Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) leader Mart Helme stated on Wednesday a willingness to be in government with either Reform or Centre, albeit with strings attached. He also spoke on topics affecting the Russian-speaking populace: education and Estonian-Russian relations, as well as potential EKRE Russian-speaking voters.
Whereas EKRE previously stated a desire to go it alone at the Riigikogu (with 51 or more seats of 101), political realities might have contributed to a thawing of attitudes. Reform and Centre are the two biggest parties by number of seats; Centre is the majority coalition party, and EKRE is third largest.
Speaking on ERR's ''Live from the News Building'' (Otse Uudistemajast) on Wednesday morning, Mr. Helme said Centre needs to sever ties with Vladimir Putin's ruling party United Russia before EKRE could consider partnering up in government.
Centre losing Russian support
Centre's traditional Russian-speaking voter base has lately been eroded, with recent polls putting its support at 65% of he sector (down from over 80%). Conversely, Estonian-speaking Centre support has risen.
Mr. Helme added that EKRE would be at odds with any party not committed to eastern border reconstruction work, a project already in progress.
''The lead up to elections is a nervy time, but this should not be the major influence in choosing coalition partners,'' said Mr. Helme.
''Politics should be based on ideas, not personalities; if a new government emerges it needs to be balanced and based on the arc of opinion,'' he went on.
No to SDE
Reiterating comments made earlier in the week, Mr. Helme confirmed the Social Democratic Party (SDE) was one which EKRE unequivocally rejects as a coalition partner.
As to the two biggest parties, both of which he said would depend on other parties in government, Mr. Helme said this:
''There are two types of EKRE supporter. One says 'screw Reform', the other, 'anyone but Centre'''.
''If we view the two halves of EKRE independently, however, we couldn't be in a coalition with anyone, so the question arises: 'What kind of coalition agreement can we have?''' he said.
Border a must-have
''First, it is the border guard who patrol the eastern border – this means we would be in government only with a party which supports the restoration of the eastern border, though this needn't mean building a wall or fence,'' he continued.
Work on Estonia's eastern border demarcation is ongoing and estimated to cost tens of millions.
''Second, Centre would have to annul their agreement with United Russia,'' he said.
Mart Helme in the ERR Newsroom. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR
EKRE turns down many a potential member
Mr. Helme also said that with EKRE's recent upturn in fortunes, many applying to join the party have been turned down.
''We say to a lot of people, 'thanks, but no thanks'; we do not need their help. That said, [historian] Jaak Valge just join the party, and this Saturday we will announce our newest candidate – a woman this time – but you have to wait until then to find out who,'' he said.
In addition to personalities, Mr. Helme said people could expect new policies in taxation and health care.
"We will present our tax policy plan on October 3, including plans on excise duties, VAT and fringe benefits taxation,'' he went on, stating that this includes possible sources of tax revenues.
Party hurt by recent ratings
Whilst EKRE support has seen growth in recent months, latest polls commissioned by ERR revealed a drop of about 2%, something which Mr. Helme actually welcomed.
''I have said it is best our support has not risen further. The atmosphere at many party meetings saw people somewhat on cloud nine, thinking the support rise could continue indefinitely and unhindered. However, we now see more work is needed. Members need to bring their message to voters more strongly and engage with those groups which have hitherto been neglected,'' he said.
When asked whether the current drift of Russian-speaking voters from Centre could work to EKRE's benefit, Mr. Helme confirmed that they were a potential untapped source.
Picking up Russian voters?
''Russian people in Estonia are often very conservative and this 'homosexual propaganda' is anathema to many of them – I actually told [education minister] Mailis Reps (Centre), when the subject of school textbooks and the 'homosexual agenda' came up, that I would be informing Russian-speaking Centre voters about it,'' he said.
''This overlap in attitudes also applies to immigration, plus the issue of cheap labour from Ukraine driving down the already-low wages of many Russian people living in Estonia,'' he continued, adding that what is passed-off as 'innovation' in the entrepreneurial field is actually the result of lower wages to maintain competitiveness.
Mr. Helme also responded to criticism of comments made in a studio broadcast with daily Postimees, where he referred to Russian civilisation, saying these were not only his words, but those of US political scientist Samuel P. Huntington.
''Read Huntington – he breaks down Christian civilisation into two halves, the Orthodox half which Russia is a part of, and the 'Latin' half, including Estonia,'' he said.
Estonian-Russian relations can normalise over time
Mr. Helme added that a 'normal conversation' could not take place in Estonian-Russian relations until the latter gets over its imperialist legacy, which doesn't mean Estonia should recognise the Crimean or eastern Ukrainian occupations, in order to get started.
At the same time, Estonia should take a leaf out of Finland's book in dealing with its eastern neighbour, and not parlay up every minor incident into a drama, he said.
Finland pursued a neutrality policy during the cold war, even engaging in censorship on what was published about the Soviet Union, and is still not a NATO member.
Mart Helme is one of six EKRE members of parliament. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR
Education can't move solely into Estonian overnight
Transferring education in Estonia into the Estonian language alone, a pet policy of the Reform Party, was another topic covered.
Many Russian-majority schools teach the bulk of their subjects in the Russian language, though this depends on the age group, location etc.
"We can completely switch to education in Estonian when we have enough Estonian teachers, textbooks etc. and not before. If the Reform Party wants to make the switch to Estonian-only, why did they not do it in the 17 years they were in power? Yes, the education system in the Estonian language the right thing to do, but the prerequisites must be fulfilled first,'' he argued.
Mixed classes don't work
Mr. Helme added he opposed the 'mixed nationality classes' proposed by Mailis Reps and backed by President Kersti Kaljulaid.
"This is yet another melange. Estonian parents will take their children away from schools which are 50-50 Estonian/Russian, or less (in the case of the Estonian component), which will merely create new problems for them,'' he said.
The general election is on 3 March 2019.
Editor: Andrew Whyte