The bout between Minister of Finance Martin Helme (EKRE) and Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center) over support for human rights organizations should reach its culmination on Friday when Kiik and fellow Centrist minister Jaak Aab aim to put the matter to bed.
“The finance minister went over my head in this case,” Kiik said regarding the finance ministry’s decision from a week ago to have the State Support Services Center (RTK) freeze funding for equal opportunities and gender equality projects from gambling tax proceeds.
The three NGOs affected are in the administrative area of the social minister and the move took Kiik by surprise. “I believe I last talked to the finance minister about this in February when we had a correspondence over the National Audit Office’s report where we explained our positions and told them [the finance ministry] existing so-called partnership relations would be retained until the end of the financing period,” Kiik said.
The dispute concerning equality projects funding saw Kiik deliver an ultimatum on Thursday for funding to be restored by 3 p.m. on Friday at the latest. Minister of Finance Martin Helme stood his ground during the government’s press conference on Thursday and said he does not plan to comply. Helme believes the money cannot come from gambling tax revenue.
“Nothing will happen tomorrow (today – ed.). The world will not end and Tanel will not go on hunger strike. Nothing will happen, we are just arguing,” Helme explained. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas said that if the state has made a promise, it needs to be kept.
Tanel Kiik said that Helme’s blessing is not needed to pay out the sums as the State Support Services Center answers to Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab (Center) instead.
A can of worms
Aab said on Thursday that should Helme and Kiik fail to find a solution, he will have to sort things out himself. “It’s a shame the finance ministry did not come to me before sending that letter,” Aab said regarding the decision to pull financing.
He admits that the matter is a real tangle. “Both are right to an extent,” Aab said, adding that the finance minister is in his rights to exercise control over use of tax proceeds. On the other hand, legitimate expectation has been created for the NGOs, which is why the state should continue making payments at least for the time being. “The National Audit Office also said that either the law needs to be rendered more specific or alternative funding found,” Aab said. This would mean a debate over support in 2022. Kiik said that sources of funding would have to be revised or the law amended in that case.
The social minister, who says he has been given feedback on this matter from six different state agencies, emphasized that the finance minister has no right to issue precepts to the RTK or cancel payments to NGOs overnight. “The situation today is that the order was given by the acting finance minister (EKRE’s Raul Siem – ed.) who had no right to issue it, making it illegal,” Kiik said.
Helme’s position is the opposite. Moreover, the finance ministry bases its decision on a conclusion by the National Audit Office, according to which fields that are supported from gambling tax proceeds have been inappropriately interpreted and sums used for purposes not provided by law. At the same time, sums have been planned until the end of 2021 and support was paid out for the previous two quarters.
Helme’s utterance reveals that funding of NGOs promoting equality is not among his priorities. “I cannot for the life of me understand the logic of spending that money on financing NGOs that claim to promote equal opportunities and some kind of equal treatment in Estonia, while what they really do is march on Toompea to try and take down the government. I cannot understand why we are funding it,” Helme said.
Based on the Gambling Tax Act, the social ministry can use corresponding proceeds to support projects associated with families. Kiik said he fails to see how equality is not a family-related problem.
“It does not surprise me that the finance minister, now EKRE chairman, is trying to enforce his ideology in the administrative areas of other ministers as best he can,” Social Democrat Katri Raik said. What has taken Raik by surprise is the indecisiveness demonstrated by PM Jüri Ratas (Center). “He has a simple choice here of whether to side with the bully or their victim. Trying to remain in-between comes off weak and dishonest,” Raik said.
It is telling that the decision was made during a time when Minister of Finance Martin Helme was on leave. The document was signed by Helme’s substitute at the time, Minister of Foreign Trade and IT Raul Siem. Ratas tried to minimize the conflict by pointing to Siem’s involvement. “This explosion from Siem took everyone by surprise, but no harm done,” Ratas said, adding that he remains optimistic in terms of support being retained.
Second act of the Vaher saga
We should recall how acting ministers have delivered “surprises” in the past. For example, how in August of last year, Martin Helme, while standing in for his father as interior minister, tried to get rid of police chief Elmar Vaher. “I have long waited for Ratas as the head of this government to put and end to EKRE bullying on his watch. But no. What we are seeing now is like a trailer for a short movie titled “Vaher 2,” Katri Raik said.