Estonia’s golden image threatened by rise of far-right nationalists
Liberals fear impact of anti-immigrant party EKRE on Europe’s ‘coolest’ post-communist country
Estonia has been held up as the big success story among Europe’s former communist countries. One of the world’s leading digital societies, it also has one of the best-performing education systems in Europe.
But the country’s golden image is under threat. Ever since a far-right nationalist party joined a new coalition government earlier this year, the liberal architects of the Baltic country’s post-communist rise fear that its reputation will be tarnished and relations with the EU could falter.
Long used to adulation over government systems that allow its citizens to vote or fill in tax forms in minutes on their mobile phones, Estonia is now facing international headlines comparing it with Poland and Hungary — countries from which the elite in Tallinn have long tried to differentiate their nation.
“Even if Estonia has given up its place as the coolest, most advanced [post-communist] country, the Estonian government can still take pride being the most ridiculous, ludicrous and disdained government in Europe,” Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia’s president from 2006 to 2016, recently said.
Almost nobody expected EKRE — an anti-immigration and Eurosceptic party — to become part of the government when elections in March put it third place, more than doubling its score to 18 per cent but finishing behind the opposition Reform party and the Centre group of Prime Minister Juri Ratas.
But Mr Ratas shocked liberals by forming a coalition with nationalists known for such provocative statements as “if you’re black, go back”.
Since then, Ekre’s leaders have been seen making allegedly white supremacist hand gestures and mounted fierce attacks on journalists. They have also attracted attention in Brussels, where Estonia was one of only four countries to block plans to make the EU carbon-neutral by 2050, joining the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.
“It’s horrible,” said one former Estonian diplomat. “We were the country where everything went well for 20-something years. It has changed the debate on the EU. They [EKRE] say the EU has taken our sovereignty.”
Indrek Tarand, an Estonian member of the EU parliament elected as an independent and affiliated with the Green pan-European grouping, said bringing EKRE into government had triggered a “very dangerous” shift in the political debate, with previously taboo views being legitimised. “We are moving towards a new normality — a Donald Trump normality,” he added.
Ekre’s inclusion in government coincides with a wider EU debate on how to handle the rise of nationalist groups across the bloc. The tone has intensified since Austria’s government collapsed after the leader of a far-right government party was filmed offering lucrative contracts in exchange for political support from individuals posing as representatives of a Russian oligarch.
Martin Helme, head of Ekre’s parliamentary group and Estonia’s new finance minister, acknowledged in an interview in May with the Financial Times that his party had a bad reputation. But he argued that it was in the midst of “an intense ideological fight over the future of our country and Europe as a whole”.
Asked if he were a racist, he replied: “People who refuse to participate in collective national suicide through immigration are labelled racists. If that makes you a racist, then most people are a racist. So that word means nothing.”
Kristi Raik, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, said EKRE had received attention disproportionate to its influence on government. It has five out of 15 government ministries and less than a fifth of the seats in parliament.
However, she said, the area where the nationalists could perhaps affect Estonia’s image most negatively was on EU policy. Ekre’s finance minister threatened to veto plans to reform a eurozone bailout scheme, against the wishes of the prime minister and others.
“It’s too early to say how much damage this government will do to Estonia’s brand. Relations with the EU is one area to watch — now we are getting to the position where we see how difficult it is for this government to take decisions,” she added.
Juri Luik, Estonia’s defence minister and a veteran of the previous centre-right government, acknowledged EKRE had created a “serious image problem”. He said he was “rather sceptical” about the prospects for the coalition, in which his conservative Isamaa group is the third member.
He had “personally criticised almost everything [EKRE] has been doing”, including the group’s recent welcome in Tallinn of Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader, he said.
Kersti Kaljulaid, Estonia’s president, wore a free-speech sweatshirt at the ceremony when the government took office and walked out of the swearing-in of one EKRE minister accused of domestic violence. “It is worth remembering that reputations are destroyed faster than they are built up,” she said recently.
The new government is set to face a tricky time after the summer break as it attempts to resolve policy differences to pass new laws. “In autumn, the coalition will really be tested. What can they get done?” said Ms Raik. For Mr Helme, one thing is sure: “Estonian domestic politics will be rock and roll for quite some time.”