Estonia's Star in the Making How Kaja Kallas Rose To Become One of Europe's Leading Voices
There are two different kinds of stories the family of Kaja Kallas tells about the years they spent in Siberia. There are the stories of hunger, cold and fear – of how Soviet soldiers piled Kallas' mother into a cattle car with her mother and grandmother in 1949 and deported them to the east, beyond Novosibirsk. And then there are the stories they can laugh about. The one about how they managed to bring a sewing machine along with them, which provided a bit of income once they arrived at their destination, a tiny settlement of little more than a handful of wooden huts. There, they repaired the clothing of other residents. "My grandparents experienced horrible things," says Kaja Kallas. "And they taught me that you have to celebrate being alive."
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 9/2023 (February 25th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.
Kallas is sitting at the oval table where she, as head of Estonian government, receives guests from around the world. Two days later, she will meet here with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. A week earlier, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson dropped by for a visit.
They all know the story of her grandparents. They know that the Estonian prime minister is the daughter of a woman who was deported to Siberia as a baby and only managed to survive with a significant portion of luck and the support of strangers. Kallas related the story in an op-ed for the New York Times and she recounted it in a speech to European Parliament in March 2022, two weeks after Russia had invaded Ukraine.
Usually, though, there isn’t enough time for the second half of the Kallas family saga. The part about their return from Siberia and the feeling her grandparents passed down to their children and grandchildren: We can handle anything. Kallas says she learned at home that some people show their best side when times are hardest.
In January 2022, when most Europeans were busy assuring themselves that there was no reason for panic just because Russia had stationed 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, Kallas sprang into action. She demanded support for Ukraine. And she sent weapons to the country.
The Same-Old Message from the Baltics
Her warnings at the time were reported as a matter of routine. It was, after all, the same message that had long been coming from the Baltic countries: Putin is dangerous, we have to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank, stop the Nord Stream pipelines. After February 24, Kallas continued spreading the same message, but suddenly people were listening to her. The prime minister of a tiny country with a population of just 1.3 million people abruptly transformed into a globally renowned politician who has even been mentioned by some as Jen Stoltenberg’s possible successor-in-waiting for the position of NATO secretary general.
It is a status that doesn’t just come from the fact that those in power in Berlin, Paris and Brussels were forced to admit that Kallas had been correct in her assessment of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is also a function of her apparent comfort in the spotlight of global politics.
Estonian voters are heading to the polls on March 5, and Kallas' re-election is considered quite likely, with her Estonian Reform Party leading in the polls at 30 percent. Her next closest competitors – the right-wing populist EKRE and the centrist party Centre – are both hovering at around 20 percent. How, though, did 45-year-old Kallas, who has only been in office for two years, become one of Europe’s highest-profile leaders?
Baltic countries would like to see a greater NATO presence in their region. Here, Kallas is speaking at the June 2022 NATO summit in Madrid.Foto: Europa Press News / Europa Press via Getty Images
Part of the answer was on full display in mid-December 2022 in Berlin. Kallas was onstage with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to participate in a podium discussion at the conclusion of the German government's Digital Summit. Looking as though he would rather be anywhere else on this Friday evening, a frumpy Scholz was sitting next to a beaming Kallas. "It is a great honor to be here. And I think it is also a great honor for my country," she said.
She had been invited as a prime example of how digitalization can be implemented on a national level – as the prime minister of "E-Estonia," the EU's digital pioneer. And she delivered. "We have already made the mistakes," she said, suggesting that others could now learn from those missteps. The audience responded with applause. Scholz’s response: "It is a difference if you are acting for 84 million people, or if you do it in the size of your country." Undeterred, Kallas went on to point out that Estonia has been amassing experience since 2007 when it comes to warding off cyberattacks from Russia.
The lasting image from the podium discussion was that of a confident woman describing in perfect English the successes her country has achieved – and that of a slightly downcast man next to her talking about the hurdles of federalism.
An underdog always has to try harder. Kallas has internalized that lesson so deeply that if you spend a bit of time with her, you will frequently see her waiting for others. At the Munich Security Conference in mid-February, she had to wait for French President Emmanuel Macron, who is fond of projecting power by being the last one to enter a room. And in the small Estonian village of Varbola, she had to wait in front of 20 empty chairs for the pensioners who had invited her to finish drinking their coffee.
A group of pensioners regularly invites politicians to their hometown, the small village of Varbola. On this Tuesday in February, Prime Minister Kallas is their guest.Foto: Birgit Püve / DER SPIEGEL
When Kallas speaks about digitalization during our interview in her office in Tallinn, it becomes clear that for Estonia, digitalization has always been far more than simply moving to a paperless future. It is also part of the country’s survival strategy – because digitalization has made Estonia a focus of discussion. "When people don't know that you exist, they will not notice when you are gone," says Kallas, articulating the lesson Estonia learned from 51 years of Soviet occupation. "When the Iron Curtain closed, France and Germany didn’t miss us. But we missed you. We missed freedom."
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas
How do you ensure that you aren't forgotten again? "We have to be helpful. We have to show that you need us." Kallas then talks about how Estonia’s military joined France on the mission in Mali and mentions that a team of Estonian rescue workers also flew to Turkey following the recent earthquake there.
For our interview, Kallas has chosen a bright yellow dress, accessorized with a brooch in blue, black and white, the colors of Estonia – clearly visible against the yellow background. The defense strategy of her country, which shares an almost 300-kilometer-long border with Russia, goes beyond merely increasing defense spending to 3 percent of gross domestic product. It also involves showing the world that the country exists in the first place.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas in her office in TallinnFoto: Birgit Püve / DER SPIEGEL
It's a recent February afternoon and Kallas is about an hour's drive from the capital of Talinn for a visit with the Estonian Private Forest Union. Half of the country is covered by forestland, and those who are unable to talk about soil quality and the needs of birch trees have no future in Estonian politics.
The forest owners have laid out fir branches to ensure that Kallas doesn’t slip on the icy ground on her way from the car to the campfire for a sausage. For an hour, the discussion focuses exclusively on trees. Anniki Leppik, who works in the association’s office, is standing on the margins in hiking shoes and a parka. "The way Kallas travels the world, it’s a bit like Superwoman. She’s everywhere," says Leppik. Here in the forest, though, they don’t seem overly awed by superheroes. There is no group photo taken at the end of the meeting and no selfies with Kallas. Instead, they give her a bottle of freshly tapped birch sap.
On the way to the forest meeting, Kallas had stopped with her driver and assistant at a small restaurant for a bite to eat. A large meatball and coleslaw for €7.80. Other guests only looked up briefly when the prime minister walked past with her tray before continuing their meals. "That’s the way it is in Estonia," Kallas says. "We leave each other in peace." A man then waved to her and Kallas greeted him by name. "And we are also a small country, where many people know each other."
That is particularly true of Kallas. Her father Siim Kallas played a central role in Estonia's independence movement and served as the president of the Bank of Estonia, the country’s central bank. He was elected prime minister in 2002 and went on to become Estonia’s European Commission member in 2004. The gossip pages reported on Kaja Kallas' first marriage because she was already a prominent figure in the country in her early 20s. When she decided to enter politics at 33 and was elected to the Estonian parliament one year later, the press commentated that she would likely never be able to fill her father's shoes.
A Politicized Childhood
Her father’s renown didn’t just translate to significant public attention from an early age, it also meant a politicized childhood. Kallas remembers when Soviet tanks were sent to Estonia on August 20, 1991, after the country declared independence. She was 14 years old at the time, visiting her grandparents in the countryside. Her father was in the capital. "I was very afraid I would not see my father again," she says. "I knew all the stories that people were telling about what Russians do to those who speak up."
Kallas tells this story in part to underline the message she has been repeating like a mantra ever since Russia invaded Ukraine: Peace does not always mean peace. "When World War II ended, Western Europe began rebuilding their countries. But for us in Eastern Europe, Stalinism continued. The deportations, the oppression and the killings, and the deprivation." Every child knows that war is awful, Kallas says. And she never tires of explaining to those demanding that Ukraine negotiate peace with Russia as rapidly as possible what it feels like when violence continues even after the bombs stop falling.
Half of Estonia is covered in forestland. Here, Kallas is visits an association of private forest owners.Foto: Birgit Püve / DER SPIEGEL
At first glance, the power that Kallas wields seems rooted in the image she paints, on the strength of her family’s history, of a menacing Russia – one which the West long sought to ignore. But one reason her influence is so great is that she also talks about the future – a future that Estonia has already made reality, and one which she would like to see extended to Ukraine as well.
Kallas was a member of European Parliament from 2014 to 2018. During that tenure, the news website Politico honored her as one of the lawmaking body’s most influential politicians. She was present when the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was signed. "My father prepared EU membership for Estonia," she says. "And one generation further on, I am part of this EU, and I am preparing the possible next membership candidates." For Kallas, the EU is a promise of progress.
On her Instagram page, there are few pictures of Kallas shaking hands with others. She prefers hugs. Such as with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, who she calls a friend. Or with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whom she refers to simply as Ursula. When Kallas published a book in 2018 about her time in Brussels and made mention of all the people she met there, the Estonian press mocked her. Today, though, the public broadcasting station reports: "Kallas’ high international media exposure benefits Estonia hugely."
Kallas uses her reach to assert her foreign policy convictions. She demands the prosecution of Vladimir Putin as a war criminal. She insists that Ukraine has to win the war and that only the Ukrainians can determine when that victory is achieved. And she does all she can to ensure that the media continues focusing on the war.
Kallas brings her blue notebook with her wherever she goes. It also contains her current poll ratings, with the election approaching on March 5.Foto: Birgit Püve / DER SPIEGEL
Her dedication to supporting Ukraine can also be seen by the fact that Estonia has taken in more than 60,000 refugees from the war – a greater share of its population than any other country in the EU. For Estonia, the Russian attack on Ukraine feels like a shot across its bow. If Russia can justify its attack on Ukraine by claiming it is "liberating" the country, what’s keeping Moscow from applying the same logic to Estonia?
The Meaning of the Squirrel
Estonia celebrates its independence every year on February 24, of all days. This year, though, the country is turning the celebration into a day of commemoration for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which was launched on the same date last year.
Kallas doesn’t describe Estonian independence as an historical fact, but as something for which she also fought. Kallas was 18 years old and was still pursuing her law degree when she began working at a law firm parallel to her studies. She says she watched as people "just a little bit older than myself" started reinventing the country. In 1992, historian Mart Laar was elected Estonian prime minster at just 32 years of age. "We totally had to change our mentality regarding our relationship to the state," Kallas says. During Soviet times, she says, you were a hero when you stole from the occupiers. But today, Estonia is one of the least corrupt countries in the EU.
On her campaign posters, which are hanging everywhere in Tallinn this February, the symbol of her party can be seen in the top corner, a squirrel preparing to jump. A squirrel? "It’s a hard-working animal that is always active and that prepares well to make it through wintertime," says Kallas.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaking with DER SPIEGEL reporter Nadia PantelFoto: Birgit Püve / DER SPIEGEL
Not everyone in Estonia can, or wants to, identify with a squirrel. As bright as Kallas’ star may shine on the international stage, her record on domestic policy is mixed. "The years in which you could constantly deliver new successes to the Estonians, like EU accession or NATO membership, are over," says political scientist Tönis Saarts of Tallinn University. The image the Estonians had of themselves as an up-and-coming country has worn off, he says, and at the same time, the number of people suffering from inflation and rising energy prices is climbing. Estonia doesn’t have a strong party on the left side of the political spectrum, which has translated to support for the right-wing populist party EKRE among those who feel left behind. The right wing refers to Kallas as a "war princess" and calls the party's security policy "hysterical." Still, none of Kallas' political opponents are seeking to make any fundamental changes to the country’s foreign policy direction. Nobody in Estonia is demanding that the country leave NATO or seek rapprochement with Moscow. "EKRE is a party that targets male voters. Many EKRE voters cannot accept that Estonia is being governed by a woman for the first time," says Saarts.
Indeed, Kallas' friendly, diplomatic persona begins showing its first cracks when she is asked about men in politics. "Women have to work twice as hard," says Kallas, "yet our competence is still questioned." A party colleague once told her that she has to act more masculine if she wants to be successful in politics. By now, Kallas has developed a standard response to questions about her feminine fashion choices. She says that she never owned a pair of pants until she was elected prime minister, and has only now bought some because they are more practical when climbing into tanks during visits to the troops.
People who know Kallas well say that she exudes the most strength when she senses resistance. Kallas herself says the same things about Estonia as she does about her grandparents. "I believe our history gave us the ability to know that we can make it through the toughest times." To understand that history, she recommends a visit to the Victims of Communism Memorial, which was erected under her predecessor.
The memorial is located on the outskirts of Tallinn, right on the Baltic Sea. Visitors walk through a long corridor that is covered with the names of people who were deported or killed. Some 75,000 people, a fifth of the Estonian population, were killed, arrested or deported by the communist occupiers from 1940 to 1991. The memorial could have ended there, but a fruit orchard was planted at its center. Above a semicircle of apple trees, large letters spell out a poem about a beehive being surprised by a thunderstorm. On the wall surrounding the words of the poem are 12,000 metal bees, each the size of the palm of your hand. It’s windy and dark on this February evening, the apple trees haven’t yet begun to bud. But the bees speak to a sense of hope. That a new spring will soon arrive.