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Prime Minister Kaja Kallas: “You cannot be bullied if you have strong friends”

Kaja Kallas became Estonian Prime Minister of the so – called “Sunrise Government” in January of 2021, in the middle of one of the biggest crises in world history. The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak, security situation in the region was worsening, and the results of climate change were becoming everyday issues. Meanwhile, as in many other countries, Estonian politics had ceased debating decisive solutions and begun a reality TV level of “playing the (wo)man, not the ball”.

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Despite or because of all this, Kaja Kallas has become one of the strongest voices in the world in support of Ukraine, standing up to Russian aggression. It has not remained unnoticed as recently she has received many renowned awards like the Grotius Prize by the influential British think-tank Policy Exchange for her role in defending the international rule of law and opposing Russian aggression, the Hayek Prize for defending democratic values and exercising liberal economic policy by the Friedrich August von Hayek Foundation in Germany, and the European Prize for Political Culture by the Hans Ringier Foundation in Switzerland. The Time magazine has included her in its Time100 Next list’s Leaders section that recognises a hundred rising stars from across industries and around the world.

She has an incredibly busy schedule running the government, meeting her constituents in various corners of Estonia, meeting other EU leaders in Brussels and around Europe. But she squeezed in an interview for “Life in Estonia” magazine at Stenbock House, where the Prime Minister and Government Office work daily, before dashing off to yet another meeting.

What do you consider to be your strongest assets as a crisis manager?
From the time I was an attorney at law, I realised I work better under a lot of pressure. Crisis is my mode. This is how I’m able to concentrate and focus. But indeed, it has been hard. We’ve had one crisis after another.

We kept the nice annual tradition of having lunch with the former prime ministers here, in this very room, in August. Last year, when I had been prime minister for only eight months, relatively new to the job, we had presidential elections and Covid and many other issues, and I remember that around this table, the former prime ministers were discussing that “we always have problems with presidential elections but we always manage and we always get a good president, and so will you.” That gave me such a boost that this has all been done before and we’ll manage. But this year they came and said that none of us have really had such a difficult time as you have.

We are indeed in the most severe security crisis of the 31 years we’ve been independent [again after the Soviet occupation]. And we are going into the winter facing an energy crisis. All of these crises come from the outside factors – the inflation, the energy crisis – are also stemming from the war that is going on in Ukraine, and other global factors. There are not many tools that any specific government can use to tackle these issues. What makes this situation really difficult is seeing that people are struggling and understanding that you can’t really eradicate that pain. But my government offers solutions to mitigate the impact.

Having served as a Member of the European Parliament you must have a strong network on the EU level that might help you in your current job with those outside factors?
My network from the European Parliament is definitely very helpful, especially in the security crisis. Because of that network I’ve been much more attentively listened to in the countries of our allies. It is important that our voice is heard because this war is opening the wounds that we have in our history. We can speak from our own experience. We know Russia’s way of thinking and acting better than some other EU countries who might be luckier with their neighbours.

As you already mentioned, the war in Ukraine is much closer to us in so many ways as compared to many other EU countries. Estonia has been the number one supporter per capita of Ukrainian refugees as well as a donor to the Ukrainian government. How else can we lead the way for the rest of Europe and make other countries understand the atrocities of war and the outcomes it might have?
The experience we have had in our history makes us speak from a different point of view as compared to the countries that do not have that history. It has become very clear how the end of World War 2 distinguished two very different paths for Eastern and Western European countries. While peace may be the ultimate goal at the end of war, the Western countries tend to be oblivious to our history. We did have “peace” but while they were building up their countries and prosperity and well-being of their people, we were suffering from occupation with mass deportations, all kinds of repressions and atrocities for our people. This is exactly what we see in Ukraine today: giving away the territories does not mean that the human suffering will end. That is why our experience is relevant and it is important that other countries listen to us.

Secondly, we are not naive regarding Russia. We know how they operate, and we have listened to what they are saying very closely for 30 years now. We are not seeing how they operate through a “democratic lens” because Russia is not operating the way Western democracies do.

Thirdly, in the cases of Georgia, Donbas and Crimea, we – and by “we” I mean the EU and the rest of the free world – acted in accordance to what the big EU countries said: let’s have a peace treaty and this will all be over. But Russia only understands weakness and strength, and a peace treaty means showing weakness for them: yielding territories and nothing happening to Russia and Russians. Therefore every next step will be bolder on the Russian side.

What we have been saying all along is that the only way to stop this war is to push back the aggression. Russia has to retreat into its own borders. It has to convey a message for the sake of the rules-based order, otherwise if an aggression pays off somewhere, it serves as an invitation to use it elsewhere. That’s why nobody can feel safe if this pays off. That’s why we have to keep up this topic, help Ukraine to defend itself and go on with the legal proceedings of prosecuting war crimes and crimes of aggression so that the conclusion will not be drawn that after the end of war one could gain more territory.

We have been telling this to the rest of Europe for the past 30 years, but can you say, talking to your former and current colleagues from other EU member states over the past 6 months, are they now less blinded by Russian realpolitik? The President of European Parliament Roberta Metsola recently admitted that the EU has ignored Estonian warnings about Russia.

The EU is a union of 27 democracies whose decisions stem from public opinion and there’s strong support for Ukraine’s fight for independence. As someone said: “If the facts change, I change my mind.” I saw genuine shock among my colleagues when the full-scale war started. My colleagues did not believe that this could happen, yet it did.

We have been pointing out Putin’s plan all along. Those sharing the border with the aggressor have a different experience and perspective. After all, we do know our neighbour better than those with better neighbours. While building up our democracy we were listening to our international friends and advisers. And maybe now is the time to listen to us.

You have been very bold and blunt in your interviews with foreign media. Don’t you think that this can convert into a problem regarding our own security – both cyber and physical?

Putin and Russia want to threaten us, and everyone else as well. His actions are in accordance with the classic definition of terrorism – they are terrorising us by sowing different fears by keeping public on their toes, killing civilians so nobody can feel safe, using the nuclear threat and hunger. Using all these threats to force us to take decisions (that could benefit them).

The only thing that works with the bully is showing strength, saying, “You can threaten us, but we are not frightened”, because they are expecting you to show weakness and it does make you weaker.

The atrocities that our grandparents suffered in our history are very similar to what we see unfolding in Ukraine right now. We owe this to our grandparents that we do everything in our power to stop it happening elsewhere so no one will have to go through such human suffering (again).

Worst case scenario for Estonia: if the bully makes its threats come true, how well prepared is e-Estonia to operate in the cloud in case of emergency?

The bully might want to bully you but cannot do it if you have strong friends. That’s why we have been following the principle from the 1990s that we will never be alone again. We have (strong) friends everywhere, we are in NATO and the EU, and we are stronger together.

But we are also working hard on cyber defence. Before the conventional war started in Ukraine, everyone was afraid that there would be cyber conflicts. And we do see cyber warfare going on, including hybrid conflicts and information war. Estonia has invested a lot in cyber security, we are very resilient in that regard.

The Covid crisis also proved that the investments we had made into e-schooling paid off – we had not prepared it for this particular crisis but rather just to make life easier, yet it became very handy as we already had everything online and the teachers and the students could easily move online. Although, as we saw, this cannot not fully replace the social aspects of physical schooling, comparing us to many other countries, our students did not experience a gap in their education as everything continued online. Therefore all these different parts of e-governance are making us more resilient in the crisis that we might face.

This fall we are opening new schools for Ukrainian students in Estonia and almost every other school has some Ukrainian students. There are more than 5,000 kids< in Estonian schools from the 50,000 refugees. How well have we managed to integrate the Ukrainian war refugees so far?

Indeed, we did open the School of Freedom for 600 Ukrainian children and there are Ukrainian children in other schools as well. So far the integration has worked much better than we could have anticipated. Yet another example of our e-governance, how fast we have managed to administer the processing of the applications for the temporary protection. Over 20% of the adult refugees have now found jobs and 40% of the children attend Estonian schools.

Is our large pool of e-residents, which equals the number of residents of Estonia’s second largest city, Tartu, rather a security threat or a strategic asset in this situation?

Our e-residents are usually the biggest fans of Estonia and they have established a lot of companies here. Of course, we also have to keep a close eye to ensure that the companies established here are not used for tax evasion or money laundering.

The e-Residency program is a perfect example of how we can grow without physically expanding our borders because there are geographical limitations to it, so it has been a success story as it is totally unique in the world and we have many new friends due to that. We have to continue with this, keeping in mind all the risks that the new world order has brought about.

e-Residency was introduced almost 10 years ago. What is the next big thing that will come out of Estonia that will make us look bigger in the eyes of the rest of the world?

The next big thing will be AI. We are already using artificial intelligence in our operations and services, but we see there is a huge potential to make our services more convenient for the people. But at the same time, we are a rule-of-law country and every individual’s privacy is a very important matter for us. Estonia is again ahead of other countries in the sense that each citizen is in charge of their own data – who can you give access to your data in our systems? AI will make our systems run more smoothly. When you have certain life events, like the birth of a child, you should not have to go through this whole process of applying for all sorts of services provided by the state. But thanks to AI, we already have access to all sorts of databases, the applications are all pre-filled and you just need to click a few boxes to gain access to services.

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