President Alar Karis has held his post for approximately five months. He will make his first speech on the anniversary of the Republic of Estonia tomorrow (februari 24). This anniversary will be again celebrated in a more modest manner due to the corona crisis and due to the threat of war in Ukraine we shall talk mostly about security.
What is the 104-year-old Estonia like? Must we only worry or is there reason for rejoicing?
There is always reason to rejoice because 104 years is a very important anniversary, but we also have to worry because joy and worries go hand in hand. This is what we are, worrying on the one hand, experienced on the other hand, but not yet entirely wise. This pendulum tends to swing between the two extremes. Sometimes we are very happy with ourselves and then very dissatisfied.
You have said that our common determination to keep our state going helps us to overcome crises. Do we have that determination?
I believe that most of out people have that determination; I could say that almost everybody. Bit it must be a sign of the times that the voice of those without that determination is louder and those satisfied and having that determination are simply silent, carry on with their everyday work and stand for the progress of our country.
When traveling around Estonia, do you perceive the rift in the society the same way as we perceive it by following the press and social media? Can these rifts become dangerous?
The rifts are there. As I took over, I promised to start stitching together out Estonian state so that the differences of opinion would not be that great. There are different rifts in different places, there are different opinions, but unfortunately, some are escalating in a manner we would not like to see. We should remain polite after all; I am talking primarily about politicians. Different opinions will always be there; it is one of the features of democracy that people have different opinions can express them, but if it turns into attacks and insults, I consider it unacceptable and something should be done about it.
Is the parliament doing what it should do and for which we have elected it, and are the members performing the mission the voters have delegated to them?
We have seen and heard grumbling about the Riigikogu and I have also pointed out at my previous posts that the parliament is not performing its role but has too much yielded it to the government. The Riigikogu consists of human being and has its own diversity. Members of the parliament perform their role in a different manner; some do it very well, while some others use the time to work as a taxi driver or to do something else. It is obvious that people do not like it; this diminishes the credibility of the parliament and indirectly undermines our state.
You have said repeatedly that our goal is smart and educated people. Are we doing enough to have smart and educated people?
We are certainly trying to do it, but we see that there are not enough teachers, our higher education is insufficiently financed and we are closing down schools here and there although they could be kept open by using more innovative solutions, for example remote learning, using so-called star teachers. We should be more creative in the organization of teaching and we have certain advantages in that because we can approach creatively to a number of matters.
We have been talking about the shortage of teachers for years, but are we doing something to have them?
Apparently now we are acting because the crisis is really serious. They have tried to find solutions for teachers training. Speaking of financing higher education, now the minister has finally said that this is a problem that must be solved because if we do not have lecturers in the universities, we shall not have good schoolteachers either. And without good teachers there will be no smart children and without smart children there will be no smart nation or smart state. All these matters are interconnected but for some reason we always have to wait until the last moment before starting to seek for solutions.
Russia’s activities have caused the worst security crisis after WW2. Should we really be afraid in Estonia?
Nej. we should not be afraid. Why should we? A smart person is not afraid; a smart person is aware of threats and can assess them. Självklart, the attack of a country on the way to democracy by another country automatically affects further countries, it influences Estonia and the whole world, but in this situation we must definitely act jointly in Europe and NATO and we have been doing it so far.
How can we help Ukraine if the worst should happen?
The Estonia state has helped Ukraine so far, not only during this crisis. But we shall certainly help during the crisis: we have sent our people, we have helped in cyberdefense, we sent Javelin anti-tank missiles, and they also received a field hospital with out help. And these processes are going on. Every state contributes to Ukraine’s security differently and within the limits of its opportunities. Besides political and military support, economic support is also important because a country can develop if it has resources and the opportunity to build its state even during such crises.
It is the most important matter during this crisis that Europe and the western allies remain united. While the Baltic states talking about the Russian threat were so far viewed as somewhat strange, the naiveté about Russia has hopefully evaporated?
It certainly is, and I believe that our contribution to that is clearly perceived. They have also approached us as a neighboring state which presumable knows Russia and the meaning of a Communist regime an occupation. I think that our work certainly forms a drop within that sea of knowledge that Europe and the world have about the situation.
The countries, which hastened to evacuate their embassies from Ukraine and warned their citizens against traveling there, have faces a lot of criticism. We have not evacuated our embassy.
I have said before that the mission of a diplomat in such situations is to stay at the frontline for as long as possible. How long it will be possible we do not know but the Estonian diplomatic service is presently there and we have actually increased its staff, and I consider it an important message. If we send signals that there will be war, come away, then even without a war the enterprises and investors will become careful and this is not good for the economy. And that is why it is not reasonable to claim that Estonia could be attacked next, because this will undermine our economy as well.
Let us talk about the corona pandemic as well. Our indicators are relatively bad yet there is great pressure for the government to relax the restrictions. How would you rate our performance in this crisis and do you believe that the government has a plan for getting out of this situation?
The government is making its plans as it goes along, listening to the opinion of the science council, but obviously the government has to make political decisions and the opinion of the science council is only one among many. As a former scientist I naturally listen to what the scientists are saying and believe it, but I can understand that they are not always reckoned with because eventually the politicians have to take responsibility. But if the situation is being used to attract votes, it is not the right path. Every politician should explain why he or she makes the decision. It is most important that one communicates: we made this decision, we heard the scientists, we heard someone else, our decision is like this and we take responsibility for this decision. This clarity must always exist and if we do not have it, then we have a problem in my opinion.
Were we too hasty in condemning the anti-vaxxers, did we use too harsh words about them and did not even attempt to understand them?
There are people in every country with principled opposition to vaccination, but there are also many those who are simply afraid. And there are people who become defiant under pressure. I think that this is a peculiarity of Eastern Europe that we tend to defy the rulers. If they recommend something in the Nordic countries, this recommendation is taken almost as an order and people try to comply with it. Apparently we with our young democracy still have to reach the level where, once the government has made a decision and explained it, it would be reasonable to comply.
We agreed upon the kind of state we want when we adopted our constitution. Now and then we can hear voices claiming that something in it could be revised. Should we revise some articles of the constitution with an eye towards the future?
The constitution works well and does not obstruct us, regarding the future. There are some articles which could be revised, for example the one about asking the public opinion – if the people reject it, the parliament must be dissolved. This is definitely a factor which obstructs asking the people’s opinion.