Juri Ratas is a loyal, enthusiastic Center Party politician with a sharp sense of humor. At the age of 27, he is the youngest mayor in Tallinn’s history. Initially, many were skeptical that this young Centrist could handle the responsibilities of city mayor, but Ratas has proved himself over the months. He has won the respect of many politicians for his ability to compromise and his dogged determination to turn things around in Estonia’s capital.
When you took the post of city mayor in November 2005 your aims were probably already set. What goals have you achieved that you’re proud of?
Can one achieve something in four months? (shows pictures of previous mayors, one of whom held the post for 10 years). We spent a lot of time on a new budget. Usually, the opposition does not approve the budget the first time round, but this time they did.
Every city mayor has to be a visionary, and one of our aims this year was to receive the title of European Capital of Culture 2011, which we did. The city has also proposed the idea of creating a ‘Green Capital of Europe.’ One of our main goals when joining the EU was to speak out for better cooperation. This – and the Estonian city in Europe – is one of the initiatives we want to start.
One of Tallinn’s main goals is to get hazardous cargo out of the city in order to protect our living environment here. We also plan to improve the highway that takes visitors from the airport to the city and open our seaside to citizens. Tallinn’s seaside area spans 46.2 kilometers, 30 of which can be opened for a walkway. The remaining 16.2 kilometers could open in the future.
We’re definitely going to solve the question of forced tenants. (Thousands of Tallinn residents have received the status of forced tenants when the houses they inhabited were returned to pre-war owners – ed). We plan to build new municipal flats for these people. A program adopted in 2002 has proposed establishing 5,000 new flats. When we look at municipal funds in other cities, such as Helsinki and Stockholm, the amount is much bigger.
Generally speaking, Tallinn should be a good place to live for citizens and a good place for our guests.
Many tourists agree that Tallinn is a nice city, but they are astonished by the poor conditions of its roads. Why hasn’t the city been able to repair them? Are you waiting for European support?
Tallinn has gained very little EU financial support for repairing city roads. This year we received some support for the analysis of our mainland connections. We also received funds for the construction of a waste dump. We are currently applying for funds that will go toward the reconstruction of various road crossings.
Going back to opportunities for the so-called forced tenants, many citizens are disappointed by the price of the flat given to them. Some cost only 1,000 euros, for example. Compared with the privatization opportunities back in the early ‘90s, the ratio of real estate prices to salaries is not so favorable, some argue.
Why shouldn’t these people be disappointed that they weren’t given the opportunity to privatize their flats like most of us did? We analyzed this situation and found that today’s calculations are based on those of the ‘90s. These are not set by the local government but are decided on the governmental level. This inequality has to come to an end. There are over 2,000 forced tenants in Tallinn, and we seriously want to find a solution to this problem by 2008 at the latest. In comparison, there are over 11,000 such people in Riga.
A home is something you cannot play games with. After we have solved this issue, we will start a new municipal construction plan to support young families. We are not planning to privatize flats, but rent them out on more favorable conditions.
Edgar Savisaar, head of the Center Party, has a lot of fans and a lot of enemies at the same time. How would you describe him? What makes him so popular?
He is certainly a person there is a lot to learn from. I think he is popular for what he has done.
When Savisaar received the most votes in Tallinn’s local elections, he could not decide for a long time whether he would continue as minister of economy or take the post of Tallinn mayor. Is it possible that he has continued managing the city through you, as a loyal and young politician?
(Goes to the cupboard and opens the doors) Do you think Savisaar is here? First of all, the idea that Savisaar sits in some city government cupboard, where I go to get advice from him, is not true. Secondly, when the Center Party had 32 seats on the City Council, then our party leader was the minister of economy. He has done his job well. If we compare the local municipality budget of road construction, it has increased by more than two times compared with previous years. Of course the decisions of a minister have helped the heads of local municipalities. Take changes in the legislation of forced tenants for example.
None of the other parties wanted to join the coalition after the last elections in October. How does the situation differ today?
The Center Party is in a coalition with civic residents. We have to run the city so that it becomes better for citizens. I am not a Center Party mayor, but a city mayor, and I have to see things from a wider perspective. As deputy mayor, I gained experience from being in a coalition with the Reform Party and Res Publica. There are many pros and cons. The main thing is to maintain stability.
A vote of no-confidence was launched against you at the end of March. One of the reasons was your decision to buy property on Harju Street for a price that, according to the opposition, was two times more expensive than the market value of 75 million kroons (5 million euros). Can you briefly explain this decision?
This can not be explained briefly. This property has 62 years of history, and for the last 19 years we only see the ruins. When we walk there with our kids, they ask when the war ended. They ask if it was last year. The bombing of this property was 62 years ago. A city that belongs to the UNESCO World Heritage site can not have ruins. These have to be covered up.
Generally speaking, we have not initiated a city government that reads news from the computer and feels comfortable. We have to find solutions to problems. We have to think about alternatives here, why such a solution was decided. One alternative is to keep these ruins; another one is to build something on top, but our society cannot come to an agreement on this. We can have greenery that is pleasant for everyone. Talking about the cost of the deal, the negotiations lasted for two years and started with a 330 million kroon offer. The city won 180 million kroons from its initial offer. The opposition claims that the price should have been 75 million kroons. Private property is holy and immune. The city cannot dictate its price. Besides, the price of 75 million kroons is based on the cost of property a couple kilometers outside Old Town. These areas are not comparable.
Talking about real estate, former Mayor Tonis Palts banned the construction of so-called ugly buildings. The Viru Hotel owners, in their plans for an expansion near the Old Town, were hoping that the new City Council would accept their proposal.
We have not given them permission. The city has asked an opinion from UNESCO, according to which Tallinn has to preserve its Old Town and its surroundings. We have to proceed from here, and we should protect our Old Town, as a cultural capital.
So Tallinn has been nominated as European Capital of Culture 2011. What does it mean?
The idea originated from Greece in 1983 when its minister of culture called together its colleagues from Europe. They decided that Europe needed to place a higher value on culture. Two years later, Athens was the first Culture Capital. In a few years, it will be Tallinn’s turn. Tallinn competed for this honor against four other Estonian cities. In the end, the Republic of Estonia chose Tallinn as its candidate. There will be another city from Finland, which hasn’t been chosen yet, that will also bear the name of European Culture Capital 2011.
What about this idea of Tallinn as ‘Green Capital of Europe?’
The main aim is the same. We should pay more attention to our environment. We can never pay too much attention to the environment. Tallinn should be a city that has done something great in terms of ecology. Just like those ministers who gathered in 1983, we plan to call all city mayors to Tallinn on May 15, during the Old Town festivities, and sign a joint plea to the European Commission to proceed with this idea. I have met several city mayors, and already have their support.