Sa, 25.03.2023

ANALYSIS ⟩ Confrontational for years: how the bone of contention between Kaja Kallas and Jüri Ratas came to be

Mikk Salu
, ajakirjanik
Confrontational for years: how the bone of contention between Kaja Kallas and Jüri Ratas came to be
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Kaja Kallas and Jüri Ratas have had several quarrels over time.
Kaja Kallas and Jüri Ratas have had several quarrels over time. Photo: Madis Veltmani kollaaž
  • Characters and styles of leading differ.
  • Both experienced defeat in 2019.
  • Yet do not rule out cooperation.

If you ask Kaja Kallas (RE) or Jüri Ratas (KE) about human relations in politics, both will answer that they are important. Politicians are not just "Excel calculators" who count votes with cold rationality and make decisions based on that. Interpersonal chemistry matters as well.

All parties are rivals and it is natural that they criticize each other, but sometimes political criticism turns into interpersonal antipathy and personal confrontation. Kallas’ and Ratas’ getting along (or their failure to) is the clearest example of it among top politicians in recent years

For comparison, EKRE is the Reform Party’s opponent as to its world view, but Kallas does not perceive such personal tension with EKRE leader Martin Helme. “We represent completely different positions with Helme, but in a way I respect him and it seems to me that he also respects me.” They represent opposing world-views – if one wishes, they could be even described with the harsher expression “enemies” – but at the same time there is a kind of mutual respect.

Sometimes it is said that coalitions are formed with the mind, but fall apart because of the heart – that is, when the relations between politicians become confused. One example is the collapse of the second government of Taavi Rõivas, where one of the driving forces was the rift between the parties’ leaders. Of course, this is not an absolute rule. Ratas, for example, cites as a counter-example the disintegration of the Central Party-EKRE-Isamaa coalition, where there was nothing personal, pure politics.

A month ago, Kallas attacked Ratas because of his performance in a dance show. She did it in a rather ugly manner by involving his family. “Totally pointless,” Kallas admits her mistake afterwards. Moreover, it was strategically unnecessary, because the Reform Party should attack EKRE and simply ignore the Center Party and Ratas.

Kallas joined the Reform Party in 2010 and was elected to the Riigikogu a year later. At that time, Ratas was the vice-president of the Riigikogu and stood for the leader of the Center Party against Savisaar for the first time. Before entering politics, Kallas and Ratas did not know each other, and had little contacts during their time in the Riigikogu.

Kallas recalls how Ratas, coming off a ship at a maritime-themed event, shook hands and chatted fluently with strangers. Very skillful, the beginning politician watched the moves of the experienced colleague. Ratas adds that he did meet with Kallas at that time, but these meetings were short and fleeting. In short, neither formed a definite opinion of the other.

Only when Ratas became prime minister at the end of 2016 did things start to change. The real turning point came in 2018, when Kallas was elected leader of the Reform Party and the election campaign began. The relationship between Kallas and Ratas immediately went downhill.

Both are well regarded

It is worth recalling how the campaign started. Ratas became the prime minister to the cheers of the media and the press coddled him for a long time. Johannes Merilai, who was the prime minister's PH head at the time, jokingly recalls that he did not have to work for several months because the press coverage was so positive. However, this began to change, and by the autumn of 2017, the media was more critical. Merilai recalls one of the “Aktuaalne Kaamera” broadcasts, where Ratas was simply badgered over a question concerning the state budget. "It was clear that the honeymoon was over," says Merilai.

At the same time, the sky above Kallas was not cloudless either. There were internal conflicts within the Reform Party and negative emotions left over from the angry competition between Michal and Pevkur. The party had debts and entered the election campaign with a relatively thin wallet. On the one hand, the press was favorable towards Kallas as a newcomer, but at the same time, enjoyed revealing the internal conflicts of the Reform Party, and sometimes displayed the patronizing style of “whether Kallas can establish herself".

Center and Reform party members have different memories of the election campaign, but both still have a thorn in their side. “Kallas had a habit of interrupting, which was not the case in Estonian political debates before. I do not know where she learned this habit," says Ratas. “Kallas imitated Ratas in an ironic style; this disturbed the members of the central party," remembers Tanel Kiik, then Prime Minister Ratas' office manager.

Through the eyes of the Reform Party, things looked different. The Estonian election debate is not a debate like a conversation or an argument. It is generally a series of monologues following each other, where the moderator's question serves as a signal to start the monologue, and whether or not what is said is related to the previous question is not all that important. Good speakers (which Ratas certainly is) are able to speak without taking a breath, so that there is not even a fraction of a second's pause for a political rival to take the floor.

However, Kallas did not master the Estonian debate format. In the first debates, she clearly fell short. When asked something, she answered the question as briefly and concretely as possible, but did not “put on the long-playing record“. As a side effect, this meant less speaking time. “Kallas started lamenting in Helir-Valdor Seeder style, why she is not allowed to speak”, a Center Party member ironically comments. This is a reference to the Isamaa leader, who also has difficulties with interfering verbally.

Kallas' advisers insisted that she must interfere and take the floor. “They are still saying that I have to take over the thread of talk,” Kallas admits. This in turn led to Ratas complaining that he is allowed to finish his sentences – Kaja is interrupting! During the campaign and also in the debates, more and more personal resentment, criticisms about style and behavior became apparent.

At one point, the Reform members began to suspect that Ratas was playing tricks. Due to his position, the prime minister has an informational advantage anyway, but Kallas thought that besides that, Kiik and Merilai were feeding Ratas figures and other facts over the phone during the debates. It ended with the demand that Merilai and Kiik leave the studio during the debates.

"This was an exaggerated contradiction; maybe you can send a link to the newspaper article mentioned, but essentially it is not possible to intervene”, says Merilai now. Yet there must have been something; Kallas’ complaints did not come out of nowhere. During the last ETV televised debate of the elections, the Reform party members started making unanswered calls to Ratas's cell phone just in case, so that the latter would not be able to use it.

Anyway, the Reform Party won the elections. It was a shock for the Center Party. It is still bitterly remembered that the Reform Party sent its “third-rate” politicians Arto Aas and Erkki Keldo to congratulate the Center Party on election night. “Aas said that the Reform Party is going to form a triple alliance,” says Ratas.

Two losers

In the end, it was Jüri Ratas together with Isamaa and EKRE who formed the government instead. This move affects Estonian politics to this day. They also say that this also meant something irreversible for the relationship between Ratas and Kallas. In a sense, both were losers. Ratas lost the elections, Kallas lost the government. Both have reason to be embittered. In addition, what happened injected a lasting resentment against Ratas into several members of the Reform Party. When the Reform Party and the Center Party finally formed a new coalition at the beginning of last year, Kallas’ team had to work hard to make the Reform Party's statements regarding Ratas milder.

However, it was not all bad. Kallas recalls, for example, that she got along well with Ratas during the presidential elections. “We took long walks. We talked about politics, but the conversation often came to other subjects as well,” recalls Kallas. “Absolutely true,” Ratas also recognizes this time as an example of better cooperation. The contradictions worsened again in the fall. The deteriorating security situation, crises – the prime minister had so much to do that she had less time to keep in touch with Ratas. In the spring, they tried to establish a new communication channel – Kallas and Ratas started having breakfast together at the Palace Hotel once a week – but if it had an effect, it was too late. At the beginning of the summer, the coalition between the Reform Party and the Center Party fell apart.

Even if both are still critical of each other, in the end of the day they are realists as well. “We each have our own strengths,” says Kallas diplomatically and points out: "Who knows how and with whom we will have to form a coalition in March.” Ratas has similar ideas: "I am a professional politician and on the evening of March 5, when the election results are revealed, I will not make a decision based on emotions or interpersonal relationships.” In short, regardless of history and what has happened in the last four years, it cannot be ruled out at all that Kallas and Ratas will have to form a government together again in March.

Kallas vs. Ratas


March 24. Kaja Kallas: I would be a better prime minister than Jüri Ratas

November 15. Kaja Kallas: Jüri Ratas cannot handle the role of prime minister


November 11: Kaja Kallas: looking at all what he has done as the prime minister, Jüri Ratas as the prime minister would sell Estonia at the first opportunity if he could only continue as the premier and I do not think this would be in Estonia’s interests.

November 13. Jüri Ratas in the Riigikogu: Kaja Kallas must prove that I am a traitor!

December 15. Kaja Kallas cried when Jüri Ratas refused to hear her opinion.


May 29. Kallas: no not let yourself be mislead that Ratas looks cute outwardly

16.10 Kaja Kallas: I hope that Jüri Ratas behaves like a prime minister for once and dismisses Mart Helme


April 7. The honeymoon is over: the vaccination issue caused a row between Jüri Ratas and Kaja Kallas

June 8. Prime Minister and Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas described as two-faced the behavior of Jüri Ratas, chairman of the coalition partner Center Party.


May 12. Ratas: Kallas is the one whose statements ended the coalition

September 8. Kaja Kallas: one is busy dealing with the war, energy crisis and helping the people, the other one with dance steps

9.11. Kallas: Jüri Ratas is not chairing the Riigikogu sitting

30.11. Kaja Kallas to Jüri Ratas: I would feel very uncomfortable to see my husband watching an erotic movie with another woman.

Source: various Estonian media publications