“Nudging has proved quite successful. Perhaps I will keep it up”

Hans Väre
, Sakala peatoimetaja
Two paintings of the outgoing President Kersti Kaljulaid by Alice Kase. The painting of Kaljulaid in the red dress will adorn the Riigikogu and the one of her in the blue dress her home.
Two paintings of the outgoing President Kersti Kaljulaid by Alice Kase. The painting of Kaljulaid in the red dress will adorn the Riigikogu and the one of her in the blue dress her home. Photo: Eero Vabamägi

Kersti Kaljulaid gave her last interview as president in a room that used to be the office of a chief militia constable in Soviet days. The venue, while chosen quite incidentally, illustrates one of Kaljulaid’s theses: it took someone making decisions and taking action for Estonia to make it back to Europe from behind the iron curtain. And that if something is wrong in Estonia, it is a problem of indecisiveness on the part of leaders.

The Estonian president has little authority when it comes to bans and directives. However, Kersti Kaljulaid has nudged more than a few processes during her term in office – that is how she describes wearing a jumper with the words “Speech is free” to parliament and other similar actions. Kaljulaid refuses to say whether active politics is in the cards for her but suggests more nudges might be coming.

You visited all Estonian counties inside your first year in office. Has something fundamentally changed since then, leaving aside the coronavirus and its effects?

The so-called seamless society topic was raised during my first year as the administrative reform was looming and people were worried about what would happen if a lot of active people were suddenly cut off from local affairs. In truth, they can participate through third sector activities. This activity needed to be encouraged, especially by convincing newly elected and entirely new municipality councils to work with village associations. The results were clear. When we toured the country after the administrative reform, we saw that while there are different models, everyone has managed to coordinate their activities. We’re seeing beautiful examples. You go to a corner of a municipality that used to be a separate local government unit and learn that while people were concerned, fears have not manifested. They have gotten more resources to get things done.

Therefore, is seamless society one box that you can tick and say it has more or less happened?

The Estonian society has been shaped in the concurrence of voluntary, local and state activity. A lot of our social work is still based on ideas funded from Norway and realized by people for whom it was necessary. The state is increasingly involved in this cooperation.

That is how Estonia has grown. Our administrative model is quite distinctive, while I believe it is a good one as I have yet to see people pursue voluntary projects and work they don’t need. Working with the third sector is an excellent model for doing things outside major cities.

Estonia notices and cares more than it used to. We have more courage to talk about domestic violence, violence against children, sexual violence. A lot more people seek help. Now, the state needs to pledge more resources to make sure the people who have found the courage to scale the wall of silence are not left to their own devices.

Ida-Viru County was the first place you visited as president to draw attention to problems in the region, while you later worked from Narva for some time. You wore a by now famous jumper in support of free speech. Do actions speak louder than words?

If a topic becomes prominent enough and you want to move it along, deliver an impulse – that nudge needs to be sufficiently clear. I believe that the “Speech is free” incident falls in that category.

Attempts to restrict freedoms based on whichever ideological considerations require one to silence the media first. Because if the media is not quiet, no one is. Moving in an ideologically constrictive direction, perhaps opposite to where society was headed before, you quickly find the media asking you unpleasant questions you don’t want to answer.

This development was quite predictable, looking at how these things have worked out elsewhere. This road needed to be blocked with a big enough rock.

Have you ever felt that you ended up with a rock that was too big, said too much at times?

No. My team and I always analyzed the effects and counter-effects, whether to do certain things and how. So no.

The word “hate”… (In 2019, Kaljulaid, when asked what she thinks of the Conservative People’s Party’s [EKRE] racist and derogatory comments, told Foreign Policy: “I hate them for their behavior /.../” The Estonian word “vihkama” (hate) is somewhat stronger than its English counterpart in most contexts – ed.)

It is a case of lost in translation. But I also think that a more cautious phrasing would still have created the necessary memes.

Or wearing that jumper to the parliament. Listen, friends, that is not what matters! What matter is that the message needed to be sent. And it was sent. If your task is to nudge society, that is what you must do.

I’m sure you know that a lot of people consider it not nudging but driving a wedge in society, that things are far removed from seamlessness, with society much more divided than before because of you.

It is not “because” of me. That concept has been turned on its head. And the proof? All of these fundamental disputes over the Registered Partnership Act, abortion rights etc. They all disappeared as soon as that government dissolved and when those things were no longer incited from on high! Vanished into thin air! These unconstitutional ideas become topics when raised – but they are not. That was splitting society. As opposed to anything I did.

Divisive topics have not disappeared. We have pro- and anti-vaccinationists, environmentalists and oil lovers…

Since when do we refer to the two sides of any dispute as divisive? These are topics that need to be discussed, with the Estonian political system developed not to give anyone everything they want. We always have several parliamentary and government parties. It is called discussion.

Our skill at respectful debate has been hampered, and we know why. Misogynous statements have been made from on high that do not treat with where a person stands but what they are like physically. None of it facilitates a rapport and debate climate has admittedly been not what I like to see.

Is there hope we won’t get lost in our echo chambers?

There is. Meeting with children in schools, they understand what I’m saying.

With any dispute, it involves 5, 15 or at most 30 percent of society. The rest continue leading their lives and making entirely different agreements. The media makes it look like it is 50 percent on either side of the divide.

Every issue has its nuances and deserves discussion. It makes no sense to argue over whether the green turn will happen or not – it will happen no matter what. The most sensible thing to do in this situation is to see how we can retain recent economic volume by using green energy. And we need to move fast.

Criticism has concerned getting ahead of ourselves instead.

You need an excuse for not having made the necessary decisions for 5, 10 or 15 years.

We often make the mistake of thinking that 30 years of development in Estonia is just nature. We have been brought where we are. Our monetary system, tax system, education system, digital life, why not also our gene depository – all are things someone somewhere has decided. Compositions of the Riigikogu have voted for these things and Estonia has been led here. And failure to make decisions not only means we have been paying people for something they haven’t done – that cost is trifling. It means that everyone looking at an exorbitant electricity bill today has to pay for it. Poor management is expensive.

Are we in for a long, cold and lonely winter?

No, not necessarily. If we can make happen the projects that have been proposed – offshore wind farms, 500-megawatt pumped hydropower storage in Paldiski, with Eesti Energia adding at least 50-megawatts of corresponding capacity – we have what we need to realize what the Nordic Council of Ministers has said in terms of the Baltic Sea region being capable of generating enough green energy for itself and export.

Do you know what you will be doing a week from now on Wednesday? (The interview took place on Wednesday last week – ed.)

I have never worked while constantly thinking about what will happen next. Life and people have always brought me interesting offers. What I’ve said is that I would like to do good things with exciting people and exciting things with good people.

Do you see the need to intervene in everyday politics?

What constitutes that intervention? There are a lot of ways to influence politics which the average person doesn’t even construe as such. It seems to me I have been quite successful at nudging. Perhaps I will keep it up.