Estonia’s Hawk

In Europe, the face of steely resolve is female. While Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron are ridiculed for their supposed weakness and unreliability, Sanna Marin of Finland and Annalena Baerbock of Germany are celebrated as the conscience of the continent, unflinching in response to Russian aggression. This formula – female, youthful, telegenic, hawkish, neoliberal, no-nonsense – has proven remarkably successful since February 2022. The concept of ‘feminist foreign policy’, first introduced by Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs almost a decade ago, has recently been adopted by Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, and is currently gaining traction in Northern Europe. Countries long associated with antinuclear peace activism are now embracing a rebranded militarism.  

The same pattern played out in Estonia’s general election on 5 March, when the incumbent Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and her centre-right Reform Party secured a decisive victory, netting 31% of the vote and increasing their seat share from 34 to 37. Kallas has become an icon of the new feminist Atlanticism: styling herself ‘Europe’s Iron Lady’, demanding Putin’s prosecution for war crimes, encouraging world leaders to break off dialogue with him, and steadfastly opposing any peace settlement in Ukraine (while also telling the Times that ‘if women were in charge, there would be less violence’). Under Kallas, Estonia has given roughly $400 million in aid to Kyiv – about 50% of its current annual defence budget. In terms of its population to GDP ratio, Estonia’s aid contribution has been greater than that of any other nation. And as of last month, some 43,000 Ukrainian refugees had applied for temporary protection status, making Estonia the recipient of the largest number of Ukrainian refugees per capita. 

While Kallas has come to embody the determined female leader uncowed by the Kremlin’s strongman, this hasn’t changed much for women in Estonia. The country’s gender pay gap remains the second largest in the EU, with the average per-hour wage for women 21% lower than for men. The country also has the highest inflation in the trading bloc, peaking at 25.2% in August. Such factors have been exploited by the right-populist Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), the loudest opponent of Kallas’s foreign policy, whose election campaign argued that gargantuan military aid was undermining Estonia’s national interests while the influx of refugees was eroding its identity. Early election polling indicated that they were resonating with voters. Yet, last month, Politico published an article alleging that Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group had planned to carry out ‘influence operations’ in support of the EKRE ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections – as part of a broader attempt to ‘stir Euroskepticism and distrust toward NATO’. This accusation dented the party’s popularity in the run-up to the recent national vote. In the end, the EKRE undershot expectations and received just 16%.

Kallas’s triumph coincided with Estonia’s first majority ‘e-vote’. Out of a total of 615,009 votes, an impressive 313,514 were cast online (prompting a fierce debate between the government and EKRE over the accuracy and constitutionality of the election). For the liberal parties, this was a step forward for Estonia’s much vaunted ‘digital society’. Since it gained independence in 1991, the country has launched an array of digital public services, including e-tax filing, e-residency, e-signatures, e-prescriptions and digital IDs. The libertarian ethos of ‘e-Estonia’ (the country has a flat income tax rate) has elicited praise from the expected corners; the Cato Institute calls it ‘the country of the future’. It aims to mark a rupture with the nation’s Soviet past, building an entrepreneurial paradise from the ruins of technological obsolescence. By fusing this modernizing project with a hyper-Atlanticist disposition, Kallas has made herself the face of the twenty-first-century Estonian consensus, aligning her country with the enlightened West.

Yet Estonia still shares a 383km border with Russia, and about a quarter of its 1.3 million people are ethnic Russians. In northeastern Ida-Viru County, home to Estonia’s third-largest city of Narva, ethnic Russians comprise about three quarters of the population. This has made the area a site of long-running tension. NATO has warned of a ‘Narva Scenario’ in which Russia may seek to exploit existing ethnic fissures, or even annex Estonian territory, in a bid to project its westward influence. In December, Kallas passed a law outlining a full transition to Estonian-only education, to be implemented in 2024: a move that critics described as ‘forced assimilation’. The government also removed a WWII monument of a Soviet tank from Narva and arrested eight of the city’s residents last summer, supposedly to prevent ‘mass disturbances’. The politics of historic monuments are particularly raw in Estonia. In April 2007, unrest broke out in response to government plans to relocate a bronze statue of a Red Army soldier in Tallinn. An intense period of rioting, looting and arson – known as the ‘Bronze Nights’ – left 156 injured and one dead. 

Over the past year, the Russian minority population has grown increasingly disengaged from mainstream Estonian politics. Many citizens of the former industrial heartland – which has the highest unemployment rate in the country – have been alienated by Kallas’s hawkish approach. In March, the lowest voter turnout was recorded in Ida-Viru county, where the candidate for the pro-Russia United Left Party, the successor of the Estonian Communist Party, performed exceptionally well. The party’s total vote share increased from just 510 in 2019 to 14,605: ‘a very clear warning sign’, according to Narva’s Social Democratic mayor Katri Raik, who added that ‘the alarm bell should be ringing.’ For now, Kallas may have beaten her electoral rivals and consolidated support for the NATO war effort. But a significant section of the population does not share her vision, and attempts to forcibly integrate them into the Atlanticist paradise of e-Estonia may provoke a backlash.

Read on: Joachim Becker, ‘Europe’s Other Periphery’, NLR 99.