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Estonia’s president keeps faith with liberal democracy, Financial Times

Estonia’s president keeps faith with liberal democracy, Financial Times
Kersti Kaljulaid: 'We can face the future when the liberal democracy-based world sticks together'
© Charlie Bibby/FT


At 48, Kersti Kaljulaid is Estonia's youngest president since the small Baltic state regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Yet her memories go back far enough to persuade her that, no matter how serious the challenges confronting her nation and other western democracies, they are in some respects less formidable than those that faced Estonia in the early 1990s.

At that time, she recalls in an interview with the Financial Times, Estonian membership of Nato and the EU — the twin pillars of western security and prosperity — was far from assured. Russian troops were still stationed on Estonian soil and were not to leave until 1994.

Estonian incomes and living standards were modest, and the economy was barely recovering from half a century of communist mismanagement. The time when the reborn Estonian state would earn worldwide admiration as a trailblazer for the digital economy was a long way off.

For Ms Kaljulaid, all this puts contemporary trends in a useful historical perspective. "Not everything is so bad . . . Whichever way you look at it, we feel that we can face the future when the liberal democracy-based world sticks together. We have great trust that it will," she says.

The president was speaking in London one day after Estonia, acting in solidarity with the UK and other allies, said it would expel Russia's defence attaché from Tallinn because of the nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent in the English city of Salisbury.

Referring to western tension with Moscow, Ms Kaljulaid says: "Unfortunately, if we look at the surroundings of the EU, especially to the east, it is unpredictable and it doesn't show any sign of coming back to the rules-based world order. We need to be vigilant, and we need to continue our understanding of the risks.

"There is solidity. Nato has a 100 per cent track record over 70 years in making its people and countries safe."

Since she took office in October 2016, Ms Kaljulaid has earned a reputation for being less outspoken about Russia than her predecessor, Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

Yet she firmly supports Nato's decision two years ago to strengthen its military presence on its eastern flank, including in Estonia, where the UK leads a multinational battle group.

She emphasises that Estonia, unlike some Nato states, meets its commitment to spend 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence.

She points out that her country has dispatched forces to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq. "We're not consumers of security, we are contributors."

Estonia, a country of just 1.3m people, is this year celebrating the 100th anniversary of its original declaration of independence in 1918 — an independence extinguished by Soviet annexation in the 1940s. The experience of lost freedom explains the importance of Nato's security guarantee for Estonia, and why Ms Kaljulaid picks her words with care when she discusses contentious US policies such as President Donald Trump's protectionist trade initiatives.

"Globally, we need to make sure that markets are open . . . If we see that there are restrictions on free trade, then simple economic logic will demonstrate that this is not beneficial," she says.

However, she adds that a free-market international economy is not an end in itself, but rather a means to promote domestic social goods such as efficient, fair healthcare and education systems. "In Estonia our greatest national treasure is our egalitarian educational system," Ms Kaljulaid says.

She concedes that Britain's departure from the EU, scheduled for March 2019, will be unhelpful for Estonia and like-minded Baltic and Nordic states that tend to side with the UK, around the European table, in defence of liberal economic policies.

But if Brexit is a setback, other developments in the EU are positive. "There are high hopes of France and what they're trying to achieve there by liberalising the labour market and other reforms. You lose some, you gain some," she concludes.

Tony Barber in London April 1, 2018