Big Interview / Estonia
She who dares, wins
Digital innovation and streamlined services have made Estonia one of Europe’s most welcoming countries. Here the president discusses her nation’s winning streak – and its difficult neighbour.
When Kersti Kaljulaid was thrust into the Estonian presidency last year as a consensus candidate to resolve a political stalemate, it came as a surprise to many. She was not just an outsider – she was virtually unknown to most of the public. A trained biologist and former head of a power plant, she had spent the previous 12 years in the relatively anonymous confines of the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg.
In the year since taking office, the 47-year-old has quickly found her footing. When monocle visits the bright-pink presidential office building in Tallinn, she eschews the measured tone of an EU accountant and is frank about Russia’s meddling in elections and the importance of people protecting themselves online, or what she calls “cyber hygiene”. She’s also a passionate advocate of Estonia’s e-governance push, urging European governments to follow her country’s lead by moving basic services online and breaking down barriers with regards to sharing data across borders.
Kaljulaid has come to power at a critical time for Estonia. The tiny country of 1.3 million is enjoying an outsized moment of influence on the global stage: it is currently holding the rotating EU presidency for the first time and recently launched a campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council.
Concerns over the threat posed by its restive neighbour Russia also remain high. The Zapad-2017 war games, jointly conducted by Russia and Belarus on the doorstep of the Baltic states in September, put the region on edge. Moscow publicly claimed that fewer than 13,000 troops took part – the threshold for western monitoring under an international agreement – but Nato officials believe that the actual figure was much higher.
The alliance has affirmed its commitment to defend the Baltics in the event of an attack and has deployed four battlegroups totalling 4,500 troops to the region in the past year. “Nato has a 100 per cent track record in providing deterrence in difficult times,” says Kaljulaid. For a small frontline country such as Estonia, there may be no greater statement of reassurance.
MONOCLE: How seriously is the EU taking the potential Russian threat to the Baltics?
KERSTI KALJULAID: Sometimes I hear, particularly from Russia, that we simply hate Russia and don’t like to co-operate, that we are hysterical about the risks. But this is totally untrue. We would greatly benefit economically if our neighbour was a democratic, developing country. We are actually one of the biggest losers economically from EU sanctions on Russia [since its annexation of Crimea] but you don’t hear complaints from our businesses about it because we recognise that right now, unfortunately, it’s Russia’s own doing. It’s an unpredictable country that doesn’t even respect its own signature on international agreements.
M: Does Estonia feel protected by Nato?
KK: Absolutely. If you compare the scale of the Nato battalions deployed in the Baltic states and Poland to Russian forces exercising in Zapad–17, it may seem like nothing. But 18 Nato countries participate in the Enhanced Forward Presence and it sends a clear signal that Nato is protecting the territory of its members. The problem is if Russia is organising exercises – and not being transparent about what exactly these exercises are about – it creates suspicions as to their objectives.
M: Is the West’s cybersecurity infrastructure strong enough?
KK: Cybersecurity has been developed in the military domain but it is yet to spill over into the civil sphere. This is where the EU’s great opportunity lies: to translate cyber defence and security issues into “cyber hygiene” issues. This is one of the major goals for the European Union over the next decade.
M: Could Russian misinformation be used to sow discord among Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority?
KK: Estonia maintains a two-language school system. I don’t know many countries in the world that provide a system like ours. We are making sure that our Russian-speaking minority feels comfortable and involved in this country. One clear example in which Russian speakers feel secure here is that we still have 80,000 people with “grey passports”. These are people who haven’t made the choice to take citizenship – and we put no pressure on them to do so. They don’t feel that in order to share in the gains of society they have to achieve Estonian citizenship. I think they would give it up if they felt discriminated against or left out in this society. They can vote in local elections, like everywhere in Europe. So they don’t feel threatened at all.
M: The Centre party returned to power last year in Estonia. It claims that its co-operation agreement with Putin’s United Russia is frozen. But should it be torn up?
KK: Estonian voters will make sure that we never forget that such an agreement exists. It’s for the Centre party to decide when it’s time to tear up that agreement or take it out of the deep freeze and it’s down to voters to decide how they treat this party.
M: Is Estonia attempting to woo UK business owners with its e-residency programme?
KK: We are sorry to see the UK leaving the EU and we will not try to exploit it in this way. But even without campaigning, we immediately saw that after the Brexit vote the number of e-residency queries went up from three to 50 per week and it has remained at this level.
M: The EU is sceptical about sharing data across borders. How do you get past that?
KK: Governments don’t want to be the last ones in the digital sphere if their people and businesses are already there. We have to make clear that the free movement of services in the EU also applies in the digital sphere. The shortcut is to create a digital union.
M: How close is Europe to doing that?
KK: I think countries are recognising the inevitability. Governments also make sure the streets are safe by being present. Cyberspace needs to be kept safe in a similar way. So it’s not a choice, I would say.
M: What can the EU take away from Estonia’s success in digital governance?
KK: We have dared and won. We save 2 per cent of the gdp by signing documents digitally and I’m not able to count the number of days that people save from not having to queue at government offices. It’s not just about technology: we have used it inclusively to create a digital disruption of society itself. This inclusivity is what sets us apart – it’s the legal framework, the willingness of the political class, the private and public co-operation. You have to do it all together – and we did.