We don’t know what flowers will bloom from seeds planted this year
Excerpts from an interview with President Kersti Kaljulaid

Interview with President Kersti Kaljulaid.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Abrupt changes of the past 30 years have left a part of society feeling dissatisfied. The latter is justified as politicians have not always understood the pain their decisions can cause in different parts of society. “Real concerns of people are one thing, while politicians’ desire to take advantage of them is another. Not alleviate them, mind you,” President Kersti Kaljulaid says.

You sometimes express your stance without speaking. Whether it’s words printed on an item of clothing or by getting up and walking out of the hall of the Riigikogu. Why is the interview taking place on that very hall’s press balcony today?

I have been asked questions today answers of which need to come from this hall. Perhaps it is good to be here so that this would always be remembered. In a parliamentary country, the Riigikogu is the one body that cannot say nothing can be done. They are the ones who can always do something: protect their own dignity and human rights and those of the state and its citizens. To ensure that our freedoms are safe and debates look to the future.

Do you believe the Riigikogu is buckling under this responsibility?

The fact we’re sitting here today is to remind every MP of their responsibility in the Riigikogu. A member of parliament is free in their mandate. That is the law. That freedom ensures the aforementioned value that the Riigikogu really is all-powerful in Estonia.

While an MP is free in their mandate, we very rarely see them voting differently than their party’s mainstream.

I believe it is only natural in a situation where people have come together in parties based on their views and form groups in the Riigikogu. But talking about situations where the Estonian state and its future, human rights and people’s freedoms are at stake, it becomes a matter of conscience.

The Riigikogu has been busy reversing major reforms recently. Whether we’re talking about the mandatory funded pension reform, pharmacy reform or lowering the duty on diesel on the backdrop of climate change and carbon neutrality. Are we moving in the right direction?

I can have very different opinions as a citizen, while they are closer to different political currents at different times. But it doesn’t matter. The president of the republic is meant to make sure our legislative activity does not go beyond the confines of the Constitution and that is all I have to say about domestic policy choices.

How concerned are you that the second pillar of pension reform might not stay within those confines?

Many have found it to infringe on the Constitution. I have consulted former Supreme Court chief justices and former justice chancellor Indrek Teder. These discussions largely coincide with what different law firms have said in the media. However, we do not know whether this infringement is serious enough today.

When preparing for this interview, I wanted to ask you about the last time you got angry. The question seems moot now. Am I mistaken to suggest it might have been yesterday evening or this morning ([EKRE Minister of the Interior] Mart Helme insulted the Finnish PM the day before the interview – ed.)?

I was not angry. I was shocked and sad. That is a more appropriate description of what I felt. I asked the PM whether he had considered replacing the interior minister.

What did he tell you?

That he did not deem it necessary.

I believe one of the things you most regret from this year is what happened in April. You summoned Mart Helme and even though you could have refused to appoint him, you decided to do it.

In truth, the Constitution is unclear on whether I had that power. Most of our legal experts see the president’s role as that of a state notary so to speak. Had it been clear the government might be a threat to constitutional order at the time, we could have considered it. But even then, the legality of the decision would have been questionable. It was important for me to honor the Constitution and its spirit.

Do you feel the government is a threat to constitutional order seven months on?

Yes, in that they are calling into question section 12: that everyone is equal. I also believe it is a threat to national security. Thinking back only to the past month, the interior minister has meddled in foreign policy twice and set about shaping it. All of it affects our security network. The survival of a small country largely depends on how many partners and allies we have and how they see us: whether they perceive us as similar or different.

How embarrassed are you for having had to apologize for the government so many times?

It is my duty. In a situation where a lot of people feel things are wrong, someone must say it out loud. It has value. We must not get used to it. If you are embarrassed all the time and finally start avoiding reading the paper, you become estranged from politics. We don’t want that. In a situation where our institutions are under relentless attack, the possibility for having a constructive debate over their development and future becomes impossible. The field of civilized debate gets narrower. It saddens.

This brings us to anger in Estonian society that I believe has taken on epidemic proportions. When a prosecutor is told: “A thousand cancers upon you, may your life be endless misery and misfortune.” When a Valga child protection official is told: “I will kick in your head and may cancer take you.” Or how [opposition leader] Kaja Kallas is threatened with rape by a gang sporting a prison mentality. What is it a sign of?

It is likely that social media created the opportunity of appealing to those who are not happy with how society has developed over the past decades for one reason or another. There will always be dissatisfied people and their unhappiness might very well be for good reason. Thinking about Estonia, we have seen rapid economic growth for 30 years, but it has also meant the restructuring of our economy, urbanization. Education has become a more important salary component.

This is major and abrupt change. And we cannot say we have always seen the people in this hall understand the pain their decisions might cause elsewhere in society.

This anger and abuse are symptoms of justified dissatisfaction?

We must be clear in that people who are unhappy have a right to be unhappy. Only then can we talk about those who take advantage of that dissatisfaction instead of trying to alleviate it. I do not believe Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) voters really believe that gynecologists are murderers or that farmers are destroying agriculture by paying Ukrainians slave wages or that our non-Estonian-speakers are convenience cockroaches. I do not think that.

I believe these things needs to be treated separately. Real concerns of people in this life are one thing, while the desire of politicians to take advantage of them is another. Not to alleviate them, mind you once again. If you feed on this misery, you don’t want it to disappear. If you do what Martin Helme said in London you should do without solving anything, you must always be more colorful, louder and uglier as you go along lest people get used to it. This is taking us in a direction where I believe none of us wants to go.

If a party publicly says that their aim is to control the narrative by way of provocation, escalation and improvisation, telling a different story should be the cure. What should that alternate story be?

Ignoring it is one good option, but journalists and other politicians cannot afford to ignore certain provocations. This is rendering our opinion culture less civilized. It would be best if we all asked ourselves where we want to end up if the goal is to escalate things. What risks does it entail? We can see that losing friends abroad is something we’re already willing to risk. We cannot get used to it and become numb. We mustn’t stand for it.

It has not been an easy year for Estonia’s officialdom. Let us recall the incidents of Elmar Vaher, Lavly Perling and [PRIA head] Jaan Kallas, also Illar Lemetti and Kaur Kajak. A top-ranking public servant told me that officials are depressed and might start resigning out of principle. I’m sure the private sector would welcome them with open arms. How to convince them to stay on, motivate new people?

It is complicated. Politicians have told me in private that officials must have a backbone and the strength to protect their people. I hope there will be more people willing to speak up next year. I am very grateful to our professional officials. Of course, they also make mistakes, but we are not given the chance for a sensible discussion concerning their decisions. It is a problem.

As you said, their current position is not the end of the road for them. It would be easy for them to go work somewhere else. That is why I’m certain they will find the will to do the right thing. We have seen them do it. They have turned to the state secretary, talked to law enforcement when necessary. Looking at individual cases, we see that prosecutors general change and cooperation with secretaries general is not always successful. But it betrays a pattern. We all understand that it takes on a much sadder tone in echo chambers.

You hope people will be bolder talking about it next year. Illar Lemetti talked – both to the prosecution and the press. He was fired. Minister [of Education] Mailis Reps says officials would do well to pipe down. Whistleblower Keegan McBride did everything he could to draw attention to problems at TalTech and is now living in fear of being fired. Our society does not encourage speaking out. It still stands for snitching, as it did in Soviet times.

Several incidents have shown how we have liked to think of ourselves as a country like any other, like our partners and allies. But perhaps we have failed to discuss some important things? The question is how to do that while sitting in trenches. I would also like a calm debate over whether or not I have to send an email to a newspaper to prove my officials have conducted themselves properly. But I cannot, because the situation today is that we need to defend those trying to maintain and develop rule of law at all cost. Development when talking about whistleblowers. How to treat them so their rights would be protected? What are the rights of an official when they decide to turn to the Prosecutor’s Office?

Who is responsible for answering those questions?

We are sitting in their hall today.

Postimees published a series of articles in early fall on Chinese influence and interests in the Baltics. What I was surprised to discover was how little attention we are paying to China.

Yes, it narrows our security policy discussion. We are used to thinking of global risks in terms of our regional one. And this has been true for Europe in general, which is why we have been able to count on friendly powers to manage our regional risks. The picture has changed by today. Russia has violated international treaties and forcefully redrawn the borders of neighboring countries in the past decade. China is doing nothing of the sort. China has used its economic influence that has begun to negatively impact economic development of countries where that influence becomes very strong – results in a glass ceiling. Locals are left with the restaurant business and repair shops as major business decisions are made elsewhere.

How to prepare for a situation where the world’s largest political and economic power no longer shares our values but is a regime built on human rights violations?

I believe that looking at our values is most important when trying to answer difficult questions like this one. Values must come before economic interests. That said, it is possible to pursue economic cooperation by having a framework for how to protect our values. It needs to be attempted. Being left aside is not beneficial in any situation.

Chinese technology and innovation are developing rapidly. Speaking at a security conference this year, you also mentioned the risk of the free world falling behind China.

I don’t know whether you’ve given any thought to the fact China’s AI can learn faster because it has access to data ours doesn’t. Instead of just criticizing what is happening in China, we should think about how our AI could learn better – in a way the rights of our people would be safe. We do not want to fall behind technologically by throwing around bans and limitations. We need to discuss whether we need to have detailed descriptions of every path to data security on the level of legislation in the conditions of today’s very short technological cycle and very long legal one. We are much more flexible in the world of paper. We have told doctors to keep patients’ data safe. But we have not given them blueprints for safes and file cabinets.

It would also be sensible to agree on requirements in the world of AI and digital data. First of all, we need to agree on whether the state is the only one with access to data. Or whether we can depersonalize big data and allow private companies to mine it. Let us think about using traffic data for better traffic control. It is a debate we need to have so as not to fall behind China.

I’m not saying the Chinese are right when it comes to these things. God no. But we need to understand these differences and make sure the free world does not fall behind in technological development.

Would you be willing to accept an automatic face recognition system in the streets of Tallinn?

Yes, if I know who collects the information and the rules for its use and destruction. Provided I do, and provided the state has the capacity to monitor it, then sure.

President Kaljulaid, was 2019 a good year for Estonia or a failed one?

It was good in many ways. Estonia has gotten 63,000 e-residents in five years who are paying far more in the way of taxes than we are spending on the program. Our economy has done well in other sectors. Entrepreneurs have understood the time has come to place stock also in GRDP, not just GDP. We can see businesses opening factories in cheaper locations. We are copying what the Scandinavians did in 1994-1995.

We got a seat at the UN Security Council that shows Estonia contributes to security. It was a good year for Europe because European Parliament elections saw a greater turnout than previously. As a result, we have a European Commission that dares make important decisions. There has been a lot that’s positive.

At the same time, there are worrying prospects. Less than beautiful seeds have been sown this year and we do not know the flowers they will bloom. There are signs of danger. But people are still good for the most part!

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