Reluctance of EKRE leaders keeping government from helping Belarusians

Minister of the Interior Mart Helme and author of the article Toomas Sildam.
Minister of the Interior Mart Helme and author of the article Toomas Sildam. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The subject matter of "helping the people of Belarus" that has been bounced from one ministry to another so far should land on the government's desk on Thursday, ERR journalist Toomas Sildam writes.

"It is like a hot potato that no one wants to pick up," a high-ranking government official said. "We have seen sporadic proposals or rudimentary ideas [for supporting Belarusians], but nothing has been decided. It is rather embarrassing if we think back to the national empathy displayed by Estonia during events in Georgia or Ukraine [2008 and 2014] and how prepared we were to help the Georgians or Ukrainians."

Now – after the August 9 presidential elections that were obviously falsified in favor of President Aleksandr Lukashenko and a widespread campaign of violence against peaceful protesters that followed – the Estonian government has made foreign policy statements ("Lukashenko has lost his legitimacy"), allocated €100,000 to support the Belarusian civil society and joined the Baltics' sanctions policy that includes personal sanctions for Lukashenko.

However, unlike Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and even Ukraine, the Estonian government has not decided to open the border to those persecuted by the Belarusian authorities, give its students the chance to study in Estonia or offer a simple way for successful Belarusian IT companies to find a new home in Estonia.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) ruled out opening the Estonian border outright to those caught in the gears in Belarus in an interview given to ERR a week ago, saying that "we should retain the principles of our visa policy, while we should also be prepared to make exceptions".

The presidents of Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine made a proposal to the European Union last week for an extensive aid package for Belarus one part of which would be visa free travel.

"I do not think we should open our borders, but if we're talking about political leaders [of the Belarusian opposition] asking for asylum, Estonia should seriously consider it," Reinsalu said. The Estonian foreign minister made a proposal to his Baltic and Nordic colleagues for special measures for helping women who have suffered from violence in Belarus.

At the same time, the foreign minister told the "Otse uudistemajast" webcast that his administration is drafting proposals on how to allow Belarusian IT companies to relocate to Estonia, which would require a more flexible visa policy.

This cautiousness on the part of the Estonian government has a reason – reluctance from the coalition Conservative People's Party (EKRE). The national conservatives' deputy chair Mart Helme talked about it at the conference "A specter is haunting Europe – the migration specter" held in Tartu on September 19.

"Yes, we want to put a stop to it. Yes, we will put a stop to it," Helme said, referring to foreign students coming to Estonia.

Minister of the Interior Mart Helme highlighted as the biggest problem Estonia having become a destination "first and foremost for Estonians' former Soviet peers from the east… as it contributes to the growing Russian-speaking community." According to Helme, conflict is now brewing in the Russian-speaking community. "The Russians and Ukrainians are not at odds yet, while they are looking at each other over their shoulders."

Mart Helme was critical of supporting Belarus. "In Belarus, by the way, they are demanding we open the border to Belarus that has only a little under 10 million residents. Well, we can be magnanimous and grand and proud of feeling empathy toward the whole world. But if we try and think about these numbers, can we alleviate all the pain, poverty, suffering and war that they reflect? The answer is obvious – we cannot. We can't and probably do not have to," the interior minister assured.

Helme had told listeners that Bangladesh has over 150 million residents, Pakistan a little over 200 million, India 1.1 billion, China 1.4 billion and Russia around 144 million. The population of Ukraine is roughly 42 million.

The Estonian government is set to discuss helping Belarusians, including the chance for them to come to Estonia at a time when the European Commission has raised the issue of solidarity in migration to support Greece.

"All of it must be mandatory, all member states must help when a single member state is under pressure, if there are many people in need of protection," European Commissioner for Internal Affairs Ylva Johansson told AFP. She said it on the same day that the Estonian interior minister warned Tartu of the European migration specter.

A few days prior, head of Estonia's European Commission representation Keit Kasemets had picked 15 thoughts from President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen's annual speech, one of which had to do with migration. "Migration is a pan-European challenge, a problem the whole of Europe must help solve. The migration package to be presented next week prioritizes people. Saving lives at sea cannot be voluntary, human life is priceless. Help from member states for countries struggling with migration problems is also vital."

That is why government officials recommend seeing support for Belarusians in a broader context.

"The return of the migration debate in Europe complicates our debate in terms of how to allow victims of the Belarusian regime, students or IT companies into Estonia," a state official said in a private conversation. "As long as one party – EKRE – maintains that their quota is zero and will remain zero, the others can talk of value-based foreign policy, feel sorry for victims of Lukashenko's violence and look for ways to help them, but it will all be as futile as hoping that Lukashenko will resign next Monday."

Center Party and Isamaa ministers support potentially helping Belarusians. Could it overcome the reluctance of their colleagues from EKRE? "No, [Prime Minister Jüri] Ratas wants a unanimous decision or nothing. It is cruel to the opposition in Belarus, but that is how things work with this government," a ruling politician explained.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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