Reform may bow to Center, EKRE pressure on hate speech bill
The coalition Reform Party has indicated a willingness to compromise on aspects of a draft bill which would, if it passes at the Riigikogu, bar the public display of various symbols, insignia and slogans associated with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The sticking point has been a provision regarding the regulation of hate speech, though debates at the Riigikogu, where the bill is due to be processed, will likely set out more clearly which types of symbolism are barred and which not.
In addition, Center's Rigiikogu leadership is putting pressure on Reform by suggesting a vote of no-confidence in the government in which it is a part, while a leading opposition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) MP has said his party will not vote for the bill if the hate speech aspect is not removed.
The bill is being expedited ahead of the annual May 9 "victory day", which marks the end of World War Two and mimics a much larger holiday held in a foreign country.
This year's event is likely to be highly emotionally charged, due to the mass, documented atrocities committed by invading Russian forces in Ukraine since late February and the connection with that and traditional pro-Russian insignia such as the orange-black George's ribbon, along with the recent emergence of the "Z" letter as a symbol of support of the invading forces.
The bill is set to be at the relevant Riigikgou committee on Thursday, and will have its first reading (of three) at the chamber next week
Reform MP and deputy Riigikogu speaker Hanno Pevkur said that three main amendments to the draft bill were currently under discussion.
He said: "First, that this section on symbols will have a clear meaning, based on which any symbols used to justify war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity or aggression could be banned."
"Similarly, if someone [from Estonia] goes to war against Ukraine, that person can be prosecuted," Pevkur added.
"Third, with regard to the more precise regulation of incitement to hatred. In my opinion, these changes need to be made," the MP went on.
The last point had caused friction with Reform's coalition partner, Center, a party which has traditionally drawn much of its support from Estonia's Russian-speaking populace.
Center's Riigikogu chief whip Jaanus Karilaid had said, however, that his party was ready for possible obstruction of the bill's passing from the opposition parties – meaning predominantly the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa, both of which have also expressed skepticism over the bill in its current form, rather than the Social Democrats (SDE) whose MPs have stated their support for the bill.
The outcome might be a vote of no-confidence in the Reform-Center government itself, however, Karilaid said.
He said: "If, for example, the opposition still does not want to proceed with this bill and wants to implement obstruction tactics, it would certainly be possible to link this bill to a vote of confidence in the government."
The government signed off on the bill - which will amend Estonia's criminal code - on Monday.
The amendment to the Penal Code primarily concerns the need to send a clear signal to society that any activity which divides society and supports aggression is unacceptable, ERR reports.
Karilaid added that his party would like to move forward with a ban on hostile insignia. "In addition, on the imposition of criminal punishment to be placed on those who join up with the army of the aggressor country.
However, the hate speech element was still a sticking point, he said. "The problem for us is this hate speech component. We want it to be taken out of this bill, we have also talked about the issue with our coalition partner, the Reform Party," Karilaid said.
EKRE MP and legal affairs committee member Anti Poolamets said he was categorically in opposition to the hate speech aspects of the bill, on the grounds that it had been tacked on to the legislation under the cover of the current security situation.
Poolamets said: "The topic introduced under the guise of war for domestic political purposes must be removed."
If that is done, EKRE will back the bill, he said, noting the dozens of Estonian volunteers who have gone to help out Ukraine since the war started.
Hanno Pevkur stated that the bill nonetheless requires broad-based, cross-party support and that political quarrels in the chamber were inappropriate against the background of the war.
He said: "The Reform Party is interested in getting a clear signal from the legislature on the one hand."
"On the other hand, those changes which can be adopted quickly and by consensus are what we are adopting, but those that we do not currently have a common understanding require further discussion," Pevkur went on.
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Editor: Andrew Whyte