On November 19, Estonian Interior Minister Mart Helme, who chairs the far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), surprised members of his government with comments to a Finnish newspaper that Tallinn was preparing a “plan B” in case the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “fails.” In his remarks to the paper, he claimed that the contingency was being developed together with Latvia and Lithuania, and that NATO could not be counted on to defend the Baltic States: “Nobody knows what is going to happen next,” he said, “That is why we need a plan B” (ERR, November 19). His comments came a day before a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, ahead of the 2019 Alliance summit in London.
Helme’s statement to the Finnish media drew swift reactions from the rest of the Estonian government: Prime Minister Jüri Ratas of the Center Party said the country had no plans that did not involve remaining in the North Atlantic Alliance and strengthening Estonia’s defense capacity (ERR, November 19). Minister of Defense Jüri Luik of the conservative Isamaa party denied that the government had any discussions about a “plan B”; while Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (also from Isamaa) declared that “NATO is strong and there is no alternative to it” (ERR, November 19, 20). The defense ministers of Latvia and Finland also denied any involvement in such purported plans (Delfi.ee, ERR , , November 20; Iltalehti.fi, November 19).
Helme’s comments should not be taken as a signal that Estonia is changing its relationship to NATO in any substantive way, as the swift response of virtually all other relevant portions of the Estonian government clearly indicates. However, the incident is valuable both as a window into the state of Estonia’s governing coalition and as a data point in the role of far-right parties in the Alliance’s frontline states.
With regards to Estonia’s government, the current coalition is a somewhat odd composition: the Center Party leads a grouping of parties in which Isamaa and (controversially) EKRE are junior partners. This latest scandal is the third involving EKRE; a separate scandal regarding accusations of a conflict of interest involving the minister of rural affairs, an EKRE-held post, is under investigation (ERR, November 13). Before this, Helme and his son, also an EKRE party member and government minister, were embroiled in yet another scandal for attempting to dismiss the director-general of the Estonian Police and Border Guard (PPA) Board (ERR, Postimees, August 16).
In the PPA scandal, the government sought to move quickly past the controversy and preserve the coalition (ERR, August 22). Initial indications are that, in the short term, the Ratas government is looking to do the same with respect to the “Plan B” imbroglio. Helme has asserted, in a statement, that he was “misunderstood” by reporters in his earlier comments, claiming he had “not said anything implying that our government is working together with our neighbors to find an alternative to NATO” (ERR, November 20). Thereafter, Reinsalu assured that Helme had adequately explained himself and that “this case can be considered closed” (ERR, November 20). It stands to reason, however, that this coalition can only endure so much turbulence as a result of EKRE’s actions, especially given that this latest scandal is a departure from the previous two, which concern personal misconduct. Rather, it had briefly derailed Estonian foreign policy discourse, raised public doubt about the reliability of NATO and drawn allies and neighboring states into the confusion.
Beyond Estonia, it is worth considering how the affair aligns with Russian support for far-right European parties and Russia’s objectives pertaining to NATO frontline states. An Estonian opposition lawmaker likened Helme’s comments to “the statements of Kremlin-paid claqueurs who are tasked with eroding unity in countries” (ERR, November 20). While statements from far-right politicians criticizing NATO and the European Union are not new, they carry outsize weight in countries such as Estonia that stand to benefit the most from membership in both institutions. Kremlin officials are likely pleased with how the last week played out with respect to Estonian foreign policy—and they may be keen on repeating their success.