A shadowy “deep state” secretly runs the country. A smart immigration policy is “blacks go back”. Nazi Germany wasn’t all bad. None of these statements would be out of place in the darker corners of far-right blogs anywhere in the world. But in Estonia as of last month, they are among the views of government ministers.
Since emerging from the Soviet shadow three decades ago, Estonia has gained a reputation as a country with a savvy focus on e-government, a vibrant free media and broadly progressive politics. But as in many European countries, Estonia’s far right has been edging upwards in the polls in recent years, and nobody was all that surprised when the nationalist EKRE party won 19 out of 101 seats in parliamentary elections in March. The real shock came a few weeks later when the prime minister, Jüri Ratas, invited EKRE to join a coalition government.
Ratas offered EKRE five out of 15 ministerial positions as well as policy concessions including agreeing to hold a referendum on whether to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
The party’s father-and-son leaders, Mart and Martin Helme, took the key posts of interior and finance minister respectively and celebrated by flashing a white-power symbol at their swearing-in ceremony.
EKRE’s transition from the noisy fringe to the heart of government represents a remarkable failure of mainstream politics. Between them, two broadly centrist parties won a comfortable majority of seats in the March vote, and Kaja Kallas, the leader of the Reform party which placed first, offered Ratas and his Centre party a coalition in which she would be prime minister and the two parties would share ministerial posts equally.
Instead, ignoring the offer and stark warnings from his allies in Brussels not to negotiate with EKRE, Ratas arranged a conservative coalition including the far-right party, which has allowed him to stay on as prime minister. “He threw all his values down the drain just to remain PM,” said Kallas, who had been on course to become Estonia’s first female prime minister but instead remains in opposition.
Many liberals fear the climate has already started to change. Vilja Kiisler, a columnist at the newspaper Postimees with two decades of journalistic experience, said her editor-in-chief called her into his office shortly after the coalition formed and told her a piece she had written about EKRE was too aggressive and she should tone down her rhetoric.
“I’ve always criticised the people in power and this had never happened before,” she said. Rather than accept self-censorship, she decided to resign. “Style and content are always connected and I meant every word, comma and full stop. If you can’t be sharp and clear in an opinion piece then what is the point?”
Kiisler said EKRE media portals attacked her work and she received threats of violence and rape through email and Facebook, which she has reported to the police.
For a country whose media landscape was this year ranked the 11th most free in the world, the resignations of Kiisler and a state radio journalist who left his job for similar reasons have come as a shock. They even prompted Estonia’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid, to wear a sweater emblazoned with the words “speech is free” to the swearing-in of the new government.
Kaljulaid said she wore the sweater because of the climate of increasing verbal attacks on Estonian journalists. “This can lead to self-censorship, in the sense that you don’t talk any more to avoid this kind of shitstorm, and I don’t want this to happen,” she told the Guardian in an interview at Tallinn’s presidential palace.
Kaljulaid nevertheless gave her approval to the new government, saying she had no formal veto power. “If I had thought that signing off on this list of ministers would be a greater danger than unleashing constitutional uncertainty, I could have considered it, but this is not the case,” she said.
She did, however, walk out of the ceremony during the swearing in of an EKRE politician, Marti Kuusik, as technology and foreign trade minister. Kuusik, who faces a series of domestic violence allegations, resigned the next day. He has denied the allegations. Mart Helme criticised Kaljulaid’s walkout as the action of “an emotionally heated woman”.
Kallas said: “They are setting an example that it’s OK to call names, to threaten violence. It has brought misogyny out of the closet and its a very bad sign for our society.”
EKRE has forged links with other far-right groups in Europe,joining the Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini’s coalition of nationalists and welcoming France’s Marine Le Pen to Tallinn for discussions.
Like populist parties across Europe, EKRE has highlighted immigration as a key battleground issue. Mass migration hardly seems a major concern for Estonia, which has not been on any route to Europe taken by refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa, but EKRE has suggested that by allowing any migration at all, Estonia will be vulnerable to future pressure from Brussels to resettle many more refugees.
Jaak Madison, an EKRE MP who will also become an MEP if the party clears the threshold at upcoming European elections, said the country could take “10 or 50” refugees, but with the proviso that “when the war is over they go home”.
In an interview at his office inside the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament, Madison described the white power signals from Mart and Martin Helme as “pure trolling” that should not be taken seriously. He admitted there were “maybe a few people in the party who are really thinking this, white power and supremacy”, but he said people would only be kicked out of the party for extremist deeds, not extremist opinions.
Madison is considered the polished face of the party. When asked about a blogpost he wrote several years ago praising Nazi economics, he did not disown the views. “The fact is that the economic situation raised. That’s a fact. How did it happen? It was very wrong things. If you’re pushing people to camps, it’s wrong. But the fact is that the unemployment rate was low,” he said.
Madison is not the only EKRE MP to be curious about Nazi economics. Ruuben Kaalep, the leader of EKRE’s youth wing, Blue Awakening, said rightwing politicians “can’t completely disown” Nazi Germany, which had certain positive elements. Kaalep is Estonia’s youngest MP, aged 25, and in an interview at a chic restaurant not far from the parliament, he described his mission as fighting against “native replacement”, “the LGBT agenda” and “leftist global ideological hegemony”.
The party has largely avoided baiting Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority, instead using historical sensitivities over Soviet-era population transfers to exploit fears of a new, currently imaginary, wave of Muslim migration. Kaalep, however, said he did not believe that Estonia’s Russian-speakers could ever be considered Estonian, even if they learned fluent Estonian and identified as Estonian citizens. The party has called for a quota system for passportisation of the community.
Some fear this kind of rhetoric could pave the way for Russia to make more forceful attempts to “defend” ethnic Russians in the country and provide grist to the Kremlin’s propaganda mill.
“Russia has always tried to show Estonia as a small Nazi state, but it had no basis for it,” said Kallas. “Now they can use everything that the current government does against us.”