Sa, 2.12.2023

How did Kaja Kallas become Europe’s Iron Lady?

Do not allow yourself to be disturbed by domestic politics - while the parties were holding power talks, Kaja Kallas met with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson.
Do not allow yourself to be disturbed by domestic politics - while the parties were holding power talks, Kaja Kallas met with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson. Photo: Jason Alden/Pool
  • Kallas sometimes exerted pressure on the Center Party but it was mostly hidden from the world.
  • A Centrist claims that Kallas’ style of leadership changed with the improving ratings.
  • Kallas needs no help from security advisors; foreign correspondents are queuing.

Only six months ago, political commentators talked about how the weak speeches of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (RE) dragged down the ratings of the whole party. Today, foreign media calls her the Iron Lady of Europe, and some publications believe that the world's greatest leaders should follow her example. In addition to success abroad, the number of people supporting her as the prime minister has now risen to record highs. So how did it happen?

The simple answer goes: Russia attacked Ukraine and in this situation, the strengths of Kaja Kallas and the Reform Party came to the fore. In fact, it is much more nuanced. Postimees talked to a dozen people who witnessed the metamorphosis of Kaja Kallas into the Iron Lady of Europe up close. Both supporters and opponents were interviewed. And it turns out that according to some bystanders, Kaja Kallas herself has undergone a change.

In November 2021, the ratings of the Reform Party were low and the reason for the decline was seen in the public speeches of the party chairman. At that time, no one could have imagined that in six months, almost a third of the population would prefer Kallas as the prime minister (a study of the prime ministers commissioned by EPL). Or that Russia would actually attack Ukraine.

“At the end of the year, the society had been oppressed by Covid-19 for more than two years. It produced frustration. People all over Europe were dissatisfied. This is one of the biggest reasons which should not be underestimated,” described one of Kaja Kallas' confidants, who talked to Postimees. In addition, the unexpected energy crisis had undermined the people's confidence.

According to leading Reform Party politicians, one of the reasons for the increase of support is two simple human factors. Namely, people need time to get used to the leader. “Everyone has their own habits, manners that people need to get used to. The people also got used to Ratas’ vague style. Now they have become used to the style of Kaja Kallas,” said the high-ranking Reformist who wished to remain anonymous. And Kallas herself has improved over the year: she understood better how the state works, what her opportunities are and which are the ministers’ strengths and weaknesses.

Kallas sometimes exerted pressure on the Center Party but that was carefully hidden from the outside world. “Take Anneli Ott, she did not step down on her own free will,” they told Postimees.

Yet the rating of the Reform Party remained low still a year and two months after coming to power (from January 11 until February 7 21.6 percent – Institute for Social Studies).

A phoenix flies into the world media

The great rising from the ashes began shortly before February 24, when Russia attacked Ukraine. According to political scientist Tõnis Saarts, one of the reasons is the fact that since the “bronze night”, the Reform Party has created a strong image of itself as a party capable of ensuring Estonia's security. “And especially regarding the Russian threat,” Saarts said. According to him, it is during crises when the support of leaders can reach the top, but only if the leader is capable. The rating did skyrocket in the following months with Prime Minister Kallas shining on the covers of the world's largest publications. Europe's new Iron Lady – she was presented as an example for the world's greatest leaders.

The Reform politician who talked to Postimees said that Kallas is so competent in the security issues that she has no need for advisors telling her what to say. “Foreign media is still queuing at her door,” he said. This is due to Kallas’ own strength on the one hand, and her team's lobbying. “Neither NYT nor CNN journalists know the leaders of Eastern Europe, but if you stand out and perform well, others will notice,” they described the hidden side of the media work.

It was said in Estonia that besides her own work, Kallas also performed the functions of the minister of foreign affairs. According to Eva-Maria Liimets (KE), this opinion is incorrect. “A number of issues reach the prime minister’s desk from that of the foreign minister. This is simply the way it is because the decisions affect the countries more generally,” said Liimets. According to Jaak Aab (KE), Liimets did the real work for Kallas so that she could bask in the limelight.

Centrists talking to Postimees stated that the security issues were where Kallas gained confidence after having previously struggled with problems of self-assertion. “She would be a good minister if foreign affairs but fails as the prime minister,” said a politician who had been in Kallas’ cabinet.

The Centrists do not deny that Kallas' experience in the European Parliament provided a great foundation for shining on the international scene. “She speaks English very well; she can formulate her messages clearly. And being in Eastern Europe, a neighbor of Russia and worried about the developments, it was also credible,” said the political scientist Saarts.

Her own ratings are not enough

According to some Centrists, Kaja Kallas's leadership style changed with the improvement of her ratings. She allegedly forgot to take into account the fact that the Reform Party was not alone in the government. “She could not keep her partner. One should keep in mind that if the ratings of the coalition partner decline, one should try to help them solve the problems and make them feel better. But she accelerated the decline instead,” they told Postimees.

Then, with their ratings in the decline, the leading Center politicians adopted a tactic of the chairman and the faction publicly exerting pressure on the partner. “This way we managed to reach some agreements in the coalition council,” one of leading Centrists said frankly while acknowledging that the matter had not developed further.

The Reform Party members say, on the other hand, Kallas had initially been even too lenient towards the Center Party, which had entered the government ill-tempered and carrying with it a burden of scandals: “In retrospect, Kaja Kallas should have been stricter and more decisive about the Center Party. But at that moment it seemed logical to be more delicate about the troubled coalition partner.”

Another top Center politician, however, said that Kallas' leadership style remained relatively the same from the beginning. “Primarily the ministers are responsible for their own area, both for solving the problems and implementing the activities agreed upon in the coalition,” he said. At the same time, he noted that in his opinion Jüri Ratas had held separate meetings with ministers in a smaller company more frequently than Kallas.

According to the Reform Party members, Kallas's success is due to her own development and the changes in the society. “Kaja's advantages and strengths are the same as at the end of last year. Vigor, frankness, strong arguments,” one Kallas's confidants listed them.

Why weren't these strengths apparent during the domestic crises? “Prime ministers have different strengths. There are prime ministers who are stronger in foreign policy and representing Estonia internationally, and there are prime ministers who are more capable in domestic politics,” said political scientist Tõnis Saarts.

An anonymous Reformist: the routine of presenting information could be bettered

Kaja [Kallas] has clearly improved over the year. The enemies’ claim that she is only good in foreign relations is wrong; with Estonia’s clear positions it is actually easier there. More importantly, she is also good in domestic matters. She is more confident and inclusive and able to defend her views with increasingly stronger arguments, which I consider the most important is statesmanship.

I emphasize this because chairmen often have an instinct to be distrustful and to form “their own teams” within the party. Andrus [Ansip] made unnecessary mistakes in that aspect; he distrusted the more experienced members but became better and more collegial over time, although the public could not see it and gradually became bored. Kaja has made even more risky stakes, but the working atmosphere is recovering and is already very good for me.

True, the routine of presenting information could be bettered. We have always been more informed and equipped with better arguments than our rivals, and I actually miss the days when we annoyed all the others with it and came under fire.

In this sense, it was the easiest with Taavi Rõivas because he had grown up with the party and we had good understanding from start even when we disagreed. Siim [Kallas] is more difficult to describe as the prime minister; we founded the party with him, but he was more separate from the team yet authoritative. We have been successful with all styles of leadership.

Award from Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said that she received a moving recognition in London yesterday. The British influential think tank Policy Exchange decided to award her the Hugo Grotius Prize – according to the organizers, for her role in defending the rules of international politics and resisting Russian aggression.

The prize was presented by Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The prize is named after Hugo Grotius, who was one of the pioneers of international law and who is introduced to each law student already in the first year.

“So did I in my time. I hereby send my greetings to lecturer Raul Narits and anyone who once wrestled with the course “Encyclopedia of Law”, Kallas said on her social media channel.

The award was the 17th century fourth edition of Hugo Grotius' book “On the Law of War and Peace“.

"My heartfelt thanks to the Policy Exchange think tank for the recognition,” Kallas said.