The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who is Estonia’s Kaja Kallas, and why is her election win key for Ukraine?

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas led her Reform Party to a major electoral victory this month. (Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

One of Ukraine’s most prominent backers emerged victorious this week in Estonia’s parliamentary election, which was dominated by the aftershocks of the war and brought voters out in record numbers.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’s pro-market Reform Party came in first and appears set to hold 37 seats in the 101-member legislature, three more than it previously had. That puts Kallas — who has sent significant assistance to Ukraine and pushed European powers to do more to support Kyiv — in prime position to lead the Baltic country’s next government once coalition negotiations are completed.

Her win is “a good sign for the solidarity of the European Union and continued support of Ukraine,” said Robert English, director of central European studies at the University of Southern California.

Estonia, which borders Russia, was occupied by the Soviet Union in the 1940s. It regained independence after the end of the Cold War, joined NATO and the European Union and developed a flourishing digital economy. The nation of 1.3 million grappled with a surge of Ukrainian refugees after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and later faced soaring inflation and a recession. But Kallas’s management of the threat — she has been called Europe’s “Iron Lady” for her refusal to compromise with Putin — won her party favor with voters.

Here’s what to know about Kallas and why her win matters.

Kallas comes from high-profile political family that suffered under Soviet Union

Kallas, 45, is a daughter of a former Estonian prime minister and a great-granddaughter of Eduard Alver, an early 20th-century independence war commander.

As an infant, her mother was deported to Siberia by Joseph Stalin’s regime, a story that Kallas has referenced in her arguments for supporting Ukraine. “To anyone who lived under Soviet occupation, Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine replay the worst Soviet crimes,” she said in a speech last year. “My mother was an only 6-month-old baby when she, my grandmother and my great-grandmother were sent off to Siberia in cattle wagons.”

Estonian leader urges faster help for Ukraine amid signs of war fatigue

Kallas started her career as an attorney before becoming a member of Estonia’s legislature and then the European Parliament. In 2018, she was elected leader of the Reform Party, a group that English said would be regarded by many Americans as a liberal-centrist party.

She led Reform to first place in the 2019 polls, but a deal between smaller rivals prevented her from entering government and becoming prime minister until early 2021.

Beyond urging more diplomatic and material support for Ukraine, Kallas has also advocated for renewable energy and wider LGBTQ rights. A fluent English speaker and prolific social media user, she is widely quoted in international media and has been credited with raising Estonia’s influence in the European Union and around the world.

“She’s economically conservative, very pro-free market, but she’s very socially liberal, young and dynamic,” English said. “She’s staunchly pro-European and anti-Putin.”

Concern about Ukraine war and its aftershocks dominated the election

The Reform Party’s main political opponent, a right-wing populist party, argued that Estonia should focus on its domestic economy. It called for domestic spending to help voters through economic woes, which includes an inflation rate of around 20 percent last year and a recession forecast to continue through at least the first half of 2023.

But Kallas’s commanding victory suggests most voters are willing to sacrifice financially to back Kyiv, and her pro-Ukraine stance is broadly supported by most other Estonian political parties. “Everyone understands that the recession and inflation is because of the war,” English said. “But people are apparently willing to pay that price because they see Putin’s Russia right across the border.”

The Kremlin “might have hoped for a more divided result and a weakening of solidarity with NATO, with the E.U., but they didn’t get it,” English said. “Not by any stretch.”

Kallas routinely urges more aid for Ukraine, harsher penalties for Russia

Kallas wrote in an April essay for the Economist that Estonia’s government would increase its defense spending beyond the target outlined by NATO. She also advocated for measures that would hurt the Kremlin financially, including putting some of the money Europe pays for Russian energy in an escrow account.

The prime minister has also called dispatching military aid to Kyiv a “top priority.” About half of Estonia’s defense budget has gone to Ukraine, which Kallas justified by saying that Kyiv’s fighters are “weakening the same enemy as we have.”

“Sometimes, the best way to achieve peace is to be willing to use military strength,” she wrote in the Economist.

Kallas has pushed for punitive measures against Moscow, including a visa ban on Russian tourists and a threat to boycott sporting competitions that allow Russian athletes.

As of December, Estonia also hosts the largest share of Ukrainian refugees as part of its population, according to the International Monetary Fund.

However, Kallas’s firmly pro-Ukraine stance and influence with other European powers does not guarantee other E.U. countries will continue to prioritize support.

“Maybe this was to be expected — Estonia is a front-line country,” English said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that national elections in places like Spain or Greece are going to be as consistent.”