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Estonia to keep anti-Russia stance under new prime minister

Henry-Laur Allik
June 28, 2024

Estonia's climate minister, Kristen Michal, is the favorite to become the country's next prime minister as Kaja Kallas heads to Brussels. Michal told DW Estonia's security and foreign policy won't change.

Estonia's climate minister Kristen Michal.
Climate Minister Kristen Michal will most likely be declared Estonia's prime minister on SaturdayImage: Gints Ivuskans/DeFodi Images/picture alliance

After months of speculation, EU leaders have nominated Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, a strong critic of Russia and Vladimir Putin, to lead EU foreign policy for the next five years.

This means someone from her the right-liberal Reform Party, which currently holds a strong mandate in Estonia's parliament, will have to fill her shoes as new party leader and prime minister of the Baltic state.

Kallas would have preferred that the new party leader be elected at an emergency party congress. But the Reform Party board decided to do things quickly, and elect the new candidate — and next prime minister — behind closed doors on Saturday. And the only candidate is Estonia's current climate minister, Kristen Michal.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaks at a microphone, standing next to an EU flag
Kaja Kallas, a strong supporter of Ukraine, is set to become the next EU foreign policy chiefImage: Askin Kıyagan/Anadolu/picture alliance

Michal has been a top politician in the Reform Party for years, serving as different ministers. But he has never been able to claim the party leadership, due in part to a 2012 political funding scandal which led to his resignation as justice minister.

No competition for prime minister post

The names of two potential candidates — Michal and Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur — had been making the rounds for months, with Kallas angling for the position of NATO secretary-general. But after Kallas' nomination as EU foreign policy chief on Thursday, Pevkur, who already was party leader from 2017-2018 before Kallas, announced he would drop out of the race.

"There is a war going on in Europe, and in this situation, Estonia does not need a government crisis and political squabble," he said Friday. "We need stability for both Estonia and the party."

German Minister of Defense  Boris Pistorius, stands with his Estonian counterpart Hanno Pevkur in front of a Spanish Eurofighter at the Ämari Airbase.
Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (left, seen here with German counterpart Boris Pistorius last September), announced he was not in the running for the role of prime minister on FridayImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Immediately after Pevkur's statement, Michal publicly announced he was in the running. It's expected he'll be officially chosen as candidate for the role of prime minister on Saturday afternoon. Once changes to the governing coalition's agreement are ironed out, he'll be sworn in as the country's next leader — a formality, given the coalition's strong parliamentary majority.

Meinhard Pulk, a political journalist for Estonian newspaper Postimees, said Pevkur's withdrawal as candidate was logical — and, with Michal as the favorite, the only possible step.

"The signals and messages that came to the public from party members were such that there was no room for doubt, and Pevkur realized there was no point in him even trying this time," he said. "It would have been a lost fight and would divide the party too much."

Tõnis Saarts, a political scientist at the University of Tallinn, told DW that appointing a prime minister behind closed doors could cause tensions in the Reform Party. He said a previous experience in 2014, in which Taavi Rõivas was elected by the board and formally confirmed by the party's general assembly as party leader and prime minister, did not go well.

"There was public criticism that it was not legitimate enough," said Saarts.

Foreign policy won't change: Michal

Before Kallas leaves for Brussels and Michal takes over as prime minister, the current governing coalition — made up of Reform, the Social Democrats and the liberal Estonia 200 party — is expected to redefine its coalition agreement. But its foreign policy is guaranteed to stay the same, the incoming prime minister told DW on Friday.

"The direction of foreign policy will still be the same as with Kaja Kallas, we are like-minded in security and foreign policy," said Michal.

EU, Ukraine sign long-term security pact

Estonia, occupied by the Soviet Union for 50 years, has been one of Ukraine's biggest supporters over the last two years — and one of the fiercest critics of Russia's war of aggression. 

"Michal is probably inward-looking, but since the general political attitude in Estonia is so strongly pro-Ukrainian, even internally, Michal cannot be allowed to give even some impression that Ukraine has somehow been neglected," said political journalist Pulk.

Pressing issues, like national defense, what to do with a car tax law and how to put the state's finances in order remain on the coalition's agenda. But national defense remains the most pressing, as the danger from Russia is felt intensively on the EU's external border.

"The key issues of recent Estonian policy are our shortage of ammunition reserves, but solving this requires huge amounts of money in the Estonian context," said Pulk. "Whether or not a political consensus and ways to fund it will be found under Michal will be one of the most important questions of the government."

Edited by: Martin Kuebler