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“This was an election campaign dominated by the context of the war in Ukraine”

An interview with Stefano Braghiroli, Associate Professor of European Studies at the University of Tartu. Interviewer: Maciej Makulski.

June 12, 2023 - Maciej Makulski Stefano Braghiroli - Interviews

Stefano Braghiroli. Photo: Private

MACIEJ MAKULSKI: Before we delve into the composition of the new Estonian government and the challenges the country faces ahead, I want to come back to the electoral campaign to highlight some major issues that drove the campaign. In the external dimension, it was undoubtedly Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. But seeing from the outside, the internal dimension was not so well visible. What drove Estonians in this electoral cycle?

STEFANO BRAGHIROLI: Clearly, this was an election campaign dominated by the context of the war in Ukraine. However, this is not necessarily because the war in Ukraine was the main topic of the discussion. I would say that overall, with the partial exception of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), there was a very clear understanding of what had to be done in the context of the war in Ukraine, what type of engagement Estonia had to take when it comes to supporting Ukraine and favouring the defeat of Russia. So, there was a sort of “Tallinn consensus” when it came to this and pretty much everyone agreed on that.

And in that sense, the war was a bit implicit. Of course, many of the other issues were related directly or indirectly to the war. So, needless to say, in pretty much every electoral campaign in Europe, from France, soon in Warsaw, and passing into Helsinki and Stockholm the main topic is the economy. So inflation has grown, access to resources has declined and of course, generally, the fluidity of trade is not there anymore as much as it was before. And the war in Ukraine has made everything even more expensive.

One crisis overlapped with another.

I don’t think it takes much to remember that before the war in Ukraine, we had COVID. So also that didn’t make things easier. Estonia had to deal with a situation in which it had one of the highest inflation rates in the EU. We are talking about something that went clearly above two digits and touched a couple of times 20 per cent. So we are really at quite a high level of inflation, which was common across the three Baltic states.

At the same time, we are talking about countries that in general tend to have, I would say, a relatively neoliberal approach to the economy. It means one cannot expect too much of a state-provided safety net.

And all the countries have tried to balance this. But while some countries could use debt as an instrument to finance some burdens or at least consider using it, in Estonia there is a guiding idea that the . Therefore, the idea of using deficit spending to support the economy is simply not there. So that’s one footnote and the other one was how to address this burden for the citizens.

So, what have different political parties proposed in this matter?

So, needless to say, the type of recipe was slightly different among the political forces. The Social Democrats tried to push for a more progressive form of taxation and they were focused on the growth of minimum wage salaries and some redistributive policies. On the other end, the two liberal forces – the Reform Party and Estonia 200 – focused on facilitating the positive action of the invisible hand of the market – fewer taxes or more calibrated and limited state intervention, simply put. They also promoted investment in innovation through private-public partnerships.

How about the other part of the political scene in Estonia? What was their reaction to the economic challenges?

Some other parties I would describe as conservative or as an illiberal front. These are parties like the Centre Party and Isamaa. Their recipe for economic turbulence was a mix of more populist state interventionism, but in the case of Isamaa, there were also more liberal solutions. And there is of course the exceptional nature of EKRE (Conservative People’s Party of Estonia).

How did they differ from others?

While generally, every other political force said, “Yes, there is a war in Ukraine, it’s a big effort, we all need to be on board and there is an economic crisis and Russia is to be blamed for it,” EKRE opted rather to say something like “one of the reasons why we are in an economic situation like this is because we are doing too much for Ukraine.”

And Estonia indeed has done a lot for Ukraine so far.

Yes, Estonia has given more than one per cent of its GDP to Ukraine only in terms of military support. And simultaneously there is a 20 per cent inflation rate. We know that the two things are not related, but if you kind of put the two things like this together and then you kind of build the campaign on that, it can be a selling point, especially for a more frustrated, and more detached sector of the population.

What are the other divisions between the liberal and illiberal camps in Estonia?

I could call it a clash of liberal and illiberal views of society. A society of rights, a society of individuals, a society of order, and duties. It is a clear postmodern view of society. You can see it in the coalition agreement between the Reform Party, Estonia 200 and the Social Democrats that ended up forming the most liberal government in Estonia’s history.

And on the other end, EKRE has a very clear illiberal view of society both in terms of individual rights, LGBTQ rights, views on the role of the family, and immigration. The issue of immigration is worth highlighting since during the 2015-16 immigration crisis Estonia played by the book in the EU but with not too much excitement when it comes to the quotas. But the reaction to the flow of refugees from Ukraine has been very different. The country has done a lot, hosted a lot of refugees, spent a lot of money, and so on. EKRE has been the only one that has used this to capitalise electorally.

How was EKRE presenting it?

EKRE has been talking more and more about the “slavification” of the country by the Ukrainians. Or asking how can we expect the Ukrainians to integrate? They are also trying somehow to put increasingly in the same box the Russian speakers in Estonia that came here during Soviet times and these new Slavs that are moving here from Ukraine as basically kinds of threats to the Estonian nation.

Hasn’t this “anti-Slavic” narrative turned out to be self-defeating for EKRE, considering that this political party started to appeal for votes from Russian-speaking minorities some time ago?

I don’t think that EKRE was fully aware of the fact that by moving in this way, the party reduced its chances to win. I think EKRE overestimated the factor of economic frustration. I would say that Estonians tend to be – let’s put it this way – not French, so they don’t go out into the street and burn cars in acts of protest. But it’s quite obvious when you have for several months a two-digit inflation rate, people feel it. Without the war in Ukraine, this would have been something that could have been capitalised upon. I believe that the reason why EKRE decided to do it in this way was an assumption that a sector of Estonian society bigger than in reality would have preferred to give less to Ukraine. They were opposing the liberal forces who were saying that we are not just giving stuff to Ukraine, but by helping Ukraine we make ourselves safer.

And this is a message that overall sold well among Estonians. And that’s one of the main reasons why EKRE didn’t boost their support as they were expecting. Regarding the appeal to Russian speakers, EKRE had already tried it in the past local elections, before the war. It succeeded only partially but there was still this expectation that if we are softer towards Russia, if we are less direct in supporting Ukraine, and if we connect Ukraine to economic hardship, then that could be something that attracts Russian votes even without directly talking to them. The last point is relative because EKRE invested a lot in campaigning in an area densely populated by Russian speakers not necessarily in Narva (north-east Estonia) but in Tallinn. For instance, in Lasnamäe, so in the neighbourhoods that are dominated by Russian speakers. Last but not least, EKRE also overestimated its ability to form a coalition.

They should have checked with other political groupings before the election.

As it goes in Estonia, first you have elections, and then coalitions are declared, which means that EKRE was expecting that somehow they could have gone once again together with the Centre Party and Isamaa (such a coalition was formed after the 2019 election and lasted until January 2021 – NEE). But this time round it was rather not feasible already towards the end of the campaign. Isamaa, and its Foreign Minister, Urmas Reinsalu were committed and vocal in supporting Ukraine. EKRE’s softer narrative on Russia was combined with a so-called scandal that emerged about a month before the election. The scandal was about alleged contact between EKRE and Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin (a Russian oligarch and financier of the Wagner Group – NEE). It all might not have reduced the electoral support for EKRE but it has reduced the party’s ability to form a coalition with the other conservatives that tend to be not on the far right.

Did you observe if Estonian society got tired of the situation with refugees? Are there new refugees still coming to the country?

So far there are no open expressions of that. One thing that I would say the Estonian government has been doing relatively effectively has been to connect support for refugees with an appeal to common humanity. The government was saying, “Okay, it’s not only our burden, we are not alone.”

I would say the number has not changed. So there has been no massive return to Ukraine. There is also an additional thing which is quite interesting. Estonia has negotiated with Finland the possibility for some refugee families from Ukraine to move to Finland but it seems that that does not attract too many people.

Why do you think it is like that?

It seems that probably for historical reasons there is some shared history behind why Ukrainians tend to prefer Estonia to Finland and in that sense, not many have gone to Finland. Some did, but we are not talking about very big numbers. You can’t rule out that in the medium term, more Estonians will say the country is doing too much for Ukraine, but at the moment the government has been very good at connecting their security with our security.

Last but not least, at the moment the level of disappointment felt by Estonians towards their government is fairly low. But the other thing is if people see another alternative to this government? And I would say that at the moment EKRE is not seen by most Estonians as a potential alternative.

The last point on the refugee issue during the campaign, you could also notice how the two parties – Reform and EKRE – portrayed it through slogans during the campaign. The Reform Party’s slogan was “Estonia is in safe hands,” while EKRE’s was “Save Estonians”. You see the point, right?

Let’s focus now on the post-election period. All those issues we have discussed so far for sure were present during the talks between the prospective coalition partners. How has all of it impacted the process of forming the government?

Definitely, it all emerged in the post-electoral coalition-building negotiations. Interestingly the coalition negotiations in Estonia are very transparent compared to other countries. In this case, we had the three parties meeting for like two weeks, and at the end of the day, they had a kind of brief or update on what has gone well, what hasn’t gone well, what caused clashes, and what they didn’t clash about. And what was said already from day one was that the government will keep the economy and finances as the last point to discuss.

So how did they finally address the economic issues?

Let me answer this way, there was a famous interview during the electoral campaign of Kaja Kallas in which there was a question about whether they would have to raise taxes. And Kallas’ answer to that was “Read my lips, we will not raise taxes.” But of course, this government did raise taxes.

And people buy it?

There will be taxes and cuts related to several issues. For instance, a cut to some children’s benefits for example, the non-taxation of loans or free public transportation, plus a two per cent increase in income tax and a two per cent increase in VAT. So these are taxes and cuts. And what was interesting was that when Kallas was asked by a journalist why that was the case despite the promise, she said that well, in the constitution, it’s written that we cannot have a referendum on fiscal affairs, so basically it doesn’t make sense to discuss that during the electoral campaign. The journalists replied well, we can’t also have a referendum on foreign policy so why do we discuss foreign policy in the electoral campaign? So yes, it is unpopular to increase taxes but you might understand that first, you don’t talk about that because it’s unpopular, but then you do it and it’s unpopular.

It is a bit tricky, isn’t it?

Of course, it wasn’t a great way of selling this. I would say that the overall balance when it comes to economics is a quite neoliberal approach in terms of cutting, it is also neoliberal in terms of a flat taxation system. Before we had a flat tax that declined the more a salary grows. Now there is a non-taxable amount for everyone regardless of the amount of their income and it is 700 euros.

As you said, the economic issues were moved to the end of the government negotiations, which means that the two other ruling parties could have a different vision of the economy compared to this neoliberal approach supported by the Reform Party. What did they fight for in this regard?

The Social Democratic Party is the third party in terms of size and the very junior partner in the coalition. In the end they insisted on increasing the minimum salary to 60 per cent of the median salary but they also agreed to increase taxes. They were arguing that increasing taxes is what can help the state to provide more services. And here is the paradox, since services have been cut but taxes have been increased. Overall, everything that adds a little bit of social attention comes from the Social Democrats.

One important point in terms of economics is that there are regions of Estonia in which economic hardship is worse than in others and it often coincides with regions mostly populated by minorities, especially when you look at the east of Estonia. And the government created a new “Ministry for Regional Development” that will have a specific delegate dealing with the region of Eastern Virumaa where most Russian speakers live. The idea is to try to find solutions still within the liberal social framework to support and maybe to sustain a bit more in that region. This is because there can be problems not only in terms of economics but also in terms of overall support for the country, for the country’s line.

And there will be also Estonia 200 in the government. It is still quite a young political actor and the party’s profile is also rather liberal. When they appeared on the political scene somewhere around 2018, they also tried to position themselves as the party appealing to Russian speakers’ votes and one of their main messages was to reform the country’s approach to the Russian minority. Has it been only my impression or does the party not have as many Russian minority-related issues as it did a few years ago?

Frankly, fairly little of that is left. I would say that already two, three years ago, that already had vanished or at least become less relevant. And the war in Ukraine has completely ended that. The most visible argument is that Estonia 200 didn’t oppose at all moving from bilingual education towards an Estonian-only education system. Over the next few years, all education will be taught in Estonian and minority schools are to be phased out.

This reform of the system of education is designed to last for quite some time beyond the term of the current government. But why has Estonia 200 raised the white flag over this issue?

Yes, it’s a relatively long-term perspective, but the fact that the government already decided about it now definitely means something. I would say the reason for this is that Estonia 200 is a very liberal and – let’s put it that way – a postmodern party that was trying to talk to Russian speakers. But it is known that traditionally the largest pool of Russian speakers tends to be more conservative, more socially conservative than the average Estonian. So in fact, the group of Russian speakers that Estonia 200 was able to directly address was a relatively small slice, well educated, city-based, young, already bilingual, and with a strong sense of Estonian identity. So the Estonia 200 appeal could work, for example, among the few Russian speakers in Tartu (southern Estonia) or some very well-integrated Russian speakers in Tallinn, but not too much among the average voter of Narva.

So what did Estonia 200 bring to the government?

I would say some of the key selling points came from a liberal postmodern narrative. For example, very strong attention was given to the green transition. If you read the government coalition agreement, this is probably one of the greenest programmes that Estonia ever had. Another thing is gender equality. Gender equality has been very much pushed by Estonia 200 and of course, in general, embraced by the Reform Party too. I would say one of the main victories of Estonia 200, which even put a lot of pressure on the Reform Party (the Social Democrats were already on board), was the agreement that Estonia will approve same-sex marriage. And that is something that wasn’t to be taken for granted. I mean all the parties in the coalition agreed to formalise and finalise civil partnerships. Estonia already had a law regulating it but it lacked the administrative framework to make it really work. What Estonia 200 and the Social Democrats wanted was equal marriage.

On the other end, the Reform Party was a bit hesitant because it was fairly divided within itself. And then they feared that if equal marriage is approved, then let’s say in three years, the opposition will keep pushing on that and weaponise that for the next elections. Therefore, the idea was to approve it early and hopefully, it would be forgotten over time. But this fear goes deeper. It refers also to the possible economic hardship that might prevail. If this is the case, the government may face a situation in which a part of Estonian society feels unrepresented because they have this impression that the Estonian government cares more about different minorities and forgets about the economic needs of the Estonian mainstream.

In other words, the accusation might be they care about the LGBTQ community and other minorities, but they don’t care about the difficulties of the Estonian worker. This will be only possible if more people become more and more used to the war.

As you said, Estonians are pretty unified regarding the war situation so maybe this will not materialise? How divided or not are Estonians as a society generally?

Estonian society is unified when it comes to supporting Ukraine, or partly unified, but it is not a unified society when it comes to modern versus postmodern. There is still a gap between generations. A gap between educated and less educated, the countryside and city, and also ethnicity. I would not exclude a possibility that issues like equal marriage or LGBTQ rights, let’s underline that these are legitimised rights, are weaponised. If it happens in light of the war in Ukraine then the most liberal government Estonia ever had might face some problems. And within the Reform Party, they are more realistic about these dynamics and some voices are suggesting not to go too far because that might really kind of create too much tension in the society.

Among the three coalition partners, the Social Democratic Party has a different profile than the other two. I am wondering whether the Reform Party and Estonia 200 are not similar enough to each other to sustain cooperation in the long-term perspective. Don’t you think that Estonia 200 may pose a challenge to the Reform Party because it is a more agile actor?

Yes and no. At the moment, Estonia 200 is like an untested force and we don’t know exactly how the party will react to daily decision-making. Also, how the party is united is important, because so far Estonia 200 has worked well during the campaign and as an opposition. The party has also attracted quite a few people from different parties, including the Reform Party and the Social Democratic Party. The question is if the party manages to maintain unity under the burdens of governance.

I would also say that for the average Estonian the Reform Party is a safe choice. Estonia 200 is the party, as I have heard many times, of startup people. Regarding the composition of the coalition, it was technically possible to have a two-party coalition – the Reform Party and Estonia 200 – but of course the majority would have been limited. But I think that one of the reasons why the Reform Party decided not to have a two-party coalition, but a three-party coalition was that the Social Democrats were more tested. There was a traditionally good relationship between the Social Democrats and the Reform Party. But the Reform Party could have in the back of its head a fear of a clash between them and Estonia 200. In such a scenario, with three or four deputies leaving from Estonia 200, you can still keep a government. This is especially true in a situation in which you can also invite Isamaa as a coalition partner, which would be the same government as the previous Kallas government.

One party we did not discuss too much so far is the Centre Party. For years, it was, alongside the Reform Party, the main political party in Estonia and the traditional representative of Russian speakers. Some of their problems refer to the fact that other parties like EKRE and Estonia 200 started to fight for the votes of Russian speakers. Are we observing the twilight of the Centre Party as we know it?

Yes. I think the Centre Party has lost its identity, which was the biggest attractor of Russian-speaking votes and the party has not gained another identity to balance it. I would say that this has been probably one of the biggest earthquakes in the Estonian political scene in the last 15 years. Estonian politics has been dominated by two parties around which the coalitions were built.

And occasionally the Reform Party and the Centre Party cooperated as coalition partners.

Exactly, in a way similar to Germany’s grand coalition style. Now the Centre Party has lost that shared primacy. It doesn’t mean that it will stay like this forever, but for sure it is a big earthquake. There was one big change in the Centre Party when the old mayor of Tallinn, Edgar Savisar, was removed and the new leadership of Jüri Ratas and Kadri Simson took over. This was the moment in which there was an attempt to move away from the stigmatisation of being a Russian party. But beyond that, the party’s transition is still stuck. Also, the Centre Party became alienated when they decided to invite to the coalition (after the 2019 elections) EKRE, because the Russian speakers said, “Look, guys, you keep telling us that you stand for us, and then you join forces with EKRE,” which at that point was probably the most anti-Russian-speaker force that you could think of.

The other sign of crisis is that even after this election when the result has been very disappointing for the Centre Party, there was an idea among some of the delegates of the Centre Party to have an extraordinary party congress to challenge the leadership, or at least put the leadership to a vote. It did not happen eventually because the Centre Party’s leader – Jüri Ratas – declared that if there is an extraordinary congress, he will not run because he would not recognise it. He just wants a normal congress planned as it was. It means that until 2025, Ratas will still be the leader of the party.

Who could possibly challenge him?

The mayor of Tallinn, Mihhail Kõlvart, is a very interesting figure, a Russian speaker from a mixed family with some roots in Korea. He represents a more diverse Estonia, and he would be someone that could attract more Russian speakers. The problem for the Centre Party is that if you do not want to lose the votes of Estonians beyond Russian speakers you need a type of leadership that Ratas represents. Yet among the Russian speakers, you probably need someone like Culvert or Yana Toom or something like that. But the party decided not to decide upon this now, which may end up in even more losses among the electorate. In Ida-Viru County the Centre Party suffered a very big defeat, which probably means that the Russian speakers have abandoned the party.

Did the voters from Ida-Viru County move to one particular party?

Some of them simply didn’t vote. Traditionally this county has the lowest participation rates in elections and this was confirmed. But others have voted and supported candidates which were problematic from a state perspective, in the sense that they challenge the state as it is and the country’s alliance choices. One of them was a former member of the Centre Party, Mikhail Stalnukhin, who said about four months ago that the Estonian government behaves similarly to the Nazis. He meant that the government reduces and limits the rights of Russian speakers. After that, he was kicked out of the Centre Party. And the other one was Ivo Peterson, who was in Russian-occupied Donbas during the electoral campaign and livestreamed saying how much Ukrainians are trying to kill the poor, innocent Russian speakers in Donbas and how much Russia is doing to save them. What is extremely interesting, but also, of course, extremely worrying, is that 30 per cent of the votes in Ida-Viru County went to these two people.

It seems the vacuum left by the Centre Party was filled by these radical candidates.

Consider that Yana Toom, who used to be the “queen of Ida-Viru” in terms of electoral attractiveness, took third position in terms of votes. And these two, Ivo Patterson and Stalnukhin, weren’t elected because Estonia has a very high threshold for independent candidates, and they both were formally independent. But Stalnukhin was close to being elected. If he succeeded, he would have been the first-ever independent candidate to be elected to the parliament of Estonia.

You mention several times the notion of illiberalism. On the one hand, Estonia can give you a counter-argument to the thesis about rising illiberalism worldwide. But on the other, there are all these more or less hidden traps and challenges ahead of the Estonian government and the main actor representing the illiberal camp is still strong in Estonia and has even become the main reference for the liberal parties. In the end, I would like to ask how you perceive these dynamics in Estonia against the backdrop of general political developments in the region.

As a colleague of mine from Finland told me, if Estonia wants to join the Nordic countries – and the country has regularly presented such ambitions – this is the four years in which the country can do it. But if you look at neighbours like Sweden and Finland, both of them have moved towards a more conservative side, even with a semi-illiberal touch. I mean, in Sweden, you have the Sweden Democrats that externally support the government. In Finland, most likely you will have the far-right Finns Party going into government together with the National Coalition Party. So Estonia somehow had a different experience compared to its close neighbours. But at the moment we cannot say that developments in Estonia will shape the situation in a long-term perspective as it can change in the short term. The challenges are there, and the degree of acceptability regarding the cost of the war for Estonia will be one of the key factors to understand how it will all go.

Stefano Braghiroli is the Associate Professor of European Studies and Master’s Programme Director at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu.

Maciej Makulski is a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe.

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