• Mikhail Zakharov

The rise of the right-wing in Estonia: how does "teflon" Mart Helme still remain in the Estonian go

By Mikhail Zakharov

Recently, Mart Helme, Estonia’s Interior Minister and one of the leaders of the populist Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), claimed that Estonian gays could be better off in Sweden. His words have immediately aroused a wave of indignation, but it seems that being provocative is Helme’s conscious choice. More than likely, the politician will get away with it – and continue riding on the waves of scandals.

"Let them run to Sweden"

In 2021, Estonia is going to hold a referendum on the definition of marriage during the country’s municipal elections. The idea of the vote was proposed by nationalists and conservatives from EKRE, who want to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in the Estonian constitution. Today the law grants same-sex couples rights and responsibilities similar to a marriage between heterosexuals. However, the members of EKRE look unfavourably upon sexual minorities and hope to change the current legislation. [1]

In his recent long interview to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Mart Helme recalled that according to EKRE’s position, the law must state clearly and unambiguously that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. [2] The journalist then 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" and added that he takes "a really unfriendly look" at them. This is not to say that it was an ineffable disclosure but, nonetheless, his words came as a bombshell.

Triggering indignation

His opponents were not slow to answer and rebuked Helme, like the Prime Minister Jüri Ratas did in his Facebook post. [3] Kaja Kallas, chairman of the opposition and leader the Reform Party, found, that: "Mart Helme’s answers to Deutsche Welle come as yet another example of why EKRE should never have been included in the coalition. Threats, lies and damage to Estonia’s reputation is the sole content of the current coalition". [4] There sounded many appeals to discuss Helme’s future in the government – but until this point, he has not been punished for his inflammatory remarks.

It has to be said, it is not the first time that Helme blows the coals, accusing "extreme liberal ideology" of vitiating the Estonian society and traditions. Seven years ago, when he was elected as chairman of EKRE, he said: "Estonian politicians should honestly admit that our choice is between staying with those who are creating the United States of Europe and joining those who desire a Europe of nation-states. The Conservative People's Party doesn't see a place for Estonia in the United States of Europe". [5] And he also does not see any place in Estonia for democracy and human rights values: "The police are already overwhelmed with work. Why should they be safeguarding the parades of perverts?", he said about the LGBT Pride parade of 2017. [6]

Epicene fury

Those scandals, as well as other numerous examples of Helme’s jerk-like behaviour, did not make the local politicians hold up a red card to the Interior Minister. Jüri Ratas reassured Estonians that Helme’s words were only rhetorical and were not implemented in any concrete, practical way. [7] However, since EKRE, the Center Party, and the Fatherland Party formed their current coalition in April 2019, EKRE has been condemned after every scandal they caused. As life has shown, the disapprovals did not lead to a change in the government – and, most probably, will have the same results today.

It seems to be that his hostile statements stay unpunished because of the unwillingness of the Center Party and the Fatherland Party to lead to the collapse of the ruling coalition. Their members often claim that Helme complicates the work of the coalition, that EKRE regularly causes a stir in Estonia with scandals, provocations and disparaging statements – but the demarches of the Estonian minister are still not correctly perceived. While they want to be in power, they likely will place responsibility on the media or any other whipping boy, like the leader of the Fatherland, Helir-Valdor Seeder said: “since there is no real content behind Helme's words, the media should ignore and not amplify them.” [8]

Riding the wave of discontent

Meanwhile, EKRE, counting on the misanthropy of its supporters, will continue the preparation for the local elections in 2021. Helme’s escapades help populists to consolidate the most conservative strata of Estonian society and make it vote for the Conservative People’s Party. Racist, homophobic or anti-EU claims, like recommending gay people migrate to Sweden, where they are treated in a friendly manner, will only bring EKRE votes – going unpunished, they do their best to get into the character of politicians who defend Estonia’s identity.

It is hard to believe, but it works. According to a Norstat poll, 17.2% of Estonians supported Helme's party in October – just a bit less than the number of votes cast in the 2019 parliamentary elections (17.8%). [9] Their heated rhetoric is fuzzy – nonetheless, there are voters who are ready to believe in EKRE’s slogans. It seems these people don’t take decisions rationally – but they like the "easy" and "quick" solutions that populists are so rich in, whether it is "getting rid of migrants" or "running gays to Sweden"; parties like EKRE are ready to set up for them the spectre of an enemy. Thus, today it depends on other Estonian parties if they can deter this wave of hatred – otherwise, "teflon" Helme can strike at the root of rules of democracy as his colleagues from Hungary or Poland do.


[1] https://estonianworld.com/opinion/editorial-its-time-for-estonia-to-pass-civil-partnership-act/

[2] https://www.dw.com/ru/helme-sankcii-ne-sdelajut-rossiju-demokraticheskoj-stranoj/a-55277490

[3] https://www.facebook.com/ratasjuri/posts/1782594131878538

[4] https://news.postimees.ee/7089490/interior-minister-to-deutsche-welle-let-the-gays-run-to-sweden

[5] https://news.postimees.ee/1201676/ekre-general-assembly-elects-mart-helme-chairman

[6] https://www.ohtuleht.ee/815681/mart-helme-tanasest-geiparaadist-meie-juhitavates-omavalitsustes-ei-antaks-kindlasti-geidele-marssideks-voi-paraadideks-luba-

[7] https://news.err.ee/1148457/prime-minister-interior-minister-lgbt-words-harmful-to-coalition-s-health

[8] https://news.err.ee/1149529/seeder-no-cooperation-in-the-coalition-but-rhetoric-has-become-friendlier

[9] https://reitingud.ee/reitingud/

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