The Estonian political culture took many steps back from the Nordic countries and closer to the pariahs of the East on 22 October when prime minister Jüri Ratas – a master demagogue – and his populist Centre Party decided to cling to power by backing up the openly homophobic and racist interior minister, Mart Helme, the deputy leader of the far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party, the second-largest party in the country’s governing coalition.
On 15 October, the Russian edition of Deutsche Welle – a German public international broadcaster – published an interview with Mart Helme, Estonia’s interior minister and the deputy leader of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party, also known as EKRE, in which Helme expressed openly hostile views towards gays.
DW asked Helme, among other topics, about his party’s proposal to hold a referendum on the definition of marriage in Estonia in 2021 during the country’s municipal elections. EKRE wants to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman in the Estonian constitution and is therefore proposing a referendum – an extremely rare occasion in Estonia.
In response to the DW journalist’s question, who asked, “What, will gays run in and flood the Estonian nation?”, Helme responded: “Let them run to Sweden. Everyone is there, everyone looks at them more politely.” He added that he looks at gays in an unfriendly manner.
A major scandal
His homophobic words triggered a major backlash in Estonia. In addition to the opposition parties – the Reform Party and the Social Democrats – many public figures and the country’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid, also weighed in.
“I do not understand interior minister Mart Helme’s undisguised hostility towards our society. We are talking about our own people – our police officers and teachers, our creative people and builders, our neighbours, co-workers, friends. Strangers, too, but still our people. Dividing and classifying them as correct and incorrect, us and them, based on sexual orientation, skin colour or any other characteristic, is unacceptable, contrary to the spirit of our constitution and also humanly simply revolting,” Kaljulaid wrote on her official Facebook page.
Indeed, even Jüri Ratas, the prime minister and the head of the Centre Party – that, on paper, is a liberal party and a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe – in a social media post on 16 October denounced Helme’s words. “The Republic of Estonia does not assess Estonian people on the basis of their sexual orientation, and it cannot affect our state’s or government’s attitude towards them,” Ratas wrote.
A government crisis
On 18 October, Ratas told the Estonian media the coalition government – made up of the Centre Party, EKRE and the right-wing Isamaa – is in a most serious crisis yet, because of Helme’s outburst. The rumours of the government’s imminent fall started to circulate.
But as noted by this publication before, the prime minister denouncing EKRE leaders’ statements is nothing new – Ratas has repeatedly done so since forming the current coalition in April 2019. As life has shown in the past year and a half, Ratas is not interested to break up this coalition – simply because he is so desperate to cling to power and he lacks statesmanship.
Ratas knows that sticking with the openly homophobic and racist EKRE party is his only chance to remain prime minister – simply because the alternative coalitions would be formed by the winner of the 2019 elections, the Reform Party (the party has 34 seats in the Estonian parliament, against the Centre Party’s 26).
Ratas, a former protégé of Edgar Savisaar – the founder of the Centre Party – learned a great deal of master demagoguery from his mentor. In Estonia, Ratas has become a laughingstock for his answers to the press for their complete lack of substance and his consistent vagueness.
No apologies, no resignations
After four days of “the most serious crisis” in the coalition, Ratas emerged on Thursday together with Martin Helme, the leader of EKRE (and the son of Mart Helme) and Helir-Valdor Seeder, the head of Isamaa. The three leaders held a press conference in which they announced the current coalition would continue as if nothing had happened – no apologies, no resignations.
Their respective parties also issued a joint statement, in which they underlined two articles from the Estonian constitution. First, article 12 that says everyone is equal before the law. “No one may be discriminated against on the basis of nationality, race, colour, sex, language, origin, religion, political or other views, property or social status, or on other grounds”. Second, on the insistence of EKRE, the parties cited article 45 that says, “everyone has the right to freely disseminate ideas, opinions, beliefs and other information by word, print, picture or other means” and “there is no censorship”.
The context is clear. The Centre Party wanted to calm down the Estonian society by forcing EKRE to publicly knowledge that no one may be discriminated against – in light of their leaders’ regular homophobic and racist remarks. On the other hand, EKRE only agreed to the statement by the inclusion of another constitutional right – “there is no censorship”.
The coalition also agreed to hold a planned marriage referendum in the coming spring. This is the only concession EKRE made – as the party previously insisted holding the referendum they proposed on the same day as the country’s municipal elections on 17 October 2021.
Effectively, the parties are back at square one. EKRE’s leaders will continue to attack Estonia’s minorities as they wish, citing article 45 of the constitution. As the party would like to tilt the referendum result to their advantage – define marriage as a union of a man and a woman – homophobic attacks by the party are expected to intensify instead. The party’s fake news operation – Uued Uudised (largely funded by the Estonian taxpayers’ money, as all the political parties in the parliament receive an annual grant) – is already publishing aggressively homophobic articles.
The freedom of speech carries responsibility
This publication is all for the freedom of speech – the right to express one’s ideas and opinions without censorship. But the freedom of speech also carries responsibility.
In other words, Mart Helme had the right to express his homophobic opinions. But as the interior minister of Estonia, he also carries a constitutional – and not least, a moral – responsibility. As the interior minister, he is the head of the ministry that ensures public order and internal security and supports the development of civil society in Estonia. As the interior minister, he should ensure the fabric of Estonia’s society is intact – instead, Helme incites hatred and division.
For these reasons, Helme should have apologised and resigned. He did neither. And as the Centre Party and Isamaa backed up him and his EKRE party, it is now fair to say that in terms of human rights, Estonia has been dealt a big blow.
The signal this government is sending out by keeping a homophobic and racist minister in place, is clear – it is okay to attack the sexual and other minorities. By doing that, this government has sent Estonia on a downward spiral – culturally away from the Nordic countries that were the country’s aspiration ever since it regained independence in 1991 and towards Eastern countries ruled by homophobic populists.
Cover: From left to right, Mart Helme, the then leader of EKRE and Estonia’s interior minister, prime minister Jüri Ratas and Urmas Reinsalu, Isamaa’s deputy leader and the foreign minister, at the government’s headquarters, Stenbock House, in May 2019. Photo by Stenbock House.