Taavet Hinrikus.

TransferWise cofounder: the new government’s damage to Estonia’s reputation is disastrous

Taavet Hinrikus, one of the founders of TransferWise, the most successful Estonian-founded startup, said in an interview that Estonia’s new populist and far-right government has caused immeasurable damage to the country’s reputation. 

In an interview given to Estonian daily newspaper, Postimees, Taavet Hinrikus – a cofounder of the London-based money transfer firm, TransferWise – agreed with many Estonian IT and startup founders who have criticised the new government for damaging the image of Estonia abroad. 

Several Estonia-based tech companies and startups have said in the recent weeks that the racist, xenophobic and homophobic rhetoric by the far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) – which is now part of the government – makes it difficult to recruit foreign workers. 

Hinrikus told Postimees that he also agreed with criticism. “Yes, it’s [the damage] terrible. I would even say it is catastrophic. Just this week, there was again an article in the Guardian that told the world the former success story, Estonia, had made a U-turn,” he said. “The damage done to Estonia’s reputation is immeasurable and it certainly makes it harder to hire in Estonia.”

Taavet Hinrikus.

He added that this does not mean companies would “put 800 workers on the train and take them to Latvia”, but that new jobs would be created in other countries, with the most available labour. “If there are no people in Estonia, we do not hire them in Estonia. The countries that are more tolerant and attract talent, will win,” Hinrikus said.

Investors now cautious about Estonia

Similar concern was recently expressed by Kristjan Lepik, a product manager at Topia, a global mobility management company that also has an office in Tallinn. Lepik told Postimees that the coverage of EKRE’s rhetoric in the international press makes investors cautious about Estonia.

Lepik pointed out that the foreign media had reported on the aggressive rhetoric of EKRE’s leaders and MPs. The reports indicate globally that the new coalition government – made up of the populist Centre Party, the far-right EKRE and the conservative Isamaa – want Estonia that is closed and reserved exclusively for Estonians. 

“The topic concerns startups and IT companies – but also, international advertising companies and law firms. When an international company must make a choice whether to establish its Baltic headquarters in Tallinn or Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania – editor), the country’s values play a major role in the decision,” Lepik said.

He added that his experience from dealing with the global companies shows that Budapest and Warsaw have already lost out in investments, as Hungary and Poland have both become less tolerant and less open countries. 

Why worry?

The worries and concerns around recruiting foreign talent and attracting investment stem from the track record of EKRE leaders, father and son Mart and Martin Helme. The concerns are also based on the statements the EKRE MPs, Jaak Madison, Henn Põlluaas, Urmas Reitelmann and Ruuben Kaalep, have made. In separate statements over the years up until now, they have justified Nazi regime, verbally attacked and offended people with different skin colour, the LGBT community, judges, journalists, gynaecologists, single mothers, the Estonian Russians and foreign students. 

EKRE’s deputy leader Martin Helme at the swearing-in ceremony in the Estonian parliament on 24 April.

The hatred and the lies that have been fuelled by EKRE’s leaders and some MPs and party members against foreigners and people with different skin colour has already had an impact. A prominent Estonian singer who originates from Brazil, told Estonian World her children have been abused at a kindergarten since EKRE’s rise into power. An Iranian specialist and his Estonian wife and children are preparing to leave the country because the racism on the street is proving just too much. 

Just last week, an Estonian man wearing a t-shirt bearing an EKRE logo, physically and verbally attacked a Pakistani national in Tallinn. The man, who, on his Facebook page, publicly disclosed that he voted for EKRE’s MP Urmas Reitelmann – known for comparing Syrian refugees with cockroaches and calling 300,000 Estonian Russians “scum” – turned out to be a Nazi sympathiser who incited hatred against Estonia-based people with different skin colour. The man was detained by police and handed an eight-day arrest sentence by a local court.

Muslim ladies refused an entry to the tram

In another incident on the same day, on 22 May, three Muslims – two ladies and a child – were refused an entry to the tram at Ülemiste City stop in Tallinn. According to the ladies, the tram driver shouted at them and bluntly closed the vehicle’s doors, hurting the child in the process. One of the ladies told Estonian World that in four years since she had been in Estonia, intolerance had never been so bad before – and had clearly intensified since EKRE’s inclusion in the new government.

After years of being in the international news for successful reforms, digital government, startups and music culture, Estonia’s positive reputation also took a hit when Mart and Martin Helme – the new interior and finance ministers, respectively – both made alleged white power gestures at their swearing-in on 24 April. The incident was reported by the BBC, the New York Times, BuzzFeed and other global outlets.

EKRE also hosted the French nationalist populist politician, Marine Le Pen, in Estonia.

I Cover: Taavet Hinrikus.
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