Estonian PM Kaja Kallas to become the new NATO chief*

Kaja Kallas, the current prime minister of Estonia, has won the backing of the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom to become the next secretary general of NATO, becoming the first woman and the first from eastern and central Europe to lead the alliance.*

Until recently, the favourite to succeed Jens Stoltenberg as the NATO secretary general was the outgoing Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, but Kallas appears to have won over the Germans and Americans, who had a change of heart.

It is understood that Rutte was disqualified because of the Netherlands’ dismal record on defence spending. “What moral credibility does this guy have?” Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former Estonian president, said recently, referring to the Netherlands’ failure to meet its NATO commitment to spend two per cent of GDP on defence during Rutte’s 13 years as prime minister.

Kallas has been touted as a potential successor to Jens Stoltenberg since 2022, when her strong support for Ukraine and analytical statements on Russia made her stand out in the international media. Estonia has increased its defence spending to three per cent of GDP for 2024-2027 and is one of the largest per capita donors to Ukraine.

Kaja Kallas at a NATO summit in Madrid, 30 June 2022. Photo by Stenbock House.

Eating Russians for breakfast

However, not all NATO members approved of her strong criticism of Russia – and that seemed to derail her campaign for a while.

Frans Timmermans, a former top Dutch official at the European Commission, epitomised Western European opposition to a Baltic head of NATO, saying that “she [Kallas] is also the prime minister of a country that borders Russia”. One EU official, speaking anonymously, said of Kallas, “Are we really putting someone who likes to eat Russians for breakfast in that position?”

But Kallas is believed to have persuaded the White House and the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, following her recent visits to Washington and Berlin, that she was the right person for the job after all. Convincing French President Emmanual Macron, long thought to be behind Rutte, proved more difficult, while the British, currently preoccupied with domestic issues, went along more easily.

The Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, meeting with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, on 18 October 2023, in Paris. Photo by Stenbock House.

High time to appoint a woman

NATO’s most powerful allies then agreed that after 75 years it’s high time for the alliance to appoint its first woman to the top civilian post, and that Kallas, a dynamic and eloquent leader, was the right person for the job. The fact that few Eastern and Central European countries have held the top jobs in the EU and NATO also helped – as it raised the question of whether there are first- and second-tier countries in NATO. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, and Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Bulgaria in 2004, but none of them has held a top NATO job.

The current NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, is expected to step down in October this year, allowing Kaja Kallas to take over.

Not popular at home

Kaja Kallas became Estonia’s first female prime minister in January 2021. Before becoming prime minister, she was a member of the European Parliament, where she worked on the EU’s digital single market strategy, energy and consumer policy, and relations with Ukraine.

The Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, at her desk at Stenbock House. Photo by the government of Estonia.
The Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, at her desk at Stenbock House. Photo by the government of Estonia.

In contrast to her international popularity, Kallas is viewed more unfavourably by the Estonian electorate. Her reputation has taken many hits during her time as prime minister – as Estonia has struggled with an economic downturn, high inflation and tax increases.

In 2023, Kallas also lost some of her credibility as a staunch supporter of Ukraine and vocal critic of Russia when it emerged that a transport company partly owned by her husband had not stopped doing business with Russia. Subsequent polls showed that a majority of Estonians wanted Kallas to resign as prime minister.

* Please note that this article was April Fool’s Day gag.

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