It's hard to take the Jaak Madison scandal too seriously, but some people will, and that's the whole problem.
By a coincidence that can only be considered remarkable timing, the press happened to “uncover” a 2010 blog entry written by the freshly elected Conservative People’s Party MP. In the post, Madison, then 20, noted that militarization under the Nazi regime had provided a quick, if short-lived, fix for the German economy. Madison also used frivolous language to sum up the awful rest of what the Nazis did, although in fairness the same sloppy, frivolous approach was on display elsewhere in the piece.
In the language of the viral media, “you’ll never believe what happened next,” or depressingly, maybe you can. Whispers blossomed into a full-blown pseudoscandal. A Russian news site has already used it as a basis for a fictitious report about Estonia that doesn't deserve to be repeated. The US embassy, ever engaged, summoned Madison for a chat to find out what was going on. And above all, as always in this sort of thing, claims and counterclaims got repeated over and over in the media until they had the ring of truth.
Cui bono? For one, the Reform Party definitely benefits if a fellow right-of-center party is left in isolation on a busy post-election landscape. It’s not out of the question that the Conservative People's Party itself may pick up some sympathy points from people who think the party has been mistreated. The big loser appears to be the media, which behaved irresponsibly, and maybe Estonia’s international reputation.
The Reform Party’s own image problem
Only eight years ago, Reform was the one with a Nazi image problem - undeserved and unjustified, but nonetheless. In 2007, after the relocation of a Soviet monument from central Tallinn, unrest erupted. Young pro-Russia activists from the Putin youth brigade Nashi (ironically, not only does the name sounds like "Nazi," they were themselves many more times more fascist than any phenomenon in European politics) labeled then Prime Minister Andrus Ansip "AnSSip", among other pet names as they attempted to claim that Estonia had an apartheid system. All stock-in-trade for Kremlin-bankrolled Estonia-haters, of course.
Then, in July 2007, then Minister of Justice Rein Lang (Reform) was involved in a Prince Harry/swastika-type scandal at a private dinner theatre performance. Good PR spin succeeded in painting the incident as a wry "anti-fascist" statement, but a bad taste lingered; it was seen as one of the ways in which the Reform Party was a old boys' club and could be somewhat insensitive and not engaged. That was really the dominant domestic criticism of Reform in the first three years of this decade, until Ansip's resignation took some pressure off.
In terms of actual politics over the last eight years, the Reform Party has moved steadily into traditional national-conservative territory, claiming ground formerly only IRL cared about: restoring War of Independence monuments, preserving language and culture, championing national defense. In the recent election campaign, the Reform Party was, surprisingly, the one party that called for all remaining Cyrillic on street signs to be removed. It has also participated in re-nationalizing key state infrastructure.
These are not bad measures, and many are good, but if you aren't a small, relatively homogenous country seeking to survive against big aggressive neighbors, terminology like "nation-state" can be hard to understand in the positive sense. Officials realize, rightly, that Estonia must not be viewed by the world as some bitter, vindictive "nationalist" country.
For Reform, there's a clear motive to differentiate themselves from the "bad right wing," or to score points in this department if such a party emerged. When EKRE, the Conservative People's Party, won seven seats in Parliament last week, it was the perfect opportunity.
Who is EKRE?
At a superficial glance, EKRE seems to be part of the same trend of right-wing extremist movements that have sprouted across Europe. For the two or three parties that have ruled Estonia for about 10 years, it would be welcome if they could keep at least one newcomer isolated as such a "malign" force.
And, just as America has split into red states (conservative, heartland) and blue states (coastal, socially liberal), some in Estonia may want this to want this to be the defining narrative here, too: a sophisticated, cool, tolerant elite in the capital sneering via “liberal” online media at stubborn, provincial, homophobic “right-wing nutjobs.” That leaves less time for talk about income tax and ethnic divides.
But just as the Reform Party name, support for same-sex partnership and teaming up with the Social Democrats in government does not make it a socialist-liberal party (look at Reform’s palpable lack of support for an issue like medical marijuana), EKRE is not really an extremist right-wing force, and it is certainly not dumb, inarticulate or negative.
In terms of origin, EKRE was up to 2012 the People’s Union, a party of former communists and agrarian centrists. It is also the party of the third president of Estonia, Arnold Rüütel, a former reform communist who is still the honorary chairman. Far from right-extremism, when it co-won the elections in 1995, it was seen as a "left turn." In 2012, a group of nationalists that had actively called for the removal of the Soviet Bronze Soldier monument from central Tallinn and other forms of "de-Sovetization" merged into the People's Union to form a new party. Besides backing various forms of lustration, the nationalist wing was a frequent critic of both Savisaar and Ansip.
Are they anti-immigration? Of course. But really, mass immigration is a straw man – everyone knows Africans don’t want to settle here yet because of the relative lack of social welfare. And the other parties are no better on the issue: during the Reform, IRL and Social Democrat tenure, no one has so much as cracked the door to the waves of people landing on Lampedusa and passing through into Schengen, for example.
In one publicized case, a government minister said no to a visa for an Afghan translator who had worked with the Estonians, explaining that he would be followed by “50 relatives” from his village. “You know how they are,” said a source. EKRE may have introduced the slogan “go back if you’re black" but the translator was a case of an actual person. The Ansip government also made it tightened up rules that made it harder for lower-income foreigners to live in Estonia.
Click-hungry media runs amok
The big loser from the scandal is probably the Estonian media, which seemed immature and biased, a disingenuous provoker of anonymous commentry.* If the attack on EKRE wasn't a political contract hit, it was certainly driven by the social media-driven viral model. The basic strategy is to latch on to an insubstantial fact but present it in a loaded way, getting hundreds of comments, and then write insinuating follow-up stories sampling different sides of the controversy. The Madison circus currently continues at Delfi.
In general, articles about EKRE have been overwhelmingly negative, possibly exceeding the percentage of negative articles about the Center Party, the classic bete noire for the part of the media not owned by the city of Tallinn.
Even ERR is not immune: in this clip, a cool and collected armchair analyst, Andres Kasekamp, gets softball questions and, a bit gallingly, is even led to speculate whether a former president really knows what he is doing, while a more hard-nosed roving reporter grills Jaak Madison on where he stands on several issues. Guilty AND allowed to claim innocence at the same time, because, after all, both can be packaged into a two-sentence story.
Surprisingly, Madison has come across well in all his appearances, displaying a noteworthy lack of negativity. Without exaggeration, it would appear that also EKRE might possibly have not only two of the best debaters and orators in the country (the Helme father and son) but in fact three of the best.
EKRE will continue to be scrutinized, but it will be hard to find a smoking gun (outright hate speech or actions) for all the manure the media has lobbed in its direction.
Considering that the media has essentially shouted to the world, "We have Nazis now!" over a fairly innocuous blog entry, it's naive to think that Estonia will totally escape the backsplash.
* The latest victim can probably be considered to be presidential adviser Iivi Anna Masso, who resigned out of disillusionment over what she termed backstabbing by fellow Estonians. There are many other examples, from all walks of life and political sides: Jürgen Ligi and Justin Petrone are others who have been bullied in the media.