In a relative way, Estonia charts a steady course. Contrasted to the unflattering presidential impeachment and parliamentary corruption scandals in Lithuania, or the continual no-confidence attacks against the vulnerable, unpopular minority government in Latvia, the Baltics smallest country maintains a certain steadfastness in its political culture. Part of this is thanks to the current coalition, whose leader Prime Minister Juhan Parts came to power in March 2003 on promises to bridge the two Estonias and bolster the middle class.
It hasnt been easy. Though the coalition remains and could possibly last until the next elections the popularity of the Parts-led party, Res Publica, has taken a dive over recent months. A clumsy appointment at the Finance Ministry, the grain embezzlement scandal, and most recently, the removal of Freedom Fighter monument, have, among other things, tarnished the image of a promising party. In an interview with The Baltic Times, Prime Minister Parts shared his thoughts on Res Publica, the coalition, the EU and other issues.
Are you satisfied with the results of the Res Publica party congress? Do you feel that the party was invigorated by it?
Yes, I am quite satisfied, because for me personally it was very important 's I was re-elected by a big majority. Also, some important resolutions for the future were adopted at the highest level of our party 's such as the [party's] main political positions for 2005, our understanding of how the party should be developed, et cetera. So I think this was a good congress.
This is a difficult topic, but, as you know, Res Publica's rating has fallen dramatically over the past year-and-a-half. What, in your opinion, are the reasons for this?
I think there is no one reason. Of course, we can look at it in the sense that all problems in society are somehow linked to the ruling government parties 's and now with Res Publica, which is the leading force in the government.
On the other hand, if you look at polls, support for the government [a coalition of Res Public, the Reform Party and the People's Union 's ed.] is still quite high. But the reality is that voters make their minds up during elections and not during polls.
So the conclusion is that there is no need to make any big changes in [Res Publica's] political platform. We need, of course, better communication with society, and there are small things that we need to consider more.
Res Publica didn't get a seat in the European Parliament. That must have been a disappointment after winning 26 percent of the popular vote in the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament) elections in March 2003. What will the party do to get its approval rating back to previous levels? Is there a specific program?
There is no specific program, because the right-wing electorate 's which is a majority in Estonia 's is not linked to one party. This is what we've seen in the past. I think the most important thing is to proceed with this government's program, to be more clear in our decisions, to explain more to our electorate, to show what could happen if any other political program were to be adopted and so on.
Therefore, I think we can continue this political line, but we need to think more about how to better explain our decisions.
Rein Taagepera [founding chairman of Res Publica, which was officially established in December 2001] said in a report he gave earlier this year that Res Publica doesn't have a core constituency. Would you agree with that, and if so, what is the party going to do to put together a group of party faithful?
We have to look at the political system, the party system, in the context of a country in transition, such as Estonia. We have to answer the question: What direction is the party system moving in? And here I think it's important that we have time to distinguish and develop our parties 's conservatives, Social Democrats, Greens, liberals. This is the direction that Estonian society needs now. I think ideological discussions will play a bigger role, [as will] understanding what is important for the people. I think this is Res Publica's mission 's not to try to find [a constituency] based only on its narrow interests, which is the People Union's motive.
Of course, this takes time. But I think this is the direction where we can stabilize and, let me emphasize, integrate the party system [along the lines of] the European party system. I think we will see in the near future the importance of these European political family networks 's this will be an additionally important element in the integration of European values and structures.
We also have to take into consideration that we have a lack of historical roots for a democratic political system. And this is also a mission: to grow with your people. That's how we can look at this [issue of core constituency] and not worry about who is [Res Publica's] electorate.
What is important for Res Publica is sticking to the center-right, conservative line, which we have done from the starting point.
Some observers have said that Res Publica has begun to look like, or sound like, the Reform Party. What will Res Publica do in upcoming elections to distinguish itself 's or to brand itself, if you will 's from the Reformists?
I don't think this is correct 's at least, not fully correct. The Reform Party has defined itself as a liberal party, but more and more they are moving toward the center-right 's look at their family policy, look at how their attitude toward the role of the state has changed. Besides, from its very inception the Reform Party was the party representing a very narrow range of interests.
I think the main issue for Res Publica, which is a young party 's but only as party and not as an organization, as you know Res Publica was a political discussion club founded in 1989 's is to develop the typical conservative approach, which is belief in the people, in the people's values, and those are more freedom for and trust in the people, [as well as] education and family. And we are also for lower taxes, and this is what we have in common with the Reform Party.
We don't want a politically programmed niche party. The whole picture of how society is moving is important, but the cornerstone is trust in the people and in the individual. And this is why we are different from the Social Democrats. And if [their party] develops, Estonians will have a new choice in the next election, because the social democratic ideology is different, and their roots are different.
Peeter Kreitzberg [former Center Party MP and now a member of the Social-Liberal bloc in Parliament] said in March 2003 that this government coalition would last a year-and-a-half. Well, according to my watch, it's September 2004, and the coalition is looking strong. What is your understanding of the coalition? Will it last another 18 months, to the 2007 election perhaps?
[smiles] I think the coalition is strong 's that's true. If we look at the political agenda between now and Christmas, there are a lot of important issues 's adopting the budget, reforming the educational program, health care 's but I also see solutions. I see that we, the coalition partners, are thinking in the same way. Therefore, I am quite optimistic that the coalition will continue.
What is important is the Estonian people need the assurance that the government will be in place from election to election. I think this is a signal of the new stability of the government. Of course, stability can't be a goal in itself, but I can confirm the current coalition has a good working relationship.
But the budget debate is about to begin, and last year there was a big problem with the People's Union over expenditures. Do you foresee another crisis like that this year?
Not at the moment. Of course, policies can sometimes change overnight, but today I think we have a good understanding of the budget. The budget is agreed basically on the political level.
But the People's Union is not pressuring you to spend more money like they did last year?
No. Last year the situation was difficult in finding an agreement on tax cuts, but then we decided to postpone [them] for a year. But now the law [on tax cuts] is in force, so the situation is different this year.
What about the seven MPs who left the Center Party, including Mr. Kreitzberg? Are you trying to entice them to Res Publica?
They are very welcome 's we are open. But they have to understand that we are the leading force in this coalition, and our job [as coalition partners] is to build not to destroy the coalition. They have to decide who they are.
There are two questions that are very important for Baltic readers. The first concerns the Lihula monument. Did the government make any mistakes regarding it?
The government's decision was right. We had to protect the Freedom Fighters from any kind of Nazi [associations]. But 's and I say this in the Estonian press 's this was a difficult decision that inevitably caused a lot of emotions. But today I see that society understands this and has begun to support the decision.
Will the government help sponsor/finance a monument to Estonia's Freedom Fighters? If so, when do you think it could be erected?
Last week I invited the leaders of the political parties represented in the Riigikogu [Estonia's parliament] to the Stenbock House [the government house 's ed.] to discuss the erection of the Freedom Statue and issues related to the research and presentation of the recent history of Estonia. We decided to adopt the joint statement, in which political parties support the erection of a memorial 's Freedom Statue 's to the people who fought and died for the independence of the Republic of Estonia and the victims of the violence of foreign powers. We also agreed that the government would allocate budget funds necessary for the statue.
A consensus of political parties and the public is required for erecting the statue, and in order to reach a consensus we consider it necessary to form a working group of political parties' representatives. The government appointed [Population Affairs] Minister Paul-Eerik Rummo to participate in the working group of the representatives of the political parties.
The second questions concerns Latvia. As you know, it has experienced many problems in recent months with its program of educational reform. Estonia has been pondering similar changes to its system, and you spoke this week in Parliament about the need for this. What form do you think this will take?
First of all, it is important to give more responsibility and freedom to schools, Russian [language] schools included. This is the question. So I think we will choose flexibility. But to be competitive, to be successful in society it is important to know languages, and the national language, Estonian, first of all. This has to be people's motivation 's not a decree from above. Orders don't work here.
Therefore, we intend to increase the use of Estonian language starting in 2007 and also before, but this is flexible. The most important thing is that the government undertakes measures to prepare teachers, but at the same time it is necessary to explain the reform and equip the schools for the change, because this is a challenge for them as well.
But we have made it very clear that every nationality has its culture, and we have to accept these nationalities, their language and culture. We have to take all of them into consideration 's Russian, Ukrainian, Finnish.
Will you learn from Latvia's mistakes?
There is a difference between the situation in Latvia and Estonia. But, anyway, all states have to decide for themselves. For me it is difficult to say. We support Latvia. They are our neighbors.
What does your government hope to get from EU membership in 2005? Are you worried about the tax harmonization issue - do you think the rhetoric from the French and Germans will get worse?
First of all, I hope that the union will be able to successfully comply with the main challenges of the day. That includes getting the Lisbon process back on track after the mid-term review and the spring European Council. We must all understand that inaction will lead to a gradual but certain loss of competitiveness on the world scale. More efforts should be put into it on the European level, but all member states should especially pay more attention to their commitments.
I also hope that the negotiations on Agenda 2007 will proceed at a reasonable pace, and we'll see concrete results by the end of the first half of the year. I admit that devising the finances of 25 states for seven years is not an easy task. But we should not be content with piling up all expenditure items 's rather, we should try to spend the money efficiently.
Certainly the tax harmonization issue is somewhat worrying. It worries me because the information and arguments some parties to the debate use are often incorrect. The overall tax burden in Estonia is close to the European average, and when measured in percentages of GDP then our government collects twice as much tax from enterprises than the German government. The rules for corporate income tax in Estonia have not reduced the volume of the national budget.
Besides, Estonia is the only Central and East European member state that fully complies with the principles of the EU Code of Conduct for Business Taxation and whose tax system does not contain provisions of harmful tax competition.
Given the continuous economic growth and healthy economic environment, and believing our capacity to use the structural funds efficiently, Estonia will one day be among the first new member states that will achieve a level of development where it will no longer need the support of structural funds.
At the same time I see no real reason to be worried, as direct taxation remains among the competences of member states, and thus the debate on the European level is bound to remain somewhat academic.
Did you and [Finnish] Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen discuss the preservation of Finno-Ugric culture, and were you able to agree upon some specific program in this regard?
Yes, at our meeting Prime Minister Vanhanen and I discussed cooperation in providing assistance to the Finno-Ugric groups living in Russia. We have agreed that Finland, Hungary and Estonia should better coordinate their activities on different levels to assist the Finno-Ugric groups living there. Now that Estonia and Hungary have become members of the EU, we have an opportunity to secure increased attention to this problem in the EU.
Is the government still open to discussing a possible sale of Eesti Telekom to TeliaSonera?
Yes, the government is still open to discuss a possible sale of Eesti Telekom. And we are ready to discuss this issue with all interested investors, not only with TeliaSonera. What is also important to point out 's we feel no urgency to sell our Eesti Telekom shares.