in society, unite different camps. Winning the elections does not have to be a goal in itself. The goal should be a coherent and strong society where no one would feel left out. That is my role.

The Center Party has changed a great deal under your stewardship. How to very briefly sum up Center’s worldview today?

Definitely liberal – respectful toward people and their freedoms. One where the state is a partner for enterprise to ensure sustainable economic development, involving, mindful of society.

You are encroaching on Reform’s turf: they have always thought of themselves as liberals. Not only that: you have listed state companies, promise a social tax ceiling, whereas the first pillar of pension was recently reshaped rather in line with Reform’s convictions. To what extent does all that include knowingly addressing as wide an audience as possible?

To Reform Party supporters, I say that we support the liberal worldview and they are always welcome to support the Center Party. I’m glad Port of Tallinn is a listed company and people can buy its shares. The next thing we are working on is [Eesti Energia subsidiary] Enefit Green.

Why is it that other parties have not managed to reach the Russian voter?

Perhaps fear has been the reason, or perhaps they have not sought or been capable of dialogue with them. I said back in 2016 that the problem of gray passports needs to be solved, while newspapers are writing about it in their editorials today. The European Union has also said it is a problem. The Center Party has never been one for overnight solutions: switching everything to Estonian overnight. But we have introduced language tuition in many kindergartens.

You are 40. An age referred to by the Ancient Greeks as acme – mature age, the full bloom of life. Andrus Ansip lasted nine years as prime minister. How long do you believe you will be prime minister, and to what extent can you imagine not being prime minister anymore?

The second half of your questions is easier to answer. The day when I will find it possible to look for new challenges is one where Estonia has further reinforced its position on the international arena. In connection with the EU and NATO. It is when we will not give a single baby born in Estonia a gray passport. It will take years.

Center will take to the elections with the promise of “A Fair Country for Everyone”. I’m sure you realize that what seems fair to one seems unfair to everyone else. Why promise the impossible?

It is a goal worth pursuing. To me, that slogan says we only have one Estonia. And we need to work hard for it.

Political debate in Estonia recently took to the streets and a turn for the physical. What kind of a message does that send?

A bad one. It marks a line we should never have crossed. It has to make us, politicians, think and consider our statements nine times before we make them. Every word weighs a ton and is framed by half-truths, fake news and populism. It needs to be fought.

You have all but said that Center will not form a coalition with the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) under your leadership. Let us say you will win the elections, but they will also do well – you will not invite them to form a coalition?

Yes, a party that promises to send heads rolling is no joke. Taking off someone’s head usually ends their life. This is not acceptable. It is also not acceptable when they say that people who speak Russian as their first language must fill out special forms before they can be hired. It has come to racism, and these are poor developments.

I am a member of a party other political forces spent a decade ruling out. The general principle should be that you mustn’t exclude anyone the people have elected to the Riigikogu. But there are lines I cannot cross. If EKRE wants to return to this side of those lines, things could be different. But they haven’t given any such indication.

How often have you seen politicians lie on purpose?

I cannot give a single such example. There were a lot of half-truths and fake news revolving around the migration compact. While it would not be right to point fingers at individual politicians, people in our profession need to consider they are responsible and act as beacons. A politician needs to consider that while what they say today might bring them success, tomorrow will always come. One has to be accountable for one’s utterances.

What is your opinion of journalism in Estonia?

It is the fourth power. The press is doing quality work. The first wave of hysteria and lies revolving around the UN migration pact was calmed down by the press providing a realistic picture. We need to give more and more thought to strategic communication.

The Estonian economy is doing very well at the moment, while that might not be the case tomorrow. What are the government’s plans for a major economic crisis?

The last crisis took place a decade ago. Estonia and the EU are much better prepared for a crisis today than they were back then. Estonia really is doing well today. We have a businessman who closes a successful deal and tells his employees he does not care whether they are executives or on cleaning detail – they are grateful. And pays everyone a hefty bonus. I believe that was a great change. Enterprise is what grows the economy.

The economy grew by 4.2 percent in the third quarter. Yes, we need to be prepared for tougher times. Forecasts for the next two years put growth at 3-3.5 percent, depending on whose they are. Internationalism is important – startups – while we must make sure not to neglect manufacturing.

You already pointed to one of this year’s major exits (the sale of Utilitas by Kristjan Rahu – V. K.). Such sales suggest that big money wants to come here, while there are people who regret Estonian businessmen selling their companies. What is your view?

It is always possible to emotionally talk about Estonian capital, women and men, and I do subscribe to that. But if an Estonian owner sees that they can give Estonians more value by selling, then that is the right thing to do.

There are certain tensions between USA and the EU, while both are important allies for us. Based on what does the Estonian government proceed in a situation where those tensions manifest?

It is always interesting when you have to choose between two sides of a coin. But sometimes it is possible to choose the entire coin. Our partnership with the United States is and will remain a strategic cornerstone of Europe. European leaders will do everything they can do keep NATO strong. Estonia’s contribution to European unity is still important. Brexit is not a good thing, and I believe neither side is feeling satisfied today. But we must accept the Brits’ decision.

The European Court of Justice decided that the Brits can back out of their decision. Would that be conceivable?

I hope that door will remain open. The dream of there being no Brexit endures. It is very likely that we will have a divorce, either with or without a deal. The important thing is to be able to maintain the relationship between the EU and the UK. Personally, I hope the remain door will open – but perhaps that dream is too big.

My younger daughter asked me to ask you what are you doing to avoid a climate catastrophe?

That is a very good question. We are trying to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees. When I go shopping, I take a textile bag with me instead of buying a new plastic one each time. Secondly, I try to make do with as few items of clothing and other things as possible. Thirdly, we often go to the countryside where we compost. We always recycle our trash at home.

People say you have incredible ability to work. How do you rest?

I’m not very original: family, friends, sauna, sports.

How long do you have to spend with your kids during an average workday?

Not nearly as much as I would like, but considering the line of work I’m in, that is how it is, and complaining cannot make it better. I enjoy the Sunday evenings when we can be together. We go biking in the woods or take the dog for a walk together. We visit different cultural events in summer.

What kind of a father are you?

Rather demanding, I’m sure. I tend to say it when I don’t like something, which is why I must debate a great many things with my children. If you have more than one child, you need to commend all of them. I support their aspirations as a parent, but organizing family life is much more on the shoulders of my wife today.

How many times a day do you hug your wife?

Twice: when I go out in the morning and when I come back at night. There aren’t really any opportunities in between.

How do you handle situations where you’ve hurt someone?

I don’t like fights. When something goes wrong, I try to fix it as soon as possible and move on. I apologize.

The mask of prime minister sometimes slips off your face to reveal your jolly side – for example, when Kadri Simson is in the middle of an important speech. What makes you laugh, puts you in a good mood?

Good company. I also like situations where I can offer my team or friends something unexpected. Good humor is always part of it. When I used to chair Riigikogu sittings, I always thought it’s like driving a car. The driver can feel it if the car is about to go off the road. It was the same on the floor: you sometimes had to crack a joke or call people to order to get things rolling. That is also how it is in the government.

Can you think of a moment from your childhood that changed your life?

My grandmother has influenced me a great deal. Beautiful places in Estonia, islands and islets are important to me. When I was with my mother when she was doing fieldwork on an islet somewhere, we always had to plan everything in advance, so we would have everything we need while being cut off from the world.

I imagine you do not have much time for reading books. What book are you currently in the middle of?

And now for the most boring answer of them all. Memorandums. Different summaries to prepare for meetings. That is the honest answer. Every meeting or event is a new challenge, and should I slip up, it will not be as Jüri Ratas, it will be in the name of Estonia – and we cannot afford that.

Which Estonian writer has influenced you the most?

Definitely Oskar Luts. It might have been Tammsaare for a time.

Favorite musician?

I’m a big fan of country music. My friends know that I always go for a song by Kukerpillid if I have a choice. Lately, I often listen to Genka.

Let us sum up. What is the most important thing in the world, the thing people live for?

Being aware. Don't do unto others what you don't want done unto you.

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