The Coronavirus posed a challenge to government’s world wide and response in Estonia was considered to be quick, effective and generally approved by the public. Like many other democracies the government relied on emergency powers that placed more power in the hands of the executive branch of government to accomplish this swift response to slow spread of the virus and support social welfare. These actions are not what has drawn the attention of FreedomHouse, a group that evaluates the state of democracy around the world. According to Freedom House, there may have been some overstep on the part of the Estonian government during the pandemic that “undermined liberal democratic norms.”
According to the Nations in Transit Report 2021 the government made “changes in migration policy, a pension reform bill, and a government decision to invest in the shale oil industry.” Changes to the Emergency Act also gave the government new powers of oversight in previously independent institutions and public organizations. These were controversial changes with unconstitutional aspects leading Freedom House to declare that “these developments raised concerns over the continuing trend of politicizing public offices in Estonia.” This points to developing polarization, which is making it more difficult to find compromises in Estonian politics.
Estonia has been grappling with its far-right element for years now. The Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), dubbed by Freedom House as the “enfant terrible of the coalition” is headed by Mart Helme and his son Martin Helme. Six of the seven ministers that have been implicated in scandals during the current government have been EKRE members. This government was brought down in a scandal and has been replaced by a center-right coalition government formed by the Reform Party and the Center Party which does not include the EKRE.
“Martin Helme, head of the Estonian Conservative People’sParty, or EKRE, makes a hand gesture that is often associated with white supremacy at an event in Tallinn ,Estonia, May 2, 2019 (Aripaev photo by Liis Treimann viaAP Images).” -World Politics Review
The war in Ukraine has brought the strong leadership skills and democratic resolve of current Prime Minister Kaja Kallas to center stage with many talking her up for bigger roles in the EU. A recent article in New Statesman dubbed her “Europe’s New Iron Lady” and focused on her growing international presence as she rallies Europe in response to Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Kallas was born in soviet-occupied Estonia and has a commitment to democracy inherited from her father Siim Kallas, who is a celebrated former Prime Minister and European Commissioner, that reflects such an upbringing All looks to be back on track in Estonia with a pro-Europe head of government and the flirtation with the far-right being pushed to the back of everyone’s memory. But should it all be forgotten so soon?
The reason I hesitate to close this chapter in Estonia’s history has more to do with a very unruly Eastern European neighbor: Hungary. Most by now are familiar with the rollercoaster ride of autocratic power consolidation Viktor Orbán has taken the country on since 2010. What is often overlooked is his first term as Prime Minister from 1998-2002. His Fidesz party was a liberal student movement back then. Orbán found his explosion from office quite surprising and used his time on the opposition bench to reevaluate and rebrand. He correctly gauged the strength of Hungarian Nationalism and brought his party farther right to capture the momentum of a wave of anger at the Socialist Party government which had replaced him. He came back into power with a vengeance and claimed a two thirds majority in the legislature. Everyone was worried about the far-right group Jobbik, not the comparatively reasonable Fidesz. Flash forward to Orbán’s third term and the country is considered a hybrid regime instead of the consolidated democracy it was in 2010.
The Helmes are very close with Orbán and have spent considerable time and energy cultivating a relationship with him since he came back into power. In 2019, on a visit to Hungary as Interior Minister, Helme was quoted saying “we want to develop cooperation…and obtain an overview of Hungary’s experience in shaping migration policy and preventing migration.” In the same article he is quoted making favorable comparisons between his party and Fidesz and espousing Orbán’s illiberal worldview as superior. Orbánism as a political tool for consolidation of power has exported well. Poland has largely followed his playbook with very similar results.
Like Hungary, Estonia is a largely homogenous society. There is a Russian minority that resists integration with Estonian society but this resistance is largely self inflicted. Many Russians still see themselves through a soviet identity lens and are resistant to seeing themselves as Estonian even though they have lived within the Estonian border for decades now. Estonia has only become a net receiver of migration in the last 7 years; before this more people left Estonia but the rise in economic opportunity has changed this. Estonians look to be a much more open society and much more enthusiastic about their relationship to Europe. So overall I would say it is a different society with different ways to see its position in the world. However, unlike Hungary they were experiencing significant levels of economic success when they invited the far-right into government.
Where the concerning similarity lies is in how Estonia has handled the far-right. Like Hungary the far-right was ignored for years in Estonia until suddenly finding its way into the mainstream and into power. If Estonia becomes disillusioned with its current progressive government, like Hungarians did with the Socialist Party, there could be an in for a more reasonable looking party on the right to come to power. If it follows the Orbán playbook Estonia may have some difficult years ahead of it yet.
Bozóki, Anrás. Occupy the State: The Orbán Regime in Hungary. Debatte vol 19 n.3 December 2011. New York: Routledge.
Cliff, Jeremy. Europe’s New Iron Lady: Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas .New Statesman. 11 May 2022. Dow Jones.
“Estonians are Protesting Populism by Wearing ‘Pink Slime” The Economist. 6 June 2019. www.economist.com
“Estonian Exceptionalism” The Economist. 14 July 2011. www.economist.com
Estonia: Nations in Transit Report 2021. Freedom House. www.freedomhouse.org
“How Viktor Orban hollowed out Hungary’s Democracy” The Economist. 29 August 2019. www.economist.com
MacDowell, Andrew. “Estonia Turns the Page on Its Flirtation With the Far-Right EKRE.” World Politics Review. 24 Feb 2021. www.worldpoliticsreview.com