Mart Laar: Martin Helme has never allowed facts to stand in the way of his statements

Teet Korsten
, reporter
Mart Laar.
Mart Laar. Photo: Liis Treimann

The newly elected chairman of the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) Martin Helme, criticizing reforms that followed restoration of independence in his fist interview as EKRE leader, gave Postimees reason to seek out former prime minister Mart Laar who is vacationing in Saaremaa so he could be given the chance for a comment.

Few now remember Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book “The End of History and the Last Man” that might have been a little too optimistic in terms of the future of the liberal / free world. The feeling we were left with following the Brexit referendum and how what is happening in the USA was startling at first, while we have now gotten used to taking cold showers on a daily basis, is much nearer in our memory. How would you, one of Estonia’s most senior politicians who sports a historian’s eye to boot, describe these modern times?

I have learned to stay calm in all manner of situations as there is nothing new under the sun. I strongly recommend it. Losing your nerve is useless, no matter the scope of the folly that you see. Keep calm and carry on! Samuel Huntington’s book “Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” that was published a few year’s after Fukuyama’s is perhaps a more effective tool for making sense of the modern world. More so as this text has strongly affected the worldview of several modern leaders. I would use the word interesting in an attempt to sum up the times we're living in.

How to explain American-born trends taking root in Estonia in a matter of days? We have our own #metoo cases, a populist party wielding the latest in political technology and with great success so far – every tweet is picked up by opponents… followed inevitably by falling victim to it – while many Estonian young people took up black avatars in the early days of the Black Lives Matter protests…

The keyword here is globalization. And at the end of the day, America is not so important as to be the beginning and end of all the wisdom or folly in the world. We can come up with a little something in both regards ourselves. [The previous chairman of the Center Party Edgar] Savisaar had his own brand of populist politics and was always the center of attention. Some have described EKRE as successors to the Savisaar line. On the other hand, the Helme family’s self-confidence is also reminiscent of Reform Party know-it-alls. Therefore, I would not be surprised to see the coalition proposed by Siim Kallas (between Reform and EKRE - ed.) manifest one day. As concerns local BLM activists, while I understand that it’s too late to whitewash what is black, should it be appropriate to blackwash what is white?

The national conservatives just got a new chairman who knows in his very first interview as party leader how Estonia should have acted immediately after restoring its independence. He also accuses the fathers of the first reforms of folly, dogmatism and even corruption. Do you accept these charges?

Voices from the past are always precious. It’s enough to remind one of one’s youth. I’m not sure which villain type best fits me – whether I was foolish, dogmatic or corrupt. Probably all three. In any case, it is touching that we now have someone who knows exactly what should have been done 20 years ago. Alas, it’s too late now! Everything has already been done. Mean-spirited people could say that this know-it-all has no achievements of his own to speak of and even received the party as an inheritance from his father. Even his struggle against financing for women’s rights organizations is still unfinished… However, that would clearly be unfair as Martin Helme’s achievements are there for everyone to see on Estonia’s strawberry fields.

“We should definitely have used protectionism in the 1990s. What happened back then /…/ allowed advantage to be taken of the fact we had fallen behind the West and competitors to be killed off or bought,” Helme junior tells Toomas Sildam in an interview. What say you?

What I say is that Martin Helme has never been one to let facts stand in the way of his statements.

“That caused us to fall further back in our development than we should have after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Only once we had found our footing again during that transitional period should we have opted for the free market. What happened back then had nothing to do with free trade,” the newly elected chairman continues.

What is there to comment on? Someone thought it requires supreme talent to make so many mistakes in such a short text. While an academician acquaintance of mine said that reading it left them rather concerned for Estonia. There is no cause for concern, however, as the Helmes have been decidedly more bark than bite so far. That said, I would still recommend reading a few relevant books before his next public speaking.

It has been said in the European context that there will be new generations of politicians who do not remember the great war, which was seen as a threat to peace. Our country has for some time been living a period that many dreamed about, including former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves – a time when young people who no longer remember the Soviet occupation because they were born in free Estonia can vote. How do they appear to you?

They are definitely different from what we were back in the day. And thank God for that! It would be rather depressing if they were the same. I wish them enough courage to be precisely what they are despite all manner of campaigns and not to listen to the sophistry of wisenheimers like me. To dare dream and realize those dreams even if life is beating them down, because that is the only way to move forward. While I am in no way a qualified appraiser in this matter, looking if only at the growing number of young people who sign up for military service with their entire class, we should have reason to be satisfied.

A party that paints itself as national and conservative seems to downright admire Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition to the new Russian constitution, passed after an unprecedented campaign of falsification, making Putin Czar for life, it also makes mention of God and marriage as a union between a man and a woman. How dangerous is this sympathy for Estonian domestic politics? What to do to keep Putinist propaganda from entering Estonia through such backdoors?

The best deterrent against Putinism is Putin himself. Just like Savisaar was his own antidote in the end – they overdo it eventually. We should also refrain from giving in to depression every time the Kremlin makes a sound as Putin has himself admitted he was out having a beer when they taught history. Of course, this is not to say we should keep our peace because we must stand up against stupidity in the West. EKRE and their friends are hardly up to the task. But the West has always had its own weirdos – even those singing the praises of Stalin.

How would you describe the situation in Russia?

I would rather not, to be honest, as I have not visited for a long time. And I’m not tempted to go either. It’s sad.

Back when you were in charge of Isamaa, it seemed its politicians often didn’t care about their personal rating and that national interests were prioritized instead. Do you think something like that would be possible today?

I’m sure it would be. All one needs to do is to refrain from rushing toward power like a racehorse wearing blinders.

The principal challenge of your second government was to make sure Estonia joined NATO. I do not see the current government having many great goals, while it is true that the times have changed. Still, what could be a beacon for Estonia to follow today in the name of which sacrifices could be made?

This question has hung over Estonia for some time. Perhaps there are several beacons. Maybe we will stumble upon a new goal by chance – by trying different things. Or perhaps life is its own goal. But we should retain a measure of convictions and principles when plotting a course toward that lighthouse.

You currently serve as the chairman of the Bank of Estonia supervisory board, while history aficionados are happy that you are also a prolific author. What are you working on?

The second part of my memoirs “Ajaga võidu” (Race Against Time) that was delayed by the coronavirus crisis will go to print as the first thing. It should be on the shelves by year’s end. It treats with Isamaa’s second government and the years 1995-2002 that have not been covered in detail, including things like joining NATO and the birth of e-governance. As evidenced by the title, it was a desperate race to join NATO before the Russian bear could get a foot in the door, because we know what happened to countries where it managed to.

I’m also enjoying several projects on the side, some of which are aimed at the Estonian public and some at the international one. It also seems that I have little choice but to accommodate various requests to write an overview of the transitional years of the post-communist world for the international reader by comparing countries and drawing conclusion-summaries. It seems there is demand.

It is summertime that often gives people more time to read. Can you make any recommendations? What have you found riveting as of late?

Regarding more recent publications, I was enamored with two volumes of the new history of the Estonian War of Independence, while fiction-wise, Andrus Kivirähk’s “Siniste sarvedega loom” (The Animal with the Blue Horns) impressed me the most. Coming to literature in English, I would mention Oleh Havrylyshyn’s book “Present at Transition” that treats with different countries’ switch from planned economy to market economy and that I would recommend certain people read.