Kaja Kallas: “Good Politics Have Nothing To Do With Gender”

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‘It’s an honour for me to talk to George V Magazine, I don’t do this often. I hesitate when it comes to these types of interviews, because they usually dress you up, take great photos of you, but then, during the interview, I feel ‘naked’, since they are only interested in my personal life or my sense of style.
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Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tells me she is relieved that there was no photoshoot needed for our interview, whilst laughing but this time I was happy to accept because you asked to talk about politics, my professional career, and the current situation in Estonia and in the world.’

Kaja Kallas, has been Estonia’s Prime Minister since January 26, 2021 and is the first woman to serve in the role. She’s been the leader of the Reform Party since 2018, and a member of the European Parliament from 2014 to 2018, representing the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. After Russia’s war against Ukraine broke out, Estonia became the biggest provider of military assistance towards Ukraine worldwide, based on the country’s GDP. That wasn’t the only time the country led the world stage during Kallas’ premiership.

For a period of time, in 2021, you were the Prime Minister and Kersti Kaljulaid was President of Estonia. It was the only time in world history where two women held the highest political positions of a country. How did that feel?

A journalist asked Kersti the same question and she said, ‘When two men hold these positions you don’t ask them this question. How do you feel about that?’ I think that is the appropriate approach. When it comes to men, we talk about their abilities, but when it comes to women it’s all about the gender, not whether they are capable.

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I know exactly what you mean, and I hope we soon get to a point where we don’t focus on the gender of politicians. Women have fought greatly to get to where we are now and we are still fighting for equality, and so I thought it was important to mention.

That’s true, I try to keep a balance in my cabinet when it comes to women and men – in my first and second cabinet they were in equal numbers. When I was elected leader of my party, many doubted whether I had what it takes. According to my résumé, I had 14 years of experience in the private sector, was partner in two of the biggest law offices in Estonia, member of the Estonian and the European Parliament, Chairwoman of the Economic Affairs Committee, a business consultant, and spoke several languages. If you take the résumé of one of my male colleagues, for example the leader of the opposition party, you will find that his first professional experience was Parliament member and then minister, and that he speaks one language. But it was my skills that were questioned. At the beginning of my term as Prime Minister, even my supporters told me to gain weight, to cut my hair, wear suits and glasses, speak in a lower voice – I realized they were telling me to look, speak, and act like a man, but the thing is I am not a man and I have always been very feminine, I’ve always liked dresses. I felt that, in people’s minds, high ranking positions are linked to men in suits, and everyone thought there was something wrong with me, and couldn’t quite figure out what that was – my mistake was I was a different gender. I decided I wouldn’t change; I still wear dresses and I only have two trousers for when I need to attend military events. I think I managed to change this way of thinking, by showing that women can do things in a different way, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be as good. Good politics have nothing to do with gender – everyone has different life experiences and, in order to keep a balance in decision-making, there should be a balance in our representation.

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Politics is also a family matter for you, given that your great-grandfather and your father played an important role in Estonia’s political scene. Did that affect your decisions for the future? Were you always interested in politics?

My mother is a doctor, my father a politician, and my brother works in economics. I remember when I had to choose what to study, I said that I didn’t want to do any of these things, because I wanted to be No.1 at what I did. That’s why I chose Law, so that no one would compare me to my family members, since none of them were lawyers. Growing up we always had political discussions at our table, and I was interested in hearing them and learning about the struggle for my country’s independence, and our first President… I started working as a lawyer when I was 19, because that’s when the process of Estonia’s independence started. While we were part of the Soviet Union there was no private property or market economy so everything had to be legislated from scratch. And who could help writing the laws? Law students, that spoke foreign languages and could read other countries’ legislature and use the best parts of each constitution. Law students also knew the legislature better and, when the market opened, were able to consult the new investors. At 27, I was already a partner in a law office and at 32, I was a partner at a second one and was playing golf all day, because that was how my distinguished colleagues and partners from other countries that were around 60 years old spent their time. That’s when I wondered: ‘Is this going to be your life?’. When you are a lawyer, you know first hand the errors in how the laws have been written and how societies have been designed, so I started writing articles suggesting changes and providing a different approach to the future. After one of my talks, a famous politician said to me that he needed people like me, with clear ideas, that knew how to speak and motivate the younger generation. That’s how the seed for a career in politics was planted. I tried to fight what was in my blood and stay away from it, because I didn’t want people to compare me to my father. I was an important name in competition law and not just somebody’s daughter. It’s funny though, because recently a lady took a picture with my father and when she showed it to her daughter, she said, ‘Oh, that’s Kaja Kallas’s father!’.

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You have managed to become No1 in politics and gained the nickname the ‘New Iron Lady’ this year. Margaret Thatcher was the original ‘Iron Lady’, but the name had negative connotations. Your name comes from your strong reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and your hard stance against Putin. Aside from your integrity, your bravery also is to be admired. Did you never fear speaking so openly against Russia and Putin?

I don’t have the time to wonder if it’s brave or not, because I’m thinking of what’s right and wrong. I come from a generation that was not free, we were under Russian occupation for 50 years and we gained our independence once again when I was a teenager. We owe it to the people of Ukraine to fight against the atrocities happening to them, so that they never happen again. What is happening in Ukraine right now, is what I was reading about in our own history books and the stories our grandfathers told us they lived in Estonia. There is no time for fear, because that’s what the oppressors take advantage of, they try to intimidate us and keep us from making our own decisions and if we let them, they will win, and that will be dangerous for the entire world.

How do you view the current situation? What do you think the future holds for Ukraine?

I think Ukraine has shocked everyone, since some people believed they wouldn’t even last three days – and they’ve lasted 500! This war will end when Russia realizes they made a mistake and that can only happen in two ways: One, Russia realizes that the West will support Ukraine for as long as it takes, and two, they realize they can’t break the Ukrainians’ spirit and defeat them. I think that the uprisings in Russia showed that there are disagreements in the country, so we have to amp the pressure. There are big talks ahead of us about whether Ukraine will become part of NATO. Ukrainians are literally fighting for European security, they are fighting and losing their lives so that the rest of us don’t have to. Therefore, we owe it to them to clear the path towards NATO once the war is over.

I can’t help but ask about the rumours that you are one of the top choices for the NATO’s Secretary General position. How do you feel?

I am thinking of my own personal story, since I was born under Russian occupation and my father was a Foreign Affairs Minister during the negotiations for Estonia joining NATO. I remember how hard it was, because no one wanted us to become a member of NATO or the European Union in general. Now that my name comes up in those circles, I feel it’s very important, not just for me, but mainly for my country, because it symbolizes our long road from the occupation to the free world and finally having a seat at that table as equals. I think me being nominated for Secretary General is unlikely, there’s still a long way to go for that, but even the fact that my name was mentioned is flattering.

What do you think your accomplishments are so far in your premiership? For example, everyone knows that Estonia is a pioneer in e-Government issues worldwide.

We are very proud of what we have achieved when it comes to e-Government. We are a small country, but we have contributed in something important, and we are world leaders in the matter. Estonians have great knowledge of technology and we view it as a chance for progress. For example, we have more than 90 sectors where we use AI to offer better public services. People live their lives online, they practically do everything online, and if they can’t communicate with the government that way, then we immediately alienate them. I am also proud of our investment in cyber security, and the increase in our budget for defence, something that required a lot of hard decisions. What I am truly proud of though, is our legislature for marriage equality. All citizens should have equal rights, that’s very important and very hard to achieve, but we stood on the right side of history, because the points made by those opposing marriage equality are completely weak. Also, we created a new ministry for the environment, that will deal with climate change issues. The work is still underway, but I feel that if we use this ‘green revolution’ to our advantage, we will be on the winning side.

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2PPR30K Zhytomyr, Ukraine. 24th Apr, 2023. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, exchange signed agreements following bilateral discussions at the Zhytomyr Polytechnic, April 24, 2023 in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. Credit: Pool Photo/Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/Alamy Live News

What you said about the government alienating citizens has a deeper meaning – that citizens are being alienated from politics in general. Being political doesn’t mean you are fanatical about a political party, but that as citizens we understand that politics affect every aspect of life and society.

Exactly, and I always say this: politics is a conversation about the rules that make a society function. When you say you’re not interested in politics, you are basically admitting that you are letting someone else make the rules and that you have no say in that. Having lived through a time where none of us had democracy or options, I deeply appreciate this possibility we have now, and it surprises me that the turnout to elections is around 60%, and not 80 or 90. You should want to have a say nowadays.

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VILNIUS, LITHUANIA – JULY 11: (Back Row L-R) Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, Incumbent president of Montenegro Jakov Milatovic, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of North Macedonia Dimitar Kovačevski, Prime Minister of Norway Jonas Gahr Støre, President of Poland Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister of Portugal Antonio Costa, Romanian President Klaus Iohannes, President of Slovakia Zuzana Čaputová, Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (Middle Row L-R) President of the Czech Republic Petr Pavel, President of the Czech Republic Petr Pavel, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas, President of Finland Sauli Niinistö, President of France Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir (obscured) Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (obscured), (Front Row L-R) Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Bulgaria Nikolai Denkov, Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander De Croo, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, President of Lithuania, Gitanas Nauseda, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister of Spain Pedro Sánchez and Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob pose for a family photograph on the first day of the 2023 NATO Summit on July 11, 2023 in Vilnius, Lithuania. The summit is bringing together NATO members and partner countries heads of state from July 11-12 to chart the alliance’s future, with Sweden’s application for membership and Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine as major topics on the summit agenda. (Photo by Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images)
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