Estonia’s first female prime minister vows to tackle climate crisis

Kaja Kallas, 43, took power on Tuesday after the previous coalition collapsed due to a corruption scandal

Estonia’s first female prime minister has promised to implement changes in both style and substance in the governance of the Baltic nation, as she takes charge after two years in which a far-right party was in the ruling coalition.

Kaja Kallas, a 43-year-old lawyer and head of Estonia’s Reform party, was sworn into office on Tuesday.

“My government will be very pro-European, especially in supporting European values such as the rule of law,” she said in an interview. “We will also have a very clear change in policies when it comes to issues like climate policy.”

The new coalition government has vowed to develop plans to stop the production of oil shale power in the country by 2035 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

The previous coalition collapsed after a corruption scandal involving the Centre party of Jüri Ratas, who resigned as prime minister. He caused controversy after elections two years ago by going into coalition with the far-right EKRE, whose members opposed all immigration, were often Eurosceptic and on occasion praised Nazi economic policy.

A flagship EKRE policy was holding a referendum on whether to explicitly define marriage as between a man and a woman in the Estonian constitution, which they demanded as a condition of joining the government and which was due to take place later this year. With EKRE out of government, the referendum will now not take place.

Estonia passed a law allowing civil partnerships for same-sex couples six years ago, but many of the provisions are not yet in force. Kallas said she wanted to see progress on that, but added her government would not push for same-sex marriage.

“We will not open the marriage definition in order to keep division down in society, but we will try to move on with granting full rights to civil partnerships, so eventually we will achieve the same goal: that all people have the same rights,” she said.

EKRE politicians had become known for scandalous outbursts over the past two years, with President Kersti Kaljulaid even convening the country’s security council over fears that EKRE politicians were jeopardising relations with allies. She accused the Ratas government of being “a threat to national security and constitutional order”. EKRE’s leader, Mart Helme, who served as interior minister until late last year, called Joe Biden “corrupt” and referred to Finland’s 35-year-old prime ministerm Sanna Marin, as a “sales girl”.

Now, Estonia becomes one of the few countries in the world where both the prime minister and head of state are women. Kallas, who is the daughter of former prime minister Siim Kallas, also appointed women to the key cabinet posts of finance and foreign ministers. “Everybody asks me about their gender, it’s not about their gender it’s about them being really competent people,” she said.

The Centre party remains in the coalition, sharing ministerial posts with Kallas’s Reform party despite the corruption scandal.

Kallas said there was little that could be done to win over the support of EKRE voters, with the party neither winning new fans nor losing supporters during its time in government, instead staying at around 15% of support.

“It’s like a religion. It’s not based on the policies, but [their supporters] believe in them and nothing will make them decide otherwise,” she said, citing polls that showed EKRE voters were the least likely to be swayed by new policies into voting for other parties.

She said, however, that she had little time for the criticisms being made by EKRE politicians about the new direction of the government. “It’s like, can’t you have this monologue in front of a mirror? You were in the government for two years … and did nothing for the places and people further from Tallinn.”

The first major challenge for the new government will be dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The slow speed of EU vaccine procurement and distribution, as well as neighbouring Finland’s decision to close its borders to Estonians, is testing Europhile sentiment, but Kallas said, while the vaccine situation was frustrating, it was still better than each country looking after only itself.

“Without the joint approach … a small country that doesn’t need so many vaccines can’t really get on board of any agreement that pharmaceutical companies have with a big country; we could only ask other countries to also buy some for us,” she said. Once vaccines do arrive in larger quantities than the current trickle, a large proportion of Estonia’s 1.3 million population could be vaccinated quickly, she said.


Shaun Walker Central and eastern Europe correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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