“What happens in Ukraine will have an immediate effect on us”
Interview with Martin Helme, leader of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE). Interviewer: Daniel Jarosak
DANIEL JAROSAK: To start off the interview, as you know, Estonia recently went through elections in March of 2023. Compared to the 2019’s elections, your party lost 2 seats in the parliament. In your own words, how would you explain this decrease in popularity?
MARTIN HELME: Well, we have not been convinced that the elections were honest.
So that would be my first and main point. In reality, we only lost 1,700 votes compared to the 2019 elections. So, basically, our vote number stayed almost the same. What happened was the electorate itself was enlarged about 9 per cent a few months before the elections. That is to say, about 87,000 people were added to the list of eligible voters. However, you wouldn’t notice it because while the electorate increased, the participation rate stayed the same. But the main issue of course is the uncontrollability and unverifiability of the e-votes. And funnily enough, the increase in election participation almost entirely came from electronic votes. So…
Do you think something with e-voting was changed since 2019 so that this year it would be less controlled?
Yea. The electoral law and electoral system were changed quite significantly. And we used to have a shorter electoral period and the e-votes used to be finished before election day and if you had voted with e-vote, you couldn’t vote on the actual voting day. Now you can vote electronically and still vote on the election day, which gives the electoral commission the lawful right to erase your e-votes. But the erasing process itself is entirely uncontrollable.. The system went from bad to worse. So, the controllability, the verifiability and also the ability to actually see the process became less transparent. So that’s what happened between the two elections and that’s why I can’t… no one has been able to convince me that the votes were counted properly.
Okay. Do you think your party can ever get past the kind of 16-20 per cent support that it’s kind of seen maxed out at the past few years? And if so, how can you accomplish this?
Well, we’ve been… right now our popularity sits at about 25 per cent. However, that’s only the polls. If you look at the electoral results, it’s true, we haven’t touched 20. We’ve been close to it but still under 20. And so, it begs the question, how come we are more popular in between elections, and then not so popular during the elections?
But I don’t think a sort of 20 per cent glass ceiling is a real thing. It’s more to do with a lot of other stuff that goes on in politics and the dynamic in politics overall. I think our sort of natural, core vote is,, let’s say around 20 per cent. But that doesn’t mean we have no potential to grow. There is a very large portion of the Estonian electorate that’s uncommitted to any party or ideology … I’d say it’s about a quarter to a third of the people who actually go to vote but don’t really have any strong commitment to a party or a political ideology.
So, these are the people who always sort of fluctuate; they are the people who really decides who wins. It is true that we are not particularly popular among this segment, and it is very fragmented anyway.And also, how shall I say it, [it is] quite forgetful of what just happened. So, they don’t care what happened at the last elections, they don’t care what happened last year. They are motivated by current events and if the current events are bringing them towards us, then they will [vote] for us and if the current events are hostile to our messaging, then they will go somewhere else.
Do you think that you can reach out to these groups of people? Would you consider the Russian speaking minority part of this group, who I know you were trying to reach out to before this election?
A correction. We’ve been, I don’t know, accused is perhaps the wrong word. We’ve been portrayed as trying to get the Russian vote. Desperately trying to get the Russian vote. That’s inaccurate. We have never made any sort of concentrated effort to specifically target the Russian vote. We’ve always known that the Russian vote is just not a monolithic vote. So, it is illogical and actually unnatural that the Russian vote coalesces around one particular party, that is the Centre Party. It basically defies political logic. It’s impossible that one group of people are all in agreement on all sorts of political issues.
So, we long ago understood that there is a segment among Russians in Estonia who are quite happy to vote for us. But that segment is probably smaller, proportionally, percentagewise, than the Estonians. They are conservatives. People who care about family matters and are against the gay agenda. But you know, most Russians are conservatives in Estonia. That is, they are much more conservative overall than Estonians.
But not all of them will vote for us because they also must be, sort of, Estonian patriots. That is, it is impossible for them to support a nationalist party like ours if they are also supporters of, you know, greater Russia or revanchist Russian policy, whether it’s inside Russia or internationally. And also, they must be Estonian citizens, Estonian speakers, so that narrows it down quite a bit. And of the people who speak Estonian, who are conservatives and who are Estonian patriots — we’ve seen that we reached these people without having any special messaging or any special targeting of the Russian vote. We just get their vote anyway.
So it’s about 10-15 per cent of the local Russians [that support us]. And we are quite happy with it. I think that’s a sort of natural or logical proportion of them anyway. It can go a little higher when it comes down to specific socio-economic issues but basically I don’t see us going over 20 per cent there anyway. So, we haven’t been targeting Russia, Russian voters specifically. We just get their votes anyway. That’s one thing.
The other thing is the way that the Estonian electoral law works. You know, a bit more than one third of the Estonian population is Russian-speaking. A bit more than one third of them are Estonian citizens who actually do get to vote. One third are Russian citizens and the group in between are non-citizens. So, we are talking about a third of a third which influences the general elections. That is basically 10 per cent of the overall weight of the Estonian electorate. And of that 10 per cent, we are talking about 10 per cent which is for our party. So it makes a difference in specific regions maybe. But overall, it’s not that important. The main vote comes from Estonians.
Do you see your party targeting any other groups to try and bring them into your voting coalition?
Well, that comes down to very specific socio-economic and regional targeting. I mean we are the only party in Estonia which actively tries to get votes from Estonians who live in Finland. And that’s a big group. That is about 50,000-60,000 people who are eligible to vote. Let’s say if you are successful there, that’s one or two seats in parliament. So, we are dealing with that.
Then within our own organisation, with our messaging, we are well aware that, like most other sort of right-wing parties, we have a handicap in women’s vote. Women don’t vote for us at the same rate as men do. We have handicaps in specific age groups. By the way it’s not at all bad with people in their 30s and 40s, but it’s bad with those in their 20s. But these are groups of people that we are trying all the time to figure out how to resonate with. But it’s all contained within Estonian society.
How would you personally try and go after women’s votes considering that, you know, many of them will look at your party’s platform and be afraid that, you know, your policies would curtail their rights or curtail their position in society?
Ah well that, now that’s not true. That’s actually our main strength. If I do get a woman, a woman voter to the point that she actually reads what our party position says, she’s probably, most likely, in agreement with us. But she never gets there because the overall sort of attitude and the sort of image we have is that we are hostile towards women — I mean women’s issues, or however you put it or issues that they care about. And that’s the main sort of problem we have to solve. How to actually get them to the point where they evaluate us on our merits not as how we are described by mainstream media.
How would you describe, to me, your positions on women’s role in society, their rights etc.?
Well, we are the only party in Estonia which is against abortion. That’s something that we get criticised quite heavily for, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a value issue and it’s a matter of protecting life, innocent life and there’s no compromise on that. So, naturally we all know how this position will be described by the left and the liberals, so we will have to sort of try to argue that this is not what we are talking about. That actually every woman needs to understand what this decision means and needs to feel, you know, secure and safe enough to carry the baby and give birth to the baby and know that the society — that there are structures there that will help her afterwards.
These are the things that we will try to explain. I’d also say that most women don’t really understand that when we are talking about being against immigration, we are the only ones talking about, really, protecting women from very aggressive behaviour from some very backward cultures. And this is not something that we should even try to somehow manage. This is something that we need to just avoid. There is no need for immigration from, I don’t know, Africa or the Middle East or some other countries that will just simply make our own country less safe and more hostile towards, you know, the Estonian way of life which is rather liberal anyway. It always amazes me that [people think] we are trying to take away someone’s rights — show me where, show me how. I don’t get it.
Well, you know most women would support a right to abortion if, you know almost every…
Not true at all. Well, that’s … I’ve seen, I’ve seen … public opinion polls which show that it’s not as clear-cut issue at all. There are very significant nuances to that issue. I’d say the support for limitless abortion in Estonia is way below 50 per cent among women. It’s, I’ve seen, it’s about 40 per cent; it’s about one third that says it’s not morally right. But they don’t necessarily support, and I don’t necessarily support, an outright ban. What I support is, of course, that we need to raise awareness of what it actually means. What the consequences of it is, what the mental health consequences are when people do that. This is all we have to explain so that people will not take that choice. So, it’s not as clear cut as that.
And you don’t think women take these factors into account themselves when deciding on whether to get an abortion?
It’s always an individual — a very difficult decision — that you can’t just take it with a broad brush.
Okay, and so, back to your immigration point, you would ban it, or — I don’t want to put words in your mouth. What would you do if you were in charge of immigration?
Well, what we did when we were in government. Very limited, very controlled immigration … that is beneficial to the people who are already here. That’s the simplest explanation. No one has the right to come to Estonia. No one has the right to settle in Estonia. If people come to Estonia, they can come here only when we agree to it on terms we agree on and with a time limit that we agree on and that’s it..
That’s how it worked a few decades ago. If people want to move somewhere, then they have to prove to the country they want to move to that they are actually beneficial to that country. And that will keep the numbers limited. We are already a very small country. Demographically we are very vulnerable. We don’t have the luxury of trying to save the world. No. We have to save our own nation, our own country. It boils down to some very simple principles. Small numbers, controlled immigration and only people who are beneficial to us.
Who would not be beneficial to Estonia?
Anyone low skilled. Anyone with a criminal background. Anyone with a cultural background that is incompatible with our way of life.
What would you consider to be culturally incompatible?
Well, I’d say radical Muslims. Well actually, can you find me a non-radical Muslim?
Well, I think there are a lot of Muslims in the world who just want to live their life, who don’t want to bother anyone. You don’t think it’s a small minority who grab the headlines?
No. No, I don’t. And but I do know there are about — I think it’s 37 Muslim countries in the world, and only one Estonia.
Okay. So, moving on to economics. As you know, Estonia has one of the highest inflation rates in the EU. If you were back in the finance ministry tomorrow, what policies would you enact to try and decrease inflation and control the cost-of-living crisis?
Well, it’s not a difficult puzzle to solve. Mostly, inflation in Estonia came from energy prices. Now Estonia is one of the few countries in Europe and especially in our region that actually produces its own electricity from its own natural resources — from shale oil. None of the price inputs to that electricity changed either during COVID or because of the Ukraine War. The price of electricity back in 2020 or 2019 was like three or four cents per kilowatt. That’s like thirty or forty euros a megawatt. And at that price the state-owned Estonian electric company was still very much profitable.
So there was no reason whatsoever that our electricity price should have completely gone off the charts. A hundred-fold increase on some days. 4000 euros a megawatt. 400 on a daily basis. 400-600 on a daily basis. Ten times as much as we were paying just a year or two ago. That was just the government ripping people and businesses off. in order to basically tax all of us through electricity bills. This company is actually, by the way, under the supervision of the finance ministry. So had I been there at the time, I would have made sure that the price of electricity didn’t rise at all. And that would have avoided a lot of inflation on its own already. Then of course the government didn’t actually do anything. Actually, I think, you know, somehow we encouraged the gas companies to increase their prices because it also brought in revenue from different taxes and levies.
There is no reason why gas should be as expensive as it is in Estonia right now. The oil [price] on international markets is nowhere near the levels that would actually give a reason for the price at the pump to be so high. So the government should have pressured the gas companies to actually lower their prices or hold prices down. They could have done what I suggested at the time a year ago or two years ago already. They could have decreased the excise tax on gas as well, which would have decreased the price as well. All of these things should have been done to keep inflation lower. And none of it was done because the government was happy to just take in the extra revenue from the energy price rises and from the overall price rises because it all immediately goes into the VAT [value added tax] intake and from there on it went on to the salary increases which also increases the intake of personal income tax as well as social taxes. The healthcare tax and the pension tax are tied to your salary.
So, the government knowingly fuelled the fire of inflation in order to increase the revenue to state coffers. I think it was, absolutely, it was a mad policy. It was criminally bad. Now we are the only country in Europe which is already in a recession. There will be a heavy hit to budget revenues because of the recession and the budget crisis that the government was so worried about and what the government gave as a reason for really inflaming inflation and getting revenue will now get a lot worse. So they’ve been extremely stupid, short-sighted and detrimental to the purchasing power of the Estonian people and to the competitiveness of Estonian business. And the overall macro-economic situation in Estonia is just absolutely horrific because of that policy.
Okay. And you don’t think that subsidising gas oil wouldn’t have also down the road potentially wrecked Estonia’s finances as well?
No. No. I’ve never argued for subsidising. There would have been no need to subsidise energy prices if we had taken those simple steps. Keeping the electricity price low. Lowering the VAT, sorry the excise tax of gas and putting pressure on the retailers of gas in Estonia to keep prices low. You would have no need. The subsidy scheme is actually an abhorrent scheme because it takes taxpayers’ money and gives it to the big companies for basically gouging the public anyway. So, it’s short-sighted, stupid, financially ruinous anyway. It takes all of our money and then gives the state budget to the big companies who are already rolling in money. That’s stupidity on stilts. You can’t do that… No. No, keep the prices low.
What is Estonia’s role in the current Ukraine conflict? What should Estonia be doing?
Well, I’d like to start by pointing out that Estonia is the country that has done more than anyone else if you take account of the population size or GDP. We have given more money than any other country in comparison to GDP. I mean, compared to the Germans, I think it’s eight-fold, more than eight-fold. Compared to the US it’s like twenty-fold. Of course, we all understand that the size of the economy of the US or Germany is such that our money is still an insignificant amount when it comes to the overall help that Ukraine receives. But in terms of our GDP, we have outdone everyone. When it comes to giving military aid, we have outdone everyone. And also — which is a very tense point of argument within Estonia — we have also been the biggest receiver of immigrants from Ukraine compared to the population size.
Of course, the government is hiding the real numbers and is playing statistics games. But even with the official numbers, the Estonian population has grown something like five per cent over a one-year period. If you put it in the US context, it’s like an increase in your country of  million people, boom, within twelve months.
But the unofficial numbers the government doesn’t want to even figure out. I mean we are no longer measuring movements along our southern border, which is with Latvia which is an EU internal border. But the main movement of people goes through the southern border. We are only measuring the movement of people across the eastern border, that is the border with Russia. And that is extremely active anyway. There are thousands of people coming over it every month anyway and not at all the same number as are moving further to the west or to other countries in Europe.
So the population increase in Estonia over the past twelve months — let’s say already the last 15 months — has been closer to ten per cent. And again, you put that in US context, it’s like 30 million people added to your housing system, to your school system, to your medical system, to your pension system. That’s the unbelievably hard burden we have had [to shoulder in] helping the Ukrainians. So, we’ve been one of the absolute [best] examples in the world in terms of helping them. And we — our party and I myself — have argued from the very beginning that there are limits to our ability to help Ukraine. There are budgetary limits, there are practical limits. I mean the Estonian real estate market went mad last year. Our education system is in a total crisis mode. Our health system is basically grinding to a halt and people in Estonia don’t get to see their doctors for months and months and months because the Ukrainians are being given priority. You can’t help others by basically punishing your own people. This is not how it works. You lose public support when you do that. So, this is the background to it.
On the political side, of course, Estonia and Lithuania I’d say have been among the strongest advocates of the hawkish view towards the west-Russia dynamic or relationship. Quite understandably, I think, given our history and our experience. I’m all in favour of being hawkish. I mean, I’m conservative and a right-winger. I have no problem, but at one point you have to match your deeds with your rhetoric and that is the problem with our current government — the liberal government. —
Instead of arming up Estonia as we are seeing for instance with Poland — which is now I think the biggest military power within Europe, certainly, stronger militarily than Germany or France they armed themselves to the teeth over the past year and they’re still doing it going forward, the Estonian government actually has done very little and is planning stuff towards the end of the decade which is not at all sufficient. And it has, at the same time, for all intents and purposes, practically disarmed itself by giving away something like 85 per cent of our howitzers — our guns — to Ukraine and almost all of our ammunition. So that is taking a risk that I don’t think a sane government should be allowed to take.
Well, I think they would counter that Estonia spends over 2 per cent of GDP on defence and recently a deal was made for America to supply Estonia with the HIMARS rocket systems which have proven to be very effective in the Ukrainian war.
Well, they would come to that, but that’s a bluff. First of all, I again return to the example of Poland. You give your guns to the Ukrainians once you have the replacements in your country. Not before. We have a gap now in our armament that will last at least three years. For the next three years, we are basically unarmed. Now again, this is taking a risk that I don’t think a sane government can be allowed to take. This is taking risks that — if they play out — then you’re doomed.
The HIMARS, a very good weapon, is very welcome in Estonia. But, if I remember correctly, six HIMARS systems are replacing hundreds of guns. It’s not an equal replacement. And even then, it’s not our gun — we don’t have it in our army. It’s the American troops that will then operate it. It’s not under our command. We don’t have the know-how to operate it and again it’s six systems replacing hundreds of guns. It’s nice to say “ah, we will get HIMARS instead.” But it’s not an equal replacement. Not an equal replacement in terms of quantity, and not an equal replacement in terms of it not being ours. It’s an ally’s weapon on our territory. It’s not the same thing as our own gun units. So, it’s nice to say these things, but in military terms, we’re still weaker than we were a year ago.
In 2023 the news outlet Politico published an article describing how the Wagner group, which as I’m sure you know is a mercenary outfit based in Russia, wanted to aide your party (EKRE) in the 2019 elections. What would your response to that accusation be? That they wanted to carry out social media campaigns and that they did carry out social media campaigns to try and boost your message?
Well, it’s the biggest piece of fake news that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of fake news. And no one even remotely serious for a minute pretended it was actually a real thing. But it was a very convenient way of pounding our party just a few weeks before the elections. In my view, it’s a classic info operation to damage a political force just before the elections. Not a shred of actual evidence for any of it ever happening exists. It was just a news story with a lot of wild claims and in particular, the very specific sentence that put a very scandalous title or subtitle to the text was [that it was] actually from a man who works for the Estonian security agencies.
So, it was a planted story, an info operation with the clear aim of damaging — of influencing the elections in Estonia. And what makes it actually tragic is that everyone in Estonia played with the Russians to influence the Estonian election results. So the Russians must be — wetting their pants with laughter. They don’t even have to do anything. The Estonian liberals will do the heavy lifting for them in order to damage the most nationalistic party in Estonia. It was an evil act.
I was campaigning on the streets. I met thousands of people. Even the ones who hated my guts and who came to tell me that to my face, and had all sorts of reasons for not voting for EKRE — I particularly always asked “do you believe that Wagner story?” — “No.” No one, not a single person believed it in Estonia. Not even the people who hated us.
And then my final question then would be, how would you like to see, or how do you think the war in Ukraine will end?
Well, these are two very different things. What we would all like to see is that the Russians be beaten, Ukrainian territory be restored, the refugees return home, and the international criminal court punish the people who started the war, who carried out war crimes. This is what we would all like to see. Of course the reality, I’m afraid, is something quite different. I don’t share the optimism that is prevalent. I’m not sure that it’s so prevalent when you go further to the west and read the media there, but in Estonian media the optimism that it’s all going to be over soon and end with a Ukrainian victory — I think it’s a sweet lie we keep telling ourselves. I will be very pleasantly surprised if it happens — it that will be the end result of the war.
What we are seeing in Ukraine right now is the complete re-ordering of the world order, completely. It’s not Ukraine and Russia, it’s definitely something far bigger than just Ukraine and Russia fighting over, I don’t know, Donbas or Crimea. It’s the collapse of the world order that we’ve known for the past 30 years, and there are such big forces involved there. On one hand, it’s western countries. You can broadly say it is the NATO alliance, but in reality it’s the Americans and countries that are American allies, on one side. Then there is Russia, then there is India, then there is China, then there are Middle eastern countries. That, and everyone, everyone has their own goals both in Ukraine specifically and in the world’s economic and security arrangements, in a broader sense.
So, my main worry is that it will escalate. It could become a lot bigger war than it is right now. And I think, you know, everyone should try and figure out how to de-escalate and how to bring the war to a close. I’m not saying something that is out of the realm of reality. We all know that the minute that they — the United States and the bigger western states — stop supporting Ukraine, both economically and militarily, Ukraine can no longer keep on fighting.
So, this is the reality that exists there and in the future for the next, I don’t know, 100 years. It will be settled there and the stakes are extremely high, and it will quite immediately and quite overwhelmingly also [affect] Estonia. I mean we will be, we are, we’ve always been on the frontline between West and East and what happens in Ukraine will have an immediate effect on us and our future as well. So, I pray the optimism that I keep reading in some of the papers, not just in Estonia but other countries as well — I think we need to have a much bigger dose of realism and clear mindedness.
This interview was conducted in May 2023.
Martin Helme is the leader of EKRE, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia and a former minister of finance.
Daniel Jarosak does contract work for the US government. He was a former Researching Editor for New Eastern Europe and has an educational background in Eastern and Central Europe.
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