Estonia Battles Its Elected Racists

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid speaks on how to stand up against the far-right.

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid leaves the Élysée Palace after a Bastille Day working lunch during the visit of European leaders in Paris on July 14.
Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid leaves the Élysée Palace after a Bastille Day working lunch during the visit of European leaders in Paris on July 14. Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

The recent Financial Times interview with Vladimir Putin was a reminder of how closely Russia has become tied with anti-liberal interests across Europe. Putin described liberalism as “obsolete,” denigrated sexual minorities, and praised closed borders and ethnonationalist policies. Putin’s ideological allies, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, have brought their countries geopolitically closer to Moscow in recent years.

But they’re not the only ones echoing Putin’s views. Right-wing populist and Euroskeptic parties are now represented in 23 out of 28 EU member states. Most recently, they made gains in national elections in Finland, Spain—and Estonia, long on the front lines of conflict with Russia, where the Conservative People’s Party, or EKRE, almost tripled its seats in the Baltic nation’s parliamentary election in early March and subsequently entered government for the first time. Promising to protect an “indigenous Estonia,” the EKRE holds five key ministries, including economic affairs, in a coalition led by Juri Ratas’s Centre Party.

Protest against the EKRE joining the government and its views came in many forms, from a concert with 10,000 people to counter a far-right march to a movement calling itself “Koigi Eesti” (“Estonia for All”) that quickly gained nearly 30,000 followers on Facebook—and politicians showing their indignation in public, as seen perhaps most prominently by President Kersti Kaljulaid. During the government swearing-in ceremony on April 29, Kaljulaid, whose position is separate from the coalition government, left the parliament chamber, forcing an EKRE politician to salute to an empty chair.

Kaljulaid also showed her support for press freedom at the ceremony by sporting a sweatshirt reading “speech is free” in Estonian. In office since 2016, Kaljulaid is the fifth, first female, and youngest ever head of state since Estonia declared independence in 1918. Acting as the economic advisor to Prime Minister Mart Laar from 1999 to 2002, Kaljulaid also served as Estonia’s representative in the European Court of Auditors from 2004 to 2016.

Just before the European Parliament elections in late May, in which the EKRE slightly increased its share of seats, Foreign Policy spoke to Kaljulaid about the reasons for the party’s rise, how to counter anti-Europe sentiments, and Estonia’s role as a digital peacekeeper.

Foreign Policy: EKRE politicians have made, among other things, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and racist comments, including, “If you’re black, go back.” How concerned are you about their behavior and them being in government?

Kersti Kaljulaid: I hate them for their behavior, and I apologize for the image this might give. Decent people do not behave themselves this way. That it is in any way OK to show these signs is not a viewpoint we share in Estonia. I now have to explain their stupid moves and claw back the territory. I’ve been speaking to ministers from this party—our common understanding is that you cannot properly function in an international, global society if you keep irritating people, whether you believe the things you say or not. I have a nagging doubt that some of these people don’t believe what they do.

I think they are totally new to this level of politics, and they simply don’t realize what they do. I hope they stop soon; if they don’t, I’ll keep apologizing for them. I really hope they will have no effect on our economic and political development, but we have a coalition government where the EKRE only has one-third [of 56 seats]. In parliament, we have a 68-seat liberal majority [of a total of 101 seats]. Again, I really hate it that they behave this way.

FP: Marine Le Pen met with several EKRE politicians in mid-May during her visit to Estonia, organized by the Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom (MENF) as part of a European tour to drum up support for the far-right in the EU elections. Were you uncomfortable with this meeting taking place in Estonia?

KK: I have absolutely no idea how the meeting came about. It’s just my intelligent guess that the MENF noticed that the EKRE now is in the Estonian government, and that’s why they organized this gathering here. Like most Estonian politicians, I have not met with any MENF politicians. Of course, they are citizens of the European Union, so they have the right to meet, the right to gather and freedom of speech.

In Estonia, we are very adamant that these rights apply to everybody, no matter whether we like their ideas or not. Of course, we do not share the views of Marine Le Pen on Russia. Even the EKRE has a big difference of opinion in this basic question. But much like mainstream parties, populists are a varied bunch. In some areas, we share their opinions; in others we don’t.

FP: What do you think fueled the rise of the EKRE in Estonia?

KK: In older democracies, big swaths of the population experience intergenerational poverty. They live in areas with only bad schools. Their parents couldn’t go to a good school, either, and they know their kids will also have bad schools. So the need for social mobility is a fair claim. If we cannot get it evolutionary, some people will soon try to have a revolution. This is nothing new.

In Estonia, things are somewhat different. Our school system, for example, is extremely egalitarian, and access to health care is very good. In the last 30 years, we caught up on decades of industrialization under Soviet rule. It’s been an extremely quick change. Depopulation of rural areas, concentration in the cities, and therefore the need to constantly react to social inequalities, happened to us at double the speed. This has created a feeling among people in rural areas that life and developments pass them by. Of course they notice that the average monthly Estonian salary has risen from 30 euros to roughly 1,455 euros today and that the minimum salary is 500 euros. Even in the poorest county, the average salary is now 900 euros.

Still, we have not been able to react quickly enough. In the 1990s, we did not have the resources, and we sometimes missed opportunities. Take road development: It makes no economic sense to put asphalt around a few people. Politically, however, it makes a lot of sense. All of this has brought us to a point with this feeling of discontent, which has made it possible for the EKRE to rise. Some of its supporters have racist and other views we absolutely cannot share, and I myself had to remind them that the Estonian Constitution includes liberal democratic values.

Those who say that everything is simple, and therefore don’t want to get complex questions from the media, tend to put pressure on the media. But I’m quite sure that Estonia’s 11th place on the media freedom list [Reporters Without Borders 2019 ranking] and the rule of law in this country will prevail. Estonia will remain a democracy, but it doesn’t happen by itself. It does happen because we, the liberal democratic politicians, manifest our belief in institutions and in free media every day.

FP: What’s the state of the EU on the eve of elections to the European Parliament? How can we counter antagonism toward Europe and convince people of its advantages?

KK: Even if we end up with a ratio of four liberals to two conservatives [in the European Parliament], it’s not a big issue. Sometimes, it feels like we’re in a submarine where this horrible loudspeaker noise is rising. But if you look at the latest Eurobarometer survey, support for the euro is at an all-time high. People asking basic questions about liberal democratic values is a fair debate to have. What do countries get out of Europe? Will our languages and multilingualism prevail?

I’ve been very critical in my statements during my 12 years in the European Parliament. Because of this loudspeaker noise, though, today I cannot say that the European budget in my mind is dispersed into too many budget spheres and should be concentrated on a few really good things like research and development, that cohesion should be limited to two periods and thereafter should only remain safe, and so on. If I say those things, Estonians will argue even the president is critical of the European Union.

The hysterical rise of “Europe is bad” and “Europe is regulating too much” limits our space for rational debate. I’m trying to overcome it by pointing out the basics so that our populations finally understand that the European Union is good for them—that Greece is the only country not richer today than before becoming a member state, that the EU has given us a digital Estonia, and that countries are no longer struggling with banking stability. All this happened in the same European Union regulative straitjacket. Europe is delivering.

Or imagine settling any European issue with Conference of the Parties procedures. It would be hell on earth. It would take three years to decide on a location of the congress, another two years to agree on the agenda, and another year to agree on how we come to decisions—and only then we’d have the congress. And then nobody implements the decisions. With the European Union, we all know when the next meeting is, how we make decisions, how we negotiate, and who thereafter implements the decisions. Yes, it does take some time, but the European Union simply makes sense. And you need to be able to explain it—simply—to your grandmother and to your 3-year-old.

FP: Estonia’s e-Governance Academy has helped several countries adopt e-state solutions, including Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia, as well as the Palestinian territories. Do you see Estonia as a digital peacekeeper?

KK: The short answer is yes. Estonia is a country with limited resources, but we want to do our part in making our world safer and better. And indeed we think that our e-Governance Academy, which is a joint venture between the Estonian government and the United Nations Development Programme, can help bring better understanding in the crisis-hit corners of the world. Digital tools can help you keep track of who is still alive, who has been born, and so on—without making people go to offices.

Similarly, we want Africa to use digital tools to a certain extent to leapfrog a few decades it lost. We are very active in Smart Africa [a pan-African government initiative to foster “sustainable socio-economic development”].

We also want to be in the United Nations Security Council to make digital part of conflict resolution and to understand how international law applies in the digital sphere concerning state sovereignty. Several U.N. working groups haven’t managed to make significant progress. But if we can make digital the domain where you act wherever you have a conflict to resolve—and unfortunately countries like Ukraine with digital systems are in conflicts—then we can probably fast-forward this thinking a little bit. It’s extremely important that while Estonia is promoting e-government globally, we also take responsibility for the protection of sovereignty in the digital domain. You cannot do one without the other.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Benjamin Bathke is a Berlin-based entrepreneurial freelance journalist covering technology, media innovation, and migration. In 2018, he was a Google News Initiative fellow. During his five years in the United States, he was a Global Journalism Fellow and worked for both a tech startup and Washington University in St. Louis.
 Twitter: @BenjaminBathke