Mart Helme, the leader of the populist far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party and Estonia’s interior minister, on Sunday called the new Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, a “cashier” who together with her “Red” coalition partners would “desperately try to liquidate” Finland.
Helme made the comments on a weekly radio broadcast “Let’s Talk About It” that his party pays to run on Tre radio, itself owned by one of his party members.
“Liquidating the Finnish state”
He questioned the competence of Marin, a Social Democrat, paraphrasing the first Soviet communist leader, Vladimir Lenin. “I would recall Vladimir Ulyanov Lenin saying that every kitchen maid could become a minister – or how he said. So now we see how a cashier has become a prime minister and how some other street activists and uneducated people have also become members of the government,” Helme said.
The populist interior minister also questioned whether the new Finnish government could stand up for the interests of its country. “Now, then, we can actually see to some extent how the ‘Reds’ are taking an historical revenge on ‘Whites’. In other words, the ‘Reds’, who already [in the Finnish Civil War in 1918] wanted to liquidate the Finnish state, have now come to power and are now desperately trying to liquidate the Finnish state; turn Finland into some sort of ‘europrovince’, which, as a territory, may still be called Suomi or Finland, but which in effect would drag completely behind the ideological philosophy of the so-called ‘the end of history’ [as written by Francis Fukuyama],” Helme said.
Helme referred to the Finnish Civil War in 1918, which was fought for the leadership and control of Finland during the country’s transition from a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire to an independent state. The war was fought between the “Reds”, led by a section of the Social Democratic Party, and the “Whites”, conducted by the conservative-based Senate and the German Imperial Army. However, the modern Social Democrats have nothing in common with the party of 1918.
Sanna Marin became the Finnish prime minister on 10 December. At age 34, she is both the world’s youngest currently serving prime minister and Finland’s youngest-ever prime minister. Contrary to Helme’s “uneducated people” claim, Marin has a master’s degree from the University of Tampere. During her studies, she indeed worked in a bakery and as a cashier.
On Sunday night, Marin appeared to respond to Helme on Twitter, albeit without mentioning him by name. “I am extremely proud of Finland. Here the child of a poor family can educate themselves highly and reach many goals in life. A cashier can become prime minister,” she tweeted.
The Estonian far-right leader also predicted that the next Finnish prime minister would be Jussi Halla-aho, the leader of Finns Party, a Finnish populist political party, because “something as against common sense as what is happening in Finland now, has probably not happened there for centuries.”
Estonia’s prime minister distancing himself from his interior minister
Estonia’s prime minister Jüri Ratas (Centre Party), who is responsible for inviting the far-right EKRE into coalition government with him, publicly appeared to distance himself from Helme’s words.
“Finland is a close friend and ally with whom all the governments of the Republic of Estonia have cooperated well and closely. It has not been influenced by which democratic parties currently belong to the respective coalitions or run each country. I personally had very good cooperation with the two previous prime ministers of Finland and had very positive first contacts with their new premier. Last week, I discussed with Sanna Marin our common interests in the European Union and closer Nordic-Baltic cooperation prior to Thursday’s meeting of the European Council. I look forward to meaningful and respectful cooperation from all members of the Estonian government with our Finnish counterparts,” Ratas said in a statement, published in his official Facebook page.
However, Estonia’s former president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, said on Twitter that the country’s foreign policy is now led from the [Mart Helme-led] interior ministry. “With today’s unprecedented insult addressed at the Finnish government, Estonia’s foreign policy leadership has gone from the president, prime minister and foreign minister to the ministry of the interior. Significant and noteworthy statements are now being made there,” Ilves tweeted.
The neighbouring Finland is a very close and important ally to Estonia. The Finnish and Estonian languages are closely related and there has always been a certain feeling of kinship between the two nations. Finland is Estonia’s top import partner as well as the second-greatest market for Estonia’s exports after Sweden. Finland has also contributed and continues to contribute military aid to Estonia, such as officers’ training and the provision of equipment.
The Estonian Conservative People’s Party, known by the acronym EKRE, is a radical, far-right and populist party that first entered the Estonian parliament in 2015, winning seven seats. In the 2019 election on 3 March, the party more than doubled its seats and currently has 19 MPs. The party was subsequently invited to form the current government with the populist-leaning Centre Party and the centre-right Isamaa. The party’s leading figures have over the years stood out for their use of xenophobic, racist and homophobic rhetoric.
Estonian president apologises on behalf of her government
On Monday, Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid made a phone call to her Finnish counterpart, Sauli Niinistö, apologising for Mart Helme’s words. The Finnish presidential office said in its website that on behalf of Kaljulaid, Sauli Niinistö forwarded her apologies to prime minister Sanna Marin and to the Finnish government.
Kaljulaid also gave an interview (in Estonian) to Estonian daily, Postimees, in which she said that the governing coalition was threatening the constitutional order and security of the country. The president referred to two instances within last month when the interior minister Mart Helme made strong statements that had an impact on and left an impression that Estonia’s foreign policy direction had changed.
In November, Helme said in an interview with Finnish newspaper Iltalehti that the Estonian government had begun to draw up a “plan B” for defence in case NATO couldn’t protect the Baltic states. The Estonian government denied the existence of such plans and his comments were rebuked by his coalition partners, prime minister Jüri Ratas, defence minister Jüri Luik and foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu. Now, Helme’s interference in the foreign policy came in the form of attack against the new government of one of Estonia’s closest allies, Finland.
Opposition to launch a no-confidence motion
On Monday, after meeting the leaders of his coalition partners, the Centre Party’s Jüri Ratas and Isamaa’s Helir-Valdor Seeder, Mart Helme finally said he would apologise to Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin. Some Estonian political analysts said that had he not apologised, the government would have collapsed.
The Estonian opposition parties, the Reform Party and the Social Democrats, said on Monday they expected prime minister Jüri Ratas to dismiss Mart Helme. After it was clear that it would not happen, they said that the parties will launch a no-confidence motion against Helme in the parliament on Tuesday.
Cover: A collage of Sanna Marin and Mart Helme.