JANEK MÄGGI: THE COALITION DOESN’T CARE AT ALL WHAT THE PAPERS WRITE ABOUT THEM
Former Minister of Public Administration Janek Mäggi says on the basis of his one-year experience as a minister that a state can only be governed through the budget. He would’ve only returned to the government if he’d been offered the position of finance minister.
You were a minister in the government of Jüri Ratas for almost exactly a year. Did this change the way you see life?
I didn't change the way I see life, but the way I see work certainly changed a lot. I think that the society’s expectations of politicians are too high. What can fifteen people do for 1.3 million? Not a lot. After all, all members of the society contribute, all citizens do this.
Earlier, you believed that ideas matter but when you were in the government, you realised that money matters?
That’s true. You can only govern a state through its budget. The policies we want to implement are the main foundation of budget decisions. People at the Ministry of Finance discussed half-jokingly which ministries we could get rid of. We quickly decided that the Minister of Culture could be closed immediately. Ten people from there could be transferred to the Ministry of Finance and they could then take care of this money. The state doesn’t really have a guiding role in culture. We cannot say that stage these plays, make these movies. That’s not the case. Simply distributing money requires fewer resources. We could actually do away with all ministries other than the Ministry of Finance. It would then be the centre of state governance.
You didn’t do too well in the elections, you didn’t get a seat in the Riigikogu. Is this also the reason why you’re not continuing as a minister? You’re basically giving your area back to Jaak Aab.
I don’t agree that I didn’t do well. (Janek Mäggi received 1,671 votes in Jõgeva and Tartu Counties – Ed.) Almost half of the present Riigikogu members received fewer votes that I did. As for continuing, I would just say that favours outside the party don’t mean anything to any Estonian party. What counts is that you’ve been handing out pens all your life. It seems to people outside that you’re a celebrity and highly esteemed by everyone in the private sector or music or culture. But when you land in politics, you suddenly find out that this is not the aspect by which the people who are your direct competitors rate you. That’s why it often happens that the people who’ve come from the outside, who didn’t join the youth organisation at the age of 18, end up disappointed. I viewed this as a sociological experiment. I didn’t express my opinions too much in the party during this year. I just did everything they ordered and asked me to do. Would I have wanted to continue as a minister? I had that option.
Jüri Ratas asked you to continue as a minister?
Yes, Ratas made me such an offer and I thought about it. But I already thought before the elections that first of all, if Ratas cannot continue as the prime minister, I will definitely not continue either. If he does get to continue, I would like something that would help me develop myself. If I’d been offered the position of finance minister, it’s very likely that I would’ve taken it. But this portfolio went elsewhere. As I used to be a bank manager, I’m very interested in these issues. I worked in the management of Eesti Ühispank for four years and this would’ve really helped me develop. But the main reasons why I decided not to continue are related to my private life.
Prime minister is important
Mäggi about the power negotiations: I understand Ratas 100%
Former Minister of Public Administration and future public relations officer at Powerhouse Communications Janek Mäggi finds that there is only one truly influential political position in Estonia – the position of prime minister. “There is only one interesting political job in Estonia and it’s in Stenbock House,” said Mäggi. “The rest of them, including all ministries, which are very important and great, don’t have this kind of power and influence.
I understand Jüri Ratas one hundred per cent. Giving up your place in Stenbock House would be extremely stupid if there’s a way for you to keep it. Extremely stupid. It’s bad for the party, bad for your own political career...”
The former Minister of Public Administration is somewhat surprised that the media coverage of the government negotiations received so much public attention.
“It surprises me that in the public opinion, you have to take on board what the papers are saying when you’re forming a government. As I’m not a minister anymore, I can be clear about it: what the papers write doesn’t matter at all. Not at all.”
Speaking of EKRE getting into the government, Mäggi admits that he has no experience of working with them, unlike the other parties in the parliament. “But you can’t say that all the people in EKRE are the same. Every party has similar madmen. The level of IQ per resident is a constant. It’s not my thought, it’s an international saying. And the level of IQ per party, which has at least 500 members, is also a constant. There are crazy people in all parties, and there are also smart people. But power attracts all kinds of people – people with positive personal characteristics as well as people with negative ones.”
You will stay in the Centre Party?
Yes, I will for now. The question is whether I can also stay in the management board, because it may get in the way of my business projects.
Your appointment a year ago didn’t go smoothly. President Kaljulaid criticised you even on the day when you were appointed.
The President launched into her hate speech before I could even open my mouth. She told me off in front of 1.3 million people and I’m glad that she learned a lot from this experience. When we look back at what happened, she actually spoke very nicely and said that everyone who has made many of mistakes in their life can become a highly respected politician.
Some hopeless drunk who also admits to being one can have a go at every minister as much as he wants.
I’m not going to lie that this, I would call it a hate speech, had a rather negative impact on this year in my personal life.
The way Kersti Kaljulaid criticised you on your appointment bothered and haunted you during your entire term as a minister?
All minsters were standing in front of Toompea Castle when the flag was hoisted in the morning of 24 February. The President shook hands with the ministers. I was standing there too and she was forced to do it. My 18-year-old son, who was there with me, told me afterwards: “Dad! That look was deadly!” Then I realised that to have so much anger about some random column for so many years takes exceptional fortitude and mental strength. I’ve been criticised a lot in my life. If you wrote a story and said that the Minister of Public Administration failed in his job and even that he was a crook, I wouldn’t be offended by this at all. But I don’t understand how someone can be so unforgiving from top-down.
Maybe it’s just Zeitgeist, the spirit of our times? Every word you have uttered can be found, everything leaves a mark and the search engine is constantly running.
I was criticised by the press as well, but that never made me feel so uncomfortable. I’ve been a journalist and in this job, you never really know the whole truth. But one thing I learned from state governance is that you shouldn’t say anything bad from top-down. However, some hopeless drunk who also admits to being one can have a go at every minister as much as he wants. The desire to be in power is the foundation. It’s the main engine that keeps all political parties going.
I met about 10,000 people during the election campaign and about a thousand of them didn’t hold back and called me all kinds of names. I gave my pen to everyone who would take it and told them: “You’re a good guy!” I think that all these Estonian people I met during the campaign are really good people. Of course, they didn’t agree with all of my opinions and some didn’t like me at all. But I found out how politics was really working in the Republic of Estonia.
So how does politics work in Estonia? What is its foundation?
The desire to be in power is the foundation. It’s the main engine that keeps all political parties going.
Does the desire to remain in power mean the opportunity to make money, or is it important to have power over other people?
Having power is important. There isn’t that much money. I can now say that in my opinion, it’s not normal that we’re paying some officials higher salaries than ministers for populist reasons. I don’t think that ministers should be getting colossal amounts, but the proportions are certainly off right now.
It’s a similar story with members of the Riigikogu. For example, when we talk about the reimbursement of expenses, then I’m ashamed, not because of the members of the Riigikogu, but because of the reimbursement system. Why do we have to humiliate people like that?
Because their pizza and mayonnaise receipts are made public a couple of times a year?
Absolutely. The remuneration system should be reviewed and maybe ministers could earn as much as the chairman of the management board of the State Forest Management Centre.
The previous government didn’t see eye to eye with big industries and entrepreneurs. First the cellulose plant, and now the windmills as well. It’s the same pattern, isn’t it?
Many entrepreneurs don’t know how to deal with the state. I’ve been very involved in business for a long time and I see that they fail, because you cannot force your personal ambitions on the state. You cannot tell the state what it has to do and how. We have so many social groups that want to achieve something. If we tried to meet all of their expectations, the state would explode into little pieces like a grenade after the ring has been pulled. The force of destruction would be impressive. An adequate balance must be found between the private and public sectors. You can think that you need to reach an agreement with one or two ministers, but actually you also need to reach it with the parties behind them and the coalition partners. Governance is collective in politics. Tens of people are involved in the decision-making process and you have to take all of their dreams and desires on board. We all saw during the last election campaign how Priit Alamäe, who is a very successful businessman, came and found that everything should be redone, but people didn’t go along with it. If someone raises a flag and says, everyone get behind us, like these Chinese or Japanese tourists who line up on Viru Street, will all the people in Estonia follow this flag? Of course it won’t happen. When a politician looks at the people living in Estonia, they may be shocked by what they see. These people are completely different from you! Some may have a different income, some have a different haircut, different glasses. Do you really think that you can force something on someone and tell them: live like this, that’s the right way? Well, the truth is that you can’t do it.
Do I remember correctly that before your appointment, you made a promise to the President that you will not deal with political PR for some time after leaving the minister’s position?
We had a meeting, Taavi Linnamäe and Tiit Riisalo were also there. That’s when they suggested that I should sell my company, or even demanded it. But when I discussed this with my family, because my wife and I own the company together, we came to the conclusion that this transaction would be a pretence and there’s no reason why we should do this. But what the President said later, that I promised her something, that didn’t happen. What I actually said was that I’ll think about what I’ll do next. Powerhouse has never been involved in political lobbying in the classic sense. This is a completely different area – getting acts passed and this kind of stuff.
But if the Sõnajalg brothers came to you and asked you to talk to Jüri Ratas, so that they could set up their windmills after all?
I don't know. I don’t know how to answer this at the moment. But I saw how Estonian communications companies were working. Including in respect of me as a minister. And I was embarrassed about it many times. The pressure they put on ministers and officials is inappropriate. For example, the head of a communications company, I won’t name any names, demanded a meeting with me. I told him that his problem didn’t concern my area and asked him to meet with the relevant minister. Then he explained to me by e-mail that I had to meet with him and his client. So we met. This pressure is insane. But I don’t intend to do anything like this, ever. I haven’t done it either.
Because it’s pointless?
Because it’s pointless. You have to offer sensible and smart solutions to the state and you don’t need to go through back doors to do this. Every respected businessman can call Jüri Ratas and if they don’t have his number, they can get it from me.
But if there are a thousand social groups in Estonia and they all want to follow their agenda, then even if all of these ideas were sensible and smart, only ten, or maybe a hundred of them can be implemented. Certainly not all of them. The competition between sensible ideas is also insane. If you get turned down, it doesn’t mean that your project was pointless.
What will you be doing now?
I will go to Australia for two weeks, to attend the world sports congress. Then I will start doing a simple job in my little shop.