The budding nationalist movements in Europe have inevitably drawn descriptions like “inspired by Donald Trump” and/or “Russia-friendly.” That kind of shorthand does not accurately convey the diversity of the landscape across the continent.
Take Estonia, for example, where a new far-right party is rapidly gaining steam. These anti-immigration advocates don’t conform to the current narratives.
Let’s delve briefly into the background of the country itself. Estonia did not gain its independence until 1918 with the end of World War I and the collapse of the Russian Empire. It then endured 20 years under an authoritarian regime, was undermined by the actions of the German Frankish bodies, the growing power of communist factions, and a number of fascist movements. Estonia, along with the other Baltic countries, was then invaded by the Soviet Union and occupied by the Nazis from 1941 to 1944. World War II was followed by 40 years of communism.*
Mart Laar, an admirer of the late Milton Friedman who served as prime minister from 1992-94 and 1999-2002 , managed to free the country from the shackles of economic interventionism and leave Estonia in better standing than most of the ex-communist countries in Europe. The country is a leader in the tech world, having digitized most of its bureaucratic procedures, and a breeding ground for startups and tech giants.
Estonia is a member of the European Union and NATO and its capital, Tallinn, is only about 200 miles from the Russian city of Saint Petersburg. It is home to a large Russian minority that either gains citizenship and proceeds to vote for political parties favorable toward the Russian Federation or stays out of the political process.
But the population isn’t only concerned about having Russia at its immediate doorstep. Surveys show that, despite being a country with low immigration numbers, Estonians are the least accepting of migrants. This is the sentiment on which the EKRE, Estonia’s “Conservative People’s Party,” is capitalizing. In March, the nationalist party tripled its 2015 election result, forcing centrist Prime Minister Jüri Ratas to include them in a three-party coalition.
EKRE Minister of Finance Martin Helme has been quoted saying things such as “If you’re black, go back,” and calling for a “white Estonia.” His father, Mart Helme, who is now minister of interior, complained that the “number of negroes in Tallinn has grown explosively” and said of LGBT parades that he does not see why “the police should guard a parade of perverts.” Father and son are happy to troll international media by showing the “O.K” sign in parliament. The association of this gesture as a “white power” symbol initially started as an internet joke and is now used by these kind of parties to mock journalists.
EKRE is certainly not a mouthpiece for the Russian government. Estonia suffered significantly during Soviet occupation and it’s difficult to find locals who do not consider Moscow an imminent threat. This is why the country keeps close ties with the United States and NATO, worried that the West might leverage its position in the Baltics for a more stable relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Citizens fear that the seizure of Crimea and parts of Ukraine by Russia could be repeated in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.hat Donald Trump has made a habit of downplaying the Russia threat certainly doesn’t placate the concerns of Estonian voters or “inspire” them to follow him.
The same goes for comparisons with Marine Le Pen or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán: both France and Hungary have seen an increasing number of migrants over the past years, resulting in undeniable cultural clashes. Estonia, on the other hand, has had only 13,000 immigrants in the last year (with almost 7,000 people emigrating) and by Pew Research estimates will not exceed a Muslim population of 2,000 by 2030. It’s hard to say of what type of immigration EKRE voters are truly afraid. It is possible that the party is merely surfing a wave of anti-PC sentiment and cultivating a sense of doing something forbidden and edgy when casting one’s vote for an anti-establishment force.
Ultimately, Estonia is very unlikely to give up its ties with the rest of the Europe as those nations guarantee the country’s independence.
France’s nationalism, under the Le Pen brand and her party the National Rally (former National Front), is expressed through a rejection of immigration, but a nuanced approach to the Euro and the European Union. Recent years had shown that it just did not work as a selling point. Polish nationalism is expressed through conservative Catholic “back-to-roots” sentiments, and a distrust of both the West and the East simultaneously. While France’s nationalism is cultural, Poland’s brand of nationalism is religious. Estonia’s EKRE party seems to fall into the category of ethnic nationalism.
It is important to draw concrete distinctions between the different nationalist movements in Europe. The fact that some of them do, indeed, cooperate in places like the European Parliament does not mean that they hold the same positions or follow the same playbook. It is important to understand the motivations of the both the parties and their voters before casting broad judgement in order to accurately address their claims.
The different branches of nationalism will stand united during the upcoming European elections. As time goes on, however, these young parties will vie for increased political power. It will be interesting to observe the results of this struggle.
Correction, May 17, 2019: This article originally stated that Estonia lived through 70 years of communism, not 40.