21st cen­tury style of pres­i­dency

The Baltic Times - - FRONT PAGE - To­nis Saarts To­nis Saarts is a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Tallinn Univer­sity, School of Gover­nance, Law and So­ci­ety

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

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