Prime Minister Jüri Ratas has condemned Interior minister Mart Helme's (EKRE) comments to a journalist from Deutsche Welle telling gay people in Estonia to go to Sweden. Leaders of the opposition parties are demanding Helme resign.
Deutsche Welle's interview, published on Friday (link in Russian), discussed the forthcoming marriage referendum, proposed by EKRE, which will ask if marriage should be defined in the constitution between one man and one woman and Helme's attitude towards LGBT+ people.
Helme said he looked at gay people in an "unfriendly manner" and told them to go to Sweden but denied he is homophobic.
"Dear Mart! I've read that you told a journalist of Deutsche Welle that you do not look politely upon some Estonian people or perhaps even do so unkindly on the basis of their sexual orientation," Ratas wrote on social media on Friday. "The Center Party formed a coalition in which it agreed upon different values."
Ratas said that Center's values are guided by the Constitution, which provides that all people of Estonia are equal before the law and cannot be discriminated against. Likewise forbidden by law is incitement to discrimination or hatred.
"The Republic of Estonia does not assess any Estonian people on the basis of their sexual orientation, and it cannot affect our state's or government's attitude towards them," the prime minister wrote.
"The Center Party's values have been listed in the coalition agreement, which we have jointly signed. We have agreed to represent all people of Estonia and promote a caring and tolerant society in which its members feel safe. Together, we have promised to condemn all divisive rhetoric. Taking all of this into consideration, your replies to the journalist are unambiguously deplorable," Ratas said.
The prime minister said that it is the duty of members of the government to work towards improving the lives of Estonian people every day so that the Estonian people, culture, language and state should last throughout the ages.
"This is not achieved with harsh words or unfriendliness but with understanding, cooperation and kindness," he said.
When asked by the Deutsche Welle journalist Konstantin Eggert if gay people have mounted an offensive and are about to flood Estonia, Helme said they would do well to run away to Sweden.
"They can run to Sweden. They'll have everything there, and they'll be looked upon more politely by everyone," Helme said.
"Do you look at them impolitely?" Eggert asked Helme.
"I indeed look at them in an unfriendly manner," the minister said.
"Nowadays, this is called homophobia," Eggert said.
"It's not homophobia. I'd argue that the people who claim that our referendum is unnecessary are heterophobes. They are barging into the beds of heterosexual people. It is them barging in on us, not the other way around. If they can disseminate their propaganda, we can counter it with different propaganda," Helme said.
Reform Party chairman: Interior minister's comments harmful to Estonia's reputation
Leader of the opposition Reform Party Kaja Kallas said Helme's comments are harmful to Estonia's reputation.
"Mart Helme's utterances to Deutsche Welle are another example of why EKRE should never have been included in the government. Intolerance, lies and causing harm to Estonia's reputation is all the current coalition is capable of," Kallas said.
"The moment the Center Party invited EKRE into the coalition, it subscribed to EKRE's values. The prime minister is free to forever go on citing the coalition agreement in his tragicomic manner, promising to deliver a coherent society. This text and the word of the prime minister lost all meaning a long time ago. Another week, another scandal, another hollow apology by Jüri Ratas," Kallas said.
"We've all known for a long time that Mart Helme is not fit to be a minister. What no one comprehends, however, is how the prime minister fails to see the bigger picture and understand the extent of the damage caused to Estonia. I don't think that any prime minister would actually want a morally ruined Estonia, exhausted from its own intolerance, to be their legacy," she added.
"The weekend is a good time for pondering over this. I hope that Jüri Ratas will pull himself together and for once act like a prime minister and release Mart Helme from his ministerial position," Kallas said.
Chairman of the opposition party the Social Democrats Indrek Saar wrote on social media that Helme should resign. "If he does not do that, the prime minister's seat will be more important to him than our constitution, security and the people of Estonia," he said.
Kiik: Interior minister had no right to attack sexual minorities
Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center) underscored that no one can be discriminated against in Estonia and that Minister of the Interior Mart Helme had no right to attack sexual minorities in his comments, Postimees reported.
"Mart Helme pretends to speak for all heterosexual people and families in his attack against sexual minorities in the interview he gave to Deutsche Welle. He has no right to do so, nor is there any justification for doing so," Kiik wrote on social media.
The minister noted that residents of Estonia are actually reasonable and well-intentioned people who share European, not homophobic values.
"The Republic of Estonia is founded on freedom, justice and law. Our state's Constitution clearly states that everyone is equal before the law. No one can be discriminated against on the basis of their nationality, race, skin color, sex, language, origin, religion, political or other views, property or social status, or on other grounds, that includes their sexual orientation," Kiik said.
The minister added that there is a large variety of people in society, both gay and heterosexual, families consisting of one or two parents, some divorced, some remarried. Everyone's right and freedom to make their own decisions regarding cohabitation and family is one of the values on which the Estonian state is founded.
"No politician should ever use the ministerial position of power for persecuting any groups in the society," Kiik said.
Chairman of the Center Party Riigikogu's faction Kersti Sarapuu condemned Helme's words and said they were his personal opinion.
Non-parliamentary party Estonia 200's chairman Kristina Kallas said Helme should resign and Ratas' actions cannot be limited to a reprimand, Eesti Päevaleht reported
CEO of the Estonian LGBT Association Kristel Rannaääre wrote a reply to Helme in Eesti Päevaleht: "I do not plan to move to Sweden, Canada or anywhere else abroad where you are constantly [trying to] send me. I will stay where I was born and raised. I will stay where my home is, my family, where my child is growing up. I will stay here, where I will pay, among other things, your and other EKRE men's and women's pensions and other benefits. I will stay here to raise a family, which is such a big deal in your eyes that you will put so much effort into the referendum instead of state work."
Seeder: Helme's comments should be ignored
Commenting on Saturday, chairman of Isamaa - the junior coalition party - Helir-Valdor Seeder told ERR that Minister of the Interior Mart Helme's comments are political tactics and should be ignored.
Seeder said, in his opinion, the statements made by Helme were not worthy of a minister of his position.
"My recommendation is not to pay attention, because there is nothing behind these words and claims, they are empty. Everything is fine with human rights in Estonia, no one is being persecuted," Seeder said.
Seeder said this is a political tactic which EKRE is using to attract attention. He thinks it is unfortunate the media and opposition parties go along with it.
"If we ignore such statements over a long period of time, they will disappear," Seeder said, adding that Helme's statements would probably not exceed the news threshold in Germany.
He said he had not considered raising a motion of no confidence in Helme as opposition party leaders have suggested they will do.
On Friday, Minister of Defense Jüri Luik (Isamaa) said Helme was wrong and his words are in conflict with the Constitution and law. "Estonia is a tolerant and open society, that is our strength," Luik told Delfi and said gay people in Estonia have nothing to fear.
Estonian Greens: Helme inciting hatred against people of his own country
Leader of the Estonian Greens Züleyxa Izmailova said that Helme is inciting hatred against the people of his own country.
"Section 12 of the Constitution is for everyone to adhere to," Izmailova said, referring to the section according to which no one may be discriminated against on the basis of nationality, race, color, sex, language, origin, religion, political or other views, property or social status, or on other grounds.
"It is unacceptable and irresponsible for one of the ministers to have forgotten this and to incite hatred against the people of his own country. A divided society, however, is a direct threat to internal security and the security of people, which is the responsibility of this particular minister," she added.
The Greens condemn Helme's hateful comments. These comments not only damage Estonia's international reputation but also incite confrontation and hatred between the Estonian people, the Greens said.
"When it comes to Mart Helme, it cannot even be said that a line has been crossed - Helme crossed a line long ago," Kaspar Kurve, chair of the Estonian Greens, added. "Such a minister of the interior is not a credit to the Estonian state and it is high time for Juri Ratas to make a statesmanlike decision and release Helme from the ministerial position because the latter obviously lacks even the slightest competence for such a position."
The Greens expect Prime Minister Jüri Ratas to act in a statesmanlike manner and release Minister of the Interior Mart Helme from office. According to the Greens, Estonia must be an open and solidary state, where such statements, especially at the government level, must not have a place.
Martin Helme: The sentence was incorrectly translated
Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE) chairman and Minister of Finance Martin Helme said that EKRE has never talked about persecuting or expelling gay people, but added that the party is against gay propaganda, daily newspaper Postimees wrote on Saturday.
The party chairman also said that Interior Minister Mart Helme's statement to Deutsche Welle has been mistranslated maliciously or due to poor language skills.
"The opposition and homototalitarians are carving the next big scandal to overthrow the government. Several weeks have passed since the previous vote of no confidence and the wounds have likely been licked," the finance minister said on social media.
In his opinion, a big lie has been set up. "In this case, it is the claim as though Mart or our party would like to start expelling people from Estonia. Of course, Mart hasn't said anything like that. Mart said that they should run around Sweden and that gay people are treated in a more friendly manner in Sweden than in Estonia. Whether due to poor language skills or malice, the sentence has been translated incorrectly and the lie has been reproduced," Helme said.
According to Helme, the opportunity to leave Estonia for someplace more to one's liking is a great freedom that is worth being happy about. "In my opinion, it is a dispassionate and obvious fact that in Sweden, the attitude towards the gay issue is more liberal than here, that there are different laws that are more favorable to gays than we have. How is it a scandal or something to be condemned to express this reality?" he said. "We make our own laws the way we like. Sweden makes its own laws the way they like. And in Europe, people can move from one country to another how they see fit."
"The opportunity to express one's views on things, phenomena and people without fear of repression should also be one of the freedoms for which we should be grateful and which we must definitely defend," he said.
Helme said the extensively discussed interview with Deutsche Welle turned into an attack. "Attempts are made in Estonia to establish homototalitarianism, where, by appealing to the Constitution, attempts are made to make it clear to us that we must not speak or have an opinion on certain issues. That there are certain subjects and groups of people that have been declared untouchable by liberals and that cannot be criticized. By the way, the list of topics is expanding quickly," he said.
Helme gave an example from the global political situation. "In fact, we are seeing an even bolder move, something similar to what we saw with BLM in America this summer. It is no longer enough to be silent if you do not like something or if you do not agree with radicals. You must declare your allegiance to revolutionary ideology and radical steps. You can only speak on certain topics with vocabulary that has been approved and prescribed by society's demolitionists. You can only speak on certain topics from an angle that they have approved and prescribed," he said.
Helme said EKRE stands for the protection of the traditional family, but against gay propaganda. He added that EKRE was elected to the parliament largely because the party clearly and shamelessly stands for the protection of the traditional family and against gay propaganda and homototalitarianism as well as censorship by the name of political correctness. "Mart expressed the views and attitudes that our party has strongly expressed since the beginning," Helme said.
"We regard traditional moral values and the family model as a pledge of national sustainability. We do not fight for or against people, but for or against ideas. It is inconceivable that we keep quiet about or forget these ideas and principles after the elections or because we are in government," Helme said.
According to him, the scandal has been created to influence the marriage referendum. "We understand why commotion involving another made-up scandal has been launched. These are increasingly fierce attempts to block a referendum on marriage next fall. This referendum is a very fundamental to shift back the point of social balance in favor of traditional values and anchoring the restoration of this normalcy with the mandate of the highest authority," Helme said.
Kaljulaid: I do not understand Mart Helme's undisguised hostility towards our society
President Kersti Kaljulaid said that Helme's comments are "humanly simply revolting" and added that Helme is not suitable for the Estonian government.
"I do not understand Interior Minister Mart Helme's undisguised hostility towards our society. We are talking about our own people - our police officers and teachers, our creative people and builders, our neighbors, co-workers, friends. Strangers, too, but still our people. Dividing and classifying them as correct and incorrect, us and them, on the basis of sexual orientation, skin color, or any other characteristic, is unacceptable, contrary to the spirit of our Constitution and also humanly simply revolting," the head of state wrote on social media.
Her full comment can be read here.
Editor's note: This article was updated on October 16 to add comments from Kaja Kallas, Kristina Kallas, Jüri Luik, Indrek Saar, Kersti Sarapuu and Kristel Rannaääre.
It was updated again on October 17 to add Helir-Valdor Seeder, Züleyxa Izmailova, Martin Helme and Kersti Kaljulaid's comments.
Editor: Helen Wright