Paul Goble: Like her predecessors, the new Estonian president understands the transforming power of words

Under the Estonian constitution, that country’s president has few enumerated powers, but he or now she does have the power of words and thus the power to help shape the understanding not only of the residents of that Baltic country but of the Western world of which it is very much a part.

In her open letter a week ago “to all the residents of Estonia”, Kersti Kaljulaid both by the title she chose to address the country prior to her election in the third round of voting and by the points she made in it demonstrated that following her inauguration on 3 October, she will continue the tradition of Lennart Meri and Toomas Hendrik Ilves even as she chooses her own words.

Few countries have succeeded in boxing above their weight class more than Estonia and in large measure because first Lennart Meri and then Toomas Hendrik Ilves understood the power of words to shape how Estonians see the world and how the world sees Estonia and its place on the map.

The two of them, the first a remarkable novelist and filmmaker before becoming foreign minister and then president, and the second an equally remarkable journalist and writer before becoming the Estonian ambassador to Washington and then foreign minister, were so successful that many worried that no one could do what they did.

From her open letter, it appears that Kaljulaid herself was among them, given that she expressed her worry that the election process hadn’t resulted in the choice of one of the party candidates but had led to her selection, a non-party person who had worked as an EU official for the last dozen years.

In her letter, she commented that by the nature of things, she was convinced that anyone elevated to the office of president in the way that she was would in the nature of things have “meager” authority and that there was a real risk that the individual chosen this way would be like “a porcelain statuette on the mantel”, attractive enough but not that important.

On the strength of her words and words about words, neither she nor anyone else need to worry that that will be her fate.

Perhaps most significantly, Kaljulaid addressed her letter to “the residents of Estonia” and not just to Estonians or Estonian citizens; and she signed it with the familiar “thou” rather than the more moral “you”, both of which will be read by Estonian citizens and non-citizens alike as heralding a new day.

“Perhaps most significantly, Kaljulaid addressed her letter to ‘the residents of Estonia’ and not just to Estonians or Estonian citizens; and she signed it with the familiar ‘thou’ rather than the more moral ‘you’, both of which will be read by Estonian citizens and non-citizens alike as heralding a new day.”

But she made several other important remarks that should be noted. She said that the election process, although protracted, was not a government crisis but rather represented “a step forward” because in the end if forced the various sides involved to “speak with one another”, a process Kaljulaid indicated she would like to continue.

“What can a president do?” she asked rhetorically. His or her role is described in the constitution, and it is quite limited under most conditions, “but the president always has the power of his words about which the constitution doesn’t speak”. He or she can’t propose a solution for “every problem of Estonia but can help structure the discussion about each”.

Kaljulaid reiterated her view that “the cornerstone of a strong democracy consists of citizens who are confident in themselves and an ethical state”. The latter is a state that helps those who need it without getting in the way of those who do not and among those who need it are children, the ill, and the elderly.

After Estonia restored its independence, Estonians sought to build a state that was as lean as possible, she continued. “The countries of Western Europe have now caught up with us: too large expenditures on state services is a problem almost everywhere. We, however, have already entered a new era,” and “our state must be a state of civic unions”.

“The easy part has ended,” she said. “We are in the trap of a middle income country.” Now, we need to move forward, and in this “the role of the president in Estonia is very important”. Estonians need to know their president, and the world needs to know Estonia even better than it does.

Her immediate predecessor, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, did “brilliant” work in this direction, Kaljulaid says. Indeed, he set “a very high standard”, which she pledges to uphold. “Obviously, the boots remaining in Kadriorg Palace,” the presidential residence, “are too big;” and Kaljulaid pledged that she would find her own. It’s already clear that she is on the way to doing so.


The opinions in this article are those of the author. The article was originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Cover: Kersti Kaljulaid took her oath of office in the Estonian parliament, Riigikogu, on 3 October. Kaljulaid and her husband, Georgi-Rene Maksimovski, were accompanied by outgoing president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves (photo by Andres Putting.)

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