Nino Chanadiri, Contributing Analyst
On March 5, 2023, Estonia held parliamentary elections, a fact of significant importance not only for Estonia, but also for Ukraine and the wider Eastern European region. The election was characterized by a competition between the Reform Party, represented by the current Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who became strongly associated with unconditional support for Ukraine, and the Conservative Peoples’ Party of Estonia (shortened to EKRE in Estonian), which is known to be a far-right populist party. The Reform Party secured its victory in the elections and will form a coalition with other parties with liberal views in Parliament. Why is this victory important not only for Estonia but also for Ukraine? And what does it mean for wider Eastern Europe?
The period before the elections was characterized by uncertainty about who would form the future government, because, according to the final polls, the difference between those supporting the Reform Party and those ready to vote for EKRE was small. There was a chance that rising support for EKRE could result in them taking the amount of votes needed to enable them to form a coalition with other parties, namely the Center Party. The Center Party, which is popular among Russian speakers in Estonia, looked to be coming in at third place. It had suggested continuing with the existing bilingual educational system and allowing students a choice to study in Russian at school, yet the Reform Party supported a fully Estonian language education. In the previous elections in 2019, the Center Party, the second largest in the 2019 parliament, formed a coalition with EKRE.
This time, the polls showed that EKRE’s support was greater than the Center Party’s. This meant that, should EKRE make a coalition, they would appoint a Prime Minister from among their own lines. This left many in and outside Estonia worried. EKRE is a far-right party whose leaders have made statements against free media, the EU’s influence on Estonia, as well as displaying a number of racist and anti-LGBTQI leanings. Further, some members have made statements against the Government of Ukraine in the ongoing war, directly repeating Russian propaganda messages against President Zelensky. This raised concerns about EKRE’s Russian links, seeing the party accused of spreading Russian anti-EU disinformation narratives, and not for the first time.
EKRE claimed that not the entire party shares anti-Ukrainian views; that it supports Ukraine yet remains pro-peace. However, they have campaigned against increasing military support to Kyiv and accepting more Ukrainian refugees in Estonia, while stressing the need for Estonia not to escalate tensions with Moscow further. EKRE has accused Estonia’s government of reducing Estonia’s defense capabilities by sending weapons to Ukraine. The accusations have been called “lies” by the defense forces of the country.
In light of the influence of the current war on European security, foreign policy played an important role in the Estonian elections. Estonia’s population perceives the war in Ukraine as a significant risk to security. The need to support Ukraine is seen as being in the national interests of Estonia, whose rival is the same entity – Russia. The majority of Estonians are also positive towards taking in Ukrainian refugees. Thus, it can be assumed that the population took the foreign policy stands of the parties into consideration when voting.
The election results showed that even though EKRE is the second biggest party in the parliament now, the coalition will be formed by the winner of the elections – the liberal and pro-Ukrainian Reform Party, with 31.2%, which is an improved result compared to previous elections.
Source: Politico (https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/estonia/)
The leader of the party and the Prime Minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas, has already invited other liberal parties like the Social Democrats and Estonia (Eesti) 200 into coalition talks.
Ukraine and wider Eastern Europe: Continued support and weakening Russian influence
“If Ukraine fell, freedom would also be in danger in other parts of the world. By helping Ukraine to defend its independence, we are defending the right to freedom and democracy of all countries, including Estonia.”
Since the beginning of the war, Estonia has been contributing to Ukraine by sending all sorts of aid, including humanitarian, military and also diplomatic and political. It is possible to assume that public support for the Reform Party is partially constituted by its foreign policy against Russia, a country which is Estonia’s historical enemy. The Estonian government has stood out in the international arena throughout this war with its linear statements, benefiting the country’s position among the Western partners. With the Reform Party securing victory in the elections, it is highly likely that the strong support for Ukraine will continue, especially when backed as it is by the majority of Estonia’s citizens.
Another importance of the Estonian elections is its effect on weakening Russia’s influence in the wider region of Eastern Europe. Russia has been funding and encouraging far-right and openly or secretly pro-Russian forces in many Eastern European countries for years. Now, alongside the war, for Russia it is critical that these forces remain strong and continue weakening the countries from the inside, contributing as they do to societal divisions. Not allowing these forces to undermine European values in the countries targeted by Russia, to weaken the collective Western unity and limit support to Ukraine, is now crucial for regional security.
The 2023 parliamentary elections in Estonia were of not only local but also regional importance. With Estonian society making its choice clear, it is safe to say that Estonia will continue to be a role model when it comes to the fight against Russian aggression. The Reform Party’s victory over the far-right, populist EKRE secured Estonia’s place among the supporters of Ukraine. At the same time, it secured a place for the liberal party in the government. Keeping liberal, more democratic governments in Eastern Europe, which still constitutes a target of Russian imperial desires and its hybrid war, can only be beneficial for regional security.