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Contentious politics in the Baltics: the ‘new’ wave of right-wing populism in Estonia

What is behind the far-right surge in Estonia?

An EKRE march. Wikimedia/DJ Sturm. All rights reserved.Controversies over the refugee crisis have provided the populist and more extremist right-wing parties across the ‘new’ Europe with a new impetus. This piece focuses on the case of the, relatively new and increasingly popular, party of EKRE (Estonian Conservative National Party).

The politicization of the refugee question and its sociocultural implications currently forms key-component of this party’s rhetoric. This gains a greater significance considering that, so far, only 7 war refugees have been transferred from Greece to Estonia.

Political origins and trajectory of evolution

EKRE delivered an impressive performance in the latest parliamentary elections garnering 8.1% of the vote. EKRE’s popularity appears to be on the rise and it currently stands as the third most popular party.  

EKRE represents the crystallization of a ‘top-level’ formation process. This party is the long-term evolution of the merger between the erstwhile ‘People’s Union of Estonia’ and the more nationalistic pressure-group ‘Estonian Patriotic Movement’ (2011-12). Consequently, EKRE inherited almost intact the formerly electoral base of the ‘People’s Union of Estonia’.

EKRE’s youth wing, Sinine Äratus (‘Blue Awakening’), participates in commemorative marches and other public manifestations on national anniversaries (e.g. the Estonian Independence Day). Nevertheless, the party-leadership continuously stresses EKRE’s ‘civic’ character. They have also cautioned the participants in these public venues against the use of insignia and/or symbols with a ‘dubious’ meaning and extremist connotations.

By contrast to a multitude of leader-centered parties among the European far right, EKRE resembles more precisely the model of an oligarchic party.  Decision making revolves around the chairman Mart Helme, his son and Vice-chairman Martin Helme, and their circle of close associates.

EKRE remains highly suspicious of Russia’s geopolitical motives. Consequently, EKRE has been more interested in cementing links with right-wing populist parties in Latvia and Lithuania, while attempting to replicate the successful model of parties such as the True Finns and the Sweden Democrats.

It should be noted that the party’s apprehension vis-à-vis Russia does not necessarily correspond to hate speech against Estonia’s ethnic Russians. EKRE’s representatives have tried to refrain from inflammatory statements against the Russian minority.     

Popular bases of support and identity politics

EKRE has established its electoral strongholds in the periphery. This party has largely inherited the main body of rural voters who used to opt for the ’People’s Union of Estonia’. Moreover, EKRE has been highly vocal in its calls for the protection of agrarian producers and the extension of administrative competencies to the municipalities.

‘Anti-systemic’ speech forms key-component of the party’s engagement into politics. EKRE has been accusing the older and more mainstream parties in Estonia of inconsistency, opportunism, and ineptitude to serve the public and national interests promptly. A series of recent surveys hint that the party has been successful in winning hearts and minds among a younger and disillusioned chunk of the electorate.

To this objective, EKRE has been indirectly facilitated by the numerous tactical adjustments in the Estonian political landscape, as well as the problematic categorization of many parties in the country along the traditional left-right axis. For instance, parties such as Estonia’s Social Democrats have frequently watered down any ideological standpoints in order to participate in coalition governments with liberal/conservative partners.

Moreover, parties such as the Centre Party (i.e. the party which enjoys the main bulk of the Russian minority’s electoral support) may not appear particularly ‘centrist’ if examined through the lens of a more ‘traditional’ left-right axis.      

Hard Euroscepticism provides one more key-component of the party’s rhetoric. In a similar vein to a string of (leftist and right-wing) hard Eurosceptics, EKRE has been castigating the EU as a costly, dysfunctional, and immensely bureaucratic structure which is completely alienated from the average European citizens and their immediate concerns.

Most importantly, the party has accused Brussels of utterly disregarding the economic specificities and cultural particularities in Estonia and the other Baltic States. As far as its economic grievances are concerned, EKRE has vehemently opposed the bailout funds for richer member-states with troubled economies within the Eurozone (most notably, the Greek case).

With regard to the cultural dimension of its hard Euroscepticism, LGBT rights soon formed one of the main areas of concern for EKRE. The party interpreted the introduction of legal provisions for the rights of LGBT communities as an intrusive endeavor on the Brussels’ part towards the imposition of ‘alien’ gender norms in the society.

Consequently, EKRE MPs have repeatedly protested against the recent adoption of a legal framework on LGBT rights by the Riigikogu (Parliament).

Nevertheless, it is the latest controversy over the management of the refugee crisis which has remarkably enhanced the cultural aspect of the party’s Euroscepticism.

The states of Central and Eastern Europe (including the Baltic republics) are called upon to face new circumstances which can drastically impact upon these societies’ perceptions as well as actual management of otherness. Even certain EKRE affiliates have started emphasizing their nation’s entrenchment in Christian values despite the low levels of religiosity in the Estonian society.

In particular, the wave of sexual assaults throughout Germany on New Year’s Eve was swiftly incorporated in the identity politics agenda of the party. The leadership of EKRE interpreted these incidents as the shape of things to come for the entire Continent if Germany and other core states insist on an ‘open borders’ immigration policy vis-à-vis the Muslim world.

So far, only seven war refugees have arrived in Estonia. Nevertheless, EKRE’s consolidation in the periphery has already enabled the party to mobilize its supporters against the prospects of an impending ‘Islamisation’.

Estonia represents a success story in its transition from Communism: social stability, a growing economy, the overall successful management of interethnic relations, and the introduction of highly progressive E-democracy concepts (i.e. the E-stonia project). However, one should not overlook that contemporary Estonian nationalism has been entrenched into two key-notions: restoration and decolonization.

Restoration refers to the continuity between the Estonian state and the interwar Eesti Vabariik (Estonian republic). Decolonization refers to the necessity to remove any vestiges of Estonia’s historical experience (or occupation) under the Soviet Union.

Apart from the influx of Russian-speaking colonists, the Soviet era also saw the engineering of a Russification campaign and the subsequent marginalization of Estonian language and culture. It is precisely these politics of memory and identity and the popular anxieties over an impending ‘colonization’, following the one which took place during the Soviet era, which EKRE has managed to capitalize on.

On this occasion, the persistence of identity politics and their selective appropriation seem to have gained precedence over the actual absence of war refugees in Estonia.    

This piece was completed courtesy of research funding from the Swedish Institute (Stockholm)

About the author

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.

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