Estonia’s Conservative EKRE leader Martin Helme: We are living in a very profoundly changing time and it is very difficult to foresee where we will end up

  • 2024-02-15
  • Linas Jegelevicius

Estonia, until now, the Baltics’ pin-up country, has had a poor streak of performance lately – key economic indicators plunged to record lows, Kaja Kallas, the Prime Minister, embroiled in a Russia-related scandal, saw her support tumble but refuses to step down. The Baltic Times Magazine spoke with Martin Helme, the leader of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), the country’s main opposition party now.

There was jubilation among Reform and left-leaning voters after the successful election to Riigikogu, Estonian Parliament last spring. However, Estonia has been seeing a series of bitter disappointments lately –  funding cuts to entire sectors, a record high state debt, poor main economic indicators that are worse than in neighbouring Latvia and Lithuania, the closure of Estonian consulates in New York and San Francisco and a tangible dent in the country’s reputation by the revelation that the Prime Minister, Kallas, provided a loan to her husband who owns shares in a company that continued to do business in Russia after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. What do you make of all of this? How much must things deteriorate before they will get better in Estonia?

A series of things went wrong, but the bottom line is this: never lie and be honest. The new liberal Cabinet consisting of Reform, Estonia 200 and the Social Democrats lied to voters that they will not raise taxes. They did. They denied that they will change the marriage law, but they supported gay marriage. And when it comes to support of Ukraine, massive embezzlement of Estonians’ money has been revealed. And then the scandal you mentioned – the Prime Minister gave her own money to her husband to finance his Russia-linked business. The details are ugly, and she had to resign right away, but she clung on to power defying the public opinion and destroying Estonia’s reputation internationally. Our economy went from bad to worse; in fact, we’ve had the worst streak of economic performance in all of Europe, including the highest EU-wide inflation for two and a half years. I could go on, but I’d rather finish with this remark – the current Coalition parties and the Prime Minister are arrogant, inefficient, and incapable.

As a political party, EKRE is unique in the Baltics and beyond for being a very strong nationalistically-inclined right-wing party, yet media tend to dub it “far-right” or “extreme”.  Do you agree with the description? What is EKRE all about for you?

Obviously, I disagree with a description of the kind. I do agree, however, that we are a right-centre party. Yes, we are nationalist and sovereigntist and conservative, especially on the hot social topics. As such, we stand for much tougher immigration policies, for the preservation and promotion of Estonian culture and our unique language. We defend a traditional family – that of a man and woman – we are against what we consider LGBTQ propaganda in public life; we do not think that the state must regulate sex life based on sexual preferences. When it comes to environment protection and, specifically, climate change, we do not think that there is a reason for panic. We take studies in the field with a grain of salt. For us, redistributing of wealth, not allowing the elite of very rich people to control all money is essential. We stand for freedom of speech, which is becoming a pressing issue not only in Estonia. 

The descriptions you mentioned are used by left media outlets. Unfortunately, in a  bid to champion change, they do not care about the needs of the mainstream of our society. The words they use in describing us are very well suited to describe them.

Some analysts referring to your GDP and the population believe that Estonia has spent too much helping Ukraine. As delicate and sensitive as the question is, do you believe it could be the case?

When it comes to the war, in Estonia, there is no ambiguity who was right and who was wrong for it – the name of the aggressor and the victim are clear. As a party, EKRE has been very consistent and supportive of Ukraine for its fight for freedom. However, we are very critical on two key issues when it comes to the current Government’s handling of aid to Ukraine. 

First, the number of Ukrainian refugees admitted to Estonia is very disproportionate to the number of our population. In fact, Estonia is one of the biggest receivers of Ukrainian immigrants and, note, Estonia had a very big Russian community before their arrival. Besides, far from all the people who claim to be Ukrainians, even though they hold Ukrainian passports, are from the country – we have the suspicion some of them are Russians with Ukrainian passports. Thus, the Russian-speaking population has increased greatly over the last couple of years. I do not know how Ukraine can win the war if it runs out of its own people – the country has lost a significant part of its population, due to forced emigration as well.

The other thing that concerns our party tremendously is the depletion of our artillery and ammunition, nearly all of which we have given to Ukraine. In fact, we’ve given them nearly every artillery shell we had! I am sorry to say this, but, at the moment, as a state, we are nearly entirely defenceless – disarming ourselves. Considering tense geopolitics, it is wrong. When we speak about that loudly, we are attacked viciously, but I stand by my words.

The filibustering that EKRE has been exercising for months now lost support of some other opposition parties and is seen as destructive by swaths of the population. What can you say in defence of the measure?

We do not agree with the framing – being destructive or so. In fact, we see it the other way around – the Government is destructive with its policies – be it the economic policies or the family policy. And, as I mentioned, with the Government, things have gotten much worse in the country, so the Government has to be held accountable. The economic hardships that increasingly more Estonians experience are getting harder and harder and, frankly, I do not see any improvement of our economy any time soon. We see ourselves as the main force (in Estonian politics) who is fighting for the people. It was we who did not vote for the tax increase, gay marriage and massive immigration from the Slavic countries. It is we who perceive the existential nature of the multiple crises we are in. We just cannot think of what is going on (in the country) as business as usual and wait more than three years for the new elections.

Do you think the Reform-Estonia 200-Social Democrats Cabinet will last a full term?

Certainly, it will not. If I had to predict now – and sometimes I am wrong with my predictions – I was predicting that the Government will fall before New Year but it did not happen – I would say it will see a change in spring, or will fall then. The Government has run out of steam already and furthermore – lost the population’s support. Not only the external factors, like the upcoming European Parliament elections, but, for the most part, the internal factors, like the economy will be most important in its fate. The governing parties lost nearly half of their support since the election last spring. Besides, there is a lot of infighting among the parties themselves and even in the main party (Reform).

Isamaa, (Fatherland), Estonia’s Christian-democratic and national-conservative political party and your partner in the opposition, has been seeing a steep rise in recent polls. What is behind its rally? And is it not occurring at EKRE’s expense?

Luckily, not at ours. Our support has been steady since last summer – hovering at around 23 percent. Isamaa’s increase in support comes at the expense of the liberal parties, particularly Reform and Estonia 200. I predict that the latter may not overcome the electoral threshold (at 5 percent in Estonian Parliament – TBT) in the next election. The rise of Isamaa is a good sign for EKRE too – even younger, until now left-leaning voters, flip sides and are becoming more supportive of the conservative parties.

If you were to look in Estonia’s distant future – a couple hundred of years from now – do you see the country facing existential issues which you already mentioned – due to poor demographics, the result of a low birth rate and high immigration?

Looking back as far as one thousand years, a threat for Estonia would always come from the East, and this will not change any time soon. The demographic situation we are facing is one of the most acute questions not only for the Estonians, but for many other smaller and much larger nations, like Italy and Germany, too. So, either we manage to change the demographic trends – and the example of, say, Hungary in the striving is quite good, or the local populations will be replaced by people from, say, Africa or Asia who, historically and culturally, are alien to us.

 If we do not reverse the trend, the fate of Livonia (in early records known as Livland, a now extinct historical region on the shores of present-day Latvia – TBT) will await us. Or possibly, in, say, 200 years from now, there will still be people in what today is the territory of Estonia or any other Baltic state, but the countries will have changed dramatically – the Baltic nations have been stripped of their statehood for many years throughout history. 

We are living in a very profoundly and rapidly changing time and it is very difficult to foresee where we will end up.