«If you do not agree with me, you are a traitor»

Jevgeni Ossinovski.

PHOTO: Dmitri Kotjuh / Järva Teataja

Leader of the Social Democrat Party (SDE) Yevgeni Ossinovski finds that political debate has become aggressive in recent years and Estonia has not found a way to deal with it as a society.

Toward the end of last year, you suggested PM Jüri Ratas remove Urmas Reinsalu from the post of justice minister. Ratas refused, and it was believed this would cause the social democrats to leave the government. Instead, you took back much of what you had said. Why was that?

The coalition discussed how to remedy the situation where Pro Patria was about to make an about-turn in Estonia’s foreign policy heading. We managed to find a solution and stay the course. We did not want to dismantle the government.

You lost a minister during the migration crisis: Andres Anvelt resigned as interior minister, whereas the public still doesn’t know the real reason for that decision. Do you?

Anvelt said he had been seeing doctors for two days straight and has a health problem. The latter was widely known.

There have been hints suggesting there was a different reason. Any comment on those?

There was some speculation in Eesti Ekspress concerning strange ties – I don’t know anything about it. I have no reason to doubt Andres.

You have not engaged representatives of conservative worldview recently, nor made the scene very often in general. Why?

We have fundamental differences of opinion with certain political forces as concerns developing Estonia as a nation state. We believe it should be done in the form of liberal democracy – without shutting doors and windows to the outside world. There are political forces that believe the latter is exactly what the doctor ordered and that problems will pass us by if we simply close our eyes and ears to them. In a situation where freedoms and people some politicians deem unfit or less valuable are under attack, the social democrats will stand up for equal and dignified treatment of everyone. When those problems are not as acute, we do not go looking for ways to highlight them.

Perhaps you’ve learned, after local elections, that contrasting yourselves to the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) does not pay?

We have never done that. We are not against EKRE, we are pro freedom. We are in favor of values characteristic of Estonia’s liberal democratic society. When these values come under attack, which does happen every once in a while, we are prepared to defend them.

Why has defense of the Estonian language and culture and relevant discussion in general remained a mainstay of conservative parties?

It is not really the case. All parties are thinking about how to take Estonia forward as a nation state. The question is how, and this is where we have political differences. Some are seeking an inner cleansing, which I find to be insensible – in truth, I perceive serious danger to democracy and in terms of restricting freedoms.

It seems that values in general have become a topic of conservative parties. Why aren’t liberal values prominent?

Estonia has hundreds of thousands of people for whom democracy and freedom are the ultimate value. The vast majority wants to continue peacefully building their country, without violence, verbal abuse, threats. The question of whose political positions are better represented is a different matter. The media is drawn to sharper, more brutal positions, while that does not mean everyone wants to send heads of judges rolling.

Political debate has become a lot more aggressive. If you do not agree with me, it immediately makes you a traitor – this does not only concern politicians, but also journalists and ordinary people who support a certain worldview. Public debate has become radical in recent years, and we have not found a way to deal with it as a society.

You really dropped the ball with alcohol excise duties. Why couldn’t you just let them be?

A comprehensive alcohol policy is something that needs to be pursued, and something we have pursued. As concerns the duties, the state miscalculated in terms of the potential of cross-border trade. Professor Enn Kasak loved to use a Southern Estonian proverb: “Had I known I would fall there, I would have laid down some straw.” So, if you ask me in hindsight whether we should have hiked the duties more gradually, then – yes, of course. The finance ministry’s forecasts turned out to be mistaken; we have admitted as much and canceled future hikes – we will wait for the Latvians to hike their duties.

You left the government to concentrate on running the party. Your rating isn’t good: 7 percent according to one major poll and 10 percent according to another. Why so low?

These elections are exceptional in more ways than one. First of all, we are seeing small parties aiming for the Riigikogu. It is likely the Free Party will be left out of the next parliament. We can add to that distortion of the political landscape due to the rise of right-wing radicals. Polls have reflected a lot of changes in the last year. It was more or less clear what the parliament would look like on the eve of elections in January of 2015. Today, it is rather difficult to forecast results.

If you do not make it to the next government, what then?

Our aim is to be included in the next coalition.

You are prepared to wrangle with Pro Patria and Reinsalu also in the future?

It has been difficult, but it’s possible. We have shared a government with the Reform Party, Reform Party and IRL, Center and IRL. I look at politics through windows it can open: certain governments allow for certain things and not others. While the next government might allow you to pursue the latter but close some other doors.

In what does your Facebook alias Eugenius Tremula differ from online trolling?

My personal Facebook account is not open to the public. I do not pursue politics there. For that, I use my public profile under Yevgeni Ossinovski. Just as my cell phone number is not public knowledge, neither is my personal Facebook account, which does not make it a shadow account. Just like my phone number is not a shadow number.

Why doesn’t that account bear your real name?

So people would understand that they can talk to me as a politician by visiting the page of Yevgeni Ossinovski. So as not to get five thousand friend requests and personal messages I wouldn’t have time to answer. It (Eugenius Tremula – V. K.) is the account I use to talk to friends and loved ones, but mostly friends abroad.

Why couldn’t it bear your name?

Why couldn’t my cell phone number be public?

That is a different matter.

It is the exact same question. Why couldn’t it be public. Of course it could!

That is demagogy. These are different things.

They are not. I am under no obligation to open all my channels of communication to the public. It is not a fake account used to play politics.