Elegance. That’s the first word that pops into mind when Kersti Kaljulaid, 46, the president of Estonia, who was inaugurated only a week and a half ago, enters through the doors of the Finnish president’s official residence Mäntyniemi on Thursday morning.
She is wearing a long dark coat, stands tall and smiles happily as President Sauli Niinistö walks into the corridor to meet his new colleague from across the gulf. Just like a regular passenger, President Kaljulaid arrived in Finland from Tallinn with the cruise ferry. And just like a regular person, she enjoys the sunshine and karaoke that the Estonian cruise ferries provide. (Not sure if she likes to sing, though . . . . )
Kaljulaid is the first female president of the tech-savvy neighbor with about 1.3 million residents. She is a trained biologist specializing in genetics. She holds an MBA and has worked as an investment banker, a power plant manager and economic adviser to the prime minister. She considers herself as economically conservative with a strong liberal view on social issues. She’s the fourth president after Estonia claimed independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Kaljulaid was elected by the Estonian parliament after a month-long political stalemate, where the other contenders failed to collect enough support.
Her predecessor was Toomas Hendrik Ilves, known for his mission to drive Estonia into one of the forerunners of ICT and digitalization. (In Finland, he also became famous for his exquisite taste in rock music. He played a DJ gig in Helsinki last April.)
While Kaljulaids music taste is currently a mystery, she was not hiding any of her proudness to what Estonia has accomplished in the field of digitalization. In Estonia, 99.8 percent of the banking transactions are electronic, 95 percent of the medication is prescribed electronically and a prescription takes 10 minutes to reach all pharmacies in the country. The electronic ID, which enables access for all of Estonia’s secure e-services, is used by 93 percent of the population, whereas in Finland only 6 percent use a similar system.
After the talks with Niinistö, Kaljulaid said at the press conference that together in the field of ICT, Finland and Estonia could create a competitive advantage in the whole world. “We have a big digital footprint in Estonia alone. But we both working together would be something truly unique and nobody in the world has been able to demonstrate that level of cooperation,” she said smiling. She also thanked the “old-fashioned connections” between the two countries and the active cruise ferry traffic between the capitals. Even the undersea railway tunnel between Tallinn and Helsinki was something Kaljulaid could see happening in the future. “If somebody would have asked 20 years ago is it worthwhile that the ship goes from Tallinn to Helsinki so often, probably everybody would have said that our analysis shows that it’s not necessary,” she said. Millions of passengers pass the Gulf of Finland from Tallinn to Helsinki yearly. “Even if sunshine and karaoke are very nice things and the tunnel certainly doesn’t provide for that, I definitely do not rule out that one day there will be such a tunnel. Maybe first more for cargo and then the passengers can still enjoy the sunshine. But I don’t think it’s some kind of a utopia.”
After the talks of weather and business, the presidents touched on subjects of Russia and the crises in Ukraine and Syria. A question was raised about how Estonia communicates with Russia. I don’t see any difference in how we think about Russia,” said President Niinistö. “There’s a difference that we practice dialogue with Russia. But that is a more formal difference. Why we do that? I refer to a NATO meeting where it was emphasized by every country that towards Russia we need deterrence and dialogue, and Finland is doing both.”
President Kaljulaid said that she could only “echo what President Niinistö said.” “We are both bound by the EU line to take. We both talk the same message. We both talk the same language. For that, we don’t need to use exactly the same words and exactly the same methods. That is not necessary. But we are very much on the same page also on this mission.”
Additional sanctions against Russia were discussed as well. “We have to remind ourselves every day when we think about the situation in Syria that this is currently the biggest humanitarian crisis. If the international community finds that additional sanctions might have the desired effect, then, certainly, these sanctions should be used,” said President Kaljulaid. Kaljulaid continued that sanctions are a very sensitive topic in Finland and Estonia because “our economies are facing difficulties because of the sanctions already imposed and in place for long-term.” “We should not negate the economic effect of these sanctions already existing to our economies. We should not neglect that it is. We should own up that it exists but we should look what is on the other side, which is human lives,” said Kaljulaid. “Finland or I, we don’t rule out those sanctions,” said Niinistö.
An Estonian journalist asked if Finland as a non-NATO state would in a military conflict come to the aid of Estonia, which is a NATO member state. Would Finland help NATO? “We are around the same sea here . . . how could we help each other militarily, NATO member or not?” “I don’t think that you will find very many people in Finland that say that NATO is going to help us,” President Niinistö said. We understand very well that if we are not members, we do not have security guarantees. That is very obvious to us.”
“Like you maybe know, Finland has very strong own defense forces,” Niinistö continued, “We have been thinking during the decades that it’s a good threshold against anybody to come violently to Finland. It still is, but I would add that in the world we live, a strong defense force is also a very interesting point-of-view for possible allies if something happens.” “Then you asked how Finland could help Estonia. Estonia is a member of NATO, let’s keep it in mind. Estonia has security guarantees given by NATO. If those security guarantees would sometimes be used, which nobody surely doesn’t hope and nobody maybe expects and Finland does not have any security guarantees . . . so in a way, your question is one sided. We know that we don’t get help, so while one sided in that way, do we in spite of that give help?”
Kaljulaid reminded that even as a NATO member, the responsibility of a member state is to protect itself. “That is an obligation of every NATO member state.” So in that, there is not such a big asymmetry: NATO expects its member states to protect themselves. On top of that, there is our cooperation and the guarantees, which have been provided to us.”
According to Kaljulaid, there is also another element to the security cooperation “which we should never forget.” You can’t be the consumer of security only, you have to be a provider of security similarly,” she said. “In the places of a crisis in the world, which might be quite far from you. We do act together, we do help to create international security. It’s a UN mission. Through these kinds of cooperative actions, we are actually working towards a common security with Finland as well.”
Niinistö continued that Finland is “working heavily that the European Union would create a common security and defense policy.” According to an EU ruling, Finland has to help any other EU country if needed. “I can assure you that in Finland we have a totally different idea of the amount of the help than just maybe 10,000 liters of olive oil,” President Niinistö said.