An Analysis in Forum.eu
Florian Hartleb: Estland: Rechtsradikale im Mainstream, in: Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 66 (2021) 3, S. 33-36.
Estonian Right-Wing Radicals in The Mainstream
Female dual leadership and parity: the Baltic country presents itself as a progressive pioneer in Europe. But the far-right opposition is strong
There is great jubilation in Estonia: for the first time there are two women at the helm of the northernmost Baltic State, which only regained its independence in 1991. Alongside President Kersti Kaljulaid, who has been in office since 2016, Kaja Kallas was sworn in on 26 January as the country’s first female prime minister. The politician from the liberal Estonian Reform Party has almost equal gender representation in her cabinet – remarkable for a country that has one of the highest gender pay gaps in the EU.
The jubilation is mixed with a fair amount of relief since the previous government was based on a mésalliance between the left-liberal Estonian Centre Party and the right-wing Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE). It had caused some unrest in the country – and has now been dissolved prematurely. Estonia’s reputation as a digital trendsetter had been considerably damaged by the right-wing radicals’ participation in government. After 637 days, the haunting spectre is now, finally, gone.
With Kallas, liberal Estonia is back, said Kristi Raik, director of the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS). The leading Estonian think tank organises the annual Lennart Meri Conferences, which bring together global elites. Estonia is a strategically important country, given its border with Russia, and the fact that Nato’s cyber-defence centre is based in the capital, Tallinn.
However, there is little cause for optimism: the EKRE may have returned to the opposition benches for the time being – but it has long since been a part of mainstream Estonian society. In Estonia, the consequences of right-wing extremists’ participation in government can be seen as if under a magnifying glass: they are successfully dividing society and thus targeting the very marrow of democracy.
Coalition ends in horror
The previous coalition under Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre Party) broke down over two issues: firstly, EKRE wanted to initiate a constitutional referendum that would define marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman. This referendum strongly divided the Centre Party, which gets its support mainly from ethnic Russians. These voters tend to be conservative, for example on the issue of recognising same-sex civil partnerships. Secondly, leading politicians of the Centre Party are involved in a corruption scandal. The background of this was a loan of 40 million euros granted by the state financing agency Kredex in the summer of 2020 for the development of a large-scale real estate project at the port of Tallinn. The decision was allegedly preceded by illicit arrangements for large party donations as a “quid pro quo”. The general secretary of the Centre Party has since had to resign from his post, and on 13 January Ratas also resigned as prime minister. The entire scandal is still being worked through.
Ratas’ resignation was apparently made easier by the fact that he was able to keep his party in government thanks to an agreement with the Reform Party. After doing everything he could to stay in office for a long time, he at least managed to avoid a complete political defeat in this way. The low level of trust within the government had already become apparent at press conferences, in which Ratas used his fountain pen to record what EKRE leader Mart Helme had just said. In the country, the government was referred to as EKREga (“with EKRE”) – meaning: the tail wags the dog. This was all the more true as the course of the right-wing radicals was supported by the third coalition partner, the conservative Isamaa (Fatherland Party). Isamaa Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu, for example, rejected the UN migration pact. And his party colleague, former Prime Minister Mart Laar, explicitly praises the “politeness” of the EKRE MPs.
It is not only because of this history, that the euphoria was so easily followed by disillusionment. Kaja Kallas, daughter of the former prime minister and EU commissioner Siim Kallas, is not only taking on a difficult legacy, but is presiding over a government without much vision or strategy, which has yet to prove itself ahead of the upcoming local elections on 17 October. The Reform Party and the Centre Party both belong to the Alliance of European Liberals (ALDE) and agree that membership of the EU, Nato and the UN should be at the centre of Estonia’s foreign and security policy. The government also wants to play an active role in achieving the EU’s climate goals. The new government must also try to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic more decisively than before. After all, the previous EKRE interior minister Mart Helme had initially dismissed the disease triggered by the coronavirus as merely “a flu”. The economic consequences of the pandemic, not least in tourism, will also hit the country hard in the coming months. Significantly, however, the coalition has named the restoration of social peace and the protection of minorities as its primary goals.
This is also a matter of urgency, after all, EKRE continues to meet broad acceptance in the largely neutral Estonian state. Founded in 2012, the party is a family business, much like France’s Rassemblement National once was. In addition to its founder Mart Helme, his son Martin also took a seat at the cabinet table as finance minister in the previous government. During this time, Helme senior had radical outbursts almost every week. For example, he misogynistically referred to the Prime Minister Sanna Marin of important neighbouring country Finland as a “supermarket saleswoman”. In November 2020, he finally stumbled on one such attack: the self-professed Trump supporter had called U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and his son “corrupt characters” and attributed Biden’s election to “deep state” intrigue. President Kaljulaid then convened the National Security Council, which unanimously condemned Helme’s statement: in no way should the defence alliance with the US, which is so important for Estonia, be jeopardised.
But Helme’s son Martin is no less radical. Already years ago he said, addressing immigrants: “If you are black, go back.” In an interview with “Deutsche Welle”, he proclaimed that Estonia must become “ethnically pure”. Already at their inauguration, both Helmes, father and son, displayed the OK hand sign, which has taken on new meaning as an identifying signifier of white supremacists, such as the Christchurch terrorist. This makes the EKRE one of the more radical, even among European right-wing parties.
On the other hand, the party shows little interest in factual issues, as it sufficiently demonstrated during its time in government. For example, although EKRE doubts the legitimacy of “e-voting”, which has been possible nationwide since 2005, it then took over the portfolio of “IT, digitalisation, and foreign trade” of all things – and in its few months in power appointed four ministers in succession. One of them, Kert Kingo, made a name for herself with her refusal to speak English. She also said she would only undertake foreign trips in exceptional cases, preferring instead to delegate this task. This went largely unnoticed in Europe, where the EU’s attention was focused on the authoritarian turn and violations of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.
Where it lacks competence, the EKRE focusses mainly on “virtual issues” and creates artificial problems. For example, it warns of “over-foreignisation” and stirs up fear of refugees. Yet, Estonia, with a population of 1.3 million, took in a mere 250 people during the refugee movement in the autumn and winter of 2015, many of whom quickly moved on to Germany and other countries. Last year, the authorities did not even register 50 asylum applications in the whole country. EKRE acted similarly on the issue of legal equality for same-sex marriages, which it scandalised as a threat to traditional values. Although Estonia – unlike Poland or Hungary – is a very “un-Christian”, predominantly atheist, country, the right-wing radicals managed to make a big issue out of it. Their defamation of the European Union as “Soviet Union 2.0″ also helped EKRE to gain a lot of attention – and this in a country that was under Soviet rule until 1991, that has so far recorded very high approval ratings for the EU and has benefited a lot from its subsidies. As a result, the party, which scored only 17.8 percent in the 2019 parliamentary elections, managed to dominate the political discourse in the country.
EKRE aims to achieve what the German journalist Toralf Staudt once described as the strategy of the far-right in East Germany: the fascicisation of the province. Mart Helme stated this goal, for example, during a speech at the party’s summer conference. Accordingly, the radical right’s strongholds are in Pärnu, Haapsalu and on the country’s largest island, Saaremaa – areas inhabited by a majority of ethnic Estonians. Meanwhile, the party is also courting ethnic Russians. This shifts the lines of conflict, both in EKRE’s agitation and in Estonian society as a whole: from ethnic Estonians versus ethnic Russians to locals versus foreigners, and local versus cosmopolitan.
Social movement from the right
EKRE also changed the political language, says political scientist Tõnis Saarts: terms such as “deep state” (often a reference to the QAnon conspiracy theory), “cultural Marxists” and “totalitarian homosexuals” became part of everyday language through the right-wing radicals. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, conspiracy narratives about “the rich, Jewish elites” around Bill Gates and George Soros were added. These myths are disseminated, among others, by the publishing house “Reval-Buch”. There, mainly translations from the German Kopp-Verlag are published, including books by, the now-deceased, populist authors Udo Ulfkotte and Friederike Beck. With this programme, the publishing house is quite successful and present in numerous bookstores.
Kaja Kallas and her cabinet will have to find answers to this normalisation of radical right-wing thinking – no easy task because the very people who helped EKRE to power in the first place are still in government. It remains an open question whether the spectre of EKRE is now finally over or whether the corruption allegations will make a comeback possible. After all, EKRE is now mainstream – and the centre-right Isamaa party, a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), now operates as “EKRE light”. So, it’s quite possible that the end of the horror will soon turn out to be a horror without an ending.