Estonia’s Natural Experiment in Fighting Right-Wing Populism

Two models have emerged for dealing with a new nationalist government—but it’s not clear which will prove more effective.

A song and dance festival in Estonia in 2011.
A song and dance festival in Estonia in 2011. Toomas Tuul/FOCUS/UIG via Getty Images

TALLINN, Estonia—At a coworking space in Estonia’s capital, members of the protest movement “Yes to Freedom, No to Lies” gathered in a meeting room on a recent evening to hash out a new strategy. For weeks the activists had been organizing protests against the inclusion of a far-right party in the country’s coalition government. In spite of their efforts, however, the new government had been sworn in at the end of April. “We lost,” said Siim Tuisk, a community organizer. “Now it’s about figuring out: How do we go on?”

Outside of the meeting room, English drifted across the coworking space’s plant-filled open-plan office as a group of angel investors and start-up founders, both local and foreign—Indian, Japanese, Russian—networked over coffee. Over the past decade, Estonia, a country of just 1.3 million people, had established itself as a hub of digital development and in the process had pioneered the concept of borderless e-residency. Out of earshot of the activists’ discussions, the scene was difficult to square with the nativist brand of populism that had swept across much of Europe and the United States in recent years and had now likewise intoxicated the small Baltic nation.

In a March national election, the Conservative People’s Party, known by the Estonian acronym EKRE, had won 19 seats in the country’s 101-seat parliament on a promise to protect an indigenous Estonian population under threat and weed out a political establishment that for years had ignored the people’s true wishes. During the campaign, the party’s leaders railed against migrants, same-sex partnerships, mainstream media, and a so-called deep state, all while trafficking freely in falsehoods and inflammatory rhetoric. One now-minister suggested that the country was run by “secret Jews”; another called for a “white Estonia.” Days after the vote, against all expectations and his own word, Prime Minister Juri Ratas included EKRE in his proposal for a new government.

The right-wing populists’ rise had taken Estonian liberals by surprise. “The ostrich had put its head in the sand so to speak,” said Maia-Liisa Anton, a former research attache to the European Union who now runs a small consulting firm. “We saw what was happening around the world, but we didn’t want to believe that it could happen here.” As coalition negotiations took place through March and into April, they were left scrambling to try to come up with methods to turn back the populist tide.

For their part, Anton, Tuisk, and a core group of about a dozen other activists organized daily protests outside of Stenbock House, the seat of Estonia’s government and the site of the negotiations. “I just felt that, okay, this was my red line,” Anton said. “I have to look into the eyes of my children in five years and say that I actually tried to do something.” At the peak of the protests, some 1,000 people marched through Tallinn and Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city. For a nation with a population of just over a million people, and without a tradition of civic dissent since the end of Soviet occupation in 1991, the protest was sizable.

But these protesters weren’t the only ones who were trying to do something. A separate movement calling itself “Koigi Eesti,” or “Estonia for All,” was gaining momentum, quickly boasting nearly 30,000 followers on its Facebook page in addition to about 30 core members. In mid-April, the group rallied some 10,000 people to a concert at Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds—ground zero of the Singing Revolution, the mass demonstrations that brought an end to Soviet occupation—with the motto: “We are not afraid. We stand together for freedoms.” The words spoke to a stark difference in how the movement had tried to position itself: not against EKRE, but for shared Estonian values.

“With loud protest, we all know what’s going to happen,” Hedi Mardisoo, one of the movement’s original driving members, said over coffee on a recent afternoon in Tallinn’s Telliskivi Creative City, a former industrial park that has been transformed into a complex of start-ups and eateries featuring murals and notices for upcoming events. That day, one advertised an anti-racism talk. “It’s very easy to grow divisions in society,” Mardisoo continued, noting she had taken cues from missteps in responses to the rise of right-wing populists in other countries, “and this is actually what we were from day one trying to avoid: to not give them fuel.”

Mardisoo, a former corporate communications professional who recently founded a start-up, said that the protesters and Koigi Eesti share the same aim: limiting the far-right’s political reach. But the latter movement, she believes, is able to address a wider audience by not taking a political stance and trying to talk to all voters. To that end, members last week set up a table in Tallinn’s Freedom Square, speaking to passersby about the upcoming European Parliament elections at the end of this month.

“It’s a completely different chemistry when you come out from social media and have those conversations face to face,” said Silver Tambur, the editor of the English-language Estonian World outlet and another of the original members of Koigi Eesti. That day he spoke with people who, if they didn’t explicitly say they vote for EKRE, made clear they wanted some of the policies its leaders had espoused. “You kind of realize that you’re both just Estonians and that it’s possible to have dialogue and find common ground,” he said.

Yet however the opposition attempts to combat right-wing populism, Martin Helme, one of EKRE’s most outspoken leaders, says the party won’t be rattled. Speaking in his office in Estonia’s parliament building prior to his swearing in as the country’s new finance minister at the end of April—during which he flashed the OK symbol, a gesture associated with white nationalists—Helme seemed to goad the movements that had formed in response to his party’s rise.

“What amuses me is that no one seems to be aware of the fact that everything that’s being used against us is already something that has been used in the United States or the United Kingdom or Germany,” he said. “We are prepared, and there’s not a lot of surprise for us.”

One of the most overlooked tools in EKRE’s toolkit, Helme said, is a grassroots connection with rural voters. He pointed to the party’s media platforms—including websites and a weekly radio talk show featuring Helme and his father, Mart, the party’s chairman—allowing EKRE to speak directly to its base. In recent weeks, EKRE has used those platforms to try to discredit both Koigi Eesti and Yes to Freedom, No to Lies.

“You can tell them how bad the mainstream media is or explain your plans directly without any filters,” Helme said. “And then you have an army of people who are out in the streets, in the villages, talking to their neighbors and their colleagues and their families.” It is for this reason that Tuisk, who ran in the recent election as a Social Democratic Party candidate, believes the Koigi Eesti project is “a little naive.”

“They’re at the first stage: thinking everything will be fine if we just tone down the conversation,” he said. “We don’t always have to be aggressive, but we do have to find ways that will make people take a side.” On Tuesday, as Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French right-wing National Rally party met with EKRE leaders at a historical trade union building in Tallinn, Tuisk and some 30 others picketed outside.

Katrin Uba, a researcher of Estonian protest movements at the University of Tartu, said that it’s too early to judge whether either movement has made an impact. But, if they do want to be successful, Uba believes they will have to get out of the Tallinn and Tartu bubbles and speak directly to rural voters. “They want to talk about values, but I’m not sure it’s always about values for EKRE’s voters,” she said.

Uba, who lives just three miles from the Latvian border in southeastern Estonia in a district where voters voted for EKRE at twice the national average, argues that much of the party’s right-wing rhetoric is used as a way to distract from the fact that their economic policies are incoherent. Still, it is their economic populism, rather than the right-wing rhetoric, that Uba believes was the primary factor for the voters in her village.

“EKRE also promised a lot of things financially,” she said. “They said they’ll take out huge loans and distribute them. That they’ll cut taxes and build roads. It’s a question of who notices what. And if you’re very concerned with values, that’s what you’ll notice.”

With Estonia’s economy growing steadily in recent years, Tallinn and Tartu reaped the benefits. But relative poverty has nonetheless remained high in rural areas. “To connect with those people, they’ll have to start talking about everyday issues,” Uba said. “And these are health care, the quality of roads, low incomes in the countryside, the fact that people have to travel big distances to find work, and so on.”

As Koigi Eesti hunkers down for the long haul of four years with EKRE in power, Tambur says the group is still trying find its way. It has, however, formulated one clear strategy. Pointing to the geographic diversity of its tens of thousands of Facebook members, Tambur said the group is planning to export the Freedom Square conversation model around the country.

“Of course we’re not a political party, so we wouldn’t go and tell people what’s right and what’s wrong,” Tambur said. “But it’s really worth listening to people and, where we can, pointing out the facts.”

Still, although Koigi Eesti’s members continue to believe in their mission, some have been frustrated by what they are up against. “We know we are in constant danger of our messaging being too complicated and that if it’s not clearly against something, then our goal is too vague and too boring,” said Ave Tampere, an early member who works in corporate communications. “And this overthinking can paralyze us.”

While Koigi Eesti treads carefully, EKRE, for its part, plans to continue bludgeoning its way forward. Departing for the government’s swearing-in ceremony last month, Helme grinned and said: “We never shy away from a good fight.”

Evan Gershkovich is a journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is currently a reporter for the Moscow Times.

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