By Eoin Micheál McNamara*
In the early hours of Jan. 13, 2021, Estonia’s coalition government consisting of the Center Party, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa unexpectedly collapsed when Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) tendered his resignation to President Kersti Kaljulaid. Ratas resigned amid an “influence peddling” corruption scandal primarily surrounding former Center Party secretary-general Mihhail Korb and Kersti Kracht, an advisor to Minister of Finance Martin Helme (EKRE).
Estonia’s Public Prosecutor’s Office suspects Korb of using his political influence to preferentially secure government approval for a €39 million loan for a major private real estate development from Estonia’s state credit agency, KredEx, in return for a promised financial donation to the Center Party. No longer prime minister, Ratas has paid a high political price, but the Center Party will still be part of the next government coalition, to be led by the Reform Party’s Kaja Kallas. After negotiations lasting two weeks, Kallas became Estonia’s first female prime minister when the new government officially entered office on Jan. 26, 2021.
The Center Party and Estonia’s Security
Ratas’ downfall comes not without a tinge of irony. Taking over from the Center Party’s long-time leader Edgar Savisaar in early November 2016, Ratas was tasked with modernizing the party and repairing its corruption-stricken image. Savisaar was a pivotal political force in the events of the 1980s and early 1990s that eventually brought about Estonia’s restoration of independence from the Soviet Union, but his later years as the Center Party’s leader were blighted by regular corruption allegations. Having warmer relations with Moscow than those leading Estonia’s other main parties, as mayor of Tallinn, Savisaar was involved in a long-running scandal from 2010, when media reports revealed that he facilitated funding from Russian NGOs and business sources to complete the construction of a Russian Orthodox church in the city’s Lasnamäe suburb.
A formal but innocuous “cooperation protocol” between the Center Party and Vladimir Putin’s-endorsed United Russia party was also highlighted as a possible security concern. The party was ostracized by other major parties when governments were formed between 2003 and 2016 — despite the Center Party averaging approximately a quarter of the 101 seats in the Riigikogu (parliament) during this period. Ratas’ elevation to Center Party leader in 2016 was heralded as a fresh start, and as the government led by Reform Party Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas buckled, Ratas quickly took advantage to negotiate an alternative coalition with the Social Democrats (SDE) and Isamaa in late November 2016.
With Savisaar’s leadership still in the rearview mirror, some commentators stressed that the Center Party in government could still negatively affect Estonia’s security. However, the Ratas-led Center Party has continued the pro-NATO and pro-EU Atlanticist principles that have directed Estonia’s foreign policy since 1991. Ratas has eased many doubts over the Center Party’s national security credentials; it is instead his decision to form a government including the far-right EKRE in 2019 that has now left a trail of diplomatic damage behind.
A Platform for EKRE
In power since the March 2019 Riigikogu election, the collapse of the Center-EKRE-Isamaa coalition government by Ratas’ resignation is a surprise. Before the Center Party’s scandal broke, most commentators would have predicted that if the coalition was going to fall, it would be because of its far more controversial party member — EKRE.
The populist far-right EKRE is known for instigating divisive domestic policies, and its leaders have been curiously unrestrained when publicly insulting some of Estonia’s most important international partners. As EKRE embroiled the Center-EKRE-Isamaa coalition in repeated controversy, the Riigikogu’s opposition — comprised of the Reform Party and SDE — routinely appealed for its ejection from government. President Kaljulaid has never hidden her belief that a place in government has served to magnify EKRE’s controversial behavior. The president has even criticized the coalition as a threat to both Estonia’s “security and constitutional order,” a critique remarkable for its grave seriousness.
Creating plenty of negative international media attention for Estonia, EKRE has been involved in a series of controversies throughout its time in government. Debacles have included former party chairman and Minister of Interior Mart Helme’s unprovoked insults towards Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin and his skepticism of NATO security guarantees. Helme’s tendency for internationally inflammatory statements eventually pushed him to acrimoniously resign in November 2020.
Just days after the US presidential election, Helme backed incumbent President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud, and lambasted the increasing likelihood that challenger Joseph Biden would win the presidency with the remark: “The logic based on which the deep state operates is to smuggle in dirtbags, corrupt dirtbags that can be blackmailed. Joe Biden and Hunter Biden are corrupt characters.”
In the same radio broadcast, his son, then-Minister of Finance Martin Helme commented, “[The US election was] faked so plainly, boldly and on a massive scale.” Carbon copies of the conspiracies expressed by America’s alt-right, these false claims caused consternation for the Estonian government and were quickly denounced by Kaljulaid. As the last straw for Mart Helme’s ministerial tenure, Ratas called on EKRE’s leadership to cease making unfounded claims and affirmed that the US election was “fair, free and transparent.”
While tendering his resignation, Helme remained defiantly unapologetic, insisting that he had done nothing “that would endanger Estonia’s security.” This claim is debatable. Nevertheless, Estonia’s national security community is fortunate that President Biden is very familiar with the Baltic security landscape; indeed, he expressed support for NATO enlargement as both a senator and while vice president. In a prominent 2013 speech, Biden stressed that the Baltic states are “valued friends” of the US. His administration will no doubt correctly distinguish EKRE from Estonia’s more liberal political voices eager to strengthen links with the new president.
But EKRE’s leaders have not confined their unfounded conspiracies just to US events. In an early January 2021 radio broadcast, Mart Helme also described the outcome of Lithuania’s October 2020 parliamentary election as a “transparent, deep-state scheme,” as his son Martin followed up to add: “The same thing was tried in Romania: Exactly the same pattern, exactly the same pattern.” These comments were prompted by the failure of far-right parties to figure prominently in each election, and they brought an irritated response from Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, including the sardonic line: “Your [Mart and Martin Helme’s] belief in our [Lithuania’s] democracy will help us believe in your common sense.”
Further Social Rupturing
While it may take time to fully forget EKRE’s many controversies, diplomacy may be the dimension of national security least affected by the collapse of the Center-EKRE-Isamaa coalition. Rather, EKRE’s political rise has brought the severity of some ruptures in Estonia’s social cohesion into closer focus. Following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Estonian commentators and military leaders emphasized the need for enhanced social cohesion for improved security.
But surprisingly for a populist nationalist party, EKRE’s time in government has not seriously antagonised minority tensions. Rather, as political economist Rainer Kattel argues, EKRE has instead sought to seriously profit from broader social divides and economic inequality perpetuated by the 2008 global financial crisis. Taking over as EKRE’s party chairman in July 2020, Estonian media sources named then-Minister of Finance Martin Helme as the country’s most influential person. “[Martin Helme] has transformed Estonia into a battle ground, where all actors are seen as political pawns, and individuals find they are apparently part of some political gambit,” noted Urmo Soonvald, editor-in-chief for Estonian daily newspaper Eesti Päevaleht. Now out of government, EKRE will seek to remain in the headlines by exploiting tensions between Estonia’s liberal metropolitan classes and the country’s poorer, rural conservatives.
This divide was compounded by the economic policies implemented by neoliberal Reform Party-led governments during the 2010s. Many that support the far right perceive these policies as creating unfair disadvantages in Estonian society, while believing EKRE to be the most attentive political force responding to their interests. EKRE’s many foreign and domestic policy controversies have often been seen by the party’s supporters as welcome dissent towards an unpopular “establishment” and have not significantly harmed the party’s popularity ratings according to opinion polls.
The new Reform-Center government has promised to “rebuild” Estonia’s diplomatic reputation with the US and within NATO after the damage caused by EKRE. However, rebuilding security from a social cohesion angle will be a harder task to manage as predictions remain that austerity, likely under the Reform Party as soon as the COVID-19 crisis subsides, and the national conservatism embodied by EKRE, will now be the two divisive but dominating themes in Estonian politics over the coming decade.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
*About the author: Eoin Micheál McNamara is a PhD researcher at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia, where he has taught on international relations.
Source: This article was published by FPRI