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Estonia’s image, elections and our role abroad

How does Estonia rate among non-Estonians abroad? For years, quite consistently Estonia has been ranked highly as cyber-savvy, with a public service completely digitized and prevalent in hi-tech outfits. It’s also seen as strong in education, honouring press freedom and providing good quality of life.

Laas Leivat, toimetaja
Laas Leivat, editor

In reference to history, in Western media today, Estonians still “sang their way to freedom” over 30 years ago. If we take the singing as an image of resilience and tenacity overcoming decades of repression, Estonia’s reputation abroad arouses pride and connectedness in all of us.

While Estonians abroad (as opposed to non-Estos) indicate very similar positive aspects of Estonia’s image, they also identify certain perceived negative characteristics.

In a 2021 study commissioned by the Foreign and Interior Ministries, an opinion poll of 2,250 Estonian ex-pats answered the question: “Please could you name one person or fact related to Estonia which characterizes Estonia for you in a positive or negative way.”

More than one third of the respondents expressly named populist and/or far right politics and specifically right-wing politicians as negative features in Estonia. This by far, outranked any other negative aspect identified. EKRE was specifically mentioned, in every instance, when this writer asked poll participants what they considered “far-right populism” to be.

Ranked as the most positively perceived aspect in Estonia was ex-President Kersti Kaljulaid and the presidency as an institution. A noteworthy consistency in this research is immediately apparent – Kersti Kaljulaid was the target of sharp derision from the very far-right, the political group which Estonians abroad see as harming the country’s image.

Why is the outward image of Estonia important during this election campaign? Observers have stated that more than any other political development, the far-right has been the root cause of political polarization, in a similar fashion to many of the same ilk in Europe, including the U.S. These are groupings with which EKRE enthusiastically quotes online, mimics and with which it retains ties.

Supporters of Ukraine’s tenacious resistance to Russia see this polarization as leading to a dangerous Western disunity. This can be seen sadly in the deliberate anti-Ukraine statements of Trump’s Republican acolytes, who promote the withdrawal of US support, and the insistence of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, whom EKRE supports, that sanctions against Russia should be reduced. And so on.

We are thus bewildered by the seeming discrepancy between EKRE’s official anti-Kremlin stance and its position through its ‘Uued Uudised’ online voice. That obvious inconsistency is evidenced by EKRE’s constant bad-mouthing of the current solidly pro-Ukraine US presidency and supporting the opposition among whom are obvious anti-Ukraine politicians. This is playing straight into Putin’s playbook. The deeper the political polarization in the West, the more emboldened Russia becomes.

Although EKRE’s popularity varies month to month, its ratings have scored consistently among the top two or three. There has been no determined opposition organized recently, that has taken on EKRE’s policies directly. The “Yes to freedom. No to lies” movement in 2019, represented by mainly younger Estonians, was protesting the possibility of EKRE being invited to join a government coalition. Their warning failed.

Another movement of younger activists, “Estonians for all”, gained even wider support by insisting that they weren’t against EKRE, but for Estonia’s shared values. “We stand together for freedoms.” However, they claimed to combat the root cause of Estonia’s growing political polarization which was clearly engendered by the far-right.

EKRE has claimed to be the protector of a “strong national identity” and all this entails. But Tunne Kelam, recognized for genuine patriotism, political integrity and decency, and his commitment to Estonian unity, has put it very succinctly for the current election campaign. Vote for Estonia’s basic values, not for the populism of EKRE. Reject the constant denigration of others. More than anything, we need national unity. In essence, we’re in World War Three. Thus unity among the European Union and maintaining a firm pro-Ukrainian stance is now of crucial importance. In contrast, the EU has been a favourite whipping boy of EKRE and the European far-right. At this early stage of the election contest, some Estonian pundits have noticed that foreign policy/national security as one main priority in all of the parties’ platforms, except for EKRE’s. Voters abroad will most likely not be able to make the right choice among the domestic issues such as inflation, education, health care etc. But Estonia, as perceived on the world stage, and its security from an aggressive neighbour, are issues we grasp. We’ll use our vote as our hearts and minds direct us.

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