Vassilis Petsinis: President Donald J. Trump? A view from Estonia

Dr Vassilis Petsinis explores the domestic outlooks on Donald J. Trump and the US presidential election across Estonia’s political landscape. In Estonia’s party spectrum, can one speak of a concrete block against the prospects of Trump assuming the US presidency?

Comprehending Donald J. Trump’s foreign policy agenda has been a complex task for political analysts worldwide.

In a series of interviews and other public statements, the Republicans’ presidential nominee seems to opt for a more classical realist approach, a more “isolationist” US foreign policy and the gradual consolidation of an international system shaped by (regional) spheres of influence. This clearly contrasts with the legacies of both the liberal interventionist and the neoconservative doctrines in US foreign policy during the previous decades.

For instance, Trump has appeared rather “revisionist” and highly critical of major military enterprises, such as the war on Iraq (2003) and NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia (1999). Especially, his appeals for equilibrium with Vladimir Putin and Russia have been regarded by quite a few as a deviation from the new NATO doctrine and the role of the alliance in Central Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

Trump recently stated that if the new NATO member-states expect to be automatically defended in the event of an external attack, they must first fulfil their obligations to the alliance. This ostensible reluctance spurred widespread discontent and generated high controversy across the Baltic states.

The Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, stressed to Trump that Estonia meets its defence commitments to NATO in a punctual and outstanding manner. He also reminded the Republican nominee that an external attack on any member-state amounts to an attack on NATO as a whole.

This piece explores the domestic outlooks on Trump and the US presidential election across Estonia’s political landscape. The main question here is: in Estonia’s party spectrum, can one speak of a concrete block against the prospects of Trump assuming the US presidency?

The hybrid warfare between Estonia and Russia: a short summary

The last decade has witnessed the multifaceted information war between Estonia and Russia. This has largely consisted in the utilisation of several pro-Kremlin media outlets (eg Russia Today, Ren TV Baltic and Sputnik News) and informative websites based in Russia.

As early as 2007, these outlets interpreted the Bronze Soldier troubles (in April 2007, the Estonian government relocated the Soviet war memorial, the Bronze Soldier and, after exhumation and identification, the remains of the Soviet soldiers, from the Tallinn city centre to the city’s Defence Forces Cemetery – editor) as part of a revisionist project said to have been orchestrated by the Estonian authorities.

According to the same sources, the ultimate objective was the forceful removal of any vestiges of the Soviet past, the social marginalisation of the Russian minority and the rehabilitation of symbols associated with Nazi collaboration during wartime.

Most recently, pro-Kremlin media outlets proved keen on drawing parallels between the socio-political realities in northeastern Estonia and certain districts in southeastern Ukraine. From their perspective, the common denominator between Estonia and Ukraine was the national establishments’ deliberate marginalisation of these territories on the basis of the locals’ affinities to Russia. This project would allegedly culminate in the consolidation of NATO-sponsored ‘authoritarian ethnocracies’ in Ukraine and Estonia.

Political analysts in the Baltic republics and beyond have interpreted this multifaceted project to win hearts and minds among Estonia’s Russian minority as an apparent reformulation of the 1993 Karaganov doctrine, on the Kremlin’s part. In short, this stated that Russia must utilise ethnic Russian minorities within the post-Soviet space as a vehicle to exert political pressure on the newly independent republics.

In terms of policymaking, this alarmism has spurred the intensification of military cooperation among Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania under the umbrella of NATO. In light of these geopolitical circumstances, the emergence of an increasingly popular US presidential candidate who calls for a new equilibrium with Moscow has triggered a wave of apprehension across the Estonian political landscape.

Estonia’s political spectrum vis-à-vis Trump: standing united against a maverick?

Can one speak of mistrust towards Trump which is universally and uniformly shared among the entirety of the country’s political elites? Although not overlooking the geopolitical dimension, the simultaneous consideration of Estonian political culture and internal political specificities can help provide a more substantiated answer to this question.

Coalition politicians support Clinton

Starting with the major centre-right party, Estonian Reform Party, its official candidate for the Estonian presidency, Siim Kallas, and other top affiliates have voiced their endorsement for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.

As several Estonian political analysts have also pointed out, Trump’s blurry perception of global “multipolarity” may lead him to miscalculate and underestimate Moscow’s motives as well as the security threat which Russia poses to Estonia and the other Baltic states.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s assumption of the US presidency is viewed as a development which would ensure continuity with the foreign policy under President Barack Obama’s administration and maintain the status quo of intensive cooperation between Washington and the Baltic states under the umbrella of NATO.

Clinton in Estonia - Andres Putting

A comparable apprehension towards Trump’s prospective isolationist turn can be traced, if only subtly, among Estonia’s Social Democrats too. However, the party leader, Jevgeni Ossinovski, also rushed to calm down the controversy caused over Trump’s latest statements on the basis that, “presidential candidates often exaggerate about certain issues for domestic consumption…Estonia perfectly fulfils its obligations to NATO and there is nothing to worry about”.

A subtle preference for Clinton, coupled with an emphasis on the maintenance of the security status quo, also seems to be evident in the case of the, centre-right, Pro Patria and Res Publica Union party.

Veteran Estonian politician: “Trump capable of bringing about a revolution”

Nevertheless, the picture becomes hazier when moving further along the left and the right angles of the party spectrum.

The nominally centre-left Centre Party is currently represented with 27 MPs in the Estonian parliament. The party-leader, Edgar Savisaar, recently reiterated his support for Trump on the grounds that the Republican nominee is capable of bringing about “…a revolution in the American politics”.

Although Savisaar has not elaborated his preference in greater detail, there are still two major assumptions that could be made. On the one hand, the Centre Party currently enjoys the main bulk of the Russian minority’s electoral support. Several interest groups within the ethnic Russian community refuse to view Estonia’s eastern neighbour as a security threat and they would also opt for a less intensive involvement of NATO in the Baltic Sea region.

“Several interest groups within the ethnic Russian community refuse to view Estonia’s eastern neighbour as a security threat and they would also opt for a less intensive involvement of NATO in the Baltic Sea region.”

In this light, one might argue that Savisaar’s endorsement to a presidential candidate like Trump, who has been urging for a new modus vivendi with Russia, clearly aims at placating his bases of support. On the other hand, the Centre Party represents one more example of a post-Communist political organisation which is not easy to locate with high accuracy along the traditional left-right axis.

Although the party tends to strike a leftist stance in sectors such as the economy and social welfare, its political values over other areas of engagement appear to lean more towards a socially conservative angle (eg the Centre Party’s reservations over the new legal framework on LGBT rights in Estonia). Therefore, Trump’s commitment to safeguard conservative values in the American society might have provided an additional incentive for Savisaar to approve the Republican nominee.

A common ground between Estonia’s far-right and Trump

The landscape seems to be comparably fuzzy, further along the right wing of the party spectrum. The Estonian People’s Conservative Party (EKRE) is an increasingly appealing populist right-wing party which remains highly suspicious of Russia’s geopolitical motives in its Baltic neighbourhood.

EKRE’s vice-chairman, Martin Helme, lately underlined that Estonia is a punctual and committed NATO ally. However, he also justified Trump’s statements along the lines that “it sounds very logical that the new member-states must, first of all, arrange themselves for their defence and security policy”.

He, then, added that this is in full accordance with EKRE’s calls for upgrading the potential of Estonian armed forces to such an extent that they, themselves, would be highly capable of fighting off any aggressor efficiently. Lastly, Helme stressed that his party endorses Trump for the US presidency because, unlike Clinton, he has no hesitations to “say aloud what everyone else in NATO thinks over security issues”.

Nevertheless, apart from geostrategic considerations, a set of shared political values also help provide a common ground between EKRE and the Republican nominee. Starting with their high emphasis on the principle of state sovereignty, both Trump and Helme’s party granted their assent to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.

Moreover, EKRE is a party with a socially conservative agenda which has largely capitalised not solely on ethnopolitics but also on other aspects of identity politics (eg the party’s opposition to LGBT rights and to the admission of war refugees from the Middle East). Therefore, adherence to conservative values can help forge a stronger link between Trump and a new right-wing party with a growing popularity among the Estonian electorate.

No united front against Trump across Estonia’s political spectrum

This brief overview illustrates that the outlooks of the Estonian political parties on Trump’s candidacy, and the US presidential race as a whole, are highly subject to an intersection of uneven catalysts such as: a multitude of geopolitical considerations; tactical adjustments vis-à-vis bases of electoral support; political values and political culture.

This means that one cannot speak of a uniform and concrete block across the country’s political spectrum, against a seeming maverick with a controversial agenda in international politics.

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The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (second from left) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (left) leave Trump’s plane for a campaign stop (AP). The photo is illustrative.

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About the author: Vassilis Petsinis

Vassilis Petsinis is a Visiting Researcher at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies (University of Tartu). Petsinis is a political scientist with an expertise in European Politics and ethnopolitics. He has developed a regional specialisation in Central and Eastern Europe.

  • A2er

    A Trump win would certainly start me thinking about adopting Estonian citizenship.

    But then again Estonia might be the first victim of the Trump foreign policies after one phone call from Trump’s best bud, Vlad Putin.

  • Rudolph ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    Only Trump can save western civilization