After years spent struggling to escape the stigma attached to being a former hostage of the Soviet State, Estonia has rightfully earned its status as a global leader in digital governance and innovation. Thanks to early leaders like Prime Minister Mart Laar, who enacted ambitious yet painful early reforms in the nation’s post-Soviet era, Estonia shed as much of their Soviet baggage as possible in order to hasten the nation’s re-entry into Europe and the Western world.
President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, re-calibrated Estonia’s dramatic forward trajectory by ambitiously tilting it upwards, with his now famous Tiger Leap initiative – which was to make Estonia a global tech leader.
Estonia’s paperless government and electronic system of governance – from i-voting to the administration of personal health records, are an international model of success. Its innovative e-residency program, allowing foreigners to become virtual residents, open bank accounts and start-up companies, is the first of its kind in the world and has attracted 73,000 people from 170+ countries who have established over 14,000 new companies in Estonia over the past few years.
However, in March 2019, the e-Estonia project faced a setback, when a marginal neo-fascist political party, was unexpectedly thrust into the national spotlight by current PM Juri Ratas. His populist Center Party, having come in second in the general election, eschewed a coalition with the winning centrist Reform Party. Determined to remain in power, Ratas entered into a coalition with the far-right Estonian Conservative Peoples’ Party (EKRE) – which, in addition to sharing Putin’s homophobic and xenophobic positions, also has members who believe Adolf Hitler “did some positive things.
Estonia’s nose-dive from European tech superstar to a pitiful political neanderthal over the past 18 months, has been as spectacular as its rise out of Soviet squalor over the 30 years, before the Ratas government. The Prime Minster, has enabled a steep rise in racism and homophobia in his country, led by his far-right coalition partners who said Estonia’s immigration policy should include one primary principle: “If they’re black, turn them back”.
When PM Ratas’ new far-right coalition was sworn in, Finance Minister, Martin Helme, the son of Interior Minister of Mart Helme, flashed white supremacy hand gestures. Journalists were verbally attacked, and editors began self-censoring criticism of the Ratas coalition. Senior Estonian journalist Vilja Kiisler, received threats of rape and other violence, and eventually resigned from her post at the Postimees newspaper.
Estonia’s Foreign Minister had already issued a ban on Estonian diplomats signing a 50 nation declaration in Poland on homosexuals having human rights.
The Prime Minister, brushed off concerns about the growing climate of homophobia and racism members of his government were encouraging, claiming that the Helme father-son duo, would control their racist sentiments.
The Estonian far-right has the support of 15% of the electorate. The culture of fear and hate party leaders have intoxicated their followers with is not based on any known facts or evidence. They claim that Estonia is on the verge of being overrun by refugees, despite the fact that in 2018, Estonia received just 35 refugees.
In October, EKRE Interior Minister said that homosexuals should leave Estonia for Sweden, and his son, finance minister Martin Helme, recently claimed Black Americans did not have to show IDs to vote in the US because “that would be racism”.
The Ratas government made international news again during the US election, when its European MEP Jaak Madison -who has called for a “final solution” to the European refugee crisis – was pictured meeting with Steve Bannon and Brexit leader, Nigel Farage in Washington the day the former urged the beheading of Robert Fauci and FBI Director Wray. Madison later claimed massive voter fraud had taken place in Michigan. Last weekend, the Estonian ministers of Interior and Finance, repeated the fraud claim as well as the baseless accusation that Biden and his son Hunter were corrupt. They said Trump “will win eventually. It will happen as a result of an immense struggle, pictured as a victorious Trump marching over a field of intestines and entrails, but justice will win in the end.” Last week, the party’s official media outlet, published a piece that urged all Estonians to limit their news consumption about the US election to Russian state media platform, RT and Breitbart.
Former career US Ambassador to Estonia, Jim Melville, told me that he believes that “these are very dangerous sentiments for Allied leaders to express. Whether they have any impact will depend on what other Estonian leaders say and do about it. If EKRE remains a part of the Estonian coalition government, then I’m afraid the other parties in the coalition will be tainted by the same brush.”
The tale of these two Estonias, one set on a path towards prosperity and freedom and the other, bent on subverting all that the country achieved over the past decades, is dragging Estonia kicking and screaming back to the crypto-soviet stone ages.
Ambassador Melville’s advice for the non-extremist partners in the coalition is to resign and “get talking to The Reform Party [which actually won last year’s election with a record number of seats] about putting together a coalition that Estonians can be proud of.”
Estonia will one day rebound from the backwards slide that its Prime Minister and his extreme right coalition partners have place it on. The sooner Estonian political leaders put aside personal ambition and form a united front against this assault on Estonian democracy and society, the sooner they can resume the work of its great leaders like Mart Laar, Lennart Meri and Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
On November 9 2020, six former Estonian leaders issued the following joint statement:
Trust-based and close allied relations with the United States are the foundation of Estonian national security. In a critical moment, a personal decision by the American administration, or by the president or vice president in particular, can decide the fate of Estonia and the survival of our country.
The Republic of Estonia—thousands of Estonian and American citizens, all of our diplomats, all of our governments, have worked for decades to create a special, personal, and candid relationship that ensures Estonia’s national security.
For this, we have contributed to NATO. Dozens of Estonian soldiers have spilled their blood fighting side-by-side with our allies.
12 members of the Estonian Defense Forces have given their lives.
Recent statements by two members of the government aim to render their sacrifices and efforts futile.
Estonia cannot afford to have several foreign policies. The statements made by the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Finance cannot be separated from the government’s position. Based on conspiracy theories, these absurd and unfounded accusations that attack the democratically elected president of the USA, can drive a wedge into US-Estonian relations, which will take decades to fix.
Politicians who don’t share the USA’s and Estonia’s common understanding of democracy, free elections and ally relations, and who disregard decades of determined efforts by the Estonian people to maintain the relationship between the two countries, can have no place in the government of the Republic of Estonia.
The responsibility for ensuring Estonia’s national security and mending ally relations lies with the Prime Minister.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves