Far-right Networking – an interview with Louis Wierenga on Estonia’s radical right, pt. 214 min read

Read part one here

In this second part of my interview with Louis Wierenga, our discussion leads to cleavages within Estonian society and the broader Intermarium project of far-right groups in Central and Eastern Europe. The country, like others in Europe, is becoming increasingly polarized, and the cleavages of its post-Soviet past have become less important in the far-right’s growth. Additionally, Louis provides some insight on EKRE’s Intermarium goals, and how the Intermarium project as a whole should not be pushed aside following EKRE’s recent burst in popularity.

Louis Wierenga is a Junior Research Fellow at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political studies, University of Tartu and a visiting researcher at European University Viadrina and Uppsala University. His research involves the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE’s) political consolidation process.

With the UN compact debate on migration and its escalation of Indrek Tarand, a prominent Estonian politician of the Social Democrats, being physically assaulted by EKRE supporters during their rally, is Estonia spiraling deeper into an identity crisis, as violence is inherently non-Estonian?

Wierenga: In terms of what’s happening now in Estonia with the UN Compact and the general debate over tolerance and foreigners, if they need [foreigners] for economic reasons versus ethnicity I would say that this is a post, post-Soviet cleavage, but not entirely. I think there is still sort of an element to it from countries that refused to sign the UN Compact, some of which were formerly occupied by the USSR.

Minkenberg (2017) argues that the nature of the post-communist transition process and unfinished nation-building in the region have made the radical right in Eastern Europe a sui generis phenomenon, being both organizationally more fluid and ideologically more extreme than its Western counterparts.

It is still very much a post-Soviet cleavage here in Latvia, because Harmony (The Social Democratic Party) in Latvia, which courts the Russian vote, has taken a different path than the Center party in Estonia. The Center party is in a government coalition, whereas in Latvia there is a cordon sanitaire against Harmony, even though they end up with the most seats in national elections. The connection with Russian-speakers and how they politicize it is much different.

There are less refugees coming to Latvia and, although the National Alliance was instrumental, I would argue that with Latvia not signing the UN Compact they are still very much operating in a post-Soviet cleavage structure and an unstable political system. Meanwhile, EKRE is operating in a very stable political system, though we will see what happens after the next election – it took Sweden several months to form a government, after all. And I think that although there are some concerns that some of the established parties or the other mainstream have over EKRE, we are still far from a situation like Poland or Hungary if EKRE joins the government, which I do not think will happen.

Anyway, history matters for the radical right and that is what propped them up. A lot of things have changed since 2015. You mentioned the Latvians, earlier and I think that the one big difference between EKRE and the National Alliance is that they are operating in two different cleavage systems.

With regards to the Indrek Tarand incident, I would not use the term identity crisis. Coming back to my earlier post-Soviet cleavage remark, I do think that it shows that the society is becoming increasingly polarized in Estonia, and not so much around the Russia and Russian speaker issues. What happened in the month of December led to an increased support by 4% for EKRE for their stance on migration and the UN.

Also during the same time period, the number of voters that said that they would not vote for EKRE under any circumstances grew. The Reform and Center parties dropped by two to three percentage points and the social democrats jumped 7 percent, which is remarkable. The Social Democrats are slowly becoming the antithesis to EKRE rather than the Center party.

I think that those two parties will mostly be targeted by EKRE during the upcoming elections. But to answer your question, this is something that is currently unfolding and I might shy away from using the term identity crisis; it’s rather the question voters have of which direction the country should go. But I would definitely say that there are some societal cleavages that are going to stay for a long time. Although EKRE is quite euro-sceptic, in the Baltic States far-right parties cannot really be too anti-EU because of Russia. Their main critique of the EU has to do with national sovereignty and control over their own migration policies.

And one of the things I’ve noticed in my research is that this is a thing that a lot of EKRE supporters like; they feel that they are the only party that represents the interest of Estonians or the “average Estonians,” meaning they see the Reform party as representing Brussels, they see the Social Democrats as, like you pointed out in your article in New Eastern Europe, the representatives of “Gayropa” and out of touch bureaucrats. So basically, a decade and a half after joining the EU, [with Estonia] being the most successful the transition country, I still think that the Russian cleavage is there but it is massively overshadowed by the foreigner issue.

Often times, the radical-right points to Sweden or Germany and says, “we do not want this, look at what happens there!” In terms of violence, I don’t think Estonia will see demonstrations as we see them in Western Europe and definitely not like in the US. But I can also understand, as you pointed out in your question, that violence is not accepted in Estonia.

I was reacting with my question to an article of a Lossi writer who wrote an autobiographical piece about the incident. She was mentioning that at the day of the Indrek Tarand beating, all her co-workers came into the office like zombies, as for them Estonia is this country of nonviolent protest and the core of what being Estonian is about.

Wierenga: It’s good that you did include this statement in the interview, because it is a very important question, and of course for Estonians that I have met it is a huge deal. They don’t want to see this type of political engagement, and it happened.

But I think that the biggest concern is that it starts somewhere, and so I really admire Estonians’ view that they should have a society where descent is debated intellectually, not with fists and feet. The possibility of this type of violence becoming a normal part of Estonian life is alarming, and there is a recent poll which shows that the fears of Estonians very much align with their choice in political parties.

This is not surprising in a country with a multi-party electoral system which is only increasingly becoming polarized away from the Russia/post-Soviet issue. This poll was conducted by Kantar Emor, and it finds that the issue Estonians are most fearful about is actually the rise of extremism and populism. The one group where this is not the case are supporters of EKRE. Their supporters are not worried about that, but [the supporters of] every other party are. I should say that the aim of this poll is very relevant, but should have been conducted on a far larger scale. They only interviewed 1237 Estonians, which is small even for Estonia, and it was an online poll in one month.

Another thing that I would like to highlight that reinforces my point on the post-Soviet/Russia cleavage is that society is polarizing for the first time. EKRE has surpassed the Center Party as the party that most voters would vote against; as of December, 48 percent [would vote against]. This is a 10 percent jump in one month.

EKRE has called for a sort of “New national awakening” for Estonians. When they hosted the independence march and had their speeches for the 6th anniversary of Sinine Äratus, there was this message of “the best of the future is yet to come” for Estonia, as well as the message of not having to choose between the East and West, but just Estonia. But in being just Estonians, you have to have a political ideology or some kind of political conviction. Although it is not a high impact migration country, there is going to be more people who come [to Estonia] as the Universities of Tartu and Tallinn progress. There is going to be more people coming as technology, e-governance and start-ups progress.

I don’t know if you read this, it’s gone viral. It is an open letter an Estonian author wrote to her father who passed away 12 years ago called “Estonia has become angry.”  

The author is writing the letter to her deceased father because he taught her about patriotism. Of course, patriotism in the Baltic States and other parts of Eastern Europe is different because of the occupation. Or, it was different, but now it is taking a different turn.

One of the Tallinn city counselors made a comment to a Russian speaker that they are “Asiatic monkeys.” Of course, incidents such as this still happen but that is not primarily something that occurs often, especially with the younger generation.

To sum: up deeper into an identity crisis, no; deeper into a political cleavage, absolutely. I think this cleavage will last a long time. In 2015, Business Insider published an article that had some interesting predictions for the next ten years in Europe.

One of them was that Germany was going to have a lot of internal problems and that Poland would become one of Europe’s leaders. But it also said Europe would be divided into four. It would be Great Britain, which is already going this way, Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Some people kind of scoff at the idea of a far-right Intermarium and think that they are treated more importantly than they actually are. But I liked the term you used in your article for “entryism” in terms of Intermarium…

“Sneaktrance”

Wierenga: Yes, yes exactly, but I think that it is how it happens. Look at what happened with the National Alliance in Latvia, they went down four seats. Not because the taste for a nationalist party was lost, but because there were so many new parties. Intermarium is something that is going to be increasingly important in an unstable Europe.

As you just mentioned Intermarium, what do you think is the current state of affairs in regards to transnational networks, not only in the other Baltic States but also in Poland and Ukraine?

Wierenga: Transnational networks in the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine are large and growing, but to delve deeper, it is primarily done through the parties’ youth organizations. One of the overwhelming trends that I am seeing with far-right parties in the region is that they are sick and tired of  “suit and tie” traditional politics.

Of course, the older generation in EKRE are, in a way, not part of the elite. But then you also have someone like Martin Helme, who is the former ambassador to Russia and who’s been in politics his whole life, whereas [the far-right Estonian youth organization] Sinine Äratus actively does not allow members into their organization that they think are just looking for a political career and have chosen the far-right to do it.

There is an increasing niche for focusing on things that are both politics, history, philosophy, and mythology. This niche is different depending on which party in the region we are talking about, but I think there is sort of a shift to where more people from grassroot initiatives are getting involved in politics. And of course, power will change people when they get elected, but I think we are getting into an era where it might not change as much because the ideological linkages to a certain political standpoint are so strong and so steadfast, and this is not in terms of the traditional left-right division or acceptance of globalism and liberal socio-cultural values.

The Intermarium project I see as a step-by-step process. Transnational networks are getting bigger, especially because of Social Media, because of the high attendances in their conferences and especially because in countries where, let’s say, stigmatism against associations with far-right groups is high. Among some of the countries, Sweden comes to mind, but also in Estonia it is becoming a little bit more politicized if you support EKRE.

EKRE is providing some kind of public support. For example, Martin Helme was supposed to speak at the Etnofutur Conference in Tallinn before the last Estonian anniversary, but he did not because he fell ill. However, his name was still on the program and he had agreed to speak alongside Millenial Woes and Olena Semenyaka. Probably, he would have said something that is not about international linkages between youth groups because of his age, but it still would have appealed to the same type of “Estonia for Estonians” narrative that EKRE is stressing.

The step-by-step process starts out as Intermarium, so [connecting] the Baltic to the Black Sea, but then they want to move to all of Europe. Meaning the “Reconquista Europa,” or “reconquering Europe,” which basically means they want to divide Europe according to what we call “Ethnofuturism” – distinct ethnic nation states. It is very much the idea that even Marine Le pen repeated at the Sea Pact Conference for American Republicans, that she does not mind when Trump says America first; she wants Britain first and France first and I think that they promote more a civic nationalism than ethnic nationalist as the folks from Intermarium and Ethnofuturism projects do. But they want Estonia for Estonians, Latvia for Latvians, and so on.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This process of reconquering of Europe starts out with an internalized enemy and an externalized enemy. We need “Fortress Europe” and we are always going to need strong borders, even if they achieve their goals. It starts out by links and networks; people can make contacts on social media and then they can come to each other’s events, come in bigger numbers and then take part in each other’s Independence Day celebrations which has evolved into conferences and of course in the Bauska Declaration. This has been sealed between the NA, the Latvian Nationalist Union and EKRE, but also the Intermarium Statute itself. The Bauska Declaration was signed by the 3 aforementioned parties in 2013, calling for a new national awakening for the three Baltic states and stood opposed to both Russian imperialism, globalism, multiculturalism and cultural Marxism.  

One of the other names who spoke along the Baltic far-right representatives was Daniel Friedberg, who in the end also did not end up coming. He fancies himself as a far-right entrepreneur, a Swedish businessman who pumps money into diverse far-right projects and is a member of the Intermarium, Reconquista Europa network. Overall, one can say that ties between these groups, via the Intermarium project are only deepening, but the Polish far-right is fragmented which for them until now, has been a huge obstacle. This is because Poland is such a big country and much needed for the success of the Intermarium Project.

One time, I asked somebody involved in this [Intermarium] project how they ever thought they would be able to counterbalance the Russian Federation without NATO and without the EU. They said Poland, because it has so many people militarily. Think what you may, but they do have somewhat of a strategy for how they are going to go about Intermarium and Reconquista Europa. They want all the chips to fall into place, but I think it is still ongoing and there is still a lot of work to do. The one reason why I think it should be taken seriously is because they know that they don’t expect this to happen overnight. And they are planning very much for the long-term.

Alexandra Wishart is pursuing her Master’s degree in the CEERES program at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Holding a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies, she focuses on matters of culture and ethnicity in the post-Soviet space. She is passionate about political activism, economy and social movements in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.