Estonia has an international image as a liberal bastion and a start-up nation. Outside of Tallinn, the reality is very different.
Over the past decade, Estonia has developed an international reputation as both an economic tech hub and a liberal bastion of human rights.
As well as opening its doors to digital nomads with initiatives such as e-residency, Estonia was the first state in the Baltics to pass a law on same-sex partnerships.
But now its liberal reputation could be in trouble.
The country’s coalition government, which encompasses the Centre Party, the Fatherland Party, known as Isamaa, and the far-right EKRE party has announced a referendum next spring on the constitutional definition of marriage.
It is set to ask a question about whether marriage should be defined in the constitution as being between a man and women
“The referendum is part of the far-right’s desire to roll back liberal policies that have brought greater equality and tolerance to our societies. And it also a cynical way to divide people,” Raimond Kaljulaid, an Estonian parliamentarian representing the Social Democrats in Riigikogu, the Estonian Parliament, told Euronews.
A divided nation
Last March, Kaljulaid left the Centre Party in protest at its decision to begin coalition talks with the Conservative People's Party of Estonia, EKRE.
Kaljulaid is the paternal half-brother of the incumbent Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid.
Estonia’s referendum will not be binding, and the government will not have to resign if it loses it. EKRE, which has sought to revoke the law on registering same-sex partnerships since its adoption in 2015, has been the driving force of the initiative.
Tonis Saarts, associate professor of comparative politics at Tallinn University, says the far-right fears the law on the registration of same-sex partnerships could pace the way for same-sex marriage.
“The conservative wing of the Estonian political spectrum, and EKRE in particular, is concerned that the liberals might want to legalise same-sex marriage in the future. It decided to launch a pre-emptive strike and to eliminate that possibility forever,” he said.
Few expected EKRE, an anti-immigration and Eurosceptic party that has ridden a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, to become part of the new Estonian government. But, last March, elections put it in third place, just behind the opposition Reform Party and the Centre Party.
The Centre Party’s reluctance to make concessions to the Reform Party in forming a new government put EKRE in the position of kingmaker - now it has become a key decision-maker in the new government, with a programme that clashes with European values.
“The referendum has been certainly enabled by a weak prime minister who values his own position in power over all other considerations, undermining unity in our society, our foreign policy and security interests, etc,” Kaljulaid said.
Andrei Korobeinik, an MP of the ruling Estonian Centre Party, disagreed. He said that the referendum was “how democracy works”.
“You have to accept the people's choice, even if you don't like it,” he said.
Liberals in Estonia were stunned when Juri Ratas, chairman of Estonia’s Centre Party, agreed to a coalition with the EKRE nationalists, who are notorious for statements such as “If you’re black, go back” and with leaders who have - since the coalition came into force - spewed supremacist gestures and fierce attacks on minorities.
Speaking to Deutsche Welle in October, interior minister Mart Helme - from EKRE - said that homosexuals in Estonia "could run to Sweden", where he argued they would be looked upon more favourably. Despite condemnation from Estonia’s president and opposition parties, Helme kept his job, one of the most important in government.
Last week he added that the referendum on same-sex partnerships would “clean up the air”, another derogatory remark about Estonia’s LGBTQ community.
It isn’t doing the party any damage with its base, however, which feeds on homophobia and hard-core conservatism, both of which are still rife in bucolic Estonia.
“The 'referendum' is a brilliant political move by EKRE,” said Nikolai Kunitson, lecturer of political sciences and junior researcher at the School of Governance, Law and Society in Estonia.
“Their first idea, which was initially agreed upon in the coalition agreement between EKRE, The Centre Party and Isamaa, stated that the national poll (on the constitutional definition of marriage) will take place at the same time during the local municipality elections set for the autumn of the next year.
“But this would have been very unfortunate for the Centre Party since, on the national poll, only citizens can vote, whereas, in the local municipal elections, all the residents can vote, which would be problematic for the Centre Party, as the majority of their electorate is a Russian-speaking population, who, in turn, are the majority of residents without Estonian citizenship,” Kunitson said.
Having the elections and the poll on the same day would have “confused” voters and made LGBT rights the key issue in the election, he added. Nonetheless, the divide over same-sex marriage has only increased the idea that, in 2020, there are two Estonias.
There is “Tallinn and the ‘golden circle’ - or the IT-Estonia - whose quality of life exceeds the EU average, and all the rest, where the living standard is around 70 per cent less of the EU average. So the socio-economic cleavage combined with the value cleavage – liberal versus conservative – is behind the initiative,” he said.
Although currently the precise wording of the referendum has not been established, EKRE is believed to use the results of the plebiscite for its benefit for years and elections to come. What is more, it seems to suit the entire coalition, especially the interests of the Centre Party, due to the Russian makeup of its voter base.
Some, however, would rather see the referendum as a “poll”.
“It is similar to the one that was held in Ukraine during the recent elections,” MP Korobeinik said referring to Ukraine’s local council elections on October 25.
On October 13, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a video exhorted all Ukrainians to vote in the elections and announced a nationwide poll that day, asking Ukrainians to weigh in on five questions, including life imprisonment for corruption, the creation of a free economic zone in the Russia-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions and support on the reduction of the number of deputies to 300. It also asked for views on the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes.
Zelensky also promised more “nationwide polls” in the future, suggesting that the people themselves will be making the final call in decision-making. With the same-sex marriage referendum, EKRE is looking to take a leaf out of the populist playbook.
“The current Estonian coalition works on the referendums law that will probably cause way more real referendums in the future. I don't like the current question (on marriage) myself, I don't feel it helps our society in any way, however, I personally support referendums as an open democracy tool, even if the question asked is not one of my favourites,” Korobeinik said.
But the referendum has liberals in Estonia concerned that the government and its far-right allies could look to roll back other hard-won freedoms in the Baltic state, including artificial insemination, the right to abortion and women’s rights. They fear that it is a conscious move away from the values of the Nordic states and western Europe and towards eastern Europe and the far-right populism of countries like Poland.
“This is only the beginning. The aim is to mimic countries like Poland and Hungary. it is also an attempt to subvert democracy and replace it with an autocratic rule in Estonia,” MP Kaljulaid said.
That said, analysts point out that EKRE would need to control parliament in order to make such large changes in Estonia. While it is opposed to artificial insemination and abortion, these topics were not on the table during coalition talks last year.
“None of that seems possible at the moment, but you never know. If the conservatives manage to gain (larger) support, they will have more power for executing their policies, as we can see in Poland now,” Korobeinik said.
EKRE has already made an attempt to roll back abortion and some other reproductive aspects of women's rights, but with no success. But EKRE is not alone in its mission: other right-wing parties in the governing coalition would like to do the same.
“Even though they are the loudest (in the demands), they are not the only ones. Some parts of Isamaa and some of the now almost languished Vabaerakond have preached the same ideas. The Estonian minister in charge of population is from Isamaa and she has said many problematic things (on the issues),” Catlyn Kirna, lecturer of international relations at the School of Governance, Law and Society in Estonia, said.
EKRE also has broad support with the same-sex marriage referendum. A poll for the Institute of Societal Studies this summer found that 55 per cent of Estonians are against amending the Family Act to allow for marriages between people of the same sex.
The analysis of the respondents’ political affinities showed that voters of the ruling coalition’s Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE), Centre Party and Isamaa were against changing the Family Act, whereas voters of the opposition parties Reform Party and the Social Democratic Party (SDE), as well as of the non-parliamentary Estonia 200, were inclined to support the notion that the Family Act should be changed.
Estonians may have some tough calls ahead, as well as grappling with the fallout of the damage to its reputation internationally.
Kaljulaid believes that the referendum will be “hugely damaging” to Estonia. However, his fellow parliamentarian Korobeinik, of the ruling Estonian Centre Party Faction, does not agree.
“I don't think this will damage Estonia's reputation and I personally hope that we will vote against the proposal. Conservative establishment has done a lot to promote the topic, so I believe the liberal part of the electorate has got their message, too. It's going to be a tough call this spring,” the lawmaker said.
But Kirna said Estonia's reputation in the rest of Europe should be taken seriously.
“It cannot be good. It will lump us together with Poland and Hungary,” she said.
Saarts agreed that the referendum will demonstrate that Estonia, at least by its mentality and value-orientations, firmly belongs to Eastern Europe, not to the West.
“The whole conflict is a lot deeper: between the winners and the losers of globalisation: between the liberal, educated and urbanised middle class and the rest of the society who rather experience the negative side-effects of the openness and globalisation.
“Maybe COVID-19 will make some corrections here, but the revolt of ‘the rest’ who are left behind, goes on and fuels the populist movement for many decades,” Saarts said.
So what is the solution?
“Neoliberalism is dead, the right has become extreme,” Kaljulaid said.
"The only thing left is the left. The left has to get its act together. That’s not only true in Estonia. Also in the UK and many other places.”
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