December in Eastern Europe: Estonia betting on Trumpism… and losing?3 min read
December editorial. From Tallinn to Belgrade, the global tide of right-wing politics so personified by the election of US President Donald Trump, has gripped the formation of governments and approach to policy. For much of the world the news that Trump lost the 2020 election was received with a sigh of relief; however, for those who adapted to and openly embraced a Trumpian world view, this signals a more uncertain future—one they often seem as unwilling as Trump to accept.
This is not just about Trump’s direct impact, though this is substantial, but also the political positions and intolerance to which his election gave legitimacy. In Estonia, often considered the most socially liberal of the Baltic States, the ruling coalition has been in the grip of the socially conservative, controversial, and populist Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE). In previous years EKRE would have been considered a political pariah but in the shifting political climate it has risen to a powerful king-maker position within the ruling coalition, holding (until recently) both the Interior and Finance ministries.
Scandal after scandal has rocked the Estonian political sphere, as the father and son leadership of EKRE, Mart and Martin Helme, made little secret of their troubling world view. The elder Helme, whilst Minister of the Interior, gave an interview with Deutsche Welle, stating all LGBT+ persons should leave Estonia and ‘run to Sweden’, because they are not welcome (in Estonia). He has previously called the Prime Minister of Finland a shop girl, and sought to ban people of colour living in Estonia; ‘their heads are as hollow as wood’. His son Martin has referred to childless women as a ‘harmful element to society’. EKRE MEPs’ have previously called for a ‘final solution’ to the refugee crisis, deliberately echoing Nazi terminology. EKRE have most recently backed a referendum on constitutionally banning same-sex marriage, to be held next year. The reaction amongst their senior coalition partners has been weak apologies, conscious that EKRE holds the key to power and reflects a growing global shift… until Biden won.
Perhaps in the knowledge that the loss of the greatest global champion or apologist of his world view will ultimately lead to a decline in his political fortunes, Helme Snr. repeatedly refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory. Moreover, he continued to support the election-rigging allegations and Biden-related conspiracy theories the Trumpian camp have espoused. This was the final tipping point, and a source of great embarrassment for the Estonian government, who has long tolerated EKRE, but for whom a good relationship with the incoming president is vital for continued NATO security and US investment. Estonia cannot risk becoming an outsider either from a security or economic perspective. Mart Helme’s resignation was procured and accepted on 9 November. His son and EKRE as a party remain in government, despite also having supported claims of election fraud in the US.
It is perhaps telling that a government capable of ignoring overt misogyny, racism, xenophobia and homophobia in its coalition would only see fit to be rid of Helme Snr. after the change of winds in Washington. The depth of unifying values in this regard is perhaps questionable, with erstwhile moderate politicians willing to trade minority rights for power, by working with parties such as EKRE and people like Helme; a model perfectly demonstrated and enabled by the Republican administration under Trump. Does Trump’s loss herald a rapid return to moderate politics; a shift away from populist social conservatism in Central and Eastern Europe; or is this merely a brief distraction in the descent towards politics last seen in the Interbellum? 2021, we await your verdict.