21st century style of presidency
Since last autumn, Estonia has a new president – Kersti Kaljulaid - the first female president in the history of the nation. Her first speeches and actions demonstrate how different her presidency would become if we compared it with T. H. Ilves’ presidency: foreign policy orientation will be largely replaced by domestic orientation, the omnipresent obsession of the Russian threat will be replaced with the more future-orientated outlook addressing a wider range of challenges posed by the 21th century -globalized world, the ignorance of the concerns of the common people will be replaced with the boldness in talking about real and inconvenient social problems, etc.
Before analysing the emerging contours of Kaliulaid’s presidency, let me remind you that Estonia is not a presidential republic, not even a semi-presidential one like Lithuania. The president of Estonia has rather a ceremonial power and she is not directly elected by the people (the elections take place in the parliament or by a special electoral college).
Contrary to Lithuania, the Estonian president is not supposed to decide the basic issues of foreign policy and does not hold any legislative initiative concerning domestic policy matters. Even the Latvian presidents (who also have restricted constitutional powers) have played a more substantial role in their country’s domestic politics than has been the case for their Estonian counterparts.
Nevertheless, the Estonian president still wields a substantial ideological and moral power which she can employ if she wants to call attention to any particular social, political or moral problem and as “the first opinion leader of the nation” she could be an agenda-setter (in unofficial terms) while talking about the future challenges ahead of the nation.
In her first months in office, President Kaljulaid earned the name “Mrs Nopresident”. Mostly because she was bold enough to say “no” to some national conservative initiatives and traditional ceremonies which she was supposed to participate in. First, she refused to participate in a special church service dedicated to her inauguration. In the most secular country in Europe, it was not a very big scandal. But, some people holding more traditional and religious values, were seriously disturbed by it.
Second, there was a big debate in Estonia whether to erect a statue next to the parliament building, for the inter-war time president Konstantin Pats, who is a very controversial personality in Estonian history (comparable with the autocratic leaders of Lithuania and Latvia at the very same time – A. Smetona and K. Ulmanis). Kaljulaid made a statement that she would not participate in the opening ceremony of that monument, if it was finally erected. The old-school national conservatives, both politicians and many ordinary citizens, were just furious.
Even if some citizens were mildly disappointed in Kaljulaid, the public mood changed after Independence Day (February 24) when she was giving a traditional speech at the Estonian Concert Hall. Many commentators praised her speech more than any previous speeches given by former presidents T.H. Ilves or A. Ruutel. There is not enough space to provide a lengthy review about the president’s speech, but the major highlight of her speech was when Kaljulaid was talking about the national identity and clearly claimed that everyone could be a part of the Estonian nation if she/he accepts the basic (democratic) values and customs of our society and learns the language. So, she clearly distanced herself from the narrow ethnicityand culture-based definition of nationhood, and promoted a much more inclusive and open-minded version of Estonian nationalism. Second, the President was talking about violence in Estonian society, and particularly about domestic violence. She was doing it in a very explicit manner, while putting it very simply: “The police know best that many people get beaten up, particularly during the holidays. Beaten up in the places which are supposed to be the most secure for them – at homes”. Such a bold openness and strong social nerve touched the audience and even shocked them.
Considering her speeches, statements and actions so far, we can contrast Kaljulaid’s style of presidency to Ilves’, and it turns out to be very different, indeed.
First, Ilves was clearly focused on foreign and security policy, and was very reluctant in talking about domestic affairs. Kaljulaid, in contrast, has rather assumed a domestic orientation, and therefore one can be certain that Kaljulaid will not grow to be a major spokesperson on the matters of foreign and domestic politics in the Baltic States – a new international star, who will even overshadow the Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaite. However, Kaljulaid has a strong policy orientation, but she is interested in practical policy matters, and the more tangible challenges posed by the 21st century. For example, in her Independence Day speech, she was talking about the unexploited opportunities which the Estonian e-residency program and the welladvanced e-government could offer us. She was concerned that our rigid pension policy is unable to cope with the specific expectations and needs of the citizens belonging to the younger generation, etc. Briefly, it is a very down-toearth policy-orientation that Kaljulaid represents. It is not an intellectual grand sweep, suitable for some high-ranking international security conference.
Second, while Ilves was often ignorant to social problems and seemed to be disdainful to everyday concerns of the common Estonian people, Kaljulaid seems to be a people’s president. She clearly enjoys meeting with different people, touring around the country and debating different issues. Kaljulaid really loves arguments, and if someone disagrees with her, she tries to find better arguments, not just arrogantly ignoring the opponent. In contrast, Ilves made it always very clear that he is the cleverest person in the room and there was no room for further argumentation. If Ilves liked to talk as a school teacher whose mission was to enlighten his stupid and ignorant pupils (the nation), Kaljulaid talks with her nation like adults – respectfully, and wants them to debate with her, on equal footing.
Third, even if Ilves was born outside of Estonia and did not see the Soviet occupation, the tragedies of the 20th century still haunted him. Thus, in foreign policy, his major mission was to warn, and warn again, against the potential Russian threat. In domestic politics, his major goal was “to keep the rightwing parties in and Savisaar out” – it means that he lent his unconditional support to Reform Party governments, because he considered them to be “Estonian-minded”, the best guarantee against Russian influence epitomized through Edgar Savisaar and the Centre Party. Kaljulaid does not underestimate the potential Russian threat, but it seems that it is not her very obsession and it allows her to talk about many other challenges of the globalizing world which Estonia is going to face in the 21st century.
“Even if some citizens were mildly disappointed in Kaljulaid, the public mood changed after Independence Day (February 24), when she was giving a traditional speech at the Estonian Concert Hall. Many commentators praised her speech more than any previous speeches given by former presidents T.H. Ilves or A. Ruutel.”
Tonis Saarts is a political scientist at Tallinn University, School of Governance, Law and Society