Interview The crisis brought out what was already there

Aimar Altosaar
, toimetaja
President Kersti Kaljulaid believes the crisis did not create new trends but accentuated existing ones.
President Kersti Kaljulaid believes the crisis did not create new trends but accentuated existing ones. Photo: Sander Ilvest

The emergency situation in Estonia lasted for 66 days. We are breathing air increasingly free of restrictions for the third week. President Kersti Kaljulaid (50) takes a look back at what has been an extraordinary time at work. She believes the crisis did not create new trends but accentuated existing ones.

How have the Estonian people handled the crisis?


I have been teaching social education classes weekly and treated the crisis as an example of how society is the sum of everyone’s actions. It seldom happens that we learn the sum of all of our actions in just two weeks. Just because the emergency situation has ended does not mean this is no longer true.

People would do well to sit apart at concerts and avoid crowding in front of the stage. Luckily, there is enough room in Estonia, which has worked to our advantage in this crisis, compared to Central Europe where high population density restricted people’s movement even more.

How has the crisis affected your life? Have you had time to spend with your family?

We have tried to do the things people do.

As concerns work, I spoke to 31 heads of state and international organizations during those eight emergency situation weeks. I have maintained international contacts. True, it has taken up less of my time as flying is no longer required. However, these meetings and discussions have not necessarily been less meaningful. Staying in touch has helped us maintain our international network.

We have also tried to have a county visit every week. I have been teaching social education classes for high school students over the internet. I must admit that getting the conversation going can be difficult when you’re forced to talk to people through a keyhole so to speak.

Nevertheless, it has largely been business as usual here.

Has something been canceled because of the crisis?

Indeed. We had planned a series of discussions in Germany. Several presidents were coming. The topic is the European Union and approach to our eastern neighbor. This Germany visit will be one of my first out of the crisis. It has been postponed for now.

Most things got done, including things tied to the UN even though we initially feared such a massive organization would have a hard time adjusting. But just as the EU Council managed to adjust and move things to the internet quickly, so did the UN and the Security Council.

Estonia plays an extraordinary role in the world today. An elected member of the UN Security Council and its presidency. How have we managed?

Estonia will be the presidency again next year. It is amazing what our diplomats are doing there. The two-year campaign has seen our international reputation soar. No one knows where Estonia is exactly, but they know it’s online.

Could we say our digital success story has been a bonus in the crisis?

Yes, definitely. Our digital story became much more comprehensible elsewhere in the world.

We could seriously consider marrying at least two success stories. One is our education system that is internationally well-known thanks to our students’ strong results in PISA tests and the other is Estonia’s digital journey.

What’s left is to finally create a global Estonian school where all elementary, basic and high school materials would be made available over the internet to finally give teaching online support and allow students to make choices based on their aptitude.

It could also help in the following scenario. Imagine a situation where the island of Hiiumaa finds itself without a physics teacher. A teacher in Tallinn could easily teach students in Hiiumaa. Distance learning. They could show up for consultations from time-to-time. While the students could have a mentor on location, similarly to universities. We could make school more versatile and interesting, as well as more egalitarian. It would help schools in the periphery to retain their standard of education when good teachers retire.

It is a great value of our education system that children from whichever school and social background can attend the University of Tartu or the Tallinn University of Technology that are among the best universities in the world if they are willing to put in the work. It does not depend on the social status of their parents. There is nothing of the sort in Germany, France or the United Kingdom. It is our greatest national treasure.

I very much hope we can find a bright-eyed enthusiast to make the global Estonian school project happen!

What else could we take away from this crisis, in terms of the economy, for example?

We do not yet know what it has left us with where the economy is concerned. However, to talk about crisis regulation, companies seem to be reorganizing themselves to fit regulations as the latter are universal and untargeted. Such as the Unemployment Insurance Fund’s salary benefit for companies that manage to demonstrate a 30 percent loss of turnover. And these signals are coming from within the sector.

It also remains unclear how KredEx plans to support companies. We have seen additional conditions KredEx usually does not require. It is even harder to qualify than under normal circumstances. It’s quite incomprehensible

There is also confusion regarding our exit from the crisis. The government did a good job suppressing the spread of the virus, while what will come next remains somewhat confusing. If only the 2+2 rule – is it mandatory or not? If we can see people ignoring the requirement, does it make sense to keep emphasizing it? Perhaps we should instead appeal to common sense and just tell people to keep their distance where possible. Also, recommend wearing a mask where a lot of people gather close together.

You said the government did well during the crucial moments of the crisis.

Specifically, as concerns the spread of the virus. I do not believe they did well in terms of other measures. Like I said, I have plenty of questions regarding economic measures. The government also took steps it shouldn’t have.

Nonparty information technology and foreign trade minister Kaimar Karu was replaced in the middle of the emergency situation. Crisis measures targeting foreign labor became a harsh reality for many companies. Do you believe the government has pursued party politics under the guise of the coronavirus crisis?

We cannot hold it against the government that its reactions are based on its worldview, including when there is a crisis. It happens naturally.

That is why people need to look at the worldview and not just financial promises of parties and politicians before they cast their vote. I believe we have learned that lesson now. But it makes no sense to hold practicing their worldview against parties.

That said, there was an economic sector that was largely spared the negative effects of the crisis – the food sector. Persecuting the latter through foreign labor restrictions is creating undue stress. Parties can pursue their own policy and it is the right of the Riigikogu, but what is the plan for compensating for the situation this creates? Please tell us! If you allow workers to leave the country but hold back incoming labor – it’s not even an equation but a simple operation that equals a smaller economy.

What is your opinion of the work of the Riigikogu during the crisis when they voluntarily minimized their role? What about the quality of legislation passed during the crisis?

A crisis does not create new trends but rather accentuates existing ones. I have asked the Riigikogu to address the future every autumn. It seems that our policy, that needs to be the prerogative of the Riigikogu in a parliamentary country, is reactive. Something happens in the world and we react to it.

We have not seen a discussion regarding the supplementary state budget and bailouts. We know that the first billion was simply soaked up. No debate is needed in terms of where to spend that money – it will be used to restore depleted reserves. Had the government spent in line with its own fiscal balance principles, the loan would not have to be this great today. The Bank of Estonia has more accurate data. We would have had more reserves and the hole in the budget would have been considerably smaller.

All other countries are talking about meeting green goals while supporting their economies. The Nordics have set themselves the goal of becoming a market-based green energy exporting region with the help of private sector reserves. Wind is the new oil shale. It also applies to us. The analysis of the Stockholm Environmental Institute confirms this.

What are we doing? Are we seeing close cooperation for Estonia to be included in the Nordic offshore wind farm network? [Head of power transmission network operator Elering] Taavi Veskimägi is the only one pursuing Estonia joining the Central European grid that is a brilliant plan started by Jüri Ratas’ previous government and the previous European Commission. However, we will become passively climate neutral if we join the Green Deal but fail to do anything ourselves!

That is the Riigikogu’s role – to bring Estonia to the future.

And it showed when the Emergency Act was amended.

What did the Emergency Act do – it gave extensive crisis powers to any minister and official. A lot of it is unwillingness to take political responsibility. The trend was there before, but it manifested especially clearly in the crisis.

That is why I am sad. Our constitution is very effective at protecting us from politicians getting too much in the way of power – we have a very good balance of powers. President, Riigikogu and the government – no one institution can achieve too much without the others.

Just like the habit of putting so-called cluster bills to the parliament also existed before the crisis?

I would be not be as critical here. If they really help regulate the crisis – agreed! But they included elements that had nothing to do with crisis regulation. It is the role of the Riigikogu to remove such items from bills.

You have refused to proclaim laws you’ve found unconstitutional. Has the government moved away from the spirit of the constitution?

I would not want to believe that. But if the constitution assigns the parliament a vital role and it refuses to accept that role, somebody somewhere will. Considering this was the first emergency situation since Estonia regained its independence, decisions had to be made. I asked the parliament to make sure bills would be fit for use in future emergency situations and emergencies as we might see more. In terms of which parts of bills could be consigned to the trash heap of history. That is for me classic parliamentary work. The justice chancellor and the National Audit Office can help.

It seems that the Supreme Court has been involved in legislative drafting to a greater degree. Some ministers have said the Supreme Court should have a greater role.

I tend to agree. If there are doubts and a lot of arguments from both sides, perhaps it is sensible to go through all the motions to achieve clarity in the Supreme Court. It was the case regarding giving the defense forces additional surveillance rights and it is the case as concerns pensions. I believe it is sensible for the Supreme Court to provide legal clarity.

Should political parties financing supervision continue in a broad-based committee or should it be given to the National Audit Office?

It is removed from the audit office’s classic function and could even get in the way of its performance if the institution is given such politically sensitive tasks. It is believed proposals to amend will be made to the bill.

For me, the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) has a value in itself. It is self-regulation. It is an expression of political forces’ interest in the debate over right and wrong. There has been no criticism for the committee. On the contrary – this relatively amateurish body has managed to make decisions that have all held up in court! There are so many things we should be doing, while fixing something that isn’t broken is not necessary.

Debates initiated by the government have often become agitated and confrontational – could they lead to a split in society? Could they go so far as to be irreparable?

I believe diplomatic behavior has its function. Common courtesy is always useful in terms of agreeing on something that needs to be done. Secondly, using very abrupt and verbally abusive terms might affect society’s general mental condition. If it is acceptable to be rigid and pound your fist on the table on the level of state administration, it might become tolerated at home. I doubt the merits of such a style. Perhaps it is my problem for attaching too much value to diplomacy and a pleasant style of communication.

You came to the Riigikogu wearing a jumper that said “speech is free” a year ago. It looks like we must remember that people are also free to decide whether they want that speech to include kind words.

We do. And one needs to take responsibility for one’s words.

Freedom of speech has often been interpreted as the right to speak ill.

We were in a situation where a party that spoke ill of the press was about to come to power. The number of parties that have spoken ill of their competitors has grown in the meantime. Back then, it was that party’s ascent that made journalists ask whether we would have censorship or self-censorship. No one likes to be regularly railed against. My message was aimed at supporting freedom of the press.

Finnish information warfare expert Saara Jantunen was written: “Independent and lively domestic media environment is a layer of protection for a democratic society, information protection. Subscribing to a newspaper has become a patriotic act.” Can our media environment make sure speech is free?

What could the state do for speech to be truly free and reach every corner of Estonia? I have always felt that instead of publishing a rural municipality paper that often includes advertising, local governments could add their pages to the local newspaper. I have argued with many local municipality mayors on this subject. I will not change where I stand! I believe the media should be strong both at the center and in the periphery. Next comes the crucial role of the public broadcaster that has proved itself in the crisis. People need to know where they can get trustworthy information in a crisis. We know that Russian-speaking viewers especially have found their way to ETV+. This kind of a makeup – nationwide and local private media next to a public broadcasting organization – has served us well.

Is the European Union more united or has something come loose in the crisis? The confusion on the Polish border during the start of the crisis made us feel abandoned.

This matter was blown out of proportion also because of what the government said. I quickly learned that nothing would be happening on the border and that we should send a ship after speaking to my Polish colleague.

I believe we have learned two things. Firstly, that we will never make do again in Europe without Schengen movement.

The second thing is that the EU can be successful in its main functions, while it cannot handle things that deviate from it. For example, when it was realized that this role includes ensuring free movement of goods and restoring free movement of people as soon as possible, things started moving. But whenever the EU starts doing something that is not its job – social policy, joint procurements etc. – that is when we run into trouble.

The Baltic countries handled the crisis similarly, as did Finland. However, Sweden chose a different path. It has been suggested that Sweden is a danger to others because of how many people are infected there. Has it caused tensions with Sweden?

How different were Swedish solutions really? First of all, the Swedish constitution does not allow for state of emergency measures. Secondly, what the Swedes recommended people do matched everything we did here. It is utterly Swedish to count on social responsibility. They say that while you are free to eat out, you should consider whether you need to do it three times a week, that you should rather go to the restaurant less often and keep your distance from others. They are also not forcing people to wear masks, while they urge people to consider whether it might be better do so in certain situations.

Sweden’s problem is with its rather large nursing homes that they’ve been unable to protect.

However, our restrictions and their recommendations are not that different.