While cozying up to Viktor Orban's Hungary seemed like a conscious policy for Isamaa back in the day, it could just as easily have been a self-destructive whim of then Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu, security expert Meelis Oidsalu writes.
"Isamaa does not deem it necessary to oust Fidesz from the European People's Party," Urmas Reinsalu, then foreign minister in the EKRE, Isamaa and Center coalition, told "Aktuaalne kaamera" news on April 2, 2020. Isamaa MEP Riho Terras had signed a letter expressing concern for developments in Hungary that same day. Viktor Orban had fallen out with the EU for good. While the rest of Europe was drifting away from Hungary and Poland, Urmas Reinsalu made conspicuous attempts to cozy up to the former.
Postimees reported (link in Estonian) in January 2020 how then Isamaa chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder had called European People's Party head Donald Tusk to reaffirm Isamaa's support for Fidesz and say that the party's eviction would not benefit the EPP or Europe as a whole.
"Seeder found that we should listen attentively to Orban's criticism of where Europe is headed, try to rein in emotions and find common ground inside the EPP to be able to move on together," the paper wrote.
Even though Urmas Reinsalu, as the moral leader of the opposition today, who is trying to paint himself as the "voice of reason" in Estonia, remains relatively tight-lipped when asked about his stint as foreign minister, he is still more forthcoming that Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has been regarding her Russia transports scandal. However, let it be said that more work is needed to really understand Reinsalu.
It seems we were dealing with a very different Urmas Reinsalu when he entered into an anti-migration agreement with Hungary and Poland in July 2019. Reinsalu claims the agreement was verbal and thought up on the spot during a two-way meeting with his Hungarian counterpart, while Hungary presented the agreement with Estonia and Poland as a concrete thing. But Reinsalu does not deny the agreement was conscious, as opposed to a bad press release or occupational accident.
In September of 2020, Reinsalu again backed Hungary in its dispute with the EU, calling into question whether the EU budget should depend on rule of law principles. Then Foreign Minister Reinsalu prohibited Estonian embassy staff from supporting LGBT movements in the countries where they were posted. Estonia also stood out in 2020 by being the only Baltic country that was not visited by French President Emmanuel Macron.
It is interesting to see what Hungary's Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto has had to say about his Estonian colleague Urmas Reinsalu over the years.
In April of 2020, the Hungarian foreign minister posted: "I spoke on the phone with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu, a true friend and good ally.
We absolutely agree regarding the most important dilemmas of world politics." In December of that year, Szijjarto wrote: "My friend Urmas Reinsalu, Estonia's foreign minister, is not one of the favorites of international liberal mainstream. How could he be, because he always speaks directly, honestly and clearly, he is not afraid to state his opinion, the position of the patriot, and bravely stands up for the interests of his nation."
While in January 2021, Orban's right-hand man Szijjarto wrote: "Recently, my friend Urmas Reinsalu and I have pursued excellent cooperation. Together we fought against illegal migration and for families rights."
The most recent history of Estonian foreign policy has questions the asking of which causes people to cramp up or only give half-answers. One such is whether Estonia's foreign policy changed during the time of the EKRE-Isamaa-Center government; more specifically, whether a conscious course was plotted for better relations with Hungary and Poland at the price of moving away from the EU values consensus? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs' official answer is that Urmas Reinsalu did not give any "concrete guidelines" for improving relations with Hungary.
Relations and meetings with the fellow Finno-Ugrian Hungarians were, of course, in place from before, while Orban had not then fallen out with the EU as thoroughly as he had by the time Reinsalu became foreign minister.
A former ambassador recalls that no guidelines on changes to Estonia's so-called Hungary policy reached the ambassadors' mailing list. However, it was said off the record that Reinsalu promoted supporting Hungary's positions even when they clashed with Estonia's recent values-based EU policy. This policy shift was no secret then, nor is it a secret now. But for some reason, our diplomats and diplomatic analysts prefer to keep quiet on the subject.
Maintaining a maximally pragmatic relationship with Poland was a must in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, which line with the newly conservative Poland was maintained before and after Reinsalu's time at the ministry. But there was no such need or prior pragmatic background when it came to Hungary.
Truth be told, Reinsalu's flirt with Hungary made no security policy sense whatsoever. Poland constitutes a land gate into Europe for the Baltics, and we have a gas pipeline and the Suwalki Gap in common with Poland. Estonia has no other choice but to be pragmatic here, and the Foreign Ministry realized as much.
However, backing Hungary and Orban as its leader and going against the rest of Europe in doing so did not hold any security policy logic. While cozying up to Viktor Orban's Hungary seemed like a conscious policy for Isamaa back in the day, it could just as easily have been an inexplicable and self-destructive whim for Reinsalu, like having an affair is for a married man. The only place Hungary could lead Estonia back then, and more so now, is international isolation. By vocally defending Fidesz, Isamaa risked Estonia's international stigmatization back in 2020 and more recently.
Urmas Reinsalu recalls that Isamaa's cooperation with Fidesz at the time was based on the extremely unfortunate public debate of the UN Migration Compact or rather lack thereof. The Hungarians were standing up for themselves which he found sympathetic, and it was the Hungarians' bravado that brought Szijjarto and Reinsalu together and resulted in the former praising the latter on social media.
The friendship ended in the spring of 2022 when the Hungarian foreign minister refused to attend a conference in Tallinn. It was speculated that the reason could have been a social media post by Reinsalu where he criticized Hungary. The Estonian ambassador to Hungary has been summoned over some of Reinsalu's statements since.
The war in Ukraine brought clarity and gave Isamaa the push it needed to sever ties with Fidesz. But the question of the Hungary affair of Estonia's now most popular candidate for the role of prime minister remains. Reinsalu was a lot more focused and sensible in Kaja Kallas' second government. The war gave him clarity and he has continued to be a staunch ally of Ukraine also in the opposition.
But who is Urmas Reinsalu? To better answer that question we need to understand his allied relationship with Orban's Hungary from a few years ago. Reinsalu says that for him there exist two different worlds – the one that ended with Russia's full scale aggression in Ukraine and the one it started. "I'm living in a new world today," he told me over the phone Friday.
But the relevant question lies elsewhere. Namely, how on Earth did he wake up in that new world so late? Why was Urmas Reinsalu so bad at reading the international situation as foreign minister? And finally, how can we be sure Urmas Reinsalu won't go weak at the knees again upon the appearance of another authoritarian father figure?
Editor: Marcus Turovski