Tõnis Saarts: War in Ukraine has made our domestic politics more Western

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: ERR/Anneli Milistver

Political scientist Tõnis Saarts takes a look back at the year and points out three major surprises it delivered in Estonian politics in Vikerraadio's daily comment. Estonian domestic politics is increasingly reminiscent of its Western counterpart, the author finds.

It is clear that the war in Ukraine has had the most profound effect on Estonian domestic politics. Paradoxically, the war, meant to turn back time and fuel old tensions and conflicts in states neighboring Russia, has in fact led to even faster Westernization of Estonian politics.

In other words, Estonian domestic politics, the lines of force, confrontations and main trends therein have become even further removed from the post-Soviet or post-communist legacy and increasingly resemble their Western Europe counterparts.

We can look at three major surprises from this year in order to better understand the process.

The first of these saw the war in Ukraine marginalize the national split in Estonia, instead of deepening it. Not a single party or influential political organization has justified Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine or tried to counter the pro-Western and pro-Ukraine narrative.

I am not trying to claim Estonians and some Russian in Estonia do not sport a different interpretation of the war. Tensions remain under the surface, while there is no clearly visible national divide splitting pro-Estonian and pro-Russian forces in Estonia at this time.

That said, nationality-based confrontation served as the primary driver and conflict-defining variable of Estonian politics for a long time. A dominating national split, mixed with communities' divergent geopolitical orientations and different interpretations of history, has often been held characteristic of post-communist states.

However, what will take the place of this national split? This brings us to the second surprise of the year that is the still rising popularity of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE). Support for the party remained steadily above 20 percent this year, even hitting 25 percent in fall.

Some liberal opinion leaders still harbor hopes that EKRE's brand of right-wing populism will not gain a foothold. Unfortunately, parties like the Estonian national conservatives have a much deeper and more fundamental effect on the politics of the 21st century.

Political scientists use different terms to refer to this new split perceived as being between liberalism and conservatism, openness and closeness, the globalization divide etc. But it is the same thing at its core, with some voters feeling they have mostly to gain from the new and open world full of diverse identities, while others see excess openness and social plurality as a threat to habitual values, lifestyle, well-being and self-image.

This new split is becoming the main defining confrontation in European party politics. The rise of EKRE is just another sign that Estonia is keeping with the trends in Europe, as opposed to being a peculiar and peripheral exception. The post-communist national split becoming less acute has opened the door to the new, more Western openness-closeness conflict.

On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that EKRE, when talking about the need to quickly make peace in Ukraine, is aligning itself with the Kremlin, fueling just those old conflicts and fears meant to characterize the post-communist world.

The final surprise of the year concerns the economy and how easily the Reform Party has abandoned market liberalism, or the "market will sort things our" and the "state is a poor owner" principles.

Just five or six years ago, it would have been unthinkable for Reform to approve the universal electricity price service, pledge state aid for a wide range of sectors and abandon fiscal balance. Yet, it follows Europe-wide trends of moving from free market neoliberalism toward more state-centered economic models.

This started in the days of the coronavirus pandemic, and the tendency has only picked up momentum in the wake of uncertainty from the war and the energy crisis. Neoliberal, market-fetishizing economic policy served as the core tenet during Eastern Europe's post-communist transition in the 1990s and 2000s. Therefore, we have also moved away from earlier orthodoxies and increasingly emulate the rest of Europe also when it comes to economic policy.

True, these processes started some time ago, while recent geopolitical upheaval has only lent them momentum. And so, it is paradoxical that the war, meant to reinforce post-communist legacy through its conflicts and trends, has ended up contributing to their even faster fading and Eastern Europe moving closer to the West.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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