TALLINN, Estonia—This small Baltic country, a staunch NATO ally known for its near-overnight embrace of e-government and its progressive social policies, is having a racist moment.
Members of its just-three-week-old government have flashed white-power signs at their swearing in, called the country’s president an “emotionally upset” woman, and stuck by their mantra that immigrants and minorities have no place in Estonia, as captured by one member’s favorite phrase: “If you’re black, go back.”
The anti-minority Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) won only 19 out of 101 seats in March, but was brought into government as part of a cynical coalition deal. Since then it has adopted the epithet-slinging, fake-news-dissing style of President Donald Trump, labeling opponents who have a quaint loyalty to liberal democracy as “pink slime,” and dominating headlines.
In fact, EKRE is a diminutive version of the populist political parties spreading across Europe, largely driven by their desire to make Europe whiter and more Christian again. Anti-immigrant, anti-multicultural groups in France, Italy, Hungary, Italy, and Poland are predicted to win more political power at this week’s elections for European Parliament, driven by fear that “outsiders” will take white Europeans’ jobs, and overburden their social safety net.
In many of those countries, the so-called populists are unabashedly sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view of the world, and in several cases have received Russian funding as Putin works to break apart the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
EKRE works with such pro-Putin European populist parties but opposes Moscow, as perhaps a bridge too far for Estonia’s post-Soviet population. EKRE’s answer, as if to assert its distance from the Putin side of European populism, is to denounce and denigrate the substantial Russian-speaking minority in Estonia. Hate, after all, is what the party does best.
Ironically, it’s the Trump administration that’s quietly—very quietly—raising the alarm, cautioning Estonia’s Prime Minister Jüri Ratas to rein in the openly racist and misogynist coalition partner that just joined his government. U.S. officials have raised the issue privately of “unfortunate hand gestures” that are “not helpful,” according to current and former Estonian officials.
The gesture that used to mean simply A-OK, showing three fingers raised with the thumb and index finger touching in a circle has been embraced by many in white nationalist circles. Party leader Martin Helme, now the finance minister, flashed it with both hands at his swearing in.
The U.S. Embassy in Estonia, which is currently without an ambassador, would not confirm any American criticism, back-room or otherwise. “We are confident the new coalition government will continue our excellent cooperation,” is all Chargé D’Affaires Elizabeth Horst would offer.
Prime Minister Ratas resorted to diplospeak as well. “I have assured our [international] partners that divisive rhetoric and controversial hand signs do not represent our government in any way,” he said.
“I am aware of the controversial meaning of this particular hand sign and would have never used it,” he emailed me Monday, via a spokesman. “The coalition agreement is clear—we strictly disapprove of all indications of hostility between nations, antisemitism, and rhetoric that divides the society.”
That’s not how it looks to government critics.
“We have made a grave mistake,” by allowing the fringe group join the government, said former Prime Minister Taavi Roivas, a member of the opposition Reform Party. “We’re all suffering from that,” Roivas said at the annual Lennart Meri security conference in Tallinn, which normally focuses on gaming out ways to keep revanchist Moscow at bay.
Other Estonians I spoke to are clinging to the hope that the nation’s collective embarrassment might trigger a collapse of the new government, or at least that their prime minister would grow the intestinal fortitude to stand up to near-daily diatribes from his unapologetically xenophobic partners.
Certainly the normalization of racism and relativization of neo-fascism that has emanated from the United States over the last two years complicates matters, but the white nationalist upsurge in Europe has its own dynamics and its own history, with some showing open sympathy now with the fascists and even the Nazis of the past.
Such parties rarely win clear-cut parliamentary majorities, but they insinuate themselves into weak coalitions, which they then proceed to overwhelm, sometimes by saying what many people believe but will not voice, and sometimes simply by being outrageous.
“It’s straight out of the Trump playbook,” said Sven Sakkov, director of the International Centre for Defense and Security Tallinn, which holds the Lennart Meri meeting. “Every day, you say something outrageous so the media is chasing… You dominate the political landscape. No other issues are on the front pages anymore.”
And they’ve adopted Trump’s hyperaggressive tactics, furiously rejecting any and all criticism.
“Copying Trump, they want to be in power, but rhetorically, they slam the ‘Deep State,’” says Sakkov, adding that they constantly express their “suspicion of the courts, law enforcement and the intelligence services.”
Similar tactics can be expected from many far right groups in the European Parliament if, as expected, they perform well in the upcoming elections. Although the legislative assembly itself is relatively powerless, it provides a great soapbox for political posturing. Populists in Britain and across the continent are hoping to use it to tear apart such unity as exists in the E.U.
The anti-immigrant, anti-minority EKRE party got just 18 percent of the vote in 1.3-million-strong Estonia, but it bargained its way into office thanks to the Centre Party and the Pro-Patria Party that, critics say, chose power over principles.
Prime Minister Ratas had promised prior to Estonia’s national election that his Centre Party wouldn’t form a coalition with the viciously right-wing populist contingent to stay in power. But when faced with the choice of playing second fiddle to the Reform Party’s Kaja Kallas, who would have been Estonia’s first woman prime minister, he instead chose to embrace Estonian racists and keep the PM title for himself.
Kallas’ Reform Party had won 28.8 percent of the vote in March, the largest plurality in Estonia ever, according to the former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. (The party’s members now proudly wear safety pins emblazoned with drippy blobs of pale pink plastic to mock the slime insults from EKRE).
Ratas’ government has been plagued by near-daily Trump-style controversy from his partners since its formation last month, gaining overnight ignominy for the once-shining example of Estonian democracy.
One EKRE official resigned his technology minister post within 24 hours of taking office after media allegations that he beat his wife, a pianist, so badly that he broke both her arms. He’s now under investigation, but a fellow party member, Minister of Interior Mart Helme, defended him, and warned potential witnesses against coming forward to testify over the alleged spousal abuse, Kallas said. He dismissed the allegations against the tech minister as fake news.
When the country’s head of state, President Kersti Kaljulaid, had earlier refused to preside over the alleged abuser’s swearing-in, Helme dismissed her with a phrase describing her as an “upset” or “emotionally overheated” woman.
Another EKRE member, Finance Minister Martin Helme, son of the EKRE interior minister, has stuck to his statements that Estonia needs to preserve its white majority, telling would-be immigrants “If you are black, go back.” He said that in a 2013 television appearance, and repeated it again more recently with his added assertion that “80 percent of Estonians agreed with that statement.”
Former President Ilves laments that the longer the populist party stays in government, the more Estonia risks driving away the largely multiethnic, high-tech multicultural industry that has put it on the map and brought it rapid economic growth in the 27 years since it threw off Soviet rule in 1992.
“One thing they are learning is how in a very short time you can throw away the good reputation of a country,” agrees Reform Party leader Kallas, lamenting two solid weeks of unprecedented negative media coverage of the country. “Soon, it might be that nobody remembers us at the IT future oriented tech savvy country, but as white nationalists.”
I texted Finance Minister Martin Helme to ask whether the prime minister had asked his party to refrain from using “offensive hand gestures” or to refrain from making openly racist statements.
He texted back that the prime minister had not made any such request.
I asked again if he would reject that “if you’re black, go back” statement at his prime minister’s request.
He did not reply.