Martin Helme: We are the hardest-rocking party in Estonia

Aimar Altosaar
, toimetaja
Vice President of the Riigikogu Martin Helme in his office.
Vice President of the Riigikogu Martin Helme in his office. Photo: Madis Veltman

Chairman of the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) Martin Helme is holding his third job in three months having gone from serving as finance minister earlier in the year to EKRE Riigikogu faction chair and recently becoming the second vice president of the Riigikogu.

The interview takes place in Helme’s office during a Riigikogu sitting, meaning our conversation is periodically interrupted by roll calls and voting reminders. Two young work shadows are silently sitting on the couch. As an energetic person more than in charge of his attention span, Helme ignores the disruptions that makes for a smooth exchange. We start by commenting on a recent event.

What is your opinion of the March 20 demonstrations in several Estonian cities where people gathered in convoys and brandished Estonian flags to protest against coronavirus measures?

The only convoy of vehicles with the potential to improve matters today is a convoy of ambulances. There can be no question here.

About what happened. I understand the angst, concern and fear people have developed over the past year. I believe the Saturday protests included a good measure of political protest against the government having changed. People were there for very different reasons. The point many were trying to make was surely that we must not allow our freedoms to be permanently dialed back in the shadow of the coronavirus.

We can hear crazed exclamations, see attempts to ban voicing one’s opinion on certain topics. It is suggested the police could be allowed to break into people’s homes and carry out searches. All of it makes me ask, where are we? Myanmar? It is no longer normal!

The Wednesday issue of Postimees has an article by Minister of Finance Keit Pentus-Rosimannus titled “State Support is not a Free Lunch.” In it, the finance minister wrote that the planned supplementary state budget corrects several mistakes made by the previous government and that the new one is looking further ahead. What is your opinion of the supplementary state budget as former finance minister?

I am greatly bothered by Pentus-Rosimannus’ extremely insincere and unfair rhetoric. She is coasting on the economy we created with our state budget and supplementary state budget last year. A year ago, we were talking about a recession of 10 percent. It was 6 percent when we put together our supplementary budget – the economy eventually only contracted by 2.9 percent if memory serves.

Borrowing less today is only possible because we planned ahead and did our homework. As concerns correcting mistakes, when I heard about it in the EKRE parliamentary group today (the interview took place on March 24 – ed.) – the finance minister presented the supplementary budget bill – it includes a lot of things that have nothing to do with Covid.

Was anything major left undone as finance minister, as your time did run out quite unexpectedly?

Anti-money laundering efforts were the number one thing. Pentus-Rosimannus came and turned off all the taps, whereas things were coming along nicely. While the finance minister’s staff choices today do not stand up to scrutiny.

They terminated the contract with the Americans (U.S. law firm Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan – ed.). It was working – whistleblowers were talking, documents were being sent to America. They had to turn off the tap quickly! Because more information was coming in each day. It is downright criminal what they did.

Did the attorneys manage to get anything done? They were paid a part of the fee.

Their task was to obtain additional information the Prosecutor’s Office in Estonia did not forward and that hasn’t reached U.S. investigative organs. This information needed to be collected and sent to America. The purpose of this was twofold, to be able to say that we cooperated with the Americans and to share in fine revenue. It was working!

Going back to the end of last year and the beginning of this one, to the rather dramatic marriage referendum bill proceedings, it seems that was the catalyst that finally saw the previous coalition collapse. Was it worth it or should you have given in?

We had made repeated concessions in former episodes and were prepared to file off several rough edges. We had also surrendered ground when it came to the referendum. We agreed to move the date and remained flexible in terms of the phrasing of the referendum question. But the concession Center was after was canceling the referendum. We were not prepared to go that far.

It has also been suggested that your (Martin and Mart Helme’s – ed.) Sunday talk shows on Tre Raadio echoed so loudly in society that your partners’ nerves gave out. Any comment?

How often have you heard about Tre Raadio since the coalition ended? The media bubble is gone! Tre Raadio is doing just fine. However, what is no longer there is the need to take advantage of the show to put pressure on us in the coalition, to put our political initiatives on ice so to speak. Such attempts were near constant. The marriage referendum was one such, as was Mart Helme’s interview to Deutsche Welle. When it was clear Center was reluctant to go down a particular path, they picked up something we had said and blew it up, turned it into a media scandal – they did that! – after which they came up to us and said they were hurting and that the subject matter should be shelved for the time being. It was a pattern.

You were there when EKRE was created and have been the party’s chairman for over six months. What is EKRE’s goal in Estonia?

Our goal has always been to get things done, ever since we were putting together the coalition agreement. A government where we cannot effect change has no meaning for us.

How should the Estonian education system ensure a proper Estonian education for every child, irrespective of the language they speak at home?

We have a functional, sensible and socially unoffensive solution work on which started when we were still in the government. Our plan was to introduce in-depth language classes on the kindergarten level that would continue in grades one through four etc. That would basically solve the problem in roughly 15 years.

As a nationalist party, we do not want to see Estonian children deprived of an Estonian-speaking environment.

What is your message in Ida-Viru County? EKRE have become active in the region lately. You will have an election list in Narva come local elections. What is your message there?

We have three simple messages.

We protect the traditional family. We are against immigration. What this means for Russians is that when a Ukrainian comes to Estonia, the first job they will take away is one where Russian is spoken.

Thirdly, we are the only party for the survival of the oil shale industry. All three are areas where Center has betrayed their core voter.

You’ve said that EKRE proceeds on the principles of “provocation, escalation and never apologize.” Is this still your motto or have there been developments?

I believe we remain the hardest-rocking party in Estonia.

I believe we have the toughest nerves in Estonian politics as was demonstrated during the marriage referendum debate. Weaker-minded people would have given up on the referendum to hold on to their seats. But yes – provoke, escalate and improvise – that is how it went.

Who is EKRE’s presidential candidate?

That is not up to me. It has been discussed in the party. I have proposed [former Riigikogu speaker] Henn Põlluaas’ candidacy. While Henn has not made his decision yet, he is the person we are discussing inside the party.

How EKRE feels about the European Union has been widely discussed, while it sometimes seems the EU is not the best fit for Estonia in your eyes. You were involved with the “No” campaign during the EU referendum.

I was against it in 2003 and I still believe we should have stayed out. But our campaign lost and I accept the result. The problem is that the EU we joined in 2004 no longer exists. The promises we were made and based on which the people made their choice have not been kept.

The European Union is becoming more aggressive with each passing year and its misuse of that power more problematic. My question of whether we can afford to stay in such a union is entirely justified.