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Estonia Battles Its Elected Racists, Foreign Policy

Estonia Battles Its Elected Racists, Foreign Policy © Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

18.07.2019

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid speaks on how to stand up against the far-right.

The recent Financial Times interview with Vladimir Putin was a reminder of how closely Russia has become tied with anti-liberal interests across Europe. Putin described liberalism as “obsolete,” denigrated sexual minorities, and praised closed borders and ethnonationalist policies. Putin’s ideological allies, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, have brought their countries geopolitically closer to Moscow in recent years.

But they’re not the only ones echoing Putin’s views. Right-wing populist and Euroskeptic parties are now represented in 23 out of 28 EU member states. Most recently, they made gains in national elections in Finland, Spain—and Estonia, long on the front lines of conflict with Russia, where the Conservative People’s Party, or EKRE, almost tripled its seats in the Baltic nation’s parliamentary election in early March and subsequently entered government for the first time. Promising to protect an “indigenous Estonia,” the EKRE holds five key ministries, including economic affairs, in a coalition led by Juri Ratas’s Centre Party.

Protest against the EKRE joining the government and its views came in many forms, from a concert with 10,000 people to counter a far-right march to a movement calling itself “Koigi Eesti” (“Estonia for All”) that quickly gained nearly 30,000 followers on Facebook—and politicians showing their indignation in public, as seen perhaps most prominently by President Kersti Kaljulaid. During the government swearing-in ceremony on April 29, Kaljulaid, whose position is separate from the coalition government, left the parliament chamber, forcing an EKRE politician to salute to an empty chair.

During the government swearing-in ceremony on April 29, Kaljulaid, whose position is separate from the coalition government, left the parliament chamber, forcing an EKRE politician to salute to an empty chair.

Kaljulaid also showed her support for press freedom at the ceremony by sporting a sweatshirt reading “speech is free” in Estonian. In office since 2016, Kaljulaid is the fifth, first female, and youngest ever head of state since Estonia declared independence in 1918. Acting as the economic advisor to Prime Minister Mart Laar from 1999 to 2002, Kaljulaid also served as Estonia’s representative in the European Court of Auditors from 2004 to 2016.

Just before the European Parliament elections in late May, in which the EKRE slightly increased its share of seats, Foreign Policy spoke to Kaljulaid about the reasons for the party’s rise, how to counter anti-Europe sentiments, and Estonia’s role as a digital peacekeeper.

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