By Logan Carmichael
As all eyes were glued to the storming of the American Capitol and the second impeachment of Donald Trump, the small Baltic nation of Estonia was experiencing its own reckoning with the far-right. Though the events may seem unrelated, there are inextricable links between far-right representation in Estonia’s leading government coalition and similar, albeit much larger, movements in the United States. Now, Estonia has the opportunity to form a new government and potentially take a different direction.
In the early hours of 13 January 2021, Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas resigned from his post amidst news that he was being investigated for corruption surrounding a property development in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn. Section 92 of Estonia’s constitution says that if a Prime Minister dies or resigns, their entire government coalition resigns, thus ending the incumbent coalition. Since April 2019, Ratas’ Centre Party had been part of a coalition with the conservative Isamaa Party, and the far-right, Eurosceptic Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), which, despite receiving only 17.8% of the vote, became the source of much of the coalition’s controversy.
Given Centre’s eponymous centrist politics and traditional support base, Estonia’s ethnic Russians, who comprise approximately one-quarter of the country’s population, and EKRE’s attitude toward Russians, this was a coalition laced with contradictions from its origins. As coalition talks commenced in 2019, Centre Party members resigned in protest, while one local-level Centre politician penned an open letter to Ratas, imploring him not to join forces with “fascist” EKRE. Despite this, the coalition went ahead, and generated controversy from the outset.
At the government’s swearing in, EKRE’s father-and-son leadership duo of Mart and Martin Helme flashed the “OK” gesture of white power, garnering international media coverage from the likes of the BBC and Buzzfeed. Mart Helme has repeatedly attacked female politicians, mocking Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin for her past work as a “sales girl,” and called Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid “emotionally upset as a woman.” He also suggested that all members of the Estonian LGBTQ+ community leave the country for Sweden.
As fervent supporters of Donald Trump, EKRE members publicly deemed the election of Joe Biden as “rigged” in November 2020. Mart Helme called Biden a “corrupt dirtbag” and shared his dreams of a civil war in America: “I had a dream before the elections of Trump walking across a field… covered in guts and entrails…Trump will win eventually; it will happen as a result of an immense struggle, maybe even bloodshed.” These events prompted his resignation as Interior Minister, although he remained a sitting member of parliament.
There are further direct linkages between the two countries’ far-right – and even extreme right – movements. EKRE’s youth wing, the Blue Awakening, has also hosted prominent American alt-right figures including American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor, Counter-Currents’ Greg Johnson, and internet personality RamZPaul at its annual torchlight marches. Scholar of the Estonian far-right, Louis Wierenga, also asserts that the ‘Unite the Right’ torchlight rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 were inspired by those in Tallinn hosted by Blue Awakening.
There have been numerous failed non-confidence votes against both Helmes, which have been blocked by the leading coalition that comprises the majority of seats in parliament. In EKRE’s early days, the head of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute Kirsti Raik noted that EKRE “had received attention disproportionate to its influence on government,” but risked damaging Estonia’s image. However, the party’s increasingly hateful messages against various parts of Estonian society in the time since have been even more harmful.
It seems that Estonians’ support for EKRE is not growing in light of recent events. Even in September 2020, public opinion polls showed that support for EKRE had dropped, while support for the more liberal Reform Party and Estonia 200 (the former of which holds the most seats of any single party in parliament; the latter is not presently represented in parliament) has grown.
As Estonians awoke to news of Ratas’ resignation and the coalition’s end on 13th January, the immediate response across social media, the comment sections of news outlets, and even amongst Estonian politicians was largely celebratory. Estonian Member of European Parliament Marina Kaljurand wrote on Facebook: “the biggest plus of [Ratas’] resignation is the end of EKRE power, hopefully forever,” before wishing the new government good luck. On Twitter, Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves expressed his amusement that the end of the Estonian coalition and the impeachment of Donald Trump occurred on the same day.
President Kersti Kaljulaid accepted Ratas’ resignation later on 13th January, and recommended the Reform Party’s leader, Kaja Kallas to form the next government and become Prime Minister. [It is notable that, in the April 2019 parliamentary elections, Reform Party held the greatest number of seats of any party, and Kallas received the largest number of votes for any individual candidate.]
Kallas has two weeks to form a coalition and has announced that Reform intends to enter coalition talks with the Centre Party; one Centre member noted that the talks will go ahead without the inclusion of EKRE. If these talks do not materialise within two weeks, another party will be given the mandate to form a coalition. If that party is unable to do so, then Estonia may need to hold snap elections.
Thus, Estonia now faces a crossroads, at which it reckons with the repercussions of the far-right that has been present in its leading government coalition for almost two years. By almost all benchmarks – public opinion polls, public discourse, politicians’ discourse, and indeed, the response to Ratas’ resignation and the end of the coalition – there appears to be an emphatic rejection of the far-right. But only time, and the eventuation of coalition talks, will tell.
On 24th January, coalition talks between the Reform and Centre parties succeeded, with the announcement of the new cabinet, notably comprised 50/50 of males and females. Kaja Kallas will become the country’s first-ever female prime minister. This signals a further departure from the far-right, beyond public opinion and political sentiment, in the Estonian political arena.
Logan Carmichael is a Professional Teaching Assistant in the European Studies department at the University of Auckland. She is a graduate of the Masters of Conflict and Terrorism Studies programme, with a research focus on politics, military and cybersecurity in Estonia and the wider Eastern Europe.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.