Alar Karis – an Estonian molecular geneticist, developmental biologist, ex-rector of two major Estonian universities and former director of the Estonian National Museum – has been, since October 2021, the country’s sixth president. In a sit-down interview with bne IntelliNews last month, Karis reflected on the performance of the Estonian government, the war in Ukraine and low birth rates in his country.
As we are talking amid the war in Ukraine, are you concerned what could happen next, in terms of the aggravation of the situation?
It is extremely difficult to predict it. Nobody was expecting it and aware that this kind of war can start. I was in Kyiv two days before the war broke out. On February 22, I talked to the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and even he did not expect this kind of war. Yes, he was telling me that they can come with tanks to Lugansk or Donetsk, not to Kyiv though.
With my other Baltic counterparts [Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania and Egils Levits of Latvia] and the Polish president [Andrzej Duda], I visited Ukraine in April and I saw first-hand the atrocities and crimes against humanity there.
I, however, cannot predict if the war will escalate, and how if it does.
Do you believe Estonia, and the Baltics, Nato member states, are 100 percent safe?
I guess so, as we are under the umbrella of Nato. We see that the neutral countries until now, Finland and Sweden, are becoming members of Nato. This is a big change.
Your predecessor, Kersti Kaljulaid, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019. Was it a mistake? If you were to say something to Putin now, what would the words be?
The circumstances then and now are completely different. I see no point whatsoever in talking to the Russian president now. In a sense, we, the Western states, failed – so many heads of Western states went to Russia recently, I mean before the war, yet we did not manage to avoid the war.
Do you believe that the Russian community in Estonia is integrated very well?
All ethnic communities could be integrated better. As the saying goes: ‘You need two to tango’. I’ve just come from Narva [an Estonian region with a large Russian community], where I visited schools among other things. I do believe that the people there could discover the other parts of Estonia as well, and vice versa. With regards to the ethnic minorities, there are always a number of issues to be discussed, including the use of the language.
How do you assess the work of the Reform-Centre government? And it’s handling of the COVID pandemic? [this interview took place before the collapse of the coalition last week]
(pause) It always could be better. I’d rather not answer the second part, as it requires deep analyses, comparisons, et cetera. But in general, we managed it ok. I got vaccinated three times, yet I contracted the disease. A mild form of it, luckily.
As we are talking following the EMYA reward ceremony in Tartu, the home of the Estonian National Museum, which you headed for three and a half years before becoming Estonia’s new president, what would you say to those who maintain that you do not have the necessary political experience for the job? And that you do not have an efficient team in the president’s office?
Any experience is valuable. You always take all your experiences – or part of them – along with you – to any position and post in your life. I could not mention any specific experience I’ve had in my professional life, or beyond it, as being the most important. Let me note that, before coming to the museum, I’d been rector of two Estonian universities for quite some time. Also, I’ve been auditor general of the country, so I’ve seen a lot in my life.
With regards to your second question, I’ve been monitoring politics very closely. Being the country’s auditor general obligated me to take part in government sittings – nearly every week. I was not only listening to what the government members had to say, but I’d also weigh in on issues relevant to my position.
What goals have you set for yourself as the president? Where do you want to bring Estonia next?
I’ve been repeating from the beginning that, to me, it is very important that our nation – all the people – be very well educated and innovative. I’m placing the biggest importance on that.
The other thing that I find very important – especially these days – is the mental health of our people. It seems to me it is very important to be focusing on it now [following the COVID pandemic] as it affects our families, communities and, certainly, the state.
Are there any other things besides the two mentioned that raise your concerns?
As a citizen and as a new president, everything matters to me. But to remind you, the president has symbolic powers in Estonia. So I often think that all the Estonian president can do is talk to the people.
I see it as a very important mission – our communities are very tight-knit, diverse. As you know, we have a sizeable Russian community, also there are people whose living standards are lower than those of the others and so on. I see myself talking to very different people and communities in order to bring our government’s attention to their needs.
Like in most Europe, Estonia’s birth rate is unimpressive, to say it mildly. Will Estonia, a tiny country, be around in a couple of hundred years from now? How can Estonian women bear more babies?
Of course, we do have a future! Likewise the Lithuanians and the Latvians. If you look at the European Union, relatively small countries comprise one third of it.
But you are right, the demographics is a problem now. Here in Estonia and elsewhere – even in China. Naturally, every country wants to have a large population and more educated people, et cetera.
As a small country, we have to collaborate with the others. With the technological advancement we’re enjoying, there will perhaps be more jobs that do not require humans at all.
There’s no single solution to the low birth rate, though.
There is an ongoing discussion in Estonia to allow the voters to pick their president. Do you support the idea?
It is exclusively up to our people. It does not matter if I support it or not. The discussion you mentioned has been around for the last hundred years perhaps.
There are different ways of electing the president. I am open to any discussion and this too – I’ve started talking about that to our politicians and the political fractions in our parliament, the Riigikogu. If they come up with any consensus on the topic, I am ready to have a joint meeting with them to take it further. If there is no consensus and support, it makes no point to go to the parliament to change our constitution. I think we should get an answer [on the proposal] soon.
Estonia has nine unicorns. What is the secret for that?
Most of them are in the IT field. The main reason why we have relatively many of them is that we started working in the direction – promoting startups and entrepreneurship – quite early. We’ve made a clear emphasis on education too, which is significantly behind the achievement. Innovation has always been important for Estonians.
Are you aware of any other case when a museum director has become head of state?
Frankly, I’ve not done that kind of survey. But since we have quite many countries in the world, there might be a museum director who became a country’s president. I am not aware of such a case; however, I cannot rule out I am an exception.
Some still poke fun at Estonians as being slow. How would response to that?
[Grins] Here in Estonia we say that Finns are slow. It depends on who says it and how. But at the end of they, actions speak louder than words, don’t they say? [grins]
This interview has been lightly edited for readability.