Interview | New EKRE chair Martin Helme: We are living in insane times
The Conservative People's Party (EKRE) still sets itself in contrast to everyone else. It benefited them at parliamentary elections last year and is the line the party is following in the government. "Contra mundum," says Minister of Finance Martin Helme who took over running EKRE from his father Mart on Saturday. He also says things that do not require interpretation. EKRE's coalition partners, farmers and the Social Democrats would do well not to read this interview in the interests of peace of mind.
Two years ago, you gave ERR an interview at your summer home and said that EKRE would be meeting Riigikogu elections in camouflage because politics is not played in kid gloves. Are you still wearing battle attire?
Perhaps that question should be put to our competitors and colleagues.
If you mean to ask whether we are still full of fighting spirit – yes, we are. I'm sure the past week demonstrated we are not ones to be satisfied with the status quo.
What the past week demonstrated is that you became EKRE chairman and got up on the wrong side of the bed – you've fallen out with both your coalition partners. Does that worry you?
It does not worry me if what you're asking is whether the coalition is on its deathbed – it is not, of course.
That said, it is not good as all manner of arguments, strife and quips erode trust or good will that is needed for political cooperation.
A lot of EKRE politicians no longer have their feet on the ground that we can refer to as delusions of grandeur, Isamaa chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder recently said. Why have you lost touch?
(Smiles) We simply sport such acceleration.
Do you, like your predecessor Mart Helme, perceive as the coalition's greatest problem Isamaa's Riigikogu group splintering and breaking ranks, while Seeder has failed as chairman?
I will not challenge your diagnosis… We are not happy to see Isamaa's rating permanently in the dumps, which is the reason for the kind of interviews and utterances we've seen as of late. It benefits no one.
But this is not a question about ERKE. I have talked to many former Isamaa voters and the party's members who often say that you (EKRE – ed.) came and ruined everything. I have always told them that had there not been a vacancy on the political landscape, we would not exist. Whether this vacancy was created by this or that party is where people should take a look in the mirror.
Perhaps you fear Isamaa is gravitating dangerously close to the Reform Party and will fall apart, along with Jüri Ratas' government?
That is not my fear.
Mart Helme said in his departure speech on Saturday that the power does not reside with Estonians in the capital. Who is in power in Tallinn?
The capital is run by Mihhail Kõlvart. Last I checked, he is not Estonian.
Does the mayor of Tallinn have to be an ethnic Estonian?
Whether they have to be or not is a different issue. If you're asking whether we would like city authority in the capital to be wielded by Estonians, the answer is yes.
A very good mayor.
… was raised in Estonia…
A very strong mayor.
What is the problem then?
Talking about politics, the problem is the education system of course. The next problem is with NGOs and foundations that are fed using taxpayer money but hold no value or positive significance for Estonian taxpayers. Those are the problems.
By the way, your congress speech did not touch on Estonian education that is a problem in many regions. Why is that?
Some things can perhaps be held to be self-evident.
When I talked about education and its value component in my speech, patriotism is the first thing there.
We are not erecting walls to separate nationalities in Estonia or contrasting people based on their birthplace or background, Tanel Kiik (Center) told you, referring to Mart Helme's Tallinn remark as a rather venomous utterance. How do you all fit into a single government in such a venomous atmosphere?
We not only fit in the same government, we fit in the same country, together with everyone we have. And we are doing alright.
The nationality card is being played by others.
Those very reactions by the Center Party clearly reflect attempts to try and cater to their ethnic voters. They are concerned.
You are apparently also concerned as I gather EKRE also wants to find new supporters among Russian voters many of whom sport conservative views, the traditional family model and are opposed to foreign labor from Ukraine?
You cannot hope to win those hearts and minds by insulting them?
We do not see ourselves as having insulted them. Of course, we are living in an age of taking offense where people are highly motivated to perceive insults in everything. There have been reactions where insults have been sought and eventually found, but I do not believe it has been sincere.
The July 5 editorial of EKRE's website reads – Russians are our good neighbors for as long as they do not have plans to create a new oblast here. How would you interpret that?
I'm sure that the lion's share of Russians living in Estonia, many of whom are well-integrated, are just as opposed to Estonia being made an oblast of the Russian Federation as we are.
Do you perceive any such risk? Have you any information to suggests such processes [in terms of Estonia becoming an oblast] exist?
Considering where we are geographically, that danger is ever-present both mentally and physically.
The Center Party is losing ground in Ida-Viru County, Mart Helme said, adding that EKRE aims to take advantage of that vacuum. Should Center be worried?
All parties should be worried all of the time, nor can they take their voters for granted or lay claim to certain groups. That is something all politicians must consider at all times. They need to make sure to fulfill promises they've made to voters… As we've seen in many countries, including the USA where the Democrats take blacks [black voters] for granted irrespective of whether they offer them something or not. This kind of tribalism is not beneficial in politics.
Helir-Valdor Seeder, having served as agriculture minister in the past, does not perceive 300-400 foreign workers in agriculture and another 1,000-1,500 seasonal laborers as a threat to Estonian security and culture. Do they constitute a threat to you?
Three hundred people are not a threat, while 30,000 is getting there.
How do you count 30,000?
From interior ministry data, these figures are beyond debate. If we include people who have a fixed-term residence permit, we get 50,000. People who have come to live in Estonia in the past five years. Plus, another 25,000 from the European Union. In other words, we have seen 75,000 foreigners come to Estonia in the last five years.
(Official data suggests there were 31,969 foreigners from third countries with a valid residence permit for a period of up to five years in Estonia on July 6, 2020. The Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) does not collect data on people who have come to work or live in Estonia from the EU – ed.)
Integrating them is a serious problem, especially in a situation where they have the choice not to integrate because of communities where they can settle in without having to change much about their way of life.
And here we come to foreign workers. What happened in terms of allowing them into the country? Did EKRE give in to avoid having to watch Center and Isamaa back an opposition bill in the Riigikogu that would have extended foreign workers' residence permits or did you manage to trade up for a better horse once again?
(Smiles) We definitely did not give in. We said last week that we did not deem this extension necessary and the bill has been rejected now.
We have spent years trying to convince our coalition partners to act on the part of the coalition agreement that says immigration exceptions need to be dialed back and holes patched. That is the deal we made. We ended up with a sensible solution for the coronavirus era where health concerns are addressed also concerning foreign labor.
It is a sensible solution where almost everyone got what they wanted and almost no one had to surrender anything too painful.
On July 2, you said with full confidence during the government's press conference that there will be no softening of the stance on foreign labor. Four days later, the government decided to reopen borders for labor and student migration. A rather weak start, Mr. chairman.
(Laughs) Well… This now is a conscious attempt to distort context. What we were talking about was the [Reform Party] bill that was discussed by the Riigikogu today (July 6 – ed.). We did not agree to any kind of alleviation in terms of extending the working permits of people already here.
Talking about workers from Ukraine, short-term labor from third countries in general – there will be no alleviation. It is the legal framework we had before the coronavirus border closures that we're returning to. And we are returning to it with a number of conditions employers must meet to be able to access foreign labor.
EKRE did receive quite a few things in return. Family members of foreign students cannot come to Estonia, fixed-term contracts for seasonal work will be shortened to six months, a minimal salary requirement will be introduced… Did you get more than what you hoped for from Center and Isamaa?
We got a deal that we find very satisfactory.
Did you gain more than you hoped for in the general confusion?
Well… let me just say that the immigration topic has not been put to bed with this agreement.
In a situation where we can clearly see unemployment on the rise, we need to make necessary changes to avoid having both high unemployment and labor shortage. That would be the result of an unfortunate set of rules that would allow employers to dream of foreign labor while not hiring locals, with the former saying they have no one to hire and the latter that they have no work.
The rules need to change to motivate local employers to offer local people work at a salary level both sides find acceptable.
And you believe people who are out of a job because of the coronavirus crisis will go work in agriculture?
We have roughly as many registered unemployed as there are vacancies on the labor market today. They simply cannot agree on the salary because employers are still hoping to hire Ukrainians for half the money.
Should the state be dictating the what agricultural producers should pay milkers or strawberry pickers?
No. They need to agree on that amongst themselves. What the state must say is that we have our own labor market here and that producers need to make do instead of bringing in people from Bangladesh or Ukraine for half the salary. That is why the minimum salary requirement is important. First, it will not suppress the local salary level, and secondly, it will not send employers after foreign workers in a situation where we have a lot of people looking for work.
Did you really imagine a situation where a quarter of Estonian cows – 21,000 animals – would go without milking had 300 Ukrainian workers been forced to leave with no one to take their place?
Excuse me, but does anyone actually believe that?
(Smiles) So naive still at your age.
Are farmers lying?
It is tedious and ridiculous propaganda. In the milkers, we were presented with yet another orphan dressed in rags to garner pity. First, the strawberries were about to rot in the fields, now, it's the cows that are going to die and I'm sure cabbages would have been next… We would have seen a new show every two weeks or every month to demonstrate how this backward government's irrational labor policy has to be changed…
Why do you not care for local farmers?
I care about local workers. I have talked to quite a few local farmers. They say that there are those who work with locals and those who built their entire business model on cheap foreign labor. Hence the lamentations.
We do not have to make concessions for those looking for cheaper foreign labor so they could fail to hire Estonians and access cheaper labor. The latter is a resource, just like electricity that lights up their cattle-sheds, like the calves they buy and the feed they use… Should the government worry about making sure they can buy feed at half-price? No, it should not.
When will the government have its next falling out? Will it revolve around the planned constitutional referendum on whether to define marriage as between a man and a woman that should land on the agenda around the same time as local elections in 2021?
I do not believe it will cause a falling out. It is included in the coalition agreement. Everyone knows that different parties have different stances on the matter and I'm sure campaigns will reflect those positions, but I cannot imagine anyone seeking to turn it into a problem.
Many Center and Isamaa politicians are afraid the matter might overshadow local election topics.
I have not heard of such fears, while there might be attempts to spin something. But even if someone is afraid of local elections – there is no need. You just have to fight for your principles, take them to the people and get the votes.
How difficult is it to sit on two chairs at the same time – that of a protest party chairman and that of a more moderate government politician?
It requires calibration. But it's by no means impossible.
"I want Estonia to be like the Switzerland of the Baltic Sea," you said at the congress. Why Switzerland, with its four official languages and Europe's second largest immigrant population after Luxembourg – a quarter of the population as put by Social Democrat Jevgeni Ossinovski?
Excuse me. Latvia has Europe's greatest immigrant population at 40 percent, followed by Estonia at roughly 35 percent. Had we Switzerland's level, the relative importance of Estonians in the population would be 10 percent higher.
What about four official languages?
Well.. Historical context is entirely different. They've had four official languages for hundreds of years. What I want to highlight is that Switzerland is a historically decentralized country, which is a very likeable model for me.
Outside the European Union.
The country being independent is another thing I like very much.
Is Estonia not independent?
It is not. Estonia has surrendered a lot of its sovereignty to the EU and to claim we are a fully sovereign country is just inaccurate.
You are a member of its government.
I am, but that does not mean the country is sovereign. The Viimsi Municipality government runs the region on a daily basis – it does not mean it has sovereignty.
You are comparing Estonia in the EU to a municipality government?
The architecture of the EU is very successful at blurring these lines. Piece by piece, the EU is taking over state functions over which the people have no democratic control. I find it completely disagreeable.
Why serve in a government that pursues this kind of European policy?
It does not, looking at our positions regarding the EU rescue package. A strong emphasis was placed on protecting sovereignty.
However, it [the Commission's rescue package] was approved in the end?
On the condition of sovereignty remaining intact. It was paramount.
Everyone likes to count money, but what is a billion euros over seven years? It's the same as missing the mark with excise duties a la Ossinovski on an annual basis. Money aside, from a constitutional perspective, the government's position was precisely what we wanted – it does not surrender an inch of sovereignty.
You promised at the EKRE congress that you "will not rename a single street, allow a single monument to be dismantled or yourselves to be blackmailed for a single apology [for the past]." What to do with the Dauman and Tiimann streets in Narva that were named after members of the Commune of the Working People of Estonia. Let them be?
Yes, I'm aware that this polemic is looming. The Riigikogu is processing the Names Act to which the opposition has added a proposal to amend that would allow the state to ban the use of such names.
We are too late changing those names. It should have been done when the occupation ended. I harbor no warm sentiment for streets named after red terrorists, but because I am a conservative at heart, I would not rush to tear them down or rename them. I believe we need to teach people who they [Dauman and Tiimann] were and why they were bad. Perhaps people [in Narva] will decide to change those street names then.
What about monuments? Was it necessary to remove the Bronze Soldier from Tõnismäe in the spring of 2007?
Again, I believe we are too late. We should have taken them down 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, a great number of statues were torn down, all those Lenins. People just showed up with a crane without any kind of planning or permits. And they had the right to as these were occupation symbols.
However, waging a monument war today holds nothing positive for society. I never thought it was a good idea to move the Bronze Soldier. Nor do I believe a wreathe should be taken there on behalf of the Estonian state.
Your government no less…
Yes, a minister in our government (Minister of Defense Jüri Luik – ed.), even though we've told him we believe it's inappropriate. But I believe… it is what it is today.
EKRE honorary chairman Arnold Rüütel said in his speech at the party congress that the patriotic government of 1992 opted for a downright liberal economic model for Estonia that unfortunately did not live up to expectations. What would have been a better choice?
We should definitely have used protectionism in the 1990s. What happened back then – partly out of stupidity, partly due to dogmas and partly corruption – allowed advantage to be taken of the fact we had fallen behind the West and competitors to be killed off or bought.
That caused us to fall further back in our development than we should have after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Only when we had found our footing again during that transitional period should we have opted for the free market. What happened back then had nothing to do with free trade.
Who were corrupt?
Listen, the way privatization happened… I believe no one would want to open that can of worms today.
But there is also mental corruption, being told by important German guys that this is what you should do because it is the right way. And we lacked the ability to think critically and say, what about our interests. That perhaps this advice benefits you and not us.
Estonia emerged from the Soviet Union better, stronger and faster than most of its peers.
While that is partially true, a number of Eastern European countries wielded protectionism in agriculture in the 1990s and their rural life is much better off today. There was no such social-cultural shock as what we had in Estonia.
Mart Helme says that while Jüri Ratas is a brilliant diplomat, you would be a more competent prime minister in terms of economic affairs. Do you agree?
(Pauses) I do not argue with my father.
You said in your congress speech that economic success requires lower taxes. Which taxes would you lower were it up to you alone?
Isn't it exciting how the entire Estonian media has missed the fact Germany just lowered its VAT rate. (Pauses) The aim of the move was to boost domestic consumption and contribute to the purchasing power of people and companies.
If you're asking me what I would lower, it's VAT.
Will you be making a corresponding proposal to the government as finance minister?
Depends on how the economy will fare. Should the crisis remain deep and the situation difficult, I believe we need to go over which taxes we could lower in order to make things easier on Estonian businesses and people. If the Germans figure it's the right thing to do, I'm past taking seriously Jürgen Ligi's (Reform) exclamations of how it is nonsense.
I would prefer to also lower the excise duty on gasoline.
In addition to tax cuts, I deem important what we can see in America and what really works – deregulation. Estonia has an insane amount of regulation, with more coming every day, whereas a lot of it hails from Brussels and gets zealously implemented here. Environmental and planning regulation should be reviewed first as it is causing economic processes to take very long and end up very expensive.
You lowered the duty on strong alcohol that has left health experts worried – consumption inched upward. A double-bladed sword?
They cannot be taken seriously. These are politically motivated exclamations.
The Estonian Institute of Economic Research…
The difference [they're referring to] is 0.2 liters, I believe, which is nothing. (Estonians consumed 10.4 liters of absolute alcohol per person over the age of 15 last year for an increase of 3.2 percent on year – ed.)
It also needs to be said that it is merely estimated how much of this growth comes from purchases by Finns and how much of it was hidden in Latvian statistics before. Even if we accept the 0.2-liter change, it still means nothing has really changed.
More people have been taken to sobering-up stations, there have been more alcohol-related deaths – all of it is reflected in statistics.
I have not seen that statistics, but even there… beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Annual drowning deaths range from 30 to 60 in different years, depending on the weather. We can make decisions once we've seen the long-term trend.
(Preliminary data from the National Institute for Health Development suggests 509 people died of diseases directly caused by alcohol abuse in 2019 that is the largest figure for the past decade; in 2019, the police took 15,318 people to sobering-up stations, up 500 from 2018 – ed.)
Will EKRE become more democratic under your leadership?
I cannot see a deficit of democracy in the party.
Members of the board, even deputy chairmen have learned of new EKRE ministers from radio news because Mart and Martin Helme made the decision between them. Will there be a wider circle from now on?
As concerns radio news – it is unfortunate when things are leaked to the media before we can tell our own people. I believe it is important to make sure such leaks are plugged. (Smiles)
But there can always be more communication, it can be more open. I have no problem with that.
Is that what you meant when you said on Saturday, "I promise I will discuss activities with a wider circle of people"?
And I will. It is no secret Mart trusted a very close circle that he involved in all discussions. Which is not to say he did not take advice, he was not stubborn at all, but the circle of trusted persons was tight. I… do not see any reason for it to be that small. I would like it if we managed to delegate more as it would also make my life easier.
How has the Center Party changed in this government?
I have no reference point from the previous one.
Are PM Jüri Ratas and Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps no longer acting as fig leaves hiding the Kremlin's interests, promoting Putin's agenda in Estonia and engaging in ethnic cleansing in Ida-Viru County? You accused them of all these things as recently as in February of 2019.
Criticisms need to be highlighted going into elections. (Pauses) Well… I will stick with my previous answer of having no reference point as I was not included in the previous government.
I would point out, however, that the previous government included an especially Estophobic party, the Social Democratic Party that – I believe – is even more keen than some other political forces on ruining Estonianness or rooting it out in Estonia.
What is the significance of words in politics?
(Pauses impatiently) Come to the point.
It is rather changeable, I suppose.
If you say so.
Three weeks before the start of coalition negotiations, you referred to Ratas and Reps as fig leaves hiding Moscow's interests, while you were in talks for a common government three weeks later.
(Smiles) But perhaps the result is that the Kremlin's interests are now less pronounced in Estonia because we are acting as a national balancer in the government.
(Stops smiling) In truth, we have a very good government because we are broad-based.
It is natural that differences with other political forces are pronounced before elections, while after elections, you need to sit down together and make a deal, because you need to make a deal with someone.
It is the same old story of how Ratas is constantly reminded of how he ruled out cooperation with EKRE… While we could crack wise on the subject, I do not feel we should be in the least bit ashamed over the fact we were outspoken before the elections and got over it to reach an agreement once they were over.
Hence my question – how much do words mean in politics? How changeable is their value?
Looking at what is happening in the world, the left is busy redefining everything all of the time. Everything is being reclassified – family, nationality, gender, race, racism… We are living insane times where nothing is permanent anymore. I stand opposed to that, by the way.
Allow me to quote your speech. "The goal is for the rest of the social elite – political forces, the media, academics, entrepreneurs, entertainers, people who create high culture – to accept our vision." Do you want a society where everyone would think along the same lines as EKRE?
No. I want a society where we share a common identity, where – and this is very important and ties into my previous answer – we speak the same language, understand each other in the same language. I'm not talking about Estonian or Russian, I'm referring to the meaning behind words. The meaning of family, of nation… And where lies that common denominator under which we can all fit. Without it, our society cannot improve in the long run.
I will say without any false shame that our goal is to try and define that common denominator in our image as far as possible. And to reach a point where others accept it.
You do understand that people will always define family in different ways in the 21st century?
I do not. I absolutely do not believe that is a given. Twenty years ago, everyone in Estonia understood family in exactly the same way. Since then, we have seen 20 years of disgusting purple brainwashing and suddenly we don't see it in the same light anymore. We will return to normalcy sooner or later.
And another quote. "Our goals needs to be to win the next elections and form the next government, in other words, secure the position of prime minister." If EKRE fails to do that before the spring of 2023, will you have failed as chairman?
That is… You're presenting me with a ticking time bomb with a three-year counter. (Laughs)
That will depend on the circumstances then. But one needs to have a clear goal and be aware of the stakes. We will see in spring [of 2023]. I have said all along that politics is a very dynamic thing.
What are the stakes?
The stakes are nothing less that the survival of the Estonian people, the fate of Estonia. No one is worried about it except for us. They pretend from time to time, but well… (Dismissive wave)
And by us you mean…
The other parties do not care about the Estonian people?
It does not seem to be something to frequently frame their cast of mind, looking at political choices and decisions. We cannot see this high ideal in daily politics.
Chairman Helme, you are part of the government and yet, you are still so lonely. EKRE is always one against all.
That is how it has been from the first. Nothing unusual about it. We are different from all other parties in Estonia.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski