Europe’s populist wave has hit Estonia — hard.
In a national election in March, the Conservative People’s Party — a far-right upstart that says it wants to protect an “indigenous Estonian” population under threat — won 19 seats in the country’s 101-seat parliament, nearly tripling its share from the last election, in 2015. Its real victory came a few weeks later, when it was included in the three-party coalition government and picked up five key ministries, including for economic affairs.
The party, known by its acronym EKRE, has styled itself as an anti-EU party wary of overbearing institutions and has railed against immigrants, same-sex partnerships and feminism. Other favorite targets include the media and the so-called deep state.
In the weeks following EKRE’s election win, Estonia’s political establishment called for “civility” and for the party to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric critics warned was corroding political discourse and promoting nativism.
An incoming minister, Mart Järvik, once suggested the country’s top politicians are “secret Jews” and in a since deleted Facebook post, warned female politicians that “Mommies’ time is over; daddies are home.” One of the party’s leaders, 41-year-old Martin Helme, called for a “white Estonia,” making a slogan of “blacks go back.”
Estonians have consistently ranked first among Europeans in considering immigration as the EU’s biggest concern.
Party officials — much like U.S. President Trump or Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán — routinely attack journalists they consider “biased.”
The far-right insurgents don’t appear to be cowed by the reaction to their rise to power, buoyed in part by examples set by insurgent populists across Europe — and across the Atlantic.
“No one will tell us what words we can say or what signs we can make,” Helme told POLITICO in an interview in his office late April. He added that U.S. President Donald Trump is “absolutely” an inspiration.
An hour later, Helme and his father Mart — the party’s chairman, and the country’s new interior minister — both flashed the OK symbol, a gesture associated with white nationalists, as they were sworn in as government ministers.
* * *
EKRE’s rise has taken the country’s political establishment by surprise.
Founded in 2012, it was the result of a merger between a nationalist party led by Helme and an agrarian center-right party to which his father once belonged.
Three years later, it snatched seven seats on the back of discontent among Estonia’s predominantly socially conservative society after the government passed a law allowing same-sex couples to register partnerships.
“At that point, it was thought to be a fluke,” Siim Tuisk, who ran in the election as a candidate for the Social Democratic Party and has led protests against the new government, recalled.
Timing played in the party’s favor. Trump announced his candidacy two months later, in May 2015, and Britain voted to leave the EU the next spring. Estonian voters were “encouraged by the fact that we are not some freak phenomenon, that this is a global trend,” according to Helme.
“EKRE’s success is probably less connected to Estonian voters being xenophobic or against minorities than there is an anti-establishment mood in society” — Juhan Kivirähk, sociologist
Like other populist parties across Europe, EKRE also hit on anti-migration sentiment to boost its profile and made it a central part of its campaign ahead of this year’s parliamentary election.
The country, with a population of 1.3 million, hasn’t been in the eye of the storm. Since 2015, Estonia has taken in 206 refugees, 80 of whom have reportedly since left the country. But Estonians have consistently ranked first among Europeans in considering immigration as the EU’s biggest concern.
To drum up anti-refugee sentiment, EKRE tapped into the controversy related to last year’s U.N. Global Compact for Migration, falsely claiming that it would lead to an influx of 7 million refugees. Party leaders also railed against an influx of cheap labor from former Soviet Union countries like Belarus and Ukraine.
A large part of EKRE’s success also lies in its successful campaign to woo rural voters.
While Estonia’s economy has grown steadily in recent years, relative poverty has remained high and rural voters often don’t feel they have felt the benefits of growth, said Juhan Kivirähk, a sociologist with the independent Tallinn-based Turu-uuringute AS pollster.
“EKRE’s success is probably less connected to Estonian voters being xenophobic or against minorities than there is an anti-establishment mood in society,” he added.
In her speech approving the new government late last month, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid acknowledged that people feel “Estonia has reached a dead end” and are “worried about the preservation of our country, nation and language, and about uneven development.”
* * *
If EKRE has drawn from the global populist playbook, it’s deviated from other anti-establishment parties in one major way. It’s not looking to be friends with Russia.
Where others — like Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France — have relied on support from Moscow to expend their reach or have advocated for friendlier relations with the Kremlin, Estonia’s far right has avoided its eastern neighbor.
“EKRE definitely shares the same conviction of most other Estonian parties that Russia is a potential threat to Estonian security and independence,” said Martin Mölder, a researcher at Tartu University’s Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies.
The tiny Baltic nation has long been fiercely anti-Russian. Occupied and annexed by Moscow during World War II, Estonia has nurtured a close defense relationship with NATO and the European Union since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Estonia’s president, Kaljulaid, faced criticism for a visit to Moscow last month — the first by an Estonian leader in eight years.
Aligning with Russia would be toxic for a party that has styled itself as fighting to preserve an Estonia under threat, political analysts say.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the same room as them discussing policy, and in that room they are normal people and talk substance, not bullshit” — Andreas Kaju, partner in Meta Advisory Group
EKRE does however appear to have lifted a page out of Moscow’s playbook and created a troll network on Facebook. “Their execution is simpler than many of us imagine,” Holger Roonemaa, a journalist with Postimees who first reported on the initiative in late 2018, wrote at the time. “All it takes is persistence and patience, a little money and a few people who can spend their time exclusively on the task at hand.”
And just because Moscow isn’t involved in EKRE’s rise doesn’t mean it won’t benefit from it.
“Although EKRE is not pro-Kremlin, it is fostering polarization and instability,” said Kristi Raik, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute. “So in that sense you can argue that it’s in Russia’s interest anyway.”
* * *
How Estonia’s far-right nationalists will behave in government is still unclear, analysts say.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the same room as them discussing policy, and in that room they are normal people and talk substance, not bullshit,” said Andreas Kaju, a partner in Meta Advisory Group, the largest lobbying firm in the Baltic states.
“It’s hard to predict,” he added, acknowledging that the same is true in Central and Eastern Europe, where politicians may talk one way and act another.
In April, EKRE announced it will join a new far-right Euroskeptic bloc led by Italy’s Matteo Salvini following this month’s European Parliament election.
Echoing the Italian far-right leader’s own manifesto, Helme said the alliance is not seeking to dismantle the EU. “Our goal is to achieve as big a faction as possible to block any further attempts to pull power to Brussels,” the Estonian party leader said.
Some in Estonia are hoping that allowing EKRE to join the national government will contain the party and force it to temper its more incendiary messages.
Last week, two journalists — one at Postimees, Estonia’s largest newspaper, and the other with the country’s public radio broadcaster — said they were told by management to tone down their criticism of the far-right party now that it’s in government.
Excluding the party would only have inflamed its members more, said Yana Toom, an Estonian politician who found herself in the eye of the storm when critics accused her of failing to rally the necessary votes to block the coalition.
Evan Gershkovich is a journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is currently a reporter for the Moscow Times.