Estonian President on Ukraine’s Progress and Challenges
31 May, 2018

Russia and the conflict in Donbas. These were some of the key topics on the Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid’s agenda during her visit to Ukraine.

During the trip, which kicked off on May 22, Kaljulaid traveled to the city of Kramatorsk in the Donbas region where she met with internally displaced persons. This engagement makes Kaljulaid the first head of a foreign state to visit conflict-affected regions in the Donbas.

The Estonian leader also met with Ukrainian officials, including President Petro Poroshenko, Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, Deputy Prime Minister Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze and Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Andriy Parubiy.

Kaljulaid says that while she sees that Ukraine has taken steps to change its society, it is still facing significant challenges in its battle with corruption and the war in Donbas.

Abroad, there is exasperation with Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts. Issues surrounding the selection of judges for Ukraine’s future anti-corruption court have been a source of recent tensions between the government and Ukraine’s foreign partners.

From her meeting with public sector representatives, Kaljulaid says it was clear that this was also an internal concern. But, according to her, the public sector representatives know what issues needed to be addressed when it comes to reforms.

“They are painful, they apply pressure there, and a clever politician, of course, works with them, and hears this signal. I could also see that they have clearly been heard in this society. They were not at all hopeless, they were quite hopeful about Ukrainian development,” she said.

Meanwhile, on combating Russian propaganda – which Estonia is also battling – Kaljulaid advised against cutting off access to information.

“We can simply tell our people that we think this is propaganda. We must not do anti-propaganda, we must balance the information, we must make sure that at least our public broadcasters if they use public money to broadcast, their main goal should be to be balanced and trusted by our people,” she said.

Kaljulaid’s visit was scheduled to conclude with the UEFA Champions League finals in Kyiv on May 26.

Hromadske spoke to President Kersti Kaljulaid about reforms, economic development, and Russian influence during her visit to Ukraine.

So Madam President, we are happy to welcome you at Hromadske and we are happy to see you. Thanks for your time. My first question is, you spent some days in Ukraine, you met with Poroshenko, some other officials, with the representatives of the civil society, so what can you say, what are the three main things you want to say about Ukraine, progress, reforms, or anything?

I can see that Ukraine has made great steps in changing its society, while it is trying to take steps to change its economic climate for the better so that it will be an even playground for all business. I could see that particularly in the east of the country, politicians are thinking about how to support SME development. This part looks quite hopeful. On the other hand, we know that there has been some stalemate in the creation of anti-corruption courts, and there is a problem of internally displaced people, etc. So we have quite a high number of challenges, and the highest among these challenges is the east, the low-intensity war which is going in eastern Ukraine.

You are well known for your active work with the civil society, with the representatives of the civil sector. What can you advise for Ukrainian authorities in how to get through the barrier between society and government?

You must accept that civil society and voluntary action normally are directed at the points which hurt society the most, which definitely need quick attention from politicians. If you accept that then you realize that the cooperation between non-governmental organizations and voluntary groups takes your state forward really quickly. In Estonia, we used this as a model of 21st century public management. We actively seek to create services which are supported both by local government and NGOs, and we have noticed that over the years, NGOs have amassed a huge amount of information and methods, for example, to put forward social policies in the country. There are very good think tanks. So supporting them seems simply more reasonable to develop your societies and it's also guaranteeing that you are working with issues that matter. I have not yet seen a voluntary reaction which deals with matters that aren't important for society, and your situation renews itself constantly, because if civil society loses interest, the problem has probably been solved, gone away, and you can move onwards, which is very different to traditional public services creation, where you think for five years what to provide and then provide uniform services for everybody. This is too costly and too slow for people to get what they really need, and that's why we operate with NGOs, they pinpoint the painful points in society.

Photo credit: Vladyslav Musienko/POOL

How can you evaluate this work in Ukraine? I know you have met with some representatives of the public sector. What do you think of that?

I have to say that they were very optimistic about particular reforms, healthcare, decentralization. They see of course where you should go further. They were very worried about the inactivity about declarations of economic interest, for examples. They were very worried about the creation of the anti-corruption court. They pinpoint the exact issues in the society. They are painful, they apply pressure there, and a clever politician, of course, works with them and hears this signal. I could also see that they have clearly been heard in this society. They were not at all hopeless, they were quite hopeful about Ukrainian development.

The thing, unfortunately, is that Ukrainian-Estonian relationships are remembered in the context of investment scandals, for example in Kyiv's sky-mall and in Odessa' dock, where as many say local mafia just tried to seize the money from the investors. Have you raised this issue with Poroshenko? What can you say, will Estonia continue to invest in Ukraine after all?

First of all, Estonia does not invest in Ukraine, it's Estonian businesses which decide where to invest. Of course, I would be very astonished if somebody right now started a real-estate investment project from Estonia. These old dishes need to be sorted out, but I'm quite optimistic that as Ukraine develops its rule of law, these cases will be sorted out. Definitely, they are very visible in Estonia, and I've heard that also companies from other countries are facing similar difficulties, so indeed you need to develop your economic climate in general and your rule of law state in general. But people will look at the particularities and concrete cases. If they are solved, I am quite sure this will release a new wave of interest in Ukraine, meanwhile, I'm afraid that our companies are still very interested but I see most of this interest is in trade, where the loss of heavy investment risk is much lower.

Photo credit: Dmytro Rusanov/HROMADSKE

You were economics advisor to the prime minister at the time when Estonia started to introduce the electronic governance system. Ukraine is trying to do so and after the meeting, president Poroshenko said that we will do this in Ukraine. What were the hardships, and what should Ukraine do to make this efficient?

First of all, you cannot compare the development of digital state to another state because every state is a culture anyway, and your state culture will prevail also in your digital state. So everybody must find their own ways. Also, you cannot compare the digital of the beginning of the century to the digital of today. There are different opportunities and possibilities nowadays which are much better. So you shouldn't be looking at what we have been doing but you should be looking at what your objectives of service provision are, and use the most modern technology you can afford to use. It probably doesn't need to be very cutting edge, but they definitely wouldn't be the same thing we did, because time has gone by. What you need it just the will and I can see here that it's clear that the will is present. Of course, Estonian companies participate in the development of these services here, it would probably help to also renew our own services as we uncover new information and experiences elsewhere. Not only in Ukraine but in many countries globally, our companies of course not the state. Therefore it is mutually beneficial cooperation. Your digital state will be a Ukrainian digital state, not Estonian copied.

Estonia is the first country to introduce e-Citizenship. Can you explain how it works? What benefit do both sides get and what made the country introduce this initiative?

First of all, to make any benefits from offering e-Citizenship, you have to have an economic environment which is useful for business. Estonia is part of the EU market, Estonia is a stable economic climate, Estonia is a reasonable tax environment where tax bureaucracy is extremely low compared to all countries globally. At the same time, not a tax haven, so trusted by our partners and all this is there without any e-Residency discussion. When we have this environment and we have the tools to offer electronic management of your company creation, then if we open it to e-Residents, then they can have a European company in their pocket functioning everywhere in the world without much being present in Estonia. So it's an upper layer of our generally good investment or economic climate. These two sides together form the basis for an interest from third countries but other European countries as well, just to operate in an environment where physical presence is not necessary. The 21st century makes us know that technology makes us geographically free, and also where you can rely on a lower level of bureaucracy which is becoming more of an asset for any economy to develop.

And how did society react to this initiative at first? Do you think from the perspective of time, it's successful now?

It is very hard to say when exactly we can call a project successful, but one percent of the companies created in Estonia already now, of everything which had been created, is created by e-Residents. Not all of them are active, all of them are quite small, but still, you can see that it does bring additional economic activity to the country.

I also want to talk about the security bid. As I remember, a year ago NATO deployed its troops in Estonia and some other Baltic countries. From this time, does the country feel safer? What has changed?

May I first remind you that Estonia or any other Baltic country was not without NATO troops before last year? Because all of our armies are NATO troops. A NATO member has a responsibility to protect itself, Article 3, by spending two percent and taking good care of its security environment. We fulfill this. But as the risk analysis of NATO and surrounding NATO territory has changed, NATO provided additional deterrence by organizing eighteen member state of participate in NATO battalions in Baltic states and Poland to rise the deterring message and volume.

Photo credit: Dmytro Rusanov/HROMADSKE

In terms of digital and informational security, here in Ukraine as you may know, there is Russian propaganda which is also spread in many European countries. How do you say we should fight it without limiting freedom of speech?

First of all, indeed, we must not limit access to information, even if we know it to be propaganda. We can simply tell our people that we think this is propaganda. We must not do anti-propaganda, we must balance the information, we must make sure that at least our public broadcasters if they use public money to broadcast, their main goal should be to be balanced and trusted by our people. We should help private media enterprises to strive for the highest standards by self-regulation, calling, well our model it can work quite well, and then we should talk, talk, and talk about these disruptions to the media, disruptions to our democratic processes which is false news, and exercises by not-so-friendly powers. This has been done perfectly for example, by president Macron, who quite soon after his election stood beside president Putin, that you interrupted our democratic election process, and I didn't like it. This raises the awareness of the population.

Do you feel any interference, any Russian propaganda in Estonia?

Yes, all Russian propaganda channels as I said, are available in Estonia, and people can watch them if they so wish, but we make sure that balanced information is there as well. On the other hand, quite a big part of us lived their youth in the Soviet propaganda sphere, so maybe we are better vaccinated than Western European people who are only learning now what propaganda at this scale means. We have a habit of being very careful about what we believe.

Now it is the time of the rise of populism in Europe. We know of the governments in Hungary, Poland, Austria. How does Estonia fall in this environment, and what are your next steps?

First of all, I cannot define populists. President Macron is a great populist, quite frankly, but he's a great European as well. Creating simple messaging to your people, forwarding your ideas is what everyone should strive to. I think the mainstream just needs to strive harder if they want to be heard as well. People of course, will gradually also gain experience from working with the governments which originate from these parties which have over-promised. They cannot deliver, this much is clear. If they cannot deliver, then I believe that people will start to think again that simple solutions simply do not exist. This way we will overcome it, and how much disruption meanwhile to running our societies, budget balancing we will meanwhile see, who knows? But finally, people will see that empty promises are empty promises.

My last question, I want to come back to my first question. What can you name in terms of Ukrainian best sides and sectors where Ukraine should do more? For example, education. What would you say?

I never teach, on principle, over other nations and their politicians on how they should run their country. What I can tell about Ukraine is, and I'm not surprised, is that Ukrainian civil society is really well organized and ready to stick together to rise up to the challenges the country is facing. All UN agencies with whom I've talked here have also noted that. I think this is a common characteristic of your people, that they are essentially very kind people, to each other, to their relatives, to their village. This was great to see and experience also in the eastern Ukraine where things are so difficult right now.

/Interview by Liuda Kornievych