Tarmo Soomere: I would like to be a constructive, not a disruptive force in society

Tarmo Soomere. PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Postimees meets Tarmo Soomere at the Taltech Cybernetics Institute at 11 a.m. on Friday – the same time heads of parliamentary parties are holding an online meeting to discuss the presidential election. Soomere is unaware.

You had no idea such a meeting was being held?

It does not interest me. It is a peculiar kind of situation. It may be characteristic of scientists – not taking an interest in useless information. Information needs to be at least cognitive, emotional, not to mention having practical value. It is unimportant if none of these conditions are met. My opinion or know-how doesn’t mean anything at the moment. Therefore, I’m concentrating on my work and things that need to be done.

What should we think of the fluster surrounding the presidential election?

Many situations that seem extremely confusing to us are actually thoroughly thought-out and rehearsed processes. They come off chaotic in the eyes of the uninitiated. While they really aren’t.

Are you still prepared to run for president considering the last few months?

Yes. But it has dawned on me during what has been over four months that the responsibility that comes with the office is somewhat greater than I realized in March. The question was more on the rhetorical side then. Today, as these tasks are drawing nearer, that world has become not only wider but also more colorful and complex.

Coalition parties were unwilling to set up your candidacy for a long time. They have now. When was your first contact?

The decisive contact took place roughly a week and a half ago.

When you had your job interview with President of the Riigikogu Jüri Ratas (Center Party) and PM Kaja Kallas (Reform Party)?

Such deliberations are usually confidential. Because we agreed that I will not be commenting on conversations in this process and their outcome, the only thing I can tell you is that Jüri Ratas called me and asked me whether I was still willing to run.

You’re still free to talk about your feelings. Do you feel you were deemed suitable?

Blaise Pascal put it beautifully when he said that our feelings do nothing except betray us. I felt my conversation partners were largely satisfied. They had done their homework regarding my history, statements, activities and views in terms of how I make decisions. It seemed to me that my answers only confirmed their preconceptions.

What kind of a president would Tarmo Soomere make?

The president needs to keep their personal opinion at bay. The task of the president in Estonia is to balance various powers. The president should be someone who builds cross-links to render society stronger, more effective, open to debate – make sure Estonia is shaped into a diamond instead of a pile of graphite.

President Soomere would seek common ground?

Yes, I would very much like to be a constructive force in society, as opposed to disruptive. It is also important to serve as the figurehead for civil society. While this does not stem from the Constitution, it has been a vital task of all recent presidents. The president listens to what the people have to say and helps strike a balance between what people want and what can be realistically accomplished.

The office of president of the republic is not nearly as technocratic as that of the head of the Academy of Sciences. Instead of academics, one needs to serve as the president of a cross-section of society. How prepared are you for communicating with the people?

We can never hope for everyone to be satisfied, while that is not the idea of democracy. The important thing is to listen to the minority and understand why they would like for things to be different. They must not be harmed to a serious degree by the decision of the majority.

(Soomere’s phone starts ringing at 11:20 a.m. He ignores it at first and continues answering questions.)

A situation where only what the majority thinks goes would soon lead us into big trouble, not to mention remaining competitive. In the world scientists are accustomed to, all opinions that are sufficiently reasoned must exist. Estonia has more to learn here.

Is Estonian society split?

A society cannot be split. We can talk about people having different opinions and being unwilling to accommodate others. No one is a demon or out to do harm on purpose. People are neither foolish nor irresponsible, they are mostly just ill-informed.

How would you reconcile, for example, religious circles and the LGBTQ+ community?

That is just what I meant. Both circles have gone about their business separately and have not really communicated. We are seeing a certain opening on the part of the church, and I believe there is convergence. But I cannot tell you how I could achieve something like that. I experienced bullying and marginalization on various levels as a young man from a Christian family. I understand very well the feelings of people who are marginalized because they’re different. There is no single recipe against it, but I believe I can understand their emotions based on my own experiences.

(Soomere checks his phone to see who called him and becomes visibly excited. “Oh, it was Jüri Ratas. This means I need to return the call. Please switch it (speech recorder) off for a little while,” Soomere says before stepping into another room. His call with Ratas lasts a few minutes during which Soomere is told he is now a candidate for the position of presidential candidate and must meet with parties next week. Soomere returns to his office as if nothing had happened. In truth, what just happened was the most important moment so far in his presidential bid.)

Will you be visiting the Riigikogu today?

Riigikogu groups will be contacting me to book a job interview so to speak. The results will be discussed on Wednesday next week. I still think there is nothing I can do at this time. I am an object rather than a subject of politics right now. Politics has situations and windows of opportunity where you can get something dome, while most of it is spent on making good on what you agreed. It is another characteristic line of democracy.

I was about to ask you about domestic violence that remains an unsolved problem in Estonia and ruins several lives every day before your call with Ratas. What kind of steps should be taken here?

While society is not completely split, there is strong polarization. You have the wealthy and the beautiful in one corner, while you have those who barely scrape by in the other. This inequality is a constant source of tension. Tension, including domestic violence, often has very clear sources. One of them is material scarcity and a very small chance of shaking it off.

In summary, we should involve the best scientific know-how as one component of political decisions to reduce inequality. It is not an all-powerful magic wand, while concentrating on the causes will translate into reduced symptoms. Wise financial and political decisions improve society and render it stronger, gradually reducing the sources of tension. /.../

The current president has been quite active in domestic politics compared to her predecessors. To what extent would you interfere in the work of the Riigikogu or the government?

No one is perfect, and I’m sure I will also make mistakes should I be elected into office. However, it is quite clear to me that the president has little say in domestic politics. Ours is a parliamentary country where executive power is in the hands of the government.

How would you reconcile political parties?

Parties have different interpretations of what is needed. They all want what’s best for Estonia, while they want different things and in a different order. Politics is the art of finding common ground in this labyrinth. The president has no mandate for meddling in domestic politics. The president should not say which decisions should be made or avoided. It is even questionable whether they are authorized to say how a decisions should be made. However, the president has a clear mandate as a bearer of values for signaling which principles decisions should follow.

Is the president’s speech free?

The higher one’s office, the more attention they need to pay to how their words might be construed. And the higher one’s office, the more people their words reach. The higher up you are, the more care you need to take with your words because their weight is that much greater.

Would you storm off the Riigikogu floor or refuse to authorize a minister if a coalition was not to your liking or a ministerial candidate unfit in your eyes because of pending accusations?

Life has moved on. I believe the exact same situation will never be repeated. Future presidents are likely looking at completely different tasks. The best we can do is learn from what happened.

Would you wear a jumper to the Riigikogu to demonstrate your position?

I do not own a jumper.

Where should the president of Estonia steer our foreign policy?

Estonia is on the border between two communities that in a sense occupy different values systems. Estonia has made its choice and looks to classical Europe. We seek the support of countries whose values are similar to ours. The main idea of Estonian foreign policy was phrased many years ago. Never again alone. We are not capable of literally affecting global foreign policy. It is our rare chance to be a full partner in the EU and NATO.

We have no choice militarily speaking. Our future would not be bright were we to find ourselves alone. There are no perfect choices in a polarized world.

That is to say you would maintain the recent line?

Estonian foreign policy is not decided by the president. The head of state represents Estonia in international communication, while the country’s foreign policy is shaped in cooperation of the foreign ministry, government and the president. It is a team effort.

Should Estonia have a dialogue with Russia?

One should always talk to one’s neighbors. Keeping quiet and glaring at your neighbor across the border is never good. Contacts need to be maintained even in the most difficult times.

Would you meet officially with the Dalai Lama?

Should Estonian policy-shapers so decide. No state representative can pursue an alternative foreign policy. That would be extremely dangerous for a small country.

What are your chances for becoming president?

This is another one of those questions where what I think counts for nothing at all. I decided to take the process seriously, after considering what I could give Estonia and how well I could perform the tasks of the president, a little before Midsummer Day. This also means trying to avoid information noise and putting in actual work. And what is paramount, leaving politicians to their work – they need to make the decision, while they should be helped in this task as far as that is possible.

Will the president be elected in the Riigikogu this time?

I would say the chances are good. The stars are aligned for electing the president in the parliament.

Where has President Kersti Kaljulaid been successful and where less so?

Deciding what was good and what was bad would require looking back from the end of history. I will not take it upon myself to judge the president’s actions, neither as a person nor as a citizen, because I do not have the information she had, also in terms of why certain things needed to be done. I would, however, like to adopt our presidents’ best and strongest traits.

How Lennart Meri put us back on the map, returned us to the heart of Europe. How Arnold Rüütel’s conciliatory spirit and calm disposition helped us get into the EU and NATO. How Toomas Hendrik Ilves made a very small country great on the international arena. And how Kersti Kaljulaid has stood in the defense of those less privileged like an indomitable wall.

Combining these traits, this whole presidential thing could really have potential.

What would be a perfect future for Estonia?

(Sighs and pauses). One based on wisdom.