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Estonian elections: A crucial test for political stability

“Many of the dimensions you can see at the European level or even global one are present also in Estonia. I would say that the main leitmotif here is a macro clash between closeness and openness,” says Stefano Braghiroli in an interview for New Eastern Europe.

March 1, 2019 - Maciej Makulski Stefano Braghiroli - Hot TopicsInterviews

An interview with Stefano Braghiroli, political scientist and director of the European Union – Russia Studies MA Programme at the University of Tartu. Interviewer: Maciej Makulski

MACIEJ MAKULSKI: I would like to contextualise our discussion within the broader European framework and look at the upcoming March 3rd elections to Riigikogu (the parliament of Estonia) as one of the arenas in which the future of Europe will be somehow negotiated. It includes all of today’s Europe’s problems such as radical parties and populism, divergent visions of Europe, etc. Having in mind the political weight of such tiny country like Estonia, how would you place Estonian elections in this context?

STEFANO BRAGHIROLI:An important aspect here is that Estonia (and its party system) has been so far relatively stable in which the extremes were somehow marginalised and in which Euro-scepticism and far-right have always been, to a certain extent, under control. In this sense, Estonia, which is of course not a major player in the European Union, might have relevance for the broader region and I do not mean only the Baltic states but also the wider Central and Eastern European context, because if Estonia moves closer to – let me called it the “Visegrad context” – this means that the exceptionality of the Baltic states would not be there anymore. Therefore, I think we are observing an interesting competition.

The three Baltic States are usually treated as a certain unit in an international political discourse but, on the other hand, Estonia is often perceived as a regional leader. This also adds some significance to the upcoming elections.

Exactly, all three Baltic republics generally go together. But at the same time, Estonia is the most successful economically, the most stable politically and has Nordic ambitions. What’s more, many of the dimensions you can see at the European level or even global one are present also in Estonia. I would say that the main leitmotif here is a macro clash between closeness and openness. And Estonia has gained a lot thanks to this openness in economic, geopolitical terms. So, there is an aspiration to be at the centre of the European project and you can see that in what the government does. I mean here making Estonia a brand as an “e-country” or digital nation. At the same time, there are also drawbacks because openness includes diversity or, sometimes, insecurity or the feeling that part of the society feels left behind. In other words, there can be a feeling that a kind of return to a mythical past (not Soviet one, obviously) can protect us from negative consequences of this openness and globalisation. There what you can see in Estonia is also a clash of this two sides: openness and closeness which matches with pro- and anti-EU attitudes or far-right versus mainstream parties.

What you have said touches also the issue about the role of symbols in politics. If we perceive Estonia as a regional leader which developed thanks to being a part of the EU and – in the broader sense – the West, then in case of any kind of reversal from this pro-western path would contribute to the loss of hope in Europe, its strength of attraction and might even suggest that Russia is gaining an advantage.

In this sense Estonia is a showcase of successful transition, integration or even normative power in Europe. Therefore if Estonia fails and goes in the opposite direction it adds another question mark over the European project. It would not be the most crucial question mark we can imagine, but if we look at the whole region of Central and Eastern Europe it definitely would not add an optimism to the overall discourse on Europe. Looking at this picture through a zero-sum perspective, any kind of development that contributes to decline of pro-EU and pro-Atlantic feelings in the Baltic region means a gain for Russia, even if Kremlin would only passively observe the situation. In this regard, an interesting aspect is the role of radical and nationalist parties like EKRE or Soldiers of Odin which are also strongly anti-Russia. Their activity might contribute to Russia’s gains without even realising it. Estonia, which is located at the periphery of the EU (or the West), is the most likely to be vulnerable and the source of vulnerability will come from the East.

An interesting point regarding populist parties in Estonia is, as you mentioned, their anti-Russia attitude, very different from other Western European populists. Thus, how to place them against the backdrop of other populist parties in Europe?

Parties like EKRE in Estonia, the National Alliance in Latvia or Order and Justice in Lithuania have strong anti-Russia feelings mostly because of the historical experience of Baltic Sea region. In this context using a Russian card is always problematic in terms of communicating with the electorate. But there is also the other side of the coin. These populist parties in Estonia often present Western European parties like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France or Matteo Salvini’s Northern League in Italy as the good examples of strong leadership or preferable narrative against migrants or multiculturalism. EKRE plays here on the lack of the capacity of their voters to connect, for instance, Salvini’s negative attitude towards migrants and his appreciation of Vladimir Putin.  

Is an alliance of Estonian populists with their European counterparts possible, since they can remain pragmatic about the perception of Russia; at least until they gain power?

Yes, but in the context of the upcoming elections to the European Parliament in May this year, I remain sceptical about the possibility of creating by one group in the EU parliament by the far-right parties. It is due to the long-term interests of the member states. I cannot imagine, for instance, Hungarian Jobbik within the same group as the Romanian far-right.

Let’s now focus a bit more on the political scene in Estonia. As you mentioned in the beginning Estonian party system remains relatively stable and it has been like that for a quite some time, until the government collapsed in 2016. This was when the Centre Party, which represents the interest of Russian-speaking minority in Estonia came to power as a coalition partner, after the period of being marginalised by other mainstream parties. How have these developments changed the political landscape in Estonia?

Indeed, Estonia’s political scene remained a stable one, in comparison to Latvia for example. However two things are worth clarifying. The first is a common understanding of liberal centrism which was shared by most of the political forces. It was supplemented by the consensus to exclude from every government coalition the Centre Party which had the reputation of being a pro-Russia party. I would like to stress here that the Centre Party has never been a Russian party. It was and it is an Estonian party which happens to attract the majority of Russian-speaking voters. One of the reasons that made the party less attractive was their leader – Edgar Savisaar, who has been affected by a number of corruption scandals. He also used the position as mayor of Tallinn to consolidate his political role. He was the one who finalised a co-operation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in the beginnings of the 2000s. The party was also internally divided. When one of the wings managed to oust Savisaar from leadership, it increased the party’s coalition-building capacities. When in 2016 the government formed by the Reform Party, Social Democratic Party and Pro Patria (conservatives) collapsed, the Centre Party jumped in the position of the Reform Party. The new chairman of the Centre Party – Jüri Ratas – was appointed as a new prime minister. In other words, 2016 marked the end of nine years of isolation of the Centre Party and its back to the mainstream politics. Therefore, there are now two big parties that are able to build a coalition – the liberal Reform Party and the more leftists Centre Party.

What are your predictions about a possible government composition after the elections?

While it is difficult to predict who will be the first and second – it can be either the Reform Party or the Centre Party – it is becoming clearer that the third will be EKRE. When it comes to smaller parties, social democrats will be probably at fourth place in terms of the size in the parliament. Then we have another conservative party – Isamaa – but we cannot be sure they will pass the threshold. There is also one newcomer – Eesti 200.

What makes the situation interesting is that the Centre Party has moved from being ignored as a coalition partner to mainstream politics and now there will be likely a consensus to marginalise EKRE…

Both the Reform Party and the Centre Party have committed to not build a coalition with EKRE. That is at least their official position. No one would now question the Estonian character of the Centre Party and the party has transformed itself to some extent and become more liberal. There is of course still the second wing within the party – let’s called them closer to Savisaarists – represented by such people like Yana Toom who are still able to shape a party line and they are useful to maintain the support of the Russian-speaking voters. The most likely scenario at the moment will be a kind of grand coalition of the Reform Party and the Centre Party. This does not mean that it is the most favourable solution for each of these two parties. They would prefer a coalition with some minor parties in which one or the other would seize the dominant position. But it depends on how many parties will pass the threshold and how big their shares will be.

Let’s talk a bit more about the newcomer you mentioned – Eesti 200. Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with their leader – Kristina Kallas – during a Talk Eastern Europe podcast. What makes their agenda new or different?

In a broader sense, they do not propose any radical change to the Estonian political and economic system, but rather appeal for some improvements regarding certain aspects of the economy and public life. I would say their approach to liberalism is different. It is rather a more progressive vision of liberalism which accepts a stronger role of the state in the economy while the private is still there. They also appeal to a segment of voters who are not always attracted by the Reform Party or social democrats – it would be a relatively open and young voter with a high level of education. At the same time the party appeals to the same target from both Estonian-speakers and Russian-speakers. This means that if Eesti 200 steals votes they do it from the Reform Party and from social democrats. Paradoxically, they would be a preferable coalition partner to the Reform Party because they are more liberal in economic terms.

Earlier this year Eesti 200 conducted a controversial campaign by putting two posters on a bus stop in the centre of Tallinn. The posters divided the stop into two parts indicating there are two separate zones – one for ethnic Estonians and another for Russian-speaking minority. The following day they changed the two posters by one showing there is a common space for all in Estonia. The campaign was widely discussed both in Estonian and international media (including Russian ones). As the following opinion polls showed it did not boost the support for the party. Does it mean that the society is not interested in any discussion on the relations between the Estonian majority and Russian minority?

First of all, the campaign was misunderstood by people and media. Secondly it was used against Eesti 200 by Russian media which presented it as if there is/will be a kind of apartheid in Estonia. Finally, the fact that the party later started to explain that it was probably too harsh did not help because it showed they are not sure why they conducted the campaign. Therefore it is not certain that the party can pass the five-percentage point threshold needed to get into parliament.

Dr. Stefano Braghiroli is a political scientist and director of the European Union-Russia Studies programme at the University of Tartu.

Maciej Makulski is a Warsaw-based analyst and a contributing editor to New Eastern Europe. He is also the co-host of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.

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