ESTONIA: Right-wing government coalition attacks LGTBI rights

Report of the European Civic Forum for CIVICUS Monitor.


Minor impact of the pandemic on the CSO sector

The government has not launched specific measures or grants for civil society during the pandemic. Nevertheless, the impact of COVID-19 on the sector has not been as vast in Estonia, according to the Network of Estonian Non-profit Organisations.

Referendum on defining marriage against LGTBI rights

The Estonian Conservative National Party (EKRE), the populist right-wing party, part of the government coalition, wants to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in the Estonian Constitution and is proposing to hold a referendum on the matter during the country’s municipal elections in October 2021. The referendum will not be binding, and the government does not have to resign if it loses. EKRE has wanted the law on registering same-sex partnerships revoked since its adoption in 2015.

“This [referendum] is important for the whole nation, because without marriage, without women and men having children, there is no future. This is so clear to everyone, and our answer is very simple. We are in favour of specifying in the legislation clearly and unambiguously: marriage is a union between a woman and a man, and that’s it,” said interior minister Mart Helme.

He also added that the referendum would “clean up the air”, which indicates a clear attack on LGBTI individuals.

Around €2 million have been earmarked for the controversial marriage referendum in the 2021 state budget which roughly corresponds to the sum set aside for holding local elections. It remains unclear how much different sides’ campaigns will cost.

International students shown the door

Estonia plans to update the rules of entry and stay for internationals who study or work in the country, which would make it difficult for students from third world countries to come to Estonia. The reasons behind amendments to the Aliens Act are related to security risks, the need to control the issuing of visas and to prevent the misuse of residence permits and visas.

The Estonian Student Union (ECL) does not accept several of the points of the draft rules currently in progress:

“There is no evidence that mobility is a threat to Estonia’s security, so we do not believe that the immigration of international students should be significantly more hindered and aggravated than is currently the case. We, therefore, consider it unnecessary to have the points in the draft that limit the opportunities for foreign students to study here, to complete their studies and to remain in work after their studies.”

“This draft does not take into account the national priorities of higher education and sends a message to both higher education institutions and international students that foreign students are not welcome in Estonia, and if they should come here it would be better if they left at the end of their studies.”

“…under the auspices of COVID-19, the interior ministry has moved forward with a bill that would restrict the conditions for study mobility for third-country nationals on a much wider scale. At the same time, the draft contradicts the current approaches and the implementation of the planned changes may change the higher education landscape for all of us,” writes Marleen Allemann, a Master of Political Science and a columnist.

Court admits the first climate petition

On 26th April 2020, climate activists from Fridays For Future Estonia filed a petition to launch a legal challenge against the construction of new shale oil plant and to seek preliminary legal protection. On 25th May 2020, the Administrative Court of Tartu (Tartu Halduskohus) admitted the petition but did not grant preliminary judicial protection.

The petition, a first of its kind in Estonia, was motivated by the position that the construction permit issued for the shale oil plant is contrary to international climate and environmental agreements. Furthermore, its full impact has not been properly evaluated. The shale oil plant, intended to be built by the state-owned energy giant Eesti Energia, hinders Estonia’s capabilities to meet its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement and is in conflict with both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the EU’s objective of achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

“The court’s decision to admit the petition is of historical significance. The climate is still changing and these legal proceedings will bring clarity to debate as to whether or not the construction of this oil shale plant will allow Estonia to meet its climate goals or not, as well as what decisions, if any, can be challenged in Estonia on the grounds of climate change,” – Kertu Birgit Anton, FFF Estonia’s spokesperson.

The court has said that activists may approach the court again for legal protection if proceedings do not conclude before the construction of the plant begins. Activists have exhausted all other options as they have repeatedly spoken out against the oil plant in the past – both in direct meetings with the Prime Minister and with other youth associations together with the government.

Peaceful Assembly

Interior Minister, far-right supporters attack LGBTI individuals

Mart Helme, Estonia’s current interior minister and one of the leaders of the governing populist Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), told Deutsche Welle (DW) in an interview on 15th October 2020 that his attitude towards gays individuals is unfriendly and that gay individuals in Estonia would be better off in Sweden.

Estonia’s LGBTI community has been the target of attacks in the city of Pärnu since Helme’s declarations. At first, people attending the screening of a film were insulted and filmed and then an LGBTI outreach protest was disrupted by counter-protesters wearing masks. The local branch of the far-right EKRE party organised the demonstrations.

Approximately 250 to 300 people gathered at Tallinn’s Freedom Square on 18th October in protest against a referendum on the definition of marriage, proposed by EKRE. LGTBI activists claimed that the proposal to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman in the Estonian constitution is openly homophobic. The rally, organised by the youth wing of the Social Democrats in collaboration with the Estonian LGBT Association, was largely peaceful.

Solidarity for Belarusians

Mass anti-government protests erupted in Belarus following the contested August 2020 election results that deemed the incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko as the winner.

In solidarity with Belarusians, Estonians took to the streets during August 2020, to stand in solidarity with Belarusians and their political prisoners. The relation between the two ex-soviet republics is strong, with Estonia being one of the first EU countries to protest against the re-election of Lukashenko.

“30 years ago, we were all alone, and in western countries no one really cared how and what we were going to get or what the situation was. And I think they’re in exactly the same situation right now, that nobody else cares. And if they can dare succeed, then maybe some change is possible. And to show that they are not alone, that is why we are here in Freedom Square,” said Estonian demonstrator Siim Tuisk.


Concerns over EKRE attitude towards media freedom

At the end of April 2020, the Estonian Association of Journalists expressed concern that the Estonian governmental party would use the income loss and economic hardship in the media field resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic to suppress media independence.

In their weekly radio talk show on Tre Radio, commenting on the media support package, Minister of Finance Martin Helme and Minister of Interior Affairs Mart Helme (both leaders of EKRE) made it clear that their party expects the media to make concessions. The Minister of Interior Affairs said that while EKRE dislikes the idea of any support, there was an agreement in “tit-for-tat” style, the content of which he would not disclose.

In a separate development, the board of the Estonian Union of Journalists (UEA) welcomed the removal of a member of the National Broadcasting Council (RHN) due to the member’s use of indecent language.

“The EKRE members’ verbal attacks against certain journalists have been a problem throughout this year – it peaked with a member of Estonian Broadcasting Council’s (RHN) social media attack on ERR talk show hosts. This led to discussion and condemnation and the member left the RHN but did not really apologise. This case might still go to court. ”- Estonian Association of Journalists President Helle Tiikmaa.

The European Commission calls on Estonia to criminalise hate speech

The European Commission sent a formal notice to Estonia, calling on the country to criminalise hate speech and hate crimes. The commission decided on 30th October 2020 to send formal letters of notice to Estonia and Romania as their national laws do not fully and accurately comply with the EU rules on combating certain forms of expression of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law.

“Estonia has failed to transpose criminalisation of the specific forms of hate speech, namely the public condoning, denying or gross trivialisation of international crimes and the Holocaust, when such conduct aims at inciting violence or hatred. Additionally, Estonia has not correctly criminalised hate speech, by omitting the criminalisation of public incitement to violence or hatred when directed at groups and has not provided for adequate penalties,” the commission said in a statement.