Estonia: why the far-right in power is the best case scenario for the Kremlin

Mainstream conservatives are increasingly looking to the far right for political support. In Estonia, this means far-right politicians in key government posts - and more uncertainty in the country's relationship with Russia.

Stefano Braghiroli
30 April 2019, 9.10am
The Estonian parliament
(c) Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved

In March this year, the Estonian parliamentary elections witnessed the success of the liberal opposition Reform Party. Many observers thought this was the first step towards the Reform leader Kaja Kallas becoming prime minister - and forming a grand coalition with incumbent Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and his Centre Party.

But this scenario did not account for Ratas’ determination to hold on to his post. And the impressive electoral growth of the far-right Estonian National Conservative Party (EKRE) gave Ratas an alternative way out - in the form of a coalition between EKRE, Centre and the conservative Pro Patria party. By capitalising on social discontent and fear-mongering around the dangers of immigration and multiculturalism, EKRE emerged from the March elections as the third largest political force in Estonia - with 19 seats and 17.8% of the votes.

Although Ratas had given a firm commitment not to form a government with the far right during the election campaign, it turned out that the Centre leader was actually far more willing to compromise ideologically. The start of coalition talks between Centre and EKRE caught many domestic and international observers by surprise, receiving widespread criticism both within Ratas’ party and broader civil society.

The irony here, perhaps, is the very real differences between Centre and EKRE over Russia. Many observers saw the “Russia factor” as the key stumbling block to finalising a coalition agreement: while Centre has long represented Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority on an almost exclusive basis, EKRE aspires to create an ethno-state in Estonia and is known for its vocal anti-Russian rhetoric. Finalising the coalition agreement has thus required both parties to take steps to increase intra-party acceptance of the “unnatural” political partner (for their electorates) and inter-party agreements on policies and positions.

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The Centre-EKRE-Pro Patria coalition agreement signed on 8 April has proven these perceived red lines wrong - and shown a clear victory of pragmatism and interest over ideology. But the significance of Russia’s power projection for Estonia and the wider European Union is not only about geopolitics – it’s also about ideology.

Ideological roots

EKRE’s trajectory started in 2012. The party originates from a merger between conservative People’s Union of Estonia (Eestimaa Rahvaliit) and the Eurosceptic and far-right Estonian Patriotic Movement (Eesti Rahvuslik Liikumine). As an organisation, EKRE is family-centred – it is firmly controlled by its historical leader, Mart Helme, his son, Martin Helme, and a few members of the party’s inner circle. Since its establishment, EKRE has promoted an ethno-national model of Estonia as a state, exclusive citizenship, and publicly embraced traditional “Estonian” values and social conservatism.

In the light of this vision, in August 2013, the party signed – together with Latvia’s National Alliance, Lithuania’s Nationalist Union, and their respective youth organisations – the “Bauska declaration”. This document not only establishes a forum of cooperation and coordination among the three parties, but also an ideological platform that defines their shared political values and cements their domestic ethno-national roots.

Martin Helme (EKRE), Estonia's current Minister of Finance
Source: EKRE / Facebook

According to the declaration, the parties “hold the values of family and patriotism to be fundamental, despite the looming ideas of cultural Marxism, post-modernistic multiculturalism and destructive liberalism. Our honour and love for our homelands will not let us walk the path of cosmopolitanism.” Among the most notable results of this cooperation, in geopolitical terms, is a renewed commitment to a new patriotic “Intermarium” alliance, uniting nationalists in Central and Eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea - to defend both against Russian aggression and Brussels’ liberal values.

EKRE’s Eurosceptic position rejects supra-nationalism in defence of national sovereignty “against any attempt to absorb our independent nation states by any kind of European Super State” (Bauska Declaration). According to EKRE’s programme, “the sovereign nation state has been transformed into a vassal state representing the interests of the European Union, of foreign capital and of parasitic elites.”

EKRE has become an intransigent opponent of more liberal approaches to Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority and the inclusion of its cultural and linguistic heritage. For example, it took a firm stance against the presidential candidacy of former Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand on the basis of her partly Russian and partly Latvian family background. Similarly, a prominent member of EKRE racially abused then Tallinn City Council chairman and current mayor Mihhail Kõlvart, adding that following his appointment “the capital city is in the hands of migrants”, referring to the fact that Kõlvart is of Kazakh background and is a native Russian speaker.

In foreign policy, EKRE has advocated for a more adversarial approach towards the Russian Federation. In particular, EKRE has been asking for the restitution of territories belonging to the first Estonian republic prior to Soviet occupation. On this basis, the party has opposed the ratification of any border treaty with Moscow before these disputes are settled, as reported with great emphasis by a number of Russian media outlets. In 2015, Henn Põlluaas – a senior EKRE member, recently elected speaker of the parliament – called for Russia’s expulsion from the United Nations, after comparing the latter to the League of Nations given to its lack of response.

The electoral growth EKRE has experienced over the last couple of years seems to have been determined, on the one hand, by the growing clash between “traditional” and “postmodern values” inside Estonian society. This clash has been exemplified by the debate on EU-sponsored refugee quotas and the 2014 parliamentary vote on cohabitation laws, which permit couples, irrespective of gender, to receive the same kind of financial benefits conferred by marriage. On the other hand, support for EKRE – as an anti-systemic party – has been propelled by the growing lack of trust towards the country’s ruling elites experienced by some of the most socially marginal and economically frustrated sectors of the society.

EKRE-affiliated youth movement "Blue Awakening" holds its annual march on Independence Day, 2018
CC BY-SA 4.0 DJ Sturm / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

EKRE’s electoral success is certainly a necessary precondition for its inclusion in Estonia’s new governing coalition. However, the electoral results of the liberal opposition Reform party, Ratas’ rejection of an offer by Reform leader Kaja Kallas to start negotiations for a Reform-Centre government, and Ratas’ willingness to compromise ideologically to keep the country’s premiership, represent the actual cause. It is worth noting that both Kallas and Ratas had committed during the campaign not to form a coalition with EKRE, after an Estonian MEP and social democrat parliamentary candidate was physically attacked by some EKRE supporters. What made things even more complicated for Ratas is that the Centre party, which traditionally attracts most of Estonia’s Russophone voters, has been for long suspected of pro-Kremlin sympathies. For example, the party has an ongoing – although frozen – memorandum of cooperation with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia.

The involvement of EKRE in the coalition negotiations and new government has thus provoked a very vocal reaction by various sectors of Estonian civil society. A number of observers and politicians have criticised the party for its extreme positions and alleged neo-Nazi sympathies of some of its elected members. Among the international reactions, worth mentioning is the stance of Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), to which the Centre party is affiliated. In a private letter, he urged Ratas “not to form a coalition with […] a far-right party which is reminiscent of fascist regimes in Europe” in the name of Centre party’s belonging to their common liberal family. In his answer to Verhofstadt, the Estonian prime minister denounced the ALDE leader’s letter as interference, stressing “that Brussels should not dictate to Estonia now what our new coalition will be.”

Surprisingly, despite growing international media attention and sensitivity towards far-right extremism and neo-Nazism, especially in the Baltic context, Russia’s state media (RT, Sputnik) and official channels have proven particularly cautious and quiet on this issue.

The Kremlin’s perspective

There are at least three reasons and related scenarios why the inclusion of EKRE in Estonia’s governing coalition represents a political and geopolitical advantage for the Kremlin, both with respect to the Estonian domestic context and Europe more broadly.

First, it is likely that the inclusion of EKRE in the national government and EKRE-sponsored governmental policies on issues related to culture, language and education will increase the sense of exclusion and alienation of many Russian speakers, who previously supported Ratas’ Centre party. Such issues have been at the top of EKRE’s electoral programme and are directly related to the party’s ethno-national ideas about the state. At the same time, EKRE’s ideas are political red flags for a large part of Estonia’s Russian constituency and its interest groups. In the past, Russian state media have not hesitated to picture Estonia as an apartheid state - and EKRE’s proposals on citizenship as against basic human rights.

Estonia’s new coalition with the far-right, in this respect, is profitable for the Kremlin. This alliance is likely to exacerbate ethnic divisions within Estonian society and make Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority more inclined to accept the Russian state’s narrative about Estonia as a discriminatory state. In the mid-term, this frustration could extend to a growing number of Russian-speaking political elites. These people potentially represent the core of a future Russian party in Estonia – similar to Latvia’s Russian Union - which could have more direct ties with the Kremlin and the Russian establishment than any other Estonian party. This would cut the Estonian party system across ethnic lines. In this scenario, Moscow’s rhetoric on Estonia’s glorification of Nazism, as expressed by the Russian Foreign Minister in a recent controversial case of a monument to Estonians who fought for the Nazis, is likely to increase, along with the idea of the Soviet Union as Estonia’s liberator.

Second, the potentially diminished international credibility of Estonia due both to EKRE’s extreme policy-positions (on migration, multiculturalism and EU integration policy) and the government’s diminished ideological coherence, is likely make the country more marginal in the EU. This could make the country more isolated vis-à-vis its traditional partners, by contrasting the consolidated image of Estonia as the “poster child of transition” and the best example of successful Europeanisation.

Estonia’s lost exceptionality - reflected in its alleged day-by-day regression towards illiberal democracy and “eastern Europe” (opposed to the idea of the new Nordic”) - will contribute to reducing EU partners’ trust towards Tallinn and its perspective on European affairs and foreign policy. It will also give Moscow the chance to intermittently blame Estonia’s extreme behaviour inside the EU, point at it as an exemplification of Europe’s failures, and highlight Europe’s East-West contradictions.

April 2019: EKRE announces intention to join the new right-wing European Alliance of Peoples and Nations
Source: Jaak Madison / Social media

Third, EKRE’s recently formalised intention to join the far-right European Alliance of Peoples and Nation - initiated by Matteo Salvini on the eve of the forthcoming European Parliament’s elections - marks a clear discontinuity with other signatories of the Bauska Declaration, and, in general, with the Baltic and Eastern European far-right. The main reason behind the Polish and Baltic diffidence towards the alliance is exactly its member parties’ attitude towards Russia. Salvini’s Lega, Alternative for Germany, and Marine Le Pen’s French National Rally are considered to be among the Kremlin’s closest allies in Europe. These parties have consistently advocated for a more Russia-friendly approach, including the removal of the sanctions against Moscow, and appeasement when it comes to Crimea both at home and at the EU level. This trend is more than likely to continue within the framework of the European Alliance of Peoples and Nation in the new European Parliament, and the group is likely to emerge as the most Russia-friendly in Strasbourg.

According to this scenario, EKRE – possibly willing to increase its share of Russia-speaking votes in Estonia, at the expense of the Centre party – might turn in the mid-term into an unwilling (or willing) political ally of the Kremlin. This is likely to create friction in the national government, particularly with the conservative third party Pro Patria. For example, in a recent pre-election interview, EKRE leader Mart Helme declared that “Russian people in Estonia are often very conservative and this 'homosexual propaganda' is anathema to many of them […] This overlap in attitudes also applies to immigration”. Helme also advocated for a more pragmatic and less emotional approach towards Russia, referring to Finland’s policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War as an example for Estonia.

While these three scenarios are unlikely to come to fruition at the same time, each of them appears politically profitable for the Kremlin - whether in Estonia or Europe more broadly.

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