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Estonia’s far right in power brings racism, sexism and an interest in Nazi economics

Until recently seen as a model nation, Estonia’s politics are turning darker with the nationalist EKRE party rising to take five out of 15 ministerial positions

By Shaun Walker  /  The Guardian, TALLINN

Illustration: mountain people

A shadowy “deep state” secretly runs the country. A smart immigration policy is “blacks go back.” Nazi Germany was not all bad.

None of these statements would be out of place in the darker corners of far-right blogs anywhere in the world, but in Estonia as of last month, they are among the views of government ministers.

Since emerging from the Soviet shadow three decades ago, Estonia has gained a reputation as a nation with a savvy focus on e-government, a vibrant free media and broadly progressive politics.

However, as in many European countries, Estonia’s far right in the past few years has been edging upward in the polls and nobody was all that surprised when the nationalist Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) won 19 out of 101 seats in parliamentary elections in March.

The real shock came a few weeks later, when Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas invited EKRE to join a coalition government.

Ratas offered EKRE five out of 15 ministerial positions and policy concessions, including agreeing to hold a referendum on whether to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.

The party’s father-and-son leaders, Mart and Martin Helme, took the key posts of interior and finance minister respectively, and celebrated by flashing a “white power” symbol at their swearing-in ceremony.

EKRE’s transition from the noisy fringe to the heart of government represents a remarkable failure of mainstream politics.

Between them, two broadly centrist parties won a comfortable majority of seats in the March vote, and Kaja Kallas, leader of the Estonian Reform Party that placed first, offered Ratas and his Estonian Centre Party a coalition in which she would be prime minister and the two parties would share ministerial posts equally.

Instead, ignoring the offer and stark warnings from his allies in Brussels not to negotiate with EKRE, Ratas arranged a conservative coalition, including the far-right party, which has allowed him to stay on as prime minister.

“He threw all his values down the drain just to remain [prime minister],” said Kallas, who had been on course to become Estonia’s first female prime minister, but instead remains in opposition.

Many liberals fear that the climate has already started to change.

Vilja Kiisler, a columnist at the newspaper Postimees with two decades of journalistic experience, said that her editor-in-chief called her into his office shortly after the coalition formed and told her that a piece she had written about EKRE was too aggressive and she should tone down her rhetoric.

“I’ve always criticized the people in power and this had never happened before,” she said.

Rather than self-censor, she decided to resign.

“Style and content are always connected and I meant every word, comma and full stop. If you can’t be sharp and clear in an opinion piece then what is the point?” she said.

Kiisler said that EKRE media portals attacked her work and she received threats of violence and rape through e-mail and Facebook, which she has reported to the police.

For a nation where the media landscape was this year ranked the 11th most free in the world, the resignations of Kiisler and a state radio journalist who left his job for similar reasons have come as a shock.

They even prompted Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid to wear a sweater emblazoned with the words “speech is free” to the swearing-in of the new government.

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