Kaja Kallas: Estonia's 'Iron Lady' picked as EU top diplomat

Kallas is a hawkish Kremlin critic who has been dubbed Estonia's 'Iron Lady' (John THYS)
Kallas is a hawkish Kremlin critic who has been dubbed Estonia's 'Iron Lady' (John THYS)

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, named Thursday by fellow leaders to be the European Union's next foreign policy chief, is a trenchant Russia critic and a stalwart europhile long touted for top international jobs.

"This is an enormous responsibility at this moment of geopolitical tensions," Kallas said after the choice, which still needs to be cleared by the EU's Parliament.

"I will be at the service of our common interests. Europe should be a place where people are free, safe and prosperous."

The daughter of former premier and EU commissioner Siim Kallas, she was born when Estonia was still a part of the Soviet Union before it regained independence in 1991.

The 47-year-old lawyer was first elected to parliament in the Baltic nation in 2011 for the liberal Reform Party founded by her father.

She later won a seat in the European parliament and was repeatedly included on lists of the most influential MEPs.

In Brussels, Kallas earned a reputation as a proponent of innovation, focusing on digital and communications policies.

After her EU stint, Kallas made a comeback to national politics in 2018, taking the helm of the Reform Party and becoming the first woman prime minister of Estonia in 2021.

A hawkish critic of the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the EU and NATO, Kallas rallied behind embattled Ukraine as the country was faced with Moscow's invasion in February 2022.

The Baltic state of 1.3 million people has emerged as proportionally one of the most generous Ukraine donors, with its support exceeding one percent of its GDP.

Despite her country's small size, Kallas has punched above its weight on the EU stage, championing plans to ramp up artillery shell supplies to Kyiv and bolster Europe's defences.

"If this aggression pays off in Ukraine, then it serves as an invitation to use it elsewhere," Kallas, whose nation borders Russia, told AFP last year.

Urging Europe to not allow fear of Russia to dictate decision-making and undermine its support for Ukraine, Kallas said Russia "only understands strength".

- 'Not considered equal' -

In a symbolic act of breaking with its past, the Estonian government led by Kallas has been removing Soviet-era war monuments, a process that gained momentum after the invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow reacted by placing her on a list of "wanted" criminals.

"When we regained our independence, we had so many other worries. Now, when the war started, it actually opened all the wounds," said Kallas, nicknamed "the Iron Lady of Estonia" at home.

But she had to face a crisis of confidence in 2023 after local media reported that a company partly owned by her husband was continuing to operate in Russia.

Defying the calls to step down, Kallas was re-elected as the Reform Party leader, with her international image largely untarnished by the scandal.

Kallas, who speaks English, Russian and French in addition to her native Estonian, was tipped as a contender to replace Jens Stoltenberg at NATO's helm.

But despite openly expressing interest in the job, Kallas failed to gain traction with more cautious allies who saw her as too outspoken on Russia.

"The worry for our side of Europe is that we have been in these organisations, NATO and European Union, for 20 years next year, and we are not considered equal candidates when it comes to top positions," Kallas told AFP in December.

The mother of one son, Kallas belonged to a folk dancing ensemble in her youth, performing both in Estonia and abroad.

One of the downsides of a political career, she sometimes complains, is never having enough time to dance.