Estonia's relations with the United States are still sound, President Kersti Kaljulaid said, following a meeting of the National Defense Council (Riigikaitse nõukogu ) prompted by remarks made by former interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE) about the recent presidential elections in America. A planned spring referendum on the definition of marriage will also require legislative and technical changes to go ahead, she said.
"For the first time during my term, I was forced to convene the National Defense Council in response to developments in our country that have worsened the health and security of Estonian democracy," the president said at a press conference on Monday evening, after the council meeting.
"The words of the state are the actions of the state. This is how our own people understand it, how our allies, partners, all the other countries understand it. This how we understand them, and any hope that a detailed analysis of our domestic policies will be undertaken in all corners of the world is clearly over-optimistic," she went on.
Kaljulaid: Helme remarks have not altered transatlantic relations
The president had convened the council after Mart Helme said on a radio talk show that president-elect Joe Biden was an untrustworthy character and that civil war may be brewing after the elections, whose results have been disputed by sitting president, Donald Trump.
Mart Helme had also questioned the validity of Estonia's e-voting system, while finance minister Martin Helme had added that the U.S. elections had been fraudulent.
Estonia nonetheless continues to enjoy good relations with the U.S., Kaljulaid said.
"The council's common position was that we have had very good cooperation with the current American administration … and will continue to do so ... We will work with whichever American leaders are democratically elected by the American people," she said, adding that U.S. elections and how they are managed were a matter for the American people.
Mart Helme resigned the day after making his remarks, following a backlash.
As interior minister he would have been due at Monday's meeting, which had had to be postponed after the president placed herself in quarantine following an official trip to Viljandi, where she came into contact with an individual who later tested positive for COVID-19.
Meeting's focus a little different from those of its predecessors
The meeting was significant, the president added, in that the credibility of elections both in America and Estonia had been cast under doubt, making the meeting somewhat of a different flavor than the previous eight times the council had convened, where the focus had been on the future and had covered energy security, e-Estonia and cyber security, as well as the deployment of NATO troops at Tapa.
The U.S. has invested tens of millions in Estonia's defense and security since 2015. The NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battlegroup based at Tapa is British-led and regularly includes French, Danish and Belgian contingents, on a rotational basis.
NATO Baltic Air Policing duties have been based at Ämari as a separate operation, since 2004 – the year Estonia joined NATO.
President: E-voting secure and reliable
As to Helme's comments about Estonia's electoral system, Kaljulaid said that the system was sound and people should rely on e-voting in future.
The next elections are to local government, in autumn next year.
Foreign trade and IT minister Raul Siem presented the council with an overview of how e-elections are organized, how they have been audited and check for security, and what additional measures can be taken in future.
The council also discussed a planned vote on the definition of marriage, and that delays in technical improvements may mean that no e-voting can take place before next autumn.
The vote, originally intended as a referendum and a Conservative People's party of Estonia (EKRE) plan – which the party had been able to get included in the coalition deal signed with Center and Isamaa in April 2019 – had been scheduled to take place in fall, concurrently with the local elections, but following another government spat after Mart Helme made remarks about LGBT+ people, an agreement was made to bring this forward to spring.
The National Electoral Committee (VKK) recently said that an April date for the marriage definition vote was off the table.
Amendments to the Referendum Act and Electoral Acts will enter into force on January 1 next year, which will see the introduction of an electronic voter list.
Kaljulaid said that the electoral system will be reorganized to allow e-voting to be used in any referendum, but that this meant both legislative and technical capabilities, as the cornerstones of a democracy, would have to be developed in tandem.
If the legislation amendments are made before next autumn's local elections, considerations such as the capacity to hold extraordinary elections, along with the requisite funds for reconstructing IT systems arising from these changes being made available right away.
National Defense Council meetings, which discuss and issue opinions on key national defense matters, are attended by several ministers, including defense, foreign and interior, as well as the prime minister, the Riigikogu speaker and the chairs of two Riigikogu committees.
The meeting took place at the Ministry of Defense building in central Tallinn (see gallery below).
Editor: Andrew Whyte