Estonia requires extraordinary Riigikogu elections on the grounds that the Reform Party achieved its electoral success on the basis of falsehoods, opposition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) leader Martin Helme said in an interview given to Vikerraadio's "Uudis+" show on Wednesday, which follows in its entirety.
Interviewer Madis Hindre: There's a couple more weeks to until the Riigikogu's autumn session begins, but politics didn't take much of a summer vacation: State budget negotiations, preparations for the autumn opposition-coalition confrontation at the Riigikogu, and, of course, the biggest scandal of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas' tenure as prime minister, which overshadows all this. Martin Helme, what do you think will happen on September 11, when the Riigikogu reconvenes; will Kaja Kallas still be the Prime Minister of the Republic of Estonia?
Martin Helme: It's hard to say as these events have been developing relatively rapidly. My view on the matter is that she should already have ceased to be [prime minister]; a week ago Kaja Kallas should have said that "I have acted wrongly and that I cannot continue in this position."
The fact is that, in addition to the claw marks from Juhan Parts' cat on the chair of the Stenbock House (Parts was prime minister 2003 to 2005 – ed.), are also the claw marks of Kaja Kallas, which is embarrassing and shameful, and the longer she clings to that chair, the heavier the price will be, both for her own reputation and the reputation of the Reform Party, as well as of Eesti 200 and the Social Democrats. Not only reputations, but ultimately also the functioning of Estonian democracy.
So, the sooner this horror story, which we now refer to as the Kaja Kallas Russian money scandal, or the Russian business scandal, ends, the better for the whole of Estonia, and also for Estonian parliamentary democracy.
None of this should be taken to mean that I'm certain that she'll go off her own initiative. And this, in turn, means that the public pressure and, of course, pressure from the opposition must not yield.
Hindre: Kallas says she is actually awaiting an opposition attempt to express a vote of no confidence in her. This would also be a logical course of action, but it seems that she does not herself see it as a very strong political weapon, and if the coalition does not follow through, or the coalition partners do not follow through [with pressure on Kallas], then neither will she. Does the vote of no confidence make sense, now that autumn is approaching?
Helme: Ultimately we will surely reach this point of no confidence; if Kaja Kallas doesn't leave herself, or if the party doesn't recall her, so to speak. If the coalition partners do not put pressure on her, then we will have to submit this vote of no confidence to her in any event.
But the truth of the matter is that if the coalition partners do not exert this pressure, they will not bring a motion of no confidence either, so this will not end Kaja Kallas's tenure as head of government.
And we all understand why Kaja Kallas wants [the motion of no confidence]. She will then be able to say, "you see, the matter is finished, the issue has been dealt with, the parliament expressed their confidence in me, let's move on with life, let's start talking about something else." We can all understand what her politico-technological calculations are.
In my opinion, before this, we still need to go through the select committees of the Riigikogu, where she has to attend. If she doesn't show up, this would actually be a broadside at the spirit of parliamentary democracy and at the Estonian constitution (the interview was conducted before Kallas' announcement Wednesday that she would in fact appear before the Riigikogu's Anti-Corruption Select Committee, which is chaired by Helme – ed.). It is scandalous in and of itself that she has started to talk about which agenda items or which problems she will appear before the Riigikogu's select committee to answer for.
I remember how when as Minister of Finance, you, Martin Helme, said that during the Louis Freeh saga (a US lawyer and former FBI chief hired by the Center-EKRE-Isamaa government to represent Estonia in money laundering hearings in the US, in relation to the Danske Bank case – ed.), when there was also a similar committee session, that the finance would not on the grounds that this session would likely not materialize, that is is known that a quorum cannot be met, so there is no point in even going there.
That's just how it was, though. I didn't attend, because the topic wasn't put forward; because, even though the committee chairman wanted to discuss the matter, the rest of the committee didn't support putting it on the agenda, so the topic indeed wasn't put on the agenda. I was not officially invited by the committee, as it were. Hue and cry was raise over this – why I wasn't going to attend - but there was no committee meeting or no item on the agenda that would have obligated me to. However, today the situation is different. In this case, the committee has put it on the agenda and invited the prime minister.
Okay then, the committees will convene, the prime minister will definitely present before them at least once, she has said so herself. Then she repeats the same things there again that she has already told the media. How long will this go on?
In my opinion, we need here to recapitulate very clearly that, during the course of this week, a week when this whole Russian business scandal has unraveled, Kaja Kallas has repeatedly been caught in bald faced lies – she has blatantly misled the public, and for this reason alone, she should resign.
Now that Kaja Kallas lies so regularly, and so contentedly or naturally, it's almost as if we have gotten used to it and blame her for it, but let's remind her that at the very start [of the war] she said that no business could be carried out with Russia whatsoever; that a month after the war broke out, this had been halted. However, this is a complete falsehood, so then he told how things were solely being taken out of Russia.
One company was wound up, another Estonian company was helped in pulling out of Russia – it turned out that this was a complete and unequivocal lie: In fact, items were taken to Russia, and, second, far from helping with winding up the business, its revenues actually rose over the course of that year-and-a-half.
Third, this was not another Estonian company being aided, but another sister company from the same consortium. Next, she talked about how Russia and the Russian war machine have not been fed. This is not true. There were taxes to pay to Russia, Russia has been helped in evading sanctions by taking, not the sanctioned goods, but the semi-finished products of what would be sanctioned goods, if they were assembled.
Then she said that she has not aided Putin's war machine, then, now it transpires that the same company in Russia has orders from both the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian Ministry of the Interior.
These lies continue to be uncovered, and yes she still sits in our studios and at the government press conference and talks about how, of course, we should not do business with Russia; but she is, via her investment, a part of this business herself.
She has also misled u about this investment. So essentially anything she says is all just a lie, and on top of that, it's spitting in our faces, because he's been caught in a lie yet still continues to play the innocent.
So if it carries on in this way, when might this no-confidence motion be expected? In the second half of autumn?
I can't talk about the schedule right now, because we have to coordinate it with each other, within the opposition.
There is no political party within the opposition that can initiate a vote of no confidence on its own (as none of them have a sufficient number of seats – ed.), and, second, there are other initiatives going on, such as the initiative to convene the select committee(s), which I think is a reasonable idea.
I want to wait and see how the Social Democrats, Eesti 200 MPs, and Reform Party MPs vote down the proposal to investigate these Russian business ties, or indeed to support it.
If Kaja Kallas does not fall from the position of prime minister, then that makes her a total political zombie, completely a wounded animal, and in this political jungle which is Estonian politics today, wounded animals do not survive for very long. By the end of this fall, Kaja Kallas' time as prime minister will have drawn to a close in any case. The question now is when will it start to dawn on people in the Reform Party and in the coalition as a whole, that they are destroying themselves, if they continue on like this.
As a political party designated as the opposition for four years - I guess that could be said about EKRE too.
No, I still want to stress now that in the case of the current scandal surrounding Russian links, it must be stated directly that Kaja Kallas and her partner are connected to the Kremlin, and Kremlin businesses, and this is such a major deal that I think a scandal of these proportions have not been seen in Estonia since the restoration of independence.
The [Dankse] money laundering scandal was perhaps on the same scale, but I would also venture to say that one should very thoroughly inquire whether there are any connections between that money laundering scandal, and this current Russian business scandal.
Have these so-called business interests continued. From the first day after the war in Ukraine broke out, EKRE has been demanding that the Russian border must be closed, and quickly – completely closed, and all traffic across the Russian border must be halted. Kaja Kallas personally, and the entire Reform Party, has fought tooth and nail against that.
And now we know why. Kaja Kallas' business interests were precisely that the Russian border remain open. Money was being earned at the expense of Estonian security.
Okay, but how does that alter the fact that EKRE has been assigned to the opposition, for four years?
What I wanted to say with my speech was that I think we need extraordinary elections. Our party's board believes that elections are on an emergency basis needed in Estonia, because the [March] elections were won off the back of a brutal lie. The whole point of the election was that Kaja Kallas charged everyone else, not least our party, of working for Russia and being of use to Putin, and portrayed herself as the greatest supporter of Ukraine and the greatest anti-Russian.
To this day, it is absolutely clear that she is the one who has been useful to Russia and, in this regard, has benefited from it herself too.
What is your plan towards getting a snap election?
In Estonia, it is hard to call an emergency election, but essentially there are a couple of possibilities.
Is one of these if the state budget is not adopted?
Yes, namely one option is the adoption or otherwise of the state budget, which means that the crisis would spin out at least until February. In other words, we have to take into account a protracted, very hard time in Estonia.
The second option where there is a definite number of people at the Riigikogu who vote for emergency elections to take place, not directly, but there are some procedures whereby they cast their votes accordingly.
Then the third is now, if the government should fall apart, then we will not have achieved a new coalition in three attempts, and in this case there would also be an emergency election.
The head of state certainly has a role to play here.
The latter two things do not seem likely to happen, at least in the near future, but the state budget not being adopted would entail an autumn Riigikogu session, where EKRE will have a role to play, and a very vigorous filibuster would be launched.
Have you now figured out, with your experts, how strong of an obstruction can be conducted, whether the stories that some here and others there told about both the coalition and the opposition during the spring (when a filibuster also took place – ed.), that this obstruction will be made so resilient as to postpone the adoption of the state budget until February (usually the state budget would be adopted in mid-December – ed.). Is it theoretically/technically viable?
Yes, theoretically and technically, and practically, it is viable. And this can be prevented or barred, so to speak, only if the Riigikogu board starts to violate the rules of procedure once again, or fails to give the opposition the opportunities provided by law; for example, it starts to limit the taking of breaks or starts to limit the number of proposed amendments.
Or no amount of amendments get sent to the Riigikogu hall.
Let's say that this can only be prevented if they clearly break the law again.
Do you set it as your goal that the state budget cannot be passed?
Well, I certainly won't reveal the plans so exactly in the here and now, but calling for elections on an extraordinary basis is our party's aim.
Has the coalition appealed to you that, okay, we will take a step back in this or that matter, if now you withdraw some of your bills?
This has not been put forward in this form. On behalf of the coalition, the Riigikogu speaker Lauri Hussar, has addressed us two or three times. In a rather arrogant tone, that "take your things back now." And his adding "or otherwise", or "or else" is a reference to a Supreme Court decision that, in such a case, the Riigikogu board decides for itself what it puts and doesn't put on the agenda, and how it processes these things.
In other words, this "or else" is actually a threat, one that we will break the law. So, in fact, neither during the summer nor now, over the last few weeks, has there really been any kind of substantive or formal proposal for a compromise.
This hate speech, or hate speech law, as someone has called it, is disliked by quite a few coalition politicians too, but if you look at the positions of the Center Party and of Isamaa, they would be ready to take a step back, if this hate speech law were to be dropped.
In my opinion, "hate censorship law" is a more correct term here, as we are talking about limitations on freedom of speech. There's no bargaining on this one, it's an unconstitutional initiative and it won't fly anyway; or if it does fly, it'll end up being overturned in the courts.
So I'm not going to bargain on it. They have no chance to actually push this matter through, or if they do, they will do so once again by breaking the law and essentially taking one more giant leap towards ending democracy in Estonia.
In the spring, when this filibuster was going on apace, you repeatedly said that people will join you in this parliamentary struggle, that soon there will be tens of thousands of people out on the streets, yet the only thing we saw was an event organized by EKRE itself, in the plaza in front of Toompea Castle (seat of the Riigikogu – ed.), which it has to be said is not a particularly big square. What happened there?
We also said this in the spring: That these processes take time to bed in. I think that the atmosphere which has developed in society as of now is a completely different story. And on Thursday, we will already have the first picket, in front of the Stenbock House at 11 a.m. Everyone who is angry with Kaja Kallas and wants to rid themselves of the Reform yoke, come and demonstrate your intent. I toured around Estonia in the summer, and listened to what people think about these tax hikes; how they feel about the idea of a car tax.
This anger towards the current government, even before these Russian business ties were revealed, I think was viscerally felt, especially in the rural areas. The tighter the present government clings to its agenda and Kaja Kallas
clings to her seat, the more fierce the social confrontation we are moving towards will be. And that's too bad, since we still have a very dangerous neighbor right next door.
The disappointment which was still heard in the words and statements of quite a few EKRE people after the relatively modest success with the filibuster, has since been overcome through the summer? You are not disappointed in the Estonian people any more?
The spring filibuster was highly necessary, and in that sense it was not a wasted effort or a pointless activity for us. However, it mobilized public opinion in advance, and thus explained some things that the ordinary person, who does not follow politics all the time, would otherwise not get across.
It forced today's coalition parties to reveal their true nature, which is anti-democratic and is hostile to the functioning of sensible opposition politics. It is very arrogant – people saw this in the spring, and I think they are seeing it again now, and as a result of this shift, our social attitudes have too shifted, very significantly.
The budget discussions are now ongoing, coalition partners are looking for cuts, but the head of the SDE just said that there really shouldn't be any cuts. Mart Võrklaev, on the other hand, proposed hiking the salaries of senior civil servants, but at only at half the rate they had been. What do you make of this idea?
Well, I would put it this way, that I am certainly not a crusader for the raising of civil servants pay, especially that of senior civil servants, but Mart Võrklaev's statement represents populism in its purest form, to somehow send out some positive message in this Kaja Kallas scandal.
(In English) Never gonna happen. It just won't happen.
I am absolutely convinced of this, because the judges will raise the cry, the officials will raise the cry, the prosecutors will do so, as will the MPs, yet the president already has little in the way of funds. So this is pure populism, the most cynical type of populism.
Võrklaev said that we will save a billion euros over the next four years. But, sorry, €250 million a year is not the kind of huge cut they are talking about now.
When you were looking for cuts as finance minister, it was not easy either. I remember how you talked, you had found a few hundred million's worth of cuts, but the coalition partners did not come on board with it. At the time, you also referenced large public services or expensive public services which could be cut, but you didn't succeed with them either. Now you advise the current coalition what the public services are which are not really needed, that have at some point been put in place but that have not fulfilled their purpose.
I will not fall into the trap of making unpopular decisions here for the coalition; for that you have to be in power to make unpopular decisions as well. I know, of course, where there are places where there is wastage, where there are places where there is downright theft. For us, for example, the construction of the National Library cost almost half as much as it is; well, I would send in the auditors. €40 million simply makes everything more expensive; everyone involved in this process should be let go.
This reveals our attitude in Estonia, where if you don't shatter the piggy bank, you're somehow stupid, because if you do things economically, you can't have done your job properly. You have to break it and then you have to beg for more funds from the state. But of course stating that we have nowhere to save anything from the €17 billion state budget is simply not true.
It's a question of priorities and a question of having the will. Naturally I would have solved the entire current budgetary process in a completely different way, but that's another story. I would have rather frozen the growth of expenses and encouraged economic growth, which in turn brings us income.
Finally, let us briefly return to this controversy, or crisis. From EKRE's point of view, we can also see that if there are no extraordinary elections for the time being, the Reform Party will be the party of the prime minister for the next three-and-a-half to four years. Who would you prefer as the next prime minister?
The current coalition is, in Estonian terms, the most extreme coalition of all time, but of course there are several camps within the Reform Party, and these camps have not really gone anywhere.
Kaja Kallas has been one of the most inflexible and ideologically convulsive of all the hostile politicians within the leadership of the Reform Party. Of course, there are people with different leadership styles, but I resolutely will not interfere in the election of the Reform Party leader.
These are internal affairs for political parties, though I simply think that things cannot get much worse than Kaja Kallas, come what may.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mari Peegel