Last summer, Georgia hoped to be accepted as an EU candidate country along with Ukraine and Moldova, but fell short. Estonia’s outgoing two-term foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu explains why that happened, why Georgians might be disappointed again and why a historically supportive Estonia is now disillusioned with Georgia’s progress towards EU accession.
Why are some countries in the EU not supporting Georgia’s candidacy?
Leaving more technocratic aspects aside, the main problem is the functioning of the rule of law and democracy in Georgia. We do not see any determined efforts by the Georgian government. The people of Georgia are very much in favour of integration with the West. Therefore, the government supports it rhetorically, but its practical approach is one of regression.
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Great hopes were placed in Georgia’s accession process in 2008. How has it changed from an Estonian perspective?
Estonia’s instinctive sympathy for Georgia was the cornerstone of our relations after the country fell victim to Russia’s invasion in 2008. We have supported them despite various political developments since that time.
However, the events of the last few years have disturbed us. We have repeatedly expressed our disappointment at the suppression of the opposition. Estonia cannot remain silent on this.
Symbolic of this is the deterioration of the former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s health in prison. I have personally campaigned for him to be given the opportunity to receive medical treatment abroad. We have also offered medical assistance on our own behalf. These requests have not been met with a positive response.
One of these disappointments could be the Georgian reaction to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Considering that Georgia itself is a victim of [a Russian] invasion, the attitude of the government in Tbilisi has been far too lenient. Politically, it is still a like-minded country, but we have not seen a firm attitude towards the hundreds of thousands of Russians being allowed to pour into Georgia. The same goes for Georgia’s approach towards sanctions against Russia.
In October, we wrote of a possible new far-right prime minister emerging on the continent. Martin Helme’s Estonian National Conservative (EKRE) party was breaking records in public support “with no ceiling in sight”, ahead of elections on 5 March this year. Now it appears he has smacked his head on the roof.
Before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, EKRE was the leading party in the polls, and the struggling prime minister Kaja Kallas of the centre-right liberal Reform Party was scrambling to hold onto her position.
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The 24th of February also happens to be Estonia’s Independence Day. This made the start of the invasion especially dramatic. This country, too, had been occupied by Russia. The prime minister’s numerous Putin-bashing appearances in international media over the past year have boosted her domestic political standing.
But the more energy prices soared, the better Helme’s party performed against Kallas’s liberals. In their adverts, EKRE proclaimed: “We will save Estonia!” Their campaign bet on crippling energy prices that never happened, because of the milder-than-usual winter.
Martin Helme has tried blaming high energy prices on Kaja Kallas and Ursula von der Leyen. On 24 February this year, a grinning Kallas celebrated Estonia’s 105th Independence Day with von der Leyen herself, and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg in Tallinn. Kallas knows that these “globalists” standing beside her irritate Helme and EKRE, but bolsters her own support.
Helme had been betting on an energy weapon that has been firing blanks. At times, the market prices were even lower than the government rate, which were designed for customers who prefer stable costs.
The chances of a far-right Estonian prime minister are not dead in the water. But as we enter the last week of the campaign, it is Helme’s pro-European arch-nemesis who is all smiles.
Ranked 14th best by Transparency International in terms of perceived level of public sector corruption, Estonia is less dodgy than the UK, France or Japan. This may seem bewildering to Estonians themselves.
Take Kohtla-Järve, the fifth-largest city. At the end of last year, nine of the 25 members of the city council and the governing coalition were declared suspects in a bribery and influence peddling case.
This was followed by the council’s attempt to put together a “rainbow coalition of the uncorrupt”. In the end, only nine of the “uncorrupt” 16 council members voted in favour of it, leaving the city with a minority government. How do Kohtla-Järve’s citizens perceive corruption? Probably as something right before their eyes.
“To leave now would mean to betray Estonian football,” said the president of the Estonian football association, Aivar Pohlak, who appeared to be dying on the country’s national TV station.
The Macbeth-inspired monologue was not performed by Pohlak himself, but a comedian from the group Kinoteater, who fill in time between World Cup matches.
On the first day of the championship, the group criticized human rights’ violations and workers’ poor conditions in Qatar, which Pohlak claimed was against the facts. That is when Kinoteater decided to respond during a special broadcast, and it set Estonian social media ablaze.
Pohlak’s decades-long iron grip on Estonian football is still strong, despite FIFA ranking the men’s team outside the top 100 and the women’s in the 96th place. The president has a history of controversy.
The latest will probably blow over, but his tenure may go into extra time.
“You are a part of our population growth problem,” Martin Helme, the current leader of the far-right Estonian party EKRE, told a 27-year-old female journalist in 2016.
She had asked him if it was wrong that she was not planning to have children at that time. He also called her a “socially harmful element”. This quote has since become infamous in Estonia’s ongoing baby debate.
Although this statement was condemned by liberals, it did not damage EKRE’s popularity. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Estonia has experienced a rapid decline in its birth rate.
However, Tallinn University demographer Mark Gortfelder has pointed out that the existential fear of demographic “survival” has existed longer than the 104-year-old-republic.
Estonia experiences the issue of survival more literally than in most other parts of Europe. Every regional power has at some point in history controlled the Baltic nation of today or a large chunk of it. Most of these periods have involved a massive loss of Estonian lives.
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Estonia’s first period of de facto independence (1918 to 1940) was ended by World War II, and accompanied by mass killings and deportations. Between 1945 and 1989, migration increased the proportion of the non-Estonian population within the Soviet-controlled republic from 3% to 38%. It was feared that Estonians would soon be “a minority on their own land”.
For all these reasons, the “baby-making” narrative falls on fertile ground in Estonian politics.
For prime minister Kaja Kallas, this meant ditching her coalition partners who, together with EKRE, introduced a bill for a massive increase in family subsidies behind her back. Many experts say that these will not significantly increase the birth rate.
The price for Kallas to keep her job was high. Her new coalition partners demanded lavish subsidies for families. It was exactly because of those that the previous government was ousted.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania need at least another 1,000 days to become independent of Russian electricity under a €1.6bn plan to decouple the Baltic states from the Russian grid by 2025.
It may be possible to connect to the “Continental Europe grid” even earlier, but the risk of outages and higher power bills will remain given the current infrastructure is not yet ready for an orderly transition.
The stakes are high: the Baltic states are determined to stop Russia weaponising energy; last week, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas warned of black-outs if Putin decides to cut the countries off.