• Estonia’s prime minister Kaja Kallas warns that some reforms Ukraine must initiate to join the EU will be unpopular at home.

    Where would Estonia be now, if we had not had the chance or readiness to join the EU?

    We would be in quite a different place. Firstly, our well-being would not be the same. Since the 1990s, our pensions have risen 65 times and salaries 35 times. The other dimension is security. Membership has an effect – as a member of this club, each one of us is not alone. We meet with other leaders so often that we become friends.

    What are the fears among EU leaders about the accession of Ukraine or the western Balkan countries?

    Years ago I talked with Portugal’s now-prime minister António Costa, who remembered that when their accession was on the agenda, there was a fear [among existing member states] of the “Portuguese plumber”. When we joined, the fear was the “Polish plumber” and now it is the “Ukrainian plumber”. This has not been the case because economic convergence will raise living standards and there will not be a need for large-scale migration.

    There is of course the fear of corruption. Will the [prospective member states] be able to carry out reforms? In the case of the western Balkans, there is also the issue of crime. Another fear is what we see in Hungary today. We wrestle with them a lot. If so many new countries join, what will that mean for EU decision-making?

    How should politicians in these countries calibrate the hopes of their people? Some leaders of future member states claim they could be ready in two years’ time.

    Our accession took eight years. It requires tough reforms, which are unpopular. And they require an understanding among the people that these need to be done for the sake of a better future. We know from our experience that this will not be easy.

    Dr. Paul Tammert thought he had found a loophole in Estonian law, allowing him to perform assisted suicide. He even presented a gas-based device on an evening TV show that provided this service.

    Two of his patients ended their lives using it, but a third attempt stalled as the machine ran out of gas. While he drove to another town to procure more lethal gas, the police arrested him. He is now on trial for illegal business activities.

    While Tammert will be punished for his amateurish stunt, three quarters of Estonian doctors think there should be legislation for the currently unregulated ‘right to die’.

    A party needs to surpass five percent of the popular vote to be elected to the Estonian parliament, but a threshold of two percent is enough to qualify for state funding. This is the proportion the pro-Russian Left Party achieved in elections this year, after a campaign by their candidate Aivo Peterson.

    The political figure became known for his trips to the Russian-occupied Donbass region and his blatantly pro-Kremlin rhetoric. It didn’t take long for Estonian authorities to discover that he has received instructions from Russia. 

    Peterson is now in jail awaiting trial, accused of treason. Despite this, the Left Party will continue to receive money from Estonian taxpayers.

    Estonia’s radical party Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond (EKRE – the Estonian Conservative People’s Party) is the most popular party in the country, but finds it hard to attract talented politicians.

    When EKRE was part of the government from 2019 to 2021, its member Marti Kuusik was the first of four ministers for foreign trade and IT. He lasted just one day before allegations against him of domestic abuse surfaced.

    The second EKRE foreign trade minister, Kert Kingo, disliked travelling abroad and speaking English. She was later charged with abusing her expenses.

    EKRE brought in the third minister, Kaimar Karu, from outside its membership pool, and he was considered competent, but refused to join the toxic party, so the Conservatives replaced him with a loyalist who lasted nine months until the government fell.

    “With this, Estonia will forever legalise Russia’s continued occupation. There is no reason to just give away 5.2 per cent of Estonia’s land, water and airspace.”

    So said Mart Helme, one of the leaders of Estonia’s far-right EKRE party, who was also the country’s ambassador to Moscow in the 1990s. EKRE is on a mission to reclaim the areas in eastern Estonia that became part of the newborn country after a 1920 treaty with Russia.

    Following the 1944 to 1991 Soviet occupation, Estonians were left with 94.8 per cent of their country, while the areas Jaanilinn and Petseri became part of The Russian Federation. It is ironic that as ambassador, Helme was part of the negotiating team that agreed to formally give up 5.2 per cent of Estonia.

    EKRE voters will forgive hypocrisy, but not weakness. The scar of the lost lands will probably haunt Estonian politics beyond the still-unratified new treaty. There will always be political space for talk of an unresolved occupation.

    It was about 4am in 2010 when our infantry squad of ten soldiers was preparing to ambush the passing “enemy” – another set of Estonian conscripts on the country’s military service which is mandatory for men.

    Everyone hiding in that damp and dark forest was dead tired due to intense training. We all suffered from sleep deprivation and most of us felt cold. I was assigned with a Ksp 58 machine gun. I teamed up with Andres, a mate who was responsible for feeding ammunition to the 1.2 metre, 12 kilogramme beast of a weapon that fires up to 16 hellishly loud rounds per second.

    We had to stay alert, but I was barely awake. Andres, who was next to the gun barrel, had fallen asleep. Then a soundless signal was given to us: open fire! Alas, Andres was shaken by the sound of the machine gun firing (blanks, of course) right next to him. Poor Andres. He woke up to an ambush.

    Thankfully it wasn’t real, in the same way a war in our part of the world did not seem real in 2010.

    I thought of experiences like this when I was in Vilnius last week covering the NATO summit. One of the key topics for our readers at Estonia’s leading news portal Delfi were the defence plans for our region. These are the same ones I will follow as an infantry platoon commander, if it should become necessary for reserve units to fight for the defence of Estonia. New reserve units have been assembled in light of the enhanced aggressiveness from Russia.

    It’s been thirteen years since my service, but I will go back to the woods in September for a ten-day mandatory training period. Thousands of others will be there. We’ll have to stay more alert this time, because the threat feels much more real.

    Windows broken, stores looted, wrecked streets and a nation in shock. This is what I saw on my way to a secondary school civics exam, scheduled for the morning of 27 April, 2007.

    It was hard to revise the evening before because I was experiencing a different kind of civics exam – watching the events of Estonia’s now-infamous Bronze Night (Pronksiöö) play out on TV.

    This was centred around the Government’s intention to relocate a monument for a Soviet soldier from the so-called Great Patriotic War. The difference between that concept and the Second World War? The latter began in September 1939 when both the Nazis and the Red Army invaded Poland, and each occupied half of the country. The former began only in 1941 when the Nazis turned on their Soviet allies.

    The Bronze Soldier had become a flashpoint of division between two concepts of history. After another round of provocations, riots broke out in central Tallinn. This kind of unrest had been unknown in a peaceful country that had just joined the EU and NATO. Born in 1988, I had felt I was living at the end of history.

    Due to the riots of mostly Russian-speakers and with another Great Patriotic War anniversary imminent on 9 May (the Victory Day of the Soviet Union over the Nazis), the Estonian government relocated the monument that very night in 2007. 16 years later, officials are still trying to distract attention by focusing on Europe Day – the celebration of the European community, which happens on the same day. This year, a free concert was held on Freedom Square featuring Kalush Orchestra, Ukraine’s winners of Eurovision last year.

    People showed up at the concert to support Ukraine and a free Europe, but the wounds of Estonia’s social fabric have not fully healed. Many ignored the concert, and opted to lay flowers at the foot of the Bronze Soldier. The battle between histories continues.

    l will be 68 years and three months old when I can retire in December 2056. This is what the pension calculator on the webpage of Estonia’s social services authority said to me.

    The app only needs to know my year of birth, 1988, to make the calculation. 68 could be considered my default age of retirement within the Estonian system, which takes into account life expectancy. If life expectancy rises, my retirement age will follow suit.

    I could choose to retire up to five years earlier at 63. In this instance, I will be left with a measly pension worth one quarter of my current salary. In fact, even if I retired at 68 years, my state pension (assuming that it would increase with inflation) would not even be enough for my rent and utility payments.

    Margus Tsahkna, a former minister of social affairs who is helping negotiations to form Estonia’s next governing coalition, admitted the state will not be able to pay pensions the same way in the future. “This is a brutal message,” he said, adding there is no alternative to reform.

    I played with the calculator to see how much I needed to delay my retirement to survive on a state pension alone. It was not possible to calculate a pension beyond the age of 78. If I retire at 78, I would receive two-thirds of my current salary, which would leave me without any financial room for manoeuvre.

    The age of 78 is 23 more years than the number of “healthy years” an average Estonian man lives, according to state statistics. This means that Tsahkna’s assessment of the pension crisis is right, but there is not yet a solution, other than to exclaim: “Everyone for themselves!”

    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.

    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.

    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.