Foreign minister: Eesti 200 rating drop no cause for alarm

Margus Tsahkna (left) appearing on 'Otse uudistemajast', Wednesday, June 7, 2023.
Margus Tsahkna (left) appearing on 'Otse uudistemajast', Wednesday, June 7, 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna Eesti 200's ratings may have fallen in the weeks since it entered office with Reform and the Social Democrats, but not to such an extent to cause major concern, or calls for a searching look in the mirror, on the part of the party.

Tsahkna was one of Eesti 200's first major "signings" after having been founded in 2018 and narrowly missing out on seats at the parliamentary election the following year.

This time around, on March 5, the party won a substantial 14 seats and went almost straight into coalition at the national level.

However, association with unpopular government policies such as tax hikes, and with government tactics, mainly in shutting down filibustering efforts from the three opposition parties – plus two scandals affecting two of its MPs, one of them now resigned – has been followed by plummeting ratings.

The party is now behind the Center Party, as well as Reform and EKRE, according to one recent poll, and only slightly ahead of the two smallest parties by Riigikogu representation, Isamaa and the Social Democrats (SDE).

Appearing on ERR webcast "Otse uudistemajast" Thursday, Tsahkna, who in the past belonged to Isamaa and was defense minister 2016-2017, said "The time is not at all at hand yet," for Eesti 200 to do some deep soul searching.

"I believe that it is worth starting to look at the ratings as the local elections approach (in fall 2025-ed.). European Parliamentary elections are a different bag, they relate largely to personalities," he went on.

The elections to the seven MEP seats Estonia has next take place a year from now, and Eesti 200 is likely to be looking for its first ever seat in that category, too.

The party had won seats at the October 2021 local elections.

All told, Tsahkna said: "The party has survived its first five years and has achieved a very good result at the elections. In fact, if you look at the composition of our party Riigikogu group, and also at the government members, thing have gone very well. These teething problems are a fact of life."

Of the most recent controversy to hit the party, MP Tarmo Tamm's alleged conflicts of interest in chairing the Riigikogu environment committee and being a board member of the Environmental Investment Center (KIK – in fact stepped down from the Riigikogu committee last week) and the fact he has been subject to two misdemeanor proceedings, Tsahkna said: "There is nothing essentially to blame Tarmo Tamm for."

Tamm stepped down from the environment committee and was replaced by another new Eesti 200 MP, Züleyxa Izmailova, but has stopped short of leaving KIK too, which Izmailova says he should have done.

The misdemeanor proceedings Tamm is subject to concern timber felling activities, one of his main business areas, while the Environment Board (Keskonnaamet) has also issued proceedings against him over construction of a sauna facility within a protected nature area.

Ultimately, Eesti 200's drop in ratings – given also that the "honeymoon period" is over – was foreseeable, the minister added.

Going forward, Estonia's economic interests must be visible in the international arena, Tsahkna said, a role which he would play alongside other relevant ministers, diplomats, the prime minister and the president.

"Broadly speaking, the goal is to bring to Estonian economic policy the understanding that we are no longer some sort of budget outsourcing nation, and perhaps we can also attract some global companies' headquarters here," he went on, speaking frankly about his vision.

While there was continuity here with the last, short-lived Reform-Isamaa-SDE administration, business diplomacy was more strongly represented in the current administration, he said.

The other big scandal to engulf the party, which prompted Johanna-Maria Lehtme to step down as an MP after just a few weeks in office, was not something which the entire party should suffer for, he added.

Tsahkna said he had been one of those who both suggested Lehtme, who at the time headed an NGO aimed at helping Ukraine, join the party, and who argued that perhaps she might need to leave parliament.

The latter volte face followed revelations the NGO, Slava Ukraini, had been misused for substantial embezzlement schemes in relation to the organization's partner on the ground in Ukraine, a shadowy organization which may even have been involved in gun-running.

As for Lehtme's resignation, Tsahkna said: "This was a mutual understanding by that point. I was one of the ones who talked to him," Tsahkna said.

To join up the dots, Züleyxa Izmailova was in fact Lehtme's replacement as MP.

Nontheless, Tsahkna said he had no regrets about Lehtme having been an Eesti 200 MP. "Both the Reform Party and SDE had invited her to run, but she declined both offers."

Lehtme, who polled highest of any Eesti 200 candidate and ran on a campaign which directly referenced her as a helper of Ukraine, was not used as a "vote magnet", Tsahkna said, while over time he came to realize Slava Ukraini would not be sustainable along the lines it had been run up to that point, drawing on his private sector work experience.

The minister said he was looking forward to the outcome of investigations in Estonia into Slava Ukraini's activities.

Moreover, there was a certain irony in Lehtme being picked on in the wake of the scandal. "We have political parties here that seem to be forever and always on trial for corruption crimes, yet nothing happens to these parties – these things don't even make the news," he went on.

"These people sit at the Riigikogu, sit on committees yet at the same time are before the courts at hearings, for example. While I believe in the judicial system in Estonia, in Johanna's case, not a single hearing was held," he went on.

In any case, Lehtme may have run for Eesti 200 and sat with its Riigikogu grouping, but she was never a party member, he added. "If you look at this entire process, it is unfair to blame Eesti 200, which Lehtme belonged to at the Riigikogu but while not being a party member. At the same time, both she and the party group could see that this was not a hill to die on, either for Eesti 200 or for the Riigikogu as a whole."

Running for a political party in Estonia without being a paid-up party member itself is perfectly legal, and quite common.

The rest of the interview dealt with concerns over media freedoms in Latvia and an even more unequivocal stance on Russian aggression taken in that country than is the case in Latvia's northern neighbor.

Tsahkna said that he did not think Latvia had reached the same stage as some other countries – he referenced Hungary – and no ultimatum to pass a language test or face expulsion from the country was being considered in respect of Russian citizens resident in Estonia. Such a rule is in place in Latvia as things stand, with the deadline set for September.

Back to business, Tsahkna noted that the recent kindergarten project in X, which he attended, was proof positive of how Estonian business could benefit from helping in the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine.

He equivocated more on the issue of Estonia's participation in EXPO 2025 in Osaka, Japan – at the time of the "Otse uudistemajast" broadcast on Wednesday, this matter was still up in the air, but the news followed on Thursday that Estonia would not be attending.

Later on on Wednesday, Tsahkna gave an address at an event at the British Ambassador's residence in Tallinn, marking the official birthday of that country's monarch, King Charles III.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov

Source: 'Otse uudistemajast', interviewer Anvar Samost.

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