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Estonia’s populist and radical right: how radical are they?

Many political observers have noticed how the most recent anti-immigration protests relating to the debate on the UN compact have displayed comparatively higher levels of violent rhetoric and political heat.

lead Police launch tear gas at right-wing and far-right protesters rallying against the Global Compact for Migration in front of EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Dec. 16, 2018. Ye Pingfan/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

The Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) polled as the third most popular party throughout 2017 and 2018. Chairman Mart Helme and his son and Vice-Chairman Martin Helme have been reiterating that EKRE is a party with a purely civic profile in its political engagement, without links to militant grass-roots groupings. How close are these allegations to the truth?

Radical right-wing parties and militant groupings: three types of connection

There is a sub-category of radical right-wing parties that represent the consolidation of bottom-up formation processes; spearheaded by a political (frequently semi-paramilitary) nucleus. These parties maintain an identitarian profile, opt for militant patterns of political engagement, and have often been accused of displaying anti-democratic tendencies. This sub-category has been successful in augmenting popularity along the eastern part of the continent and comprises parties such as: Bulgaria’s Ataka, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Slovakia’s ‘Our Slovakia’/Naše Slovensko and Hungary’s Jobbik (at least prior to its recent ‘de-radicalization’ process).

Within this sub-category, one can differentiate between three types of linkages between the political organizations of such radical right-wing parties and more militant groupings. The first one is centralized. In accordance to this type, the purely political and the more militant branches form a coherent whole without a discernible division of labour. One representative party of this variant is Golden Dawn. Especially between 2011 and 2013, Golden Dawn operated as a centralized, extra-institutional actor with the objective of combating ‘immigrant criminality’ in its street-level engagements.

The second type has an umbrella pattern, with a formal demarcation between the political and the militant branches. The latter appear to maintain an organizational autonomy and operate as semi-structured (unarmed) militias that have drawn their inspiration from far-right groupings in the political past of their countries. Two examples of the umbrella pattern are Jobbik and Naše Slovensko. The former utilized  the militia under its auspices (Hungarian Guard/Magyar Gárda) against ‘Gypsy crime’ in a string of self-styled operations, throughout the northeast of Hungary, between 2007 and 2011. The latter have engaged its militia (Slovak Brotherhood/Slovenská Pospolitosť) in mass mobilization against the EU quotas for refugees since the second half of 2015. The third type of linkage can be tentatively defined as a pattern for coexisting... even if these parties do not officially host militant groupings under their auspices.

The third type of linkage can be tentatively defined as a pattern for coexisting. Here, the parties in question endorse a model of political engagement with which they strive to promote their cause(s) principally (or exclusively) via parliamentary and other democratic institutions and procedures. Nevertheless, even if these parties do not officially host militant groupings under their auspices, they seem to ‘tolerate’ the presence of the latter in their public events. Between 2015 and 2016, Latvia’s National Alliance/Nacionālā Apvienība  did not seem to oppose the presence of grass-roots groupings such as the Guardians of the Fatherland in demonstrations against the refugee quotas. In Estonia, groupings such as the ‘Soldiers of Odin’ are becoming visible more frequently in the public happenings organized by EKRE.        

Links between national-conservative parties and extra-parliamentary militant far-right groupings in Estonia

The Estonian context, given recent pre-electoral developments in the country, provide us with a good opportunity to shed further light on the model of coexistence and convergence. Following a stage of marked decline, the debate on immigration (and more broadly on multi-culturalism) has experienced a revival relating to the ratification of the UN-sponsored Global Compact on Refugees. The issue has created acute divisions within the ranks of the governmental coalition and given new oxygen to the ethno-nationalist front, both within and outside parliament.

While EKRE and its youth organization – Blue Awakening – have been among the key mobilizers of dissent and organized a number of protests and rallies, other groups have colonized the same political space and rallied around the same flag, among them the NGO ‘Sovereign Movement Smart and Healthy Estonia’ – established former EKRE member Maria Kaljuste. The movement organized a large protest against the ratification of the UN compact open to all citizens and every organization which takes a stand ‘against foolishness in Estonia's foreign policy and for the preservation of sovereignty and freedom of speech’. The protest attracted wide media attention and mostly provided a megaphone to those voices portraying governing elites as corrupt, globalist, and anti-national. The organizers also petitioned for the resignation of the country’s president for:

 “having gotten involved in internal politics by actively supporting and pushing through the Marrakesh migration pact… Kersti Kaljulaid is directly undermining Estonia's constitutional order and the goals of the functioning of the state as outlined in the Constitution, thus committing treason.”

Many political observers have noticed how the most recent anti-immigration protests relating to the debate on the UN compact have displayed comparatively higher levels of violent rhetoric and political heat, reflecting a degree of polarization never previously experienced in the Estonian context and a growing cleavage between the imperatives of societal openness and closeness.

Protests in 2016 against Angela Merkel's refugee policy in front of the cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia. Alexander Welscher/ Press Association. All rights reserved.The protesters attending those rallies often resort to blatant hate speech – involving racist jibes, insults, and verbal and figurative violence – such as in the case of the picketing organized by EKRE in front of the parliament the day of the parliamentary vote on the UN compact when posters were exhibited depicting the hanging of some members of government. On the same occasion, Member of the European Parliament and candidate of the Social-Democratic Party, Indrek Tarand was attacked by the mob while trying to address the protesting crowd. The leadership of EKRE declined to condemn the event instead filing a criminal complaint against the victim. In most recent gatherings members of the Soldiers of Odin were visible, often serving as a sort of informal event safety patrol.

One frequently cited reason behind such increasingly condoned violence is the more frequent participation of extreme groupings such as the ‘Soldiers of Odin’ at rallies, which seems to reflect a higher level of acceptability on the part EKRE’s establishment and a declining sense of having to distance mainstream national-conservatism from the militant far-right. In most recent gatherings members of the Soldiers of Odin were visible, often serving as a sort of informal event safety patrol. This represents a big boost in self-confidence for a group defined two years ago as being only ‘one step away from little green men’ by the current vice-president of the European Commission, Andrus Ansip.

This converging pattern of a more comfortable coexistence between the two is also visible in the social media environment where more and more frequently the same sources and discussion fora are shared. A good example is the Facebook group ‘Soldiers of Odin - Estonia’, generally featuring pictures of the local groups’ anti-immigration city patrolling, but increasingly sharing material directly from more mainstream nationalist sources such as ‘Smart and Healthy Estonia’, EKRE, EKRE MP Jaak Madison’s personal page, and EKRE outlet ‘Uus Uudised’ as well as (surprisingly) audio-visual material from the Kremlin-backed RT.

Polarisation

In this respect, it seems that the growing polarisation of the debate on refugees and multi-culturalism has provided fertile ground for a growing degree of mutual acceptability between groupings such as the ‘Soldiers of Odin’ and the national-conservative side of the political spectrum, given the latter’s recent political assertiveness and further distancing from political correctness.

The increasingly dichotomous narrative adopted by EKRE between the nation and the traitors (enemies of the nation) perfectly reflects this trend and hastens the growing rapprochement with more extreme, extra-parliamentary, groupings. At the same time, following a period of decreased relevance of the refugee-related debate, this ratification of the highly contested UN migration compact has provided the opportunity the group needed to move away from its marginality and regain the centre-stage, by joining the EKRE-led choir advocating the protection of the Estonian nation-state.

About the authors

Vassilis Petsinis is a Marie Curie Experienced Researcher at the University of Tartu (Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies). His specialisation is European politics and ethnopolitics with a regional focus on central and southeast Europe (including the Baltic States). He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham. His personal profile on academia.edu can be accessed here.

Stefano Braghiroli is lecturer in European studies and programme director at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies of the University of Tartu. His main research area includes European politics, party-based populism, Euroscepticism, and EU-Russia relations. He holds a PhD from the University of Siena (Italy).


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