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Sildam: Officials right to ask questions when in doubt of government

Toomas Sildam.
Toomas Sildam. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

A public comment of a high-ranking Estonian diplomat points to a certain aimlessness of Estonia's foreign policy. This is immediately followed by another spat between different camps in government, with pro-European ministers on one side of the table, and nationalist-populist troublemakers on the other. Which begs the question who is really in charge, writes ERR's political editor, Toomas Sildam.

Thank you, Matti Maasikas. Somebody had to ask what the values are of the foreign policy of Jüri Ratas' second government. What's left to us now is to wonder what sort of glue is still holding this government together.

Because values are the keyword here.

For Matti Maasikas, the Undersecretary for European Affairs and one of Estonia's most outstanding diplomats, EKRE interior minister Mart Helme's comparison of the EU to the Soviet Union was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Helme, who is also the chairman of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), wrote on July 23 in his congratulations to the new British prime minister that "The Estonian people remember the difficulties they had to overcome to leave a union they never wanted to join." With it, he alluded to the restoration of Estonia's independence 28 years ago, when the Baltic states finally made it out of almost half a century of Soviet occupation.

Boris Johnson supports Britain's leaving the European Union, however difficult it may be. Which prompted Helme to write to him that "Choosing one's own way never comes without sacrifice. (…) I'm always happy to share the experiences that Eastern Europe has to offer trying to regain its sovereignty."

Whether or not Brexit champion Boris Johnson needs advice from the EKRE chairman, or if he would be interested in Estonia's experience getting out of the grasp of the Soviet Union, I don't know. But what is for certain is that Estonia's diplomats and officials needed an explanation.

Maasikas, on the way to Kiev as the head of an EU delegation, summed up the confusion about the current government's foreign policy course in two sentences on Twitter.

"A member of the Government of the Republic is comparing the EU to the Soviet Union," Maasikas tweeted, tagging Ratas and Reinsalu. "Our diplomats are finding it increasingly difficult to say that policy has not changed."

Maasikas as well as plenty of his colleagues have spent decades building Estonia's armor, which today is held together by taking allied relations into account, by common values and the wish to strengthen both the EU and NATO.

Now this is all becoming vague and unclear. The Estonian minister of the interior doesn't care about the fact that Estonia joined one union by democratic referendum, and was forced into another at the threat of war.

But to Matti Maasikas, as well as to plenty others, there is a big difference. And so, after Maasikas' tweet, all hell had to break loose.

Prime Minister Ratas didn't have any other choice but to go against Minister of the Interior Helme. Since back in November 2016, when the Social Democrats together with Isamaa pushed the Reform Party into opposition and opened up the government to the Centre Party, Ratas has been reiterating his party's commitment to Europeanism. And he has done so successfully, in fact.

The eurosceptic, anti-refugee, and homophobic upper echelons of EKRE are destroying this image, with white supremacy gestures in the Riigikogu, and also when their minister of finance, Martin Helme, resorted to a veto in a discussion about the European Stability Mechanism that Prime Minister then had to take back the next day. Or when EKRE hosted French extremist politician Marine Le Pen, who while in Tallinn was protected by state bodyguards, working for the Ministry of the Interior (under Mart Helme; ed.).

On top of it all, Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) has been using Estonia's foreign policy arena to score points for his own party, which at less than 10 percent approval is still in the doldrums in terms of its popularity. The recently signed pact against the United Nations' migration compact, signed with his Polish and Hungarian counterparts, is just the latest step, the first having been to bar Estonian ambassadors from being part to causes in their respective countries defending the rights of sexual minorities.

So far, they had been allowed to do that. But no longer, not even when the British and American ambassadors do it, and march in Pride parades.

"Naturally, elections have consequences, just as Barack Obama said. I like that quote. With changing foreign ministers, the emphasis on different topics changes as well. We wouldn't be in a democratic state if everything just continued on irrespective of the outcome of the elections. We'd see stagnation, a state based on its bureaucracy," Reinsalu explained its point of view in a recent interview with ERR.

But where is Estonia headed, anyway?

What is happening right now is the first time plenty of current as well as former officials, who have served Estonia loyally and believed in the country, don't understand anymore where the government is taking the country at all.

For Ratas, these statements must be painful to read. More painful than ironic comments about the government's inability to find €100,000 to keep Narva's Alexander Church from falling apart, and that it will have to pick up the topic again in the fall. Now, to keep Estonia on its foreign policy course, Ratas is between a rock and a hard place—with Reinsalu on one side, and the Helmes on the other.

The latter have said publicly that the Centre Party needn't apologize for EKRE. And Ratas didn't apologize for the EU-USSR comparison, but quite clearly shot back, and also did so publicly.

"We have no reason whatsoever to look for comparisons to the European Union in history. They would be artificial or simply false," the prime minister wrote on social media, responding to his own interior minister.

The exchange of words isn't over, of course. And, as we well know, politicians' words are politicians' deeds.

Minister of Finance Martin Helme, also EKRE's deputy chairman, wrote in response to Ratas that "There is nothing scandalous in comparing the Soviet Union and the European Union. In both cases, only one 'correct' (clearly leftist) ideology applies, and opponents of this ideology are considered enemies that must be repressed; the exit of both unions has been declared unthinkable."

And so on.

And then, getting personal, to Matti Maasikas: "What is scandalous, however, is how a civil servant presents questions to ministers in a demanding, downright threatening tone and from a superior position. Who do you think you are? We are in the government precisely to put an end to such governance!"

Good to know then, Minister, that EKRE wants to silence officials, make them politically subservient and take their confidence away to keep them from expressing their professional opinion.

Where the EU is concerned, it's true that more than 20 percent of Estonians don't support our state's membership in the union. This means that more than 70 percent do. We aren't in a dictatorship where a minority prescribes what's to be done, or are we?

A few hours later, the prime minister also rose to the defense of Undersecretary Maasikas. "Estonia is lucky to have such officials," Ratas wrote.

The prime minister was quicker to stand up for officials' freedom of speech, opinion, and the right to ask questions than both President Kersti Kaljulaid and Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu. In all honesty, had Ratas not said what he did, Maasikas would have been left out in the cold.

Because: "Who do you think you are?" Remember?

Ratas, in his support of Maasikas, tried to express one very important principle. And that is that an honest official also "needs to have the opportunity to discuss questions and problems of public administration politely, impartially, and in a well-argued manner. Also in public, if that's what's needed. Also with politicians, if that's what's needed. This is why I'm grateful for all those public servants who are dedicated to their jobs, do them honestly, and whose heart goes out to our country."

What we don't know is if this is to remain the prime minister's personal point of view, or government policy—and whether or not EKRE's leaders will grant officials the right to publicly discuss politics.

The latter seems doubtful. Former justice at the European Court of Human Rights, Uno Lõhmus, said a few days ago how the statements of EKRE's leaders really have very little to do with freedom of speech, how they create tensions instead of working with others, both between institutions as well as in the democratic functioning of Estonian society, and in government as well as between the government and Estonia's citizens.

The Helmes promised at the time of the last parliamentary election that they would shape Estonian politics according to their own agenda. Few believed it. But when the prime minister came back this week from a visit to a small island, he found TV cameras waiting for him, and once again had to point out that the work of the Estonian government is based on the current coalition agreement—which, incidentally, supports EU membership.

But if one member party to this agreement chooses to opt for a different direction, what then?

We don't know. Like we don't know what exactly the glue is that is still holding this government together.

Estonia's foreign policy has become more confusing, internally as well as for the outside world it has become difficult to understand what exactly it is. If we assume that in international questions, we have pro-European Prime Minister Ratas and Defence Minister Jüri Luik on one side of the table, and on the other side EKRE's leaders along with Urmas Reinsalu, trying to steer the country on a populist course aligning it with the Visegrád states, who is really in charge of Estonia's foreign policy?

Who is really in charge?

We don't know.


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Editor: Dario Cavegn

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