Jüri Ratas hopes never to become arrogant

Interviews with party leaders. Leader of the Centre Party Jüri Ratas.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Leader of the Center Party Jüri Ratas is playing for keeps: he wants to form the next government and continue as prime minister. Ratas hopes that his family and friends will warn him should he start to exhibit signs of haughtiness.

You have a degree in economics, while the field is considered to be the chink in your armor and that of the Center Party. Why doesn’t your education manifest in politics?

It must be a matter of less than stellar communication.

Estonia’s economic and fiscal policy is very conservative. We have a budget that is in structural balance and sports a nominal surplus. Recent fiscal policy has reduced public debt, and we have been given rather high marks by international organizations. The state needs to be a good partner for businesses. True, enterprise support has been pursued using new methods: for example, we have allowed exceptions to bring major cargo ships back under the Estonian flag.

You also have a law degree, while you never got as far as a doctorate. Why is that?

I passed the public administration courses at the Tallinn University of Technology and wrote three articles. The committee felt I should write one more. I hope it will prove possible for me to take that final step and graduate as an external yet. I do not have any excuses; it’s a matter of getting it done.

To what extent has having worked as a sales representative for insurance company Eesti Kindlustus benefited you in politics?

Quite a lot. It meant talking to clients, keeping them and finding new ones – it provided a brilliant base.

You became prime minister very soon after taking over the Center Party. How prepared were you for the role at the time?

When I ran in opposition to Edgar Savisaar in 2011, I said that the chairman must be prepared to take responsibility as prime minister. The Center Party elected me chairman on November 5, 2016, and I became prime minister on November 23. It was a matter of weeks. I can hardly say I was 100 percent prepared for the office of the prime minister of Estonia at the time. Some things can only be gained through experience of which I surely have more today, along with know-how and skills.

You demonstrated extraordinary patience waiting for your time, standing behind Edgar Savisaar. What kind of emotional suffering did these long years hold for you?

I had opportunities to apply myself as deputy mayor and later as mayor of Tallinn; I worked for nine years as chairman of the Riigikogu. I started voicing my alternative view of the party’s finances, values, judgements in 2010-2011. I decided that to leave is always easier than it is to stay and try to effect change.

Savisaar took away you position as mayor, which leads me to conclude your relationship was not without its tensions. What is it like today?

Almost nonexistent. I wish him the best with his health, but we do not have a professional relationship today.

When did you last meet?

I last saw him at Jüri Pihl’s funeral.

What kind of role did Savisaar play in shaping you?

It cannot be said of any party that it is a one-man show. Hundreds of people were present for the founding of the Center Party many of whom have left this world.

I do not feel indebted to Savisaar. I recognize him for the steps he took in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But a single person cannot shape the face of politics, which is not to say he hasn’t had a profound effect of Center.

Archbishop Urmas Viilma recently oversaw the creation of a Christian’s elections compass that suggests people vote for the Center Party. How did you get him to do that?

To be honest, I don’t know. I did not make his choices for him. However, there are always interest groups who want to see their agenda added to platforms during elections.

One could speculate you bought the church by paying it compensation for occupation damages.

That is not true. St. Nicholas’ Church has been locked in a dispute with the state for 27-28 years. The prime minister and the government are expected to find solutions to such difficult questions – who owns St. Nicholas’ Church. The state and the church do not have to go to court when an extrajudicial solution can be found. It took time, but we found it in the end.

The Center Party’s financial woes are legendary. You recently returned €220,000 of Paavo Pettai’s money from the sale of your building that was classified as an illicit donation. Pettai is suing you for a further €1.2 million. What will happen should the court rule against you?

When I became chairman, I said that shady dealings, uncertainty in financial matters and constant litigation must be consigned to the past. That is what has happened. We are meeting in our new rental office. We sold the property on Toom-Rüütli street. We have been ordered to pay large sums by the court. We accepted the court’s ruling regarding the building in Tartu. We asked the Party Financing Monitoring Committee (ERJK) for an extension which we did not get. The court ruled against us, and we paid the sum.

Where will you get €1.2 million?

It is not right when that sum includes Edgar Savisaar’s book “Truth About Estonia” (Tõde Eestist) – I do not think that paying for the publication of the book is something the Center Party should do.

The claim reads that Midfield has to make a profit of 38 percent on cooperation with the Center Party in 2007-2015 – again, I do not feel that is justified.

The decision is up to the court.

Where will you get that money should you lose?

We are fighting for the right thing. It cannot be the correct sum. But we must honor the decision of the court.

You still haven’t answered my question about where the money will come from?

It will have to come from the party’s bank account. Where else?

Does it have enough?

Of course not, in a situation where we asked for an extension to return €220,000.

So, what will you do?

We would need to ask for the date of payment to be deferred again. But we shouldn’t be haggling over the pelt of a bear that’s still roaming the woods, as the saying goes. I believe there are a lot of baseless claims there.

Let us go back to 2006. You have said that you knew nothing of shady funding practices, but people do not believe you. Why is that?

There were only two or three people who knew about how the party was funded back then. Whether people believe something or not… There are different reactions.

It is not exactly commonplace for the prime minister to knock on people’s doors during the elections campaign. How do you find the time?

I’ve taken time, usually over the weekend, but also on workday evenings. Wanting to meet people face-to-face is in my nature.

When will you terminate the Center Party’s compact with United Russia?

I have said the Center Party does not have that agreement. It is invalid, nothing is being pursued on its basis.

It is still in force officially?

No, it is officially abated.

Has it been terminated?

If I say it has abated, it means the protocol has expired.

Why is it necessary to close the only Estonian high school in Kohtla-Järve?

No high school can be closed in Kohtla-Järve. We have decided that a state high school will be opened there on September 1, 2019. That decision was made in 2014. The education portfolio was held by the current head of SDE (Jevgeni Ossinovski – ed.) at the time. It then moved to the Reform Party (Maris Lauri and Jürgen Ligi – ed.) before landing in Center’s hands (Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps – ed.). I will fight for a 100 percent Estonian high school for those who want it.

Järve High School will not be shut down but will continue as a basic school. It is always the case when a state high school is opened that other high schools in the area will close, provided the local government doesn’t decide otherwise – they usually don’t. The state high school will have students who study in Estonian from Järve High School. It had 16 graduates in 2018 and 13 in 2017. The state high school will have 300 places.

Students who are not capable of studying in Estonian in full will be left with what the basic and high schools act prescribes: 60 percent in Estonian and 40 percent in Russian. It is a transitional period. We need to move toward teaching 100 percent in Estonian, but we are not there yet this fall.

What does the Estonian state want from Russians? Who is a good Russian in the state’s view?

For them (Estonians and Russians – ed.) not to stand in opposite corners of the tram stop. We want all of our 1.3 million people to be our people. Our primary strength can only lie in social coherence. Whether a person speaks Estonian or Russian, they are still interested in having a well-paid job, a respectable pension, school and kindergarten places for their children.

When will we see the day when there will not be a single stateless person in Estonia?

All roughly 70,000 stateless persons will not get Estonian citizenship. Estonia will never start sending people passports in the mail. A zero citizenship options has been suggested, but it was not by the Center Party. What we have said is that people who have been living here since before August 21, 1991 and are loyal to Estonia could be given citizenship in simplified procedure: for example by exempting them from having to take the language exam. But we definitely cannot give citizenship to people who were associated with the KGB in Soviet times for example.

The first thing we need to do is stop issuing children gray passports.

Can you assure us that is the first thing you’ll do if you remain prime minister?

The principle is included in Center’s election program and is definitely in focus. I cannot say whether it will be the very first thing; however, it doesn’t matter whether it will come up Monday morning or Wednesday at noon.

You are suddenly not keen on the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), while you were perfectly happy tooting their horn on Tallinn Television.

The Center Party does not own Tallinn Television. If years ago, someone might have perceived such ties, they surely do not exist today. Tallinn is not run from here, but from the city council and government.

While I’m not an avid viewer of the network, Tallinn Television has seen new shows and hosts who have ties to other parties or are unaffiliated with politics.

There is still a connection between the Center Party and Tallinn TV. You will not be shutting it down as prime minister, but would you do it as mayor?

I do not know of any connection through the party’s office. I believe the network could continue as a good and independent source of information as it has won the hearts of quite a lot of Tallinn citizens.

On the subject of EKRE – I belong to a party that was sidelined for a decade. This principle or tactic is not right.

I cannot cooperate with EKRE’s values, however.

How have you managed to grow such a Teflon skin where nothing sticks?

I do not know anything about Teflon skin. But I think one needs to look for positive aspects and common elements. We are not big enough as a society and a country to be able to afford pointing fingers or throwing around accusations. We need to think together and keep both feet on the ground; we need certainty. The kettle calling the pot black is something we can do without.

To what extent are you prepared for what happened to Taavi Rõivas? PM Rõivas got arrogant, which didn’t sit well with his coalition partners who simply exchanged a few words while out smoking and took him down.

I very much hope Jüri Ratas will not become arrogant. My family and good friends will tell me should there be signs.

Secondly, I do not recommend smoking. It is much better to eat an apple and exercise. But I do understand your question as one of trust. Every prime minister must consider the possibility of not having 51 votes in the Riigikogu, in which case they will likely not be PM for much longer. The prime minister must do everything in their power to maintain the coalition, while they must also have good contacts with the opposition.

That vote of no confidence will come eventually.

Then I will fight it.

How long do you plan to be prime minister? Andrus Ansip was PM for nine years, and it was a hell of a long time.

Juncker was PM of Luxembourg for almost 20 years.

I have no such plan that can be measured in years – that decision will be made by the people of Estonia, and I am working toward Center being the one to form the government after elections.

A person can always step aside and say that the time has come to do something else.

To what extent can you imagine “something else”?

To a fair degree. This is where experience from playing sports pays off: if you fall down, you just have to get up and keep going.

Still, what else are you good at besides being PM?

I suppose it would be work in the private or tertiary sector. I do not have a specific backup plan where I could give you company names. I only have one card – the Republic of Estonia.