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A nation must think before it acts.
Estonia’s relations with neighboring Finland have been unsettled by late July’s announcement that the country’s ambassador in Helsinki, Harri Tiido, resigned. Tiido cited difficulties in maintaining strong cooperation between Estonia and Finland due to a string of controversial statements attributed to outgoing chairman of the far-right populist Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), Mart Helme. While the global COVID-19 crisis has diverted focus, this controversy links back to December 2019 when Helme, Estonia’s 70-year-old minister of interior, participated in a radio discussion where he disparaged Finland’s newly elected prime minister, 34-year-old Sanna Marin, as a “cashier.” Helme followed this with a denouncement of Marin’s Social Democratic Party, which he said leads Finland’s governing coalition as “reds” “desperately trying to liquidate Finland.” The former is a bizarre reference to Marin’s student job before she obtained a master’s degree and embarked on her political career, the latter has warped connotations with the Finnish Civil War in 1918.
The diplomatic consequences of Helme’s comments continue to linger, with Tiido arguing: “When diplomats have to ask for some support from Finland, it’s really difficult to go to the Finns after those kinds of statements.” The senior Estonian diplomat’s public criticism of his government has caused considerable domestic controversy, but Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu has refuted Tiido’s claim, saying that relations between Tallinn and Helsinki remain strong at a ministerial level and that “inappropriate statements from last year have not harmed [Estonia’s relationship with Finland], though these [statements] could have been left unsaid.” Despite this, Tiido’s serious claim that EKRE “are reducing, or have already reduced, Estonia’s room for maneuver internationally” is a troubling assessment that requires deeper scrutiny.
Estonia’s relations with Finland sometimes resemble an unrequited love story. Reinforced by linguistic similarity, it is not uncommon for Estonian leaders to refer to a “special relationship” between the two countries. Tallinn perceives a close security partnership between Finland and NATO as further benefiting Estonia’s security. Estonia’s “total defense” system, which relies on the large-scale mobilization of military reserve components and civil society to support territorial security, is modeled on the system initially developed by Finland from the Winter War (1939-1940) onwards. Enthusiasm to more closely factor Estonian concerns into Finnish security policy has not been as strong on Helsinki’s side. While welcoming broader regional security dialogue, Finnish governments have sometimes interpreted Estonian encouragement on closer Finnish-NATO cooperation as “too pushy” and out of step with Helsinki’s more cautious management of relations with Russia.
Coming on top of other controversies, the saga leading from Helme’s comments to Tiido’s resignation risks compounding doubts in Helsinki on deepening foreign policy cooperation with Estonia. While most mundane diplomatic matters progress satisfactorily, Estonia-Finland relations have still experienced some uncomfortable moments over recent years. For example, in 2015, Estonia’s then Foreign Minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus took an unusually heavy-handed decision to officially summon Finland’s ambassador to Estonia. The move was in response to comments from Finland’s Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, who argued Estonia had left its society exposed to Russian propaganda by “failing to offer news in Russian.” (This was incorrect, as Estonia’s public broadcaster has long provided Russian language news programs on TV, radio and online — an effort furthered by the dedicated Russian language ETV+ channel launched in 2015.).
Conversely, during the COVID-19 crisis, the Estonian government’s expectations of Finnish solidarity were publically dashed when Tallinn expressed its disappointment that Estonian citizens working in Finland were not afforded special treatment and allowed to cross the border for employment purposes. Helsinki restricted international entry until late spring 2020, despite a long-standing tradition of employment mobility from Estonia. With these disappointments and controversies in mind, contrary to an ambitious “special relationship” in foreign policy based on ever-closer national friendship, some propose that a “new realism” focused on mutual strategic and economic calculations should instead be the platform to develop Estonia-Finland relations.
As a NATO member fulfilling the alliance obligation to spend 2% of GDP on defense, Estonia had consistently been referred to as a “model NATO ally” before EKRE’s entry to the country’s governing coalition in 2019. Until recently, there was little serious discussion on any alternative to Estonia’s long-term NATO policy, which routinely emphasizes a shared commitment to liberal values as a crucial basis for alliance solidarity. Estonia perceives this liberal values-based system as differentiating NATO members from Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian politics in Russia. Explaining some recent and surprising deviations from this narrative, political sociologist Tõnis Saarts interprets EKRE’s rise as at least a partial “revolt against the [liberal] West.” Some Western societies have lately favored enhanced social liberalization, embracing multiculturalism, gender equality and legalized same-sex marriage. Saarts argues that significant conservative sections in East European societies within the EU and NATO are not yet willing to accept the same liberal transformation.
Perceiving ideological convergence, some among Eastern Europe’s nationalist leaders view the Trump administration as an ally more likely than Western European partners to accommodate their security concerns. During Estonia’s 2019 general election, EKRE included the audacious campaign promise that it would seek to secure “billions” in additional defense funding from Washington for Estonia. This fanciful claim came from Leo Kunnas, EKRE’s unsuccessful candidate for the minister of defense position, and offers some indication of EKRE’s preference for exclusive bilateral US-Estonia defense cooperation, perhaps envisaging that more engagement with Washington might marginalize some more liberal NATO governments. This worldview contrasts with Estonia’s long-term security policy consensus perceiving relations with Washington as vital, but still always encouraging support for NATO’s collective action. As a far-right party in a governing coalition with the more moderate Centre and Isamaa Parties, EKRE’s inconsistent outlook risks provoking unnecessary friction with those already supporting Estonia’s security. As NATO has evolved its Readiness Action Plan (RAP) to the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), US military rotations stationed in Poland have been reinforced by European and Canada contributions to NATO battlegroups in the Baltic states. European allies dominate the rotations for NATO’s Baltic Air Policing.
Estonia is a recipient of security produced in NATO’s multinational context, thus some contributing European allies might react with disappointment should they perceive EKRE criticism as directed at them. With Germany as the most prominent target, EKRE’s leadership has repeatedly criticized European NATO allies on immigration policy in particular. Some of this has also found its way into Mart Helme’s remarks casting doubt on Estonia’s NATO engagement strategy. Before entering government, in 2018 Helme boasted that once Estonia improves its own independent defense capability, Tallinn will be in a better position to ignore the advice of its allies. He added that: “A state that hangs all its defense-related hopes on allies is also a toy in their allies’ hands.” Referencing political challenges largely beyond NATO’s remit, Helme justified these remarks with the dubious claim that right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland are in a stronger position to refuse EU refugee quotas because both are less dependent on NATO allies for security assistance. The 2015 European immigration crisis started a tense legacy in Estonian politics, but these comments surprisingly contradict the “never again alone” principle that has dominated Estonia’s security policy since the restoration of independence in 1991. Weak military alliances are blamed for the country’s loss of sovereignty during World War II and the Soviet period.
Responding to French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments on NATO becoming “brain dead” in late 2019, Helme astonished many when he elaborated that a “Plan B” for regional collective defense “was being prepared” by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland as an alternative to NATO provisions. This provoked surprise in Helsinki, with Finland’s Ministry of Defense publishing an official statement outlining that it was unaware of any such plan. Helme later claimed that his comments were “misinterpreted,” nevertheless the mea culpa that his ministry issued was far from a ringing NATO endorsement, containing the line that an “independent people and state [Estonia] must also be capable of defending themselves in a situation in which international security guarantees for some reason don’t function.” Inside Estonia’s government, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre Party) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Reinsalu (Isamaa) reacted to these remarks by affirming Estonia’s unwavering support for NATO.
Before EKRE’s rise, Estonia was the “model ally” among the Baltic countries. Latvia and Lithuania have not been rocked by the same far-right populist influence. While maintaining consistent approval for strong EU-US relations and NATO, Riga and Vilnius perceive the unpredictable and confused security discourses coming from the Estonian government with concern. Were further loose statements from EKRE to risk increased friction with some NATO members, strategic proximity would inevitably lead Latvian and Lithuanian policymakers to grow more anxious that they might also be affected by any resulting controversy. As EKRE has surged in popularity and entered government, populist statements from within the party’s ranks have created a series of unnecessary risks for Estonia’s security relations with other Baltic states, with Finland and within NATO. Recent experience certainty gives weight to Ambassador Tiido’s parting claim that the far-right party has indeed reduced Estonia’s “room to maneuver.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.