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Europe’s new ‘Iron Lady’ The steady rise and future potential of Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas

Source: Meduza
Leon Neal / Getty Images

In Estonia’s parliamentary election earlier this month, the ruling Reform Party claimed a landslide victory, while its chairwoman, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, won re-election with the highest vote count in the country’s history. The 45-year-old former lawyer’s decisive win came despite the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has hit Estonia’s economy harder than that of any other E.U. country. From a political standpoint, this means the country is likely to maintain its current course, which embraces active support for Ukraine, an uncompromising stance towards the Kremlin, and close coordination with the E.U. Kallas is the face of this course, and her political star has risen not just at home but across Europe in the year since Russia launched its full-scale war. According to some, she’s destined for a future in international politics — perhaps even as the secretary general of NATO. Meduza tells Kallas’s story.

Her mother’s forced deportation and her father’s political career

In many ways, Kaja Kallas is a typical northern European politician. She doesn’t have the streets blocked off when she travels by motorcade, and on normal days, she’s comfortable walking, running, and biking right alongside her constituents. She has a Twitter account, speaks English well, plays the drums, and likes to dance.

But like many Estonians, Kallas doesn’t have to look back very far to find a painful chapter in her family history. In the late 1940s, her mother was deported east after the USSR annexed Estonia. “My mom was only six months old when she was sent with my grandmother and great grandmother to Siberia in cattle cars,” Kallas said in an interview last year. The women spent 10 years in Krasnoyarsk, not returning to the Estonian SSR until 1959.

In 1999, Kallas graduated from the University of Tartu, where she studied antitrust law. At 27, she became a partner in the major law firm Luiga Mody Hääl Borenius and Tark & ​​Co. “I thought, ‘Is this really all there is?’” she said later. “The other partners were over 60, and they would play golf for days on end. I played with them too, but the whole time I’d be thinking, ‘Is this really how I’m going to spend the rest of my life?’”

Kallas isn’t the first public figure in her family; her father, Siim Kallas, has been a well-known politician since the Soviet era. A member of the Communist Party, he led the Estonian branch of the USSR Savings Bank from 1979 to 1986. After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, he headed the Bank of Estonia until 1995, then went into politics and founded the Reform Party. He went on to serve as the country’s foreign minister, its finance minister, and, in 2002–2003, its prime minister. After that, he served as the vice president of the European Commission from 2004 to 2014, but he’s since returned to Estonian politics and was elected to Estonia’s parliament alongside his daughter on March 5.

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On the one hand, then, Kaja Kallas’s political career seems to have been inevitable. But she insists that her father’s accomplishments scared her away from politics for a long time:

When I applied to university, I thought I definitely wanted to be first in whatever I did. And so, I decided not to go into the fields where my father, my mother, or my brother had already made names for themselves, so as not to be compared to them.

But after her accomplishments in the legal world, Kallas said recently, politics was simply the next logical step: “When you practice law, you see what could be better. And you give advice.”

To Brussels and back again

In 2010, at 32 years old, Kaja Kallas joined the Reform Party, and just one year later, she was elected to the Estonian Parliament, or the Riigikogu, where she headed up the Economic Affairs Committee. Next, she ran for the European Parliament, and won that election in a landslide as well. In the fall of 2017, Politico named Kallas as one of Brussels’s most influential women, and VoteWatch included her on a list of the 70 most influential European deputies.

Kallas’s next election, an intra-party one in 2018, forced her to return home to Estonia. Then, in the following year’s parliamentary elections, she ran as chairman of the Reform Party and won again, prompting the country’s largely ceremonial president to nominate her as prime minister. When she proved unable to put together a majority coalition, however, other parties formed one, electing Jüri Ratas, the chairman of the Center Party, as prime minister instead. Then, two years later, he resigned amid corruption allegations.

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After Ratas’s resignation, Kallas’s bid for prime minister found support from a majority of deputies, and her first cabinet began work on January 26, 2021. Kallas became Estonia’s first female prime minister, and her government contained more female ministers (seven out of 14) than any previous one.

From COVID-19 to the war in Ukraine

When Kaja Kallas took office as prime minister, the coronavirus pandemic was raging. The peak of the country’s restrictive measures had passed, but she still had to handle scandals involving the purchase of rapid tests for schools, provide subsidies for businesses, and implement vaccine passports, among other tasks. By all measures, she succeeded: Estonia finished 2021 with economic growth at 8 percent (after a disastrous -0.6 percent the previous year).

Then came Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. From the start, Estonia proved a resolute and generous ally to Kyiv, and Kallas’s personal position played no small role. Estonia donated a higher share of its own GDP to Ukraine in 2022 than any other country and was the only country to donate more than 1 percent of its GDP.

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“Every weapon we’ve provided to Ukraine has weakened our enemy and strengthened our own security,” Kallas has said.

Also straining the Estonian economy was the sudden stream of Ukrainian refugees, 122,554 of whom have entered the country since the start of the war (and 66,762 of whom have remained there). The Estonian state budget provides them with temporary housing, one-time rental compensation payments of 1,200 euros, and benefits of 200 euros per month. Meanwhile, in fall 2021, months before the war, Russian gas supply disruptions caused inflation to accelerate, and in 2022, it reached 25 percent (Estonia fully banned the purchase and import of Russian gas beginning on January 1, 2023).

Amid all this, the country’s spending on security increased, resulting in a 1.2 percent GDP deficit for 2022.

And against that backdrop, a domestic political dispute erupted around child and family benefits, causing a split between deputies in the Reform Party and their allies in the Center Party. In response, in June 2022, Kallas asked President Alar Karis to dismiss all six ministers representing the Center Party. Afterward, the Reform Party created a new coalition with the Social Democratic Party and the center-right party Isamaa. In June 2022, Kallas resigned as prime minister so that a new government could be formed, and her second cabinet was sworn in, just days later.

By late 2022, Estonia had undergone a recession, become the only E.U. country whose GDP shrank, and had the highest inflation rate in the E.U. (19.4 percent). Estonia prides itself on its low national debt (15.8 percent of GDP), but the country’s budget deficit forced it to borrow at a fairly high rate (4 percent for ten years). For comparison, Latvia, whose national debt is around 40 percent, borrowed money at a 3.5 percent rate for five years.

So say Kallas’s supporters

One of the biggest reasons for Kallas’s popularity at home is that Estonia has begun to play a more significant role on the international stage under her leadership. She’s become known for her unyielding position both domestically and internationally, even earning the nickname “Europe's Iron Lady” for her refusal to compromise with Vladimir Putin.

The New York Times recently named Kallas as a potential future candidate for secretary general of NATO. The Washington Post described her as a “fluent English speaker and prolific social media user” who is “widely quoted in international media and has been credited with raising Estonia’s influence in the European Union and around the world.”

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“Kallas has told Western Europe about the things that worry us here in Estonia [and] about our history and our fears. That’s important because the Western world still underestimates these problems and doesn’t know what life is like for people in the Baltic states and in Eastern Europe,” Estonian journalist Neeme Korv told Meduza.

“If nobody knows about you, nobody will notice if you disappear one day,” Kallas herself has said, presumably referring to her country’s annexation by the USSR, when Estonia’s formal allies didn’t come to its aid. “So, we’re trying to become visible.”

In Korv’s view, “with her popularity abroad and the attention she gives to foreign policy, you might compare Kallas to [popular Estonian writer, director, and former President] Lennart Meri.”

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Because Kallas was unable to form a coalition after her victory in Estonia’s 2019 parliamentary election, two years passed between the promises she made to voters and her rise to real power. Nonetheless, she’s already made good on several campaign vows. After years of slow progress regarding the country’s linguistic transition from Russian to Estonian, Kallas’s government recently implemented a radical plan: beginning in 2024, all first-grade students in Estonia will receive schooling in Estonian, and by 2030, no students of any age will receive their education in Russian.

Neeme Korv reflected that the collapse of Kallas’s ruling coalition last year seems to have worked in her favor. “Kallas didn’t have enough experience to solve such complicated problems. But on the other hand, by going through that, she became a mature politician in the eyes of the population and gained voters.”

So say Kallas’s critics

So far, Kaja Kallas has managed to avoid corruption scandals of her own, but not everyone in her circle has been so fortunate (or, perhaps, scrupulous) — including her own father. In the late 1990s, Siim Kallas was hit with fraud charges related to the disappearance of $10 million back in 1993, when he was the head of the Bank of Estonia (he was ultimately acquitted).

Siim Kallas
Postimees Grupp / Scanpix / LETA

Siim Kallas was charged again in the spring of 2014, this time for allegedly issuing 10 letters of guarantee back in the 1990s for a total of about 1.3 billion kroons that weren’t reflected in the Bank of Estonia’s annual balance sheet. The case never went to trial, but the scandal appears to have caused Kallas to delay his return to politics for several years, possibly costing him the prime ministership.

Kaja Kallas’s second ex-husband, Taavi Veskimägi, who heads the Estonian national energy company Elering, has been the subject of some controversy too. Last year, when Estonia was frantically searching for a substitute for Russian gas, Elering sparred publicly with the country’s largest private energy company, Alexela, about the construction of Estonia’s first LNG terminal. And in a recent interview, Alexela majority owner Heiti Hääl called Veskimägi “the person who decides what’s best for the Estonian economy” and pointedly suggested that the interviewer ask Kaja Kallas how this became the case.

Kallas must also manage the frustrations of Estonia’s Russian-speaking population. That much was clear from the results of the most recent parliamentary election in Ida-Viru County, which borders Russia and has a higher share of Russian speakers than any other Estonian county. There, the most popular candidates were former deputy Mihhail Stalnuhhin (who called the Estonian government “fascist” in September for taking down a Soviet-era tank statue in the town of Narva-Jõesuu) and Aivo Peterson, who traveled to Ukraine’s annexed Donbas region shortly before the election.

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Due to the nature of the Estonian electoral system, neither Stalnuhhin nor Peterson made it to parliament, but Ida-Viru County is likely to pose a challenge for Kallas’s third cabinet.

At the same time, Estonia’s more radical politicians — whether the openly pro-Russian ones or the Eurosceptic Estonian nationalists — appear to have scared some of their voters away. “I think that, in the end, Kallas won some of the protest votes,” journalist Neeme Korv told Meduza. “Many in Estonia share European values and want to develop along with the E.U. In addition, we love and value our army.”

A consistent Russia stance

Unlike many European politicians, Kallas has taken an unyielding stand towards Moscow since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In January 2022, even before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, she proposed supplying weapons to Kyiv. “When the war started, people started to tell me, ‘You were right, and we were naive; we should have listened to you from the very start,’” Kallas said in a recent interview. “But now, I’m hearing once again that I may have been right then, but that now they know better.”

In April 2022, after the world learned about the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Irpin and Bucha, Kallas wrote in The Economist that “indifference is the mother of all crimes” and warned that the horrors in Ukraine were not over:

Here I am speaking from the experience of my own country. For Estonia and many others after the Second World War, peace meant the beginning of the Soviet occupation with its huge human cost. It brought renewed suffering through mass killings, repressions, mass deportations, and other crimes against humanity.

Kallas has warned elsewhere that to give in to Russia’s demands right now would be dangerous: “In four years, they’ll build up their forces and do the same thing again. We’ve already been through this — for example, with the Minsk agreements.”

Story by Ekaterina Mereminskaya

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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