Estonia’s techies fear the far right
Having right-wingers in government 'is systematically harming the country we have built over the past 30 years.'
Estonia’s reputation as a leading European startup hub is facing a new challenge: domestic political turmoil.
Since it broke free of the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, the small Baltic state has carved out a niche for itself as a business-friendly, tech-savvy base for a series of billion-dollar tech companies, from communications platform Skype to money mover TransferWise.
But recent scandals involving a far-right governing party — under father-and-son duo Mart and Martin Helme — have shaken confidence in the country’s leadership, prompting some to question whether Estonia’s reputation as a leading tech nation could be at risk.
“Personally, I’m incredibly worried about it,” Taavet Hinrikus, a founder of TransferWise, said. “What Mart Helme and Martin Helme are doing is systematically harming the country we have built over the past 30 years.”
The Helmes’ party, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, better known by its acronym EKRE, was a surprise performer in last year’s parliamentary elections, claiming the third spot on a platform calling for social conservatism and cuts to already low levels of immigration.
But the bigger surprise came when the second-placed Center Party and the fourth-placed center-right party Fatherland invited EKRE into a coalition, shutting the most popular party, Reform, out of government.
Center Party leader Jüri Ratas remained prime minister, while Mart Helme became interior minister and Martin Helme became finance minister.
For many in the Estonian establishment, it was a shocking turn of events. A statement by Martin Helme on Estonian television in 2013 that “blacks should go back” had been heavily criticized, and at the government’s swearing-in ceremony, the Helmes appeared to make a white supremacist gesture.
Since becoming a minister, Mart Helme has continued to offend.
In late 2019, he referred to Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 35, as a “salesgirl” and shortly after the U.S. election in November, in a radio discussion with his son and EKRE MEP Jaak Madison, he called President-elect Joe Biden and his son Hunter “corrupt characters,” claiming Biden’s election win had been facilitated by the “deep state.”
On November 9, Mart Helme resigned as a minister, but critics said that his statements have already undermined Estonia’s international standing.
“There was a naive hope that if EKRE became a governmental party, they would be somehow tamed and it has actually been the opposite,” said Taavi Rõivas, a former prime minister for the Reform Party. “Now their voice is being heard more loudly because now they are ministers and their position is taken as the official position of Estonia.”
For the European Union, Estonia’s shifting politics are fast becoming something to keep an eye on. As the current government approaches the halfway point of the current mandate, observers are starting to wonder what is next: Will Tallinn revert to its previous steadier, more centrist politics, or continue along its current, more erratic populist path?
Experts say that if the current far-right shift takes root, EU allies might begin to regard Estonia more warily.
“Estonia won’t be seen as a solid and constructive partner in Europe, if a government minister is known to mouth off every once in a while about an allied country’s leadership,” said Vello Andres Pettai, a political scientist at Estonia’s Tartu University.
EKRE’s press team did not respond to requests for comment sent to Mart and Martin Helme.
Yet MEP Madison said EKRE’s rise reflected the popularity of their conservative message. He said support for the party saw a boost when it opposed a 2015 policy pushed by the Rõivas government to recognize same-sex partnerships.
In 2021, another clash is looming as Estonia prepares to vote in a referendum asking whether marriage should be defined as only between a man and a woman. EKRE is campaigning for that definition to be the only one recognized.
Madison said the image the Reform Party in particular had long tried to project of Estonia — as a Western European nation — was overly rosy and sought to cover up the country’s economic and social problems and the legacy of its Soviet past, which EKRE wanted to address.
The MEP acknowledged that Mart Helme’s comments on Biden had gone too far and he had been right to resign, but he defended the former interior minister as a “straight and honest man.”
“Sometimes that is problematic because sometimes in top politics you have to be politically correct in some way,” Madison said.
He also denied that EKRE was a racist party.
While few major policies have actually changed under EKRE, concerns are bubbling within the startup and wider IT sector that the populist, anti-immigration messaging of the party is making the country less attractive to highly-skilled international workers, a group the country has previously targeted.
Among other things, Estonia has launched a visa aimed specifically at “digital nomads” and worked to simplify tax structures.
At the end of the second quarter of this year, Estonian startups employed 6,084 people locally, up 15 percent year on year, statistics from the Tax and Customs Board showed.
TransferWise employs close to 1,000 people in Tallinn with 70 different nationalities represented, co-founder Hinrikus said.
He said Estonia’s policies have traditionally been pretty favorable for businesses, but he was worried the current government could disrupt that.
“Until now, politicians have largely stood out of the way, but now we are getting to a point where politicians are starting to stand in the way of things,” he said.