International concern as far-right Estonian cabinet ministers make ‘white power salute’ on first day

The far-right EKRE party was brought into government by a centrist party in exchange for support

Jon Stone
Europe Correspondent
Thursday 02 May 2019 14:44
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Far-right Estonian cabinet ministers make 'white power salute' on first day

Estonia’s new coalition government has sparked international concern after two of its new cabinet ministers made an alleged white power salute at their swearing-in ceremony this week.

Mart Helme and his son Martin, both from the far-right EKRE party, were pictured making the hand gesture – which has gained popularity in online alt-right circles.

Another minister from the same party, Marti Kuusik, has also had to resign after just one day in office, over allegations of domestic violence.

The new government, which took office on Monday, is led by the liberal Estonian Centre Party. But under a coalition deal done by the centrists, the far-right party has been given five cabinet ministers in exchange for their support.

Former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves expressed his concern over what he described as a “white power sign” given by ministers.

“Doing this in front of the entire diplomatic corps at the swearing in ceremony certainly gave diplomats something to write home about,” he said, adding that he was “appalled” by the incident.

Meanwhile, eminent former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt said: “I get genuinely worried when I see this behaviour by two members of the new government in Estonia.”

EKRE posted a relatively strong performance in March’s Estonian general election, winning 17.8 per cent of the vote on the back of attacking immigrants, same-sex partnerships and feminism.

The party also says it wants a referendum on EU membership, but claims it does not want to leave. The EU is extremely popular in Estonia: a Kantar poll released last week showed 89 per cent of people would vote to remain and just 11 per cent to leave.

Mr Kuusik, the minister who resigned over the domestic violence allegations, denies any wrongdoing and says he is subject to slander. Police have launched an investigation into the claims, which began in media reports.

Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid left the parliament chamber in protest over the allegations during Mr Kuusik’s own initial swearing-in ceremony.

Estonia has seen rapid economic development since it joined the EU in 2004, positioning itself abroad much as a high-tech Nordic country as an eastern European one. Residents of its capital Tallinn enjoy free public transport, while the Baltic state has made headlines abroad for the quality of its online government services.

The alleged white supremacist symbol used by the two ministers, which resembles the “OK” sign, has its origins in the online American alt-right movement.

Its use is said to have begun as a meme or joke, but its continued proliferation has seen it adopted by far-right groups as a “dog whistle” to supporters. Earlier this year the suspect on the Christchurch mosque shooting made the gesture in court.

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