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2019.05.28 17:58

Estonia adrift: how a digital pioneer became a source of political anxiety – opinion

Jeroen Bult 2019.05.28 17:58

With a far-right populist party in power, Estonia's days of setting itself up as an example to the Baltic neighbours is at an end, says Dutch historian and analyst Jeroen Bult.

Some policymakers and newspaper readers in Lithuania might remember it well. In the second half of the 1990s and in the early 2000s, several politicians in Estonia advocated the idea that their homeland is a “Nordic” country, and definitively not a Central European or, even worse, a “Baltic” one.

The then Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves even claimed that Estonia belonged to what he called Jõulumaa (“Yule land”), the protestant area that is blessed with an overly-rational, business-like, entrepreneurial, individualistic mentality stretching all the way from Estonia to the United Kingdom, via Finland and Scandinavia.

A rather self-confident conviction that echoes the so-called Baltoskandia concept of the 1920s and 1930s, excogitated by renowned geographers Sten De Geer and Edgar Kant – but that irked Lithuania. The Estonian Ambassador in Vilnius was summoned to Parliament in October 2000 to elucidate Ilves’ contemplations.

Twenty years on, Ilves, who, after having served as President of Estonia (2006-2016), moved to Stanford University in California, is employing language of a more critical and depressing kind. He even expressed the fear, on Twitter, that Estonian democracy would be “ravaged”. Its economic growth rates and achievements on the field of ICT are still impressive, but apparently, paraphrasing Shakespeare, something is rotten in the Republic of Estonia, something that has come drifting to the surface after the elections last March.

Unflattering articles in international media have also drawn despondent conclusions about the political state of self-proclaimed E-Stonia. What is going on in the digitalized “Yule” country? Will it follow in Orbán’s and Kaczynski’s illiberal footsteps or are such jeremiads too premature?

The epicentre of the current political earthquake in Estonia is called EKRE (Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond, Estonian Conservative People’s Party). This controversial party, notorious for its flirting with neo-nazism, was founded in March 2012. EKRE is a merger of the People’s Union (Rahvaliit), an agrarian, moderately-populist and eurosceptic party that sank away in a quagmire of corruption scandals, and the Estonian National Movement (Eesti Rahvuslik Liikumine, ERL).

This ultra-right movement was founded in April 2006, its main purpose being the removal of Pronkssõdur, the Soviet statue of the Bronze Soldier symbolizing ‘the liberation from fascism’ (and the return of communist repression for the Estonians).

Confrontations between ERL militants and pro-Russian activists led to the Government, one year later, banishing the monument to a cemetery on the outskirts of the town.

Nowadays, the only tangible remnant of the People Union’s heritage is the person of former Estonian President Arnold Rüütel, honorary chairman of Rahvaliit – and now of EKRE. The ERL heritage is omnipresent, though. EKRE has been fulminating against “mass immigration”, the arrival of asylum seekers (who hardly stay in Estonia, but prefer moving on to Finland and Sweden), feminism, LGBT+ rights, and, more in general, “the urbanized, liberal-cosmopolitan elite”.

EKRE has frequently labelled itself the national flagship in the battle against “cultural Marxism”, globalization and European integration. Its socio-economic ideas correspond to those of other European rightwing populist parties: lower taxes, tax exemptions for pensioners and investments in infrastructural projects and “in society”.

EKRE is willing to venture Estonia’s rock-solid financial reputation and its esteem among rating agencies in order to back its New Economic Policy. Foreigners will not be allowed to purchase land anymore, for agricultural purposes or forestry.

This does not mean, however, that EKRE is just another typically European populist grouping. Most of its sister parties on the continent are vehemently pro-Russian. During a recent visit to Tallinn, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Rassemblement national, formerly Front national, stated that if she were president of France, she would not have sent French troops to Estonia, to the army base in Tapa. Quite an embarrassment for EKRE.

The party has insisted on the return of the territories (east of the Narva river and in the Pechory region in the southeast) that Stalin transferred from Estonia to the Russian SFSR in the 1940s. Its pleas for curtailing the rights of the Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia cannot be considered Russia-friendly either.

Another conspicuous difference is that EKRE has hardly concealed its gushing about what some people might call neo-nazism. Of course, other populist parties in Europe have also been accused of alluding to Blut und Boden-type ideas – the principal of Forum voor Democratie in the Netherlands, in a speech, used the phrase “boreal”, allegedly a euphemism for “how to keep Europe as white as possible”.

Yet, over the past years, members of EKRE and its youth movement Blue Awakening, the organizer of the annual sinister torch parade through the historic heart of Tallinn (on February 24, Independence Day), have displayed such dubious sympathies rather frequently, be it a positive judgement of Hitler’s “employment programmes” or Holocaust distortion.

Last month, the Estonian weekly Eesti Ekspress revealed that Ruuben Kaalep, the former leader of Blue Awakening who had just been inaugurated as member of parliament, has an impressive antisemitic track record. Ironically, Kaalep was elected chairman of the “Freedom of Expression Support Group” of the Riigikogu.

How come that this contentious party has been able to join the government? The liberal Reform Party (Reformierakond), the winner of the elections, immediately excluded the possibility of embarking on coalition talks with EKRE, so everybody expected that the populists would have to spend four more years on the opposition benches.

However, EKRE is not the first populist party that has entered Estonian politics. The Centre Party (Keskerakond), founded in 1991, has been propagating left-wing populism aimed at providing a counterbalance (state interventionism, higher pensions, a progressive tax system) to the rigid free-market reforms that dominated in the 1990s and 2000s.

The party has also focused on the Russian-speaking minority, advocating a less “estocentric” integration policy and a normalization of relations with Russia. It even concluded a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia in 2004.

Due to the authoritarian style of its long-term leader Edgar Savisaar and the many bizarre scandals he was involved in, the Centre Party remained a pariah. On a national level, it only ruled briefly, while the city of Tallinn became its private kingdom, thanks to the many Russian supporters living there (who are entitled to take part in local elections).

This all changed in the hot political Autumn of 2016. After the exhaustingly long presidential election, the public was overwhelmed by two political mini-revolutions: Savisaar was ousted as Centre Party patriarch and replaced by Jüri Ratas, representing a younger, more moderate generation, and the Reform Party that had been in power since 1999 was ousted from the Stenbocki Maja (house), the residence of the Prime Minister. Its new inhabitant: Jüri Ratas.

Junior coalition partners IRL (conservatives) and SDE (social democrats), annoyed by the ostentatious behaviour of the “eternal” liberals and the way they handled a corruption affair in the harbour of Tallinn, turned to the centrists. A most peculiar marriage of convenience, according to many: especially IRL, known for its staunch laissez-faire and pro-NATO politics, and the Centre Party were poles apart.

But the main source of tensions within the ranks of the new government would be the relationship between IRL and SDE. The former started agitating against the so-called Marrakesh Pact, the United Nations Global Compact on Migration, the consequence being that, in November 2018, the latter took the initiative to pass the Pact on to parliament (which voted in favour). The obvious reason for IRL’s capricious behaviour: the rise of rivalling EKRE in opinion polls. IRL even changed its name to Fatherland (Isamaa).

EKRE went up to 19 seats in the Riigikogu last March, ending third after Reform and Centre. What would be the best way to “neutralize” the party and its radical ideas? The Fatherland leadership decided that there was only one effective way: inviting EKRE to join the government and thus forcing it to bear responsibility for unpopular policy measures. After all, the same “trick” had worked with the Centre Party in 2016 – fears among foreign diplomats in Tallinn and in Brussels that Estonia would veer off the beaten pro-Western track had not come true.

Fatherland was offered a chance to try out this strategy rather unexpectedly – by the Centre Party. On 11 March, Centre leader Ratas announced that his party was willing to start negotiations on the formation of a new coalition with Fatherland and… EKRE.

Analysts, journalists and fellow politicians were struck dumb. How on earth could Ratas, whose party had lost one seat, brush the Reform Party aside and claim that a GroKo of Reform and Centre would not work out? The ideological differences with EKRE were considerably bigger. What would the Russian-speaking apologists of the Centre Party, who seem to be longing for Savisaar and his more outspoken socio-economic ideas anyway, make of it? In opinion polls, the party’s popularity started dwindling instantly, a tendency that has not halted yet.

To vindicate his spectacular decision, Ratas used the same argument as the Fatherland headship: it was a way of offsetting EKRE.

There might be other explanations for Ratas’ political putsch and the docile response of the Centre luminaries, though. The party simply didn’t want to end up in opposition again. An adventure with EKRE (which was encouraged by former President Rüütel) would also offer a chance to “correct” Estonia’s free-market dogmatism even further. Fatherland might be worried about this very prospect, yet it will most likely stick to the “offsetting” mantra. One question remains: will this, in the case of EKRE, really work?

Recent experiences with (right-wing) populist parties that have entered ruling coalitions in Europe indicate that they prefer following a two-track course: exerting influence in the decision-making process and continuing their crusades against “the establishment” and “Deep State” in order to please their voters and to exert pressure on their coalition partners.

In Italy and Austria, this model has worked out (the Austrian government exploded for another reason: blunt corruption of the FPÖ leader). In Finland, it has only worked out partly: the self-proclaimed True Finns (Perussuomalaiset) fell apart after joining the government in 2015, but the militant remnant was one of the winners of last February’s elections.

EKRE will try to pursue a strategy of a similar kind. Its two figureheads, Mart and Martin Helme, father and son, managed to acquire key ministerial posts. As Minister of the Interior, Mart is responsible for public order, internal security, including intelligence, citizenship issues, etc., not a prospect everybody likes.

As Finance Minister, Martin might try to thwart deeper integration of the eurozone and try to draw up an Estonian version of “trumponomics”, a thought foreign investors and entrepreneurs in E-Stonia will surely hate. At the same time, the Helmes have successfully attempted to live up to their natural role as provocateurs – one of the consequences being that journalists and intellectuals in Estonia have already expressed fears that the freedom of the press could be in jeopardy soon.

Lithuania and Latvia have undoubtedly observed developments in Estonia with great interest. Although it is remarkable that some Lithuanian politicians have criticized Estonian President Kaljulaid’s visit to Moscow in April, a more important Estonia-related issue has manifested itself, an issue that might affect Baltic cooperation and not just because EKRE carped at the Rail Baltica project in the past.

Political turmoil and polarization in Estonia will probably increase further, and there is even a possibility that the Centre Party will fall apart, with disheartened Russian-speaking supporters founding a new party (perhaps endorsed by Savisaar).

Russia would not be Russia if it didn’t try to exploit such a volatile situation in an adjacent country. A scenario that Lithuania and Latvia will have to take into account – although one cannot really blame them for displaying some Schadenfreude about the derailed “Yule” republic up north.

Maybe Estonian democracy it stronger than Toomas Hendrik Ilves and the legion of perturbed commentators think. Maybe it is even realistic to assume that Ratas-II will not cross the finish line – especially if Fatherland notices that EKRE will not have itself “offset”.

Back in Spring 2001, a group of 26 social scientists warned that “kaks Eestit”, two Estonia’s, were emerging, one of which could not keep up with all the rapid economic and technological changes and was hardly able to escape its precarious social situation. Maybe if more effort had been made to tackle the problems of this less fortunate “Eesti”, EKRE would not have attracted so many voters (which does not mean, of course, that the EKRE electorate only consists of impoverished, frustrated “losers of society”).

But no matter how Ratas’ (and Fatherland’s) embrace of EKRE works out, the days of Estonia lecturing its southern neighbours should be over for good.

Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian and publicist specializing in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.