At the end of last week, a political scandal erupted in Estonia. Ukraine was involved in it. In an interview with Konstantin Eggert, a journalist for the Russian service of Deutsche Welle, Estonian Interior Minister Mart Helme spoke about the threat to Estonian identity and language from Ukrainian labor migrants. According to the minister, because of the Ukrainians, the number of the Russian-speaking population in Estonia, which is now 25%, will increase. Helme is convinced that there are too few ethnic Estonians to digest such a large number of other peoples. According to the minister, the presence of Ukrainians in Estonia is not beneficial to Estonian citizens, because they work for lower wages and take away jobs. Helme also spoke on a number of issues, including recommending gays migrate to Sweden, where they are treated friendly.
There is only one thing to agree with Helme: gay people cannot impose their opinions on heterosexuals, the propaganda of LGBT values should not be part of state policy, and marriage is only possible between a man and a woman. This also applies to Ukraine, where in recent years too much attention has been paid to this issue, despite more serious problems in other areas. Estonian President Kersti Kaljuland said that Minister Helme was unsuitable for the government because of his statements about gays, without focusing on his rhetoric about Ukrainians. The team of President Zelensky should correctly perceive the demarche of the Estonian minister. Helme's statement is a provocation in the interests of his Conservative People's Party of Estonia, which does not reflect the position of the country's government.
Whatever Helme says, Ukrainians go to work in Estonia for jobs that are not popular with local residents, and this is in the interests of local businesses. There is a labor shortage in Estonia in the context of economic growth and population decline. After Estonia joined the EU in 2004, 6% of the population left the country. Some have moved to the UK and Finland for permanent residence. In 2019, Estonia's biggest shortage was of truck drivers, speech therapists, IT specialists, builders, catering workers, industrial enterprises, and in some counties - doctors, seamstresses. During President Kersti Kaljulaid's visit to Kyiv in November 2019, she signed a joint statement with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in which the leaders agreed to take full advantage of the potential of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement for cooperation on migration.
According to the Ukrainian ambassador to Estonia, Maryana Betsa, 30,000 Ukrainians live in the Baltic republic. These are not only labor migrants, but also students and family members. Ukrainians represent only 2.3% of the Estonian population (1.3 million people). They are too few compared to the number of ethnic Estonians (about 1 million) or local Russians (325 thousand). Ukrainian migrants are valued for their willingness to work for less money than Estonians. The average salary in Estonia is 11.5 euros per hour, while Ukrainian welders are offered 6 euros and cooks 7-9 euros. The owner of the dairy farm Tiit Niilo on the Nopri farm believes that the attraction of foreign labor is practiced all over the world, the Ukrainians are well suited for this, and the Estonian authorities should not stand out from the general trend.
In the context of quarantine and the coronavirus pandemic, Estonia lacks electricians, plumbers, welders, and workers in woodworking enterprises. In the summer, there was no one to harvest strawberries from 800 hectares of fields. Even the possibility of involving prisoners in agricultural work was considered, but, at the request of Estonian farmers, the government lifted the ban on the entry of seasonal workers from third countries. Elke Lillemets, a member of the board of the Estonian Strawberry Producers Association, admitted that Estonians are not eager to work in the field, including the unemployed, who have enough social benefits for life. Ex-Minister of Agriculture Ivari Padar recommended attracting Ukrainian seasonal workers. Special flights with seasonal workers from Ukraine were directed not only to Estonia but also to UK, Finland, Poland, Sweden, Germany.
Apparently, Helme's interview for Deutsche Welle is connected with the preparation of the Conservative People's Party for the local elections in 2021. So far, the Conservatives are not doing well. According to a Norstat poll, 16% of Estonians supported Helme's party in June - less than the number of votes cast in the 2019 parliamentary elections (17.8%). The most popular party in Estonia is the opposition center-right Reform Party, supported by 30.3% of Estonians. This political force had every chance to head the government after last year's parliamentary elections if the Center Party did not agree to form a coalition with the Conservative People's Party of Estonia and the Fatherland Party.
Helme is trying to rectify the situation and consolidate the most conservative strata of Estonian society around his party. Therefore, he raises topical issues. The leader of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia proposes to hold a referendum on the abolition of the law on cohabitation, which allows gay people to enter into a civil marriage. According to the ERR survey, 60% of Estonians did not support the adoption of this law in 2014.
The politician speculates on the language issue because there is a problem of Russian-speaking non-citizens in Estonia. The country is home to 70 thousand people who did not learn the state language and did not receive Estonian citizenship after gaining independence. These are mainly local Russians. Knowledge of the Estonian language is one of the conditions for obtaining citizenship. Instead of a passport of an Estonian citizen, local Russian speakers were given passports of non-citizens. Since 2010, the number of non-citizens in Estonia has decreased by one third. Russian-speakers were either able to integrate into Estonian society or migrated to other EU countries with gray passports.
Helme began to inflate the problem due to the fact that Ukrainians from Donbas began to come to Estonia to work. They communicate with each other in Russian and practically do not use Ukrainian or English, and even more so do not know Estonian. Russian-speakers have a reputation as the Kremlin's "fifth column" among Estonian ultranationalists. However, not all Estonians adhere to this position. Russian remains the language of business communication between Ukrainian, Russian and Estonian entrepreneurs. For the most part, Estonians speak passable Russian, including Helme. Despite linguistic differences, Estonians treat Ukrainians warmly as companions in misfortune facing a threat from the Kremlin. Estonians consider the period when their country was part of the USSR to be occupation.
The circumstances were not in favor of Ukrainian labor migrants: the coronavirus pandemic provoked an economic crisis in Estonia. Until the end of 2020, an economic decline of 5% and unemployment at 13% are projected. The government's priority is to reorganize the labor market - creating new jobs and retraining the unemployed. It will be more difficult for foreigners to find a good job in Estonia. Not without the participation of Ukrainians, Estonian society learned the dark side of migration. According to the observations of Estonian law enforcement officers, Ukrainian seasonal workers violated the rules of self-isolation 46 times, and 17 people went to work before the end of the two-week self-isolation period. In August 2019, Estonian police detained three Ukrainian prostitutes and demanded to leave the country. Such incidents make Ukraine look bad in the eyes of the Estonian society.
In his interview, Helme touched upon the Ukrainian issue. The Minister of Internal Affairs does not support the annexation of Crimea and expressed concern about Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014. At the same time, he stressed that there would be no threat from the Russian Federation for Estonia if the NATO member states did not begin to deploy weapons on its territory. At a military base in the Estonian city of Tapa, 800 British troops are serving with the participation of Denmark, France, Iceland as part of an expanded NATO presence in order to train the Estonian army and contain Russia in Eastern Europe. The United States has sold $ 450 million worth of military equipment to Estonia since 2014 and has allocated $ 150 million in military aid since 2015. In 2018-2020, NATO conducted multinational military exercises on the territory of the Baltic country. In April 2018, President Kersti Kaljuland called on the United States to deploy American troops and Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems on Estonian territory to make the containment of Russia more thorough.
Russian intelligence is actively working in Estonia. In 2019, the security police exposed 20 spies who collaborated with the FSB, GRU, and the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Last year, there were former Defense Forces officer Denis Metsavas and his father Pyotr Volin, ex-security police officer Vladimir Kulikov, former board member of the Union of veterans of armed conflicts and military service "Battle Brotherhood" Sergei Kondrat, a citizen of the Russian Federation and Estonia Dmitry Kozlov.
The leader of the Estonian conservatives believes that anti-Russian sanctions are needed since the West needed to react to the actions of the Russian Federation in Ukraine. But he doubts their effectiveness and does not believe that they will make Russia a democratic country. The minister believes that priority should be given to diplomacy, rather than toughening restrictive measures against Moscow. Apparently, Helme is driven by ambition, he sees more serious prospects for his party in Estonian politics than the role of junior coalition partner for the Center Party.
In an interview, Helme made it clear to the leadership of the Russian Federation and the Russian-speaking population of Estonia that during his work as ambassador to the Russian Federation (1995-1999) he had thoroughly studied the history and political system of his eastern neighbor and allegedly knows how to bring Russian-Estonian relations to a qualitatively new level avoiding confrontation. He even tried to show that allegedly Russia and Estonia are equally uncomfortable because of Ukraine, with the difference that Russians are faced with sanctions, while Estonians and local Russians are faced with an influx of labor migrants.
Apparently, Helme is adjusting to the priorities of his partners in the Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament. The Eurosceptic parties Liga (Italy), National Movement (France), Alternative for Germany (Germany), the Austrian Freedom Party support the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions, advocate for better relations with the Russian Federation, and are interested in reducing the influence of the European Commission on the decisions of the governments of EU members.
Opposition and ruling parties accuse Helme of homophobia. Leader of the opposition Reform Party Kaya Kallas accused Helme of spoiling Estonia's international image and demanded that Prime Minister and Center Party leader Jüri Ratas remove the Conservative People's Party of Estonia from the coalition. Ratas believes that Helme complicates the work of the coalition, acts contrary to the agreements, and his statements are absurd. The Center Party is in favor of preserving teaching in schools in Russian and Estonian, simplifying the procedure for obtaining citizenship. Member of the ruling coalition, deputy speaker of parliament, and head of the Fatherland Christian Democratic Party Helir-Valdor Seeder does not see a threat to national security and Estonian culture from 1,500 seasonal workers from other countries.
If the political crisis leads to the collapse of the ruling coalition, then Helme can get the fate of the leader of the Italian Eurosceptic Liga party, ex-Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who also advocated a tougher migration policy, against accepting refugees. Amid disagreements with the intractable interior minister, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte formed a new coalition with the opposition Democratic Party in September 2019, leaving the Northern League out of business. Such a scenario is possible in Estonia if the Center Party agrees on a coalition with the Reform Party or the Social Democratic Party.
Zelenskiy's team should avoid making harsh statements about the Estonian government, despite the fact that Helme's rhetoric infringes on the interests of Ukrainian citizens. Estonia is a valuable partner of Ukraine among the EU and NATO countries. Estonian medical institutions accept wounded Ukrainian soldiers for rehabilitation, and instructors take part in the training of the Ukrainian armed forces. Estonia, along with Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, takes the toughest stance against Russia in the EU, stands for the extension of sanctions, against the completion of the construction of Nord Stream 2, which is not beneficial to Ukraine, and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country.