In 2019, an enormous surprise for many commentators was the electoral success of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), which won third place in the voting with 17.8 percent of votes ahead of, among others, the ‘traditional’, more moderate right-wing party Isamaa (Homeland). What’s more, despite earlier announcements by other party politicians about a “sanitary cordon” existing around EKRE’s nationalist-conservatives, this formation successfully finalized coalition talks with the Isamaa Party and the centre-right Centrum Party, which enabled the formation of a government without the participation of the central Reform Party – the winner of the election. Western European media headed by The Guardian were very surprised by the success of the extreme right in a country associated up till that time with the “Baltic economic miracle” and successful digitization. In actual fact, EKRE had much earlier begun its push towards a leading position on the Estonian political scene.
The party’s immediate ancestor was the Estonian Patriotic Movement (ERL), a group created in 2006, declaring its goal to be that of combating Russian influence in Estonia. ERL’s first aim was to dismantle the Bronze Soldier – a monument to Red Army soldiers in the centre of Tallinn. Next, the organization expanded its programme to include opposition to Estonia’s membership in the European Union and the planned Nord Stream gas pipeline, support for the idea of building a permanent NATO base within the country. However, the Patriotic Movement failed to transform itself into a mass organization. According to its own estimates, in 2012, after six years of operations, it had only 268 members.
A breakthrough in the organization’s history was its merger with the Estonian People’s Union – a declining centre-right party with certain social accents, addressing its programme mainly to the inhabitants of villages and smaller towns. During its congress in Põltsamaa in 2012, at which the creation of a new political entity was announced, the Estonian Conservative People’s Party was founded as an alternative to the parties dominating Estonian politics since 1991, who were accused of ignoring the real needs of voters, of having forgotten the national interest of Estonians, of suggesting substitute subjects for society’s attention and of backing exclusively ‘ultra-liberalism’. EKRE presented itself as guardian of the Estonian people’s interests and traditional values, treating citizens subjectively, not as an anonymous mass of “consumers” or “taxpayers”. So the very core of the party’s message – even if it was not explicitly formulated – was criticism of the shock economic transformation of the 1990s, society’s pauperization and the emigration that this entailed. EKRE took advantage of the fact that the Estonian left, not counting weak and marginal organizations, for all intents and purposes failed to address such issues in public debate.
Since 2012, EKRE has been constantly expanding its electorate. In the parliamentary election in 2015, it won 7.1 percent of the votes, which translated into seven seats out of the 100 in the single-chamber Estonian parliament. The next election was, as already mentioned, even more successful: national conservatives won a 17.8 percent support and entered the government, in which they were entrusted with five ministerial positions, including that of Minister for Internal Affairs. This went to Mart Helme, one of the party’s creators and its main ideologist. Importantly, in the period between the two elections, EKRE was the only party in Estonia to record an increase in the number of its members. True, in the European elections in Estonia in 2019, only one of six seats was awarded to national conservatives, but in the July polls of that same year EKRE was ranked second, with a result of 19.4 percent, second only to the centre-right Reform Party (although the difference between them was clear, with 34.5% of Estonians indicating the leader of that ranking as their party of choice).
EKRE’s unquestionable success is the result of that party’s very consistent presentation of itself as defenders of “ordinary people”, being in all respects on the side of Estonians, unlike the “corrupt” liberal elites. In its official programme, the party places much more emphasis on social issues than on typical nationalist rhetoric. Even the first pillar of EKRE’s programme, namely the “defence of Estonian values”, is formulated in such a way that key issues for nationalists – protection of the language, tradition, ethnic purity of the family – are equated with care for the national economy or efforts to preserve the education system (in this case – opposition to the closing of small rural schools). Nationalist language only comes to the fore when they talk about all ethnic Estonians needing to be involved in the fight to defend their national state against both external and internal enemies. In this, both ethnic minorities and potential immigrants are portrayed as a threat. However, the second and third pillars of their programme contain tenets taken over lock stock and barrel from the leftists. EKRE declares its willingness to fight for a “society of equal opportunities”, managed in an open, honest and democratic way, as well as for a strong and honest state which, thanks to a policy based on knowledge, will strive for sustainable development and respect for the country’s natural resources.
However, as Estonian and foreign human rights defenders point out, their public statements and gestures testify to the real intentions of EKRE leaders and the values that are important to them much better than their relatively balanced programme. The party’s leader, Mart Helme, is known for attacks on Russian-speaking residents of Estonia, including the suggestion that regardless of their willingness they are unable to become loyal citizens of the country, as their different ethnicity effectively prevents this. EKRE’s youth organization, called Blue Awakening, became famous by organizing an annual march in Tallinn under the slogan “Estonia for Estonians” and holding torches, which evokes quite explicit associations with Nazi parades. Of an even more explicit symbolic nature has been the regular participation of party activists in the congress of veterans of the Estonian SS Legion, including annual gatherings in a place called Blue Hills, the site of the German-Soviet battle fought at the end of July and early August 1944. In a virtually open text, fascination with the Third Reich was expressed by Jaak Madison, member of EKRE since 2015, deputy head of party since 2017 and deputy to the European Parliament since 2019. On his blog he argued that the Nazi system had a number of advantages: he admitted the existence of concentration camps and “games with gas chambers” (sic!), but at the same time wrote that a strict sense of order and concentration on the development of the arms industry allowed Germany to pull itself out of its serious economic crisis and become one of the European powers. In another post, Madison argued that the Holocaust “had its positive aspects.” He also attacked Russian-speaking residents of Estonia, publicly complaining in 2014 about the fact that it was only now understood that the country needed “purification” and that the Russian minority should be led by people inclined to ‘estonization’.
EKRE also very soon began to take up the anti-refugee rhetoric of Western Europe’s far-right parties. This tendency intensified as the European migration crisis escalated, but in Estonia it was visible even earlier – in this respect EKRE was particularly inspired by nationalist formations in Scandinavia, with which the party has long maintained friendly contacts. Anti-immigrant rhetoric has been expressed, although Estonia does not have the slightest problem in this regard, and the number of permanent residents of Middle Eastern or African descent doesn’t amount to even a thousand people in this small country. In 2013, commenting on reports concerning riots involving immigrants in Sweden, Martin Helme, son of the party’s main ideologist and co-leader of the organization, did not hesitate to say that the basis of Estonian immigration policy should be: “Are you black? Then go back where you came from”. When this remark met with widespread criticism, Helme the younger added that he would like Estonia to be a “white country”. The son is backed up by his father: Mart Helme, opening a new party office in Tallinn, stated in April 2019 that “the number of blacks in the city is growing rapidly.” Also in 2019, immediately after being sworn in to parliament, the younger Helme made a gesture with both hands that is associated with American extremists – defenders of “white supremacy”.
Leading EKRE politicians make it plain that the American alt-right is their inspiration, so for them, the “natural” complement to this nationalist set of views is ostentatious misogyny and contempt for sexual minorities. EKRE activists have repeatedly called LGBT people “deviants” and “perverts,” strongly attacking the equality marches that take place in Tallinn, and have opposed activities promoting equality and tolerance in schools. They have used the rhetoric heard in Poland of “opposition to the promotion of homosexuality and multi-cult”. But unlike the Polish and the American original, references in EKRE’s discourse to religion, natural laws or the only right, God-derived morality are completely absent – in a country as secularized as Estonia, that would be both incomprehensible and pointless. Combating “gay propaganda”, EKRE points out the need to protect the Estonian people from harmful ideas.
The international contacts maintained by Estonian national conservatives include the already mentioned extremely nationalist and neo-Nazi movements in Scandinavia, the British Independence Party and Ukrainian nationalists. In 2014, when protests were still going on in Maidan, Mart Helme issued a special appeal to them not to give in to Russian demands, and in the following years among others the famous Azov battalion invited Estonian volunteers to fight in their ranks.
EKRE also officially cooperates with nationalists from Latvia and Lithuania – in 2013 EKRE was one of the three signatories of the Bauska Declaration that called for a new national revival of three Baltic nations, the combating of multiculturalism, “cultural Marxism”, globalism and Moscow’s imperialist ambitions. Undoubtedly, of the three entities that signed the declaration, EKRE achieved the greatest electoral success in the following years. Will it be able to maintain that success? Much will depend on how much EKRE manages to maintain the image of a party caring for ordinary people, distance itself from the reforms that may hit the man in the street, reforms that are increasingly being seriously considered by the Centrum Party dominating the current right-wing coalition (suggesting, among other things, a change in the rules for calculating pensions).
Image source: Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Licence;
modifications: Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat, Sanja Jelić