Ukraine’s Estonian ally Kaja Kallas faces reelection battle
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TALLINN — Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, one of war-torn Ukraine’s firmest European friends, must navigate a tricky general election on Sunday to maintain her country’s ultra-hard stance against Russia.
In the year since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kallas, the 45-year-old leader of the center-right Reform Party, has emerged as a powerful advocate of tougher economic sanctions on Moscow and of ramping up NATO’s military presence along Europe’s eastern edge.
At this month’s Munich Security Conference, she called again on European nations to face down Russia’s aggression, including its nuclear saber-rattling, arguing that backing away would only embolden Moscow to escalate further.
“If we fall for Russia’s nuclear threats, we’ll wake up in a much more dangerous world,” she said. “It’s the same trap, every time they come back bolder.”
POLITICO’s Poll of Polls suggests Kallas’ Reform party is ahead with around 30 percent support, with far-right opposition rival the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (widely referred to by its acronym EKRE) on 19 percent and the opposition Center Party on 16 percent.
But despite this seemingly comfortable lead, pressure remains on Reform: It could win at the ballot box and still fail to form a majority government, as happened after elections in 2019, and a coalition built around EKRE and the Center Party could eject Kallas from power.
ESTONIA NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.
The loss of such a key ally would be a blow to Ukraine with the threat of war fatigue looming larger in Western capitals.
Along with ousted U.K. leader Boris Johnson, Kallas set the pace in Europe’s diplomatic and military response to the conflict with Estonia providing Kyiv with the most arms relative to the size of its economy.
A former lawyer, she has relentlessly put her case that Ukraine is fighting on behalf of the West.
Kallas’ mother was deported to Siberia along with tens of thousands of fellow Estonians during the Soviet occupation of the Baltic country, a family history which Kallas has said underpins her sense that Russia’s brutality in Ukraine must be resisted.
“My mother was just six months old when she was deported in a cattle car along with her mother and her grandmother to what Estonians call the Cold Land,” she told the European Parliament in a speech in March last year. “You could say we Estonians have experience with Russia which we have been trying to share with the European Union since we joined.” Estonia joined the EU and NATO in 2004.
Experts suggest that if EKRE takes power, its leader Martin Helme would be likely to continue supporting Ukraine, given the broad public backing the strategy enjoys among a population long suspicious of Moscow, but it could lack some of the verve of Kallas’ approach.
In a sign that an EKRE-led government might be more cautious, Helme suggested in one recent debate with Kallas that Estonia’s donation of howitzers had left it “empty handed” and unable to defend itself.
“We’ve surrendered our weapons, run out of howitzers, which we will be able to replace two or three years from now. What are we to do in the meantime?,” he said, national broadcaster ERR reported.
Kallas said all weaponry donated to Ukraine would be replaced and some of it upgraded.
“The warehouses are not empty,” she said. “The commander of the Estonian Defense Forces can assure you we are not creating gaps in our defensive capabilities.”
EKRE’s record of euroskepticism and its willingness to insult the leaders of some of Estonia’s closest allies are also viewed as potential challenges to Western political unity seen until now as a key strength in its response to the war.
In 2019, Martin Helme’s father Mart Helme, Estonia’s interior minister at the time, was criticized for what were widely interpreted as demeaning comments about Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin whom he referred to as a “salesgirl.” He also referred to U.S. President Joe Biden as a “corrupt character” and later resigned over the comments.
“To be sure, if Martin Helme were prime minister, he and his father would have to watch their mouths a bit more carefully,” said Vello Andres Pettai, a political scientist at Tartu University.
Martin Helme and Kallas declined interview requests.
Meanwhile, the Center Party, which could be a junior partner in an EKRE-led government, was long seen as favoring of friendlier relations with Russia and signed a cooperation agreement with the Putin-allied United Russia party in 2004.
However, Center scrapped that agreement in March 2022, and its leader Jüri Ratas said last week that Estonia would continue to support Ukraine’s resistance against Russian aggression.
On the streets of Tallinn on a recent weekday, it was clear Kallas remains a popular figure with voters, and comments from shoppers and local workers reflected a recent poll showing 37 percent of those surveyed believe she is the best prime ministerial candidate, well clear of Ratas who came second on 21 percent.
In the central Viru shopping mall, a display of press photos covered events from 2022, from sports to the war.
In one photo, Kallas can be seen sharing a joke with U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Estonian Tapa military base, where both British and Estonian soldiers serve.
“I see her as a positive character,” said Raul Lindemann, a 40-year-old restaurateur, who was looking at the photos. “She has been very active about this war in Ukraine, which is also very important for us here … it is the only right thing to do because if Ukraine is not fighting for us then we are the next in line.”
Kallas was born in Tallinn in 1977 into a family with a rich political heritage: Her great-grandfather was a key figure in Estonia’s struggle for independence and her father Siim Kallas is a previous prime minister of Estonia.
Father and daughter both feature on campaign banners for the Reform Party on approach roads into Tallinn.
Kaja Kallas studied law at Estonia’s Tartu University and worked as a lawyer before entering politics. She served as an MEP between 2014 and 2018 and became prime minister in 2021.
Alongside a continued hard line on defense — Reform is pledging to keep defense spending above 3 percent of economic output — Kallas has also tried to push the idea that her party can also improve the lot of pensioners and those on lower incomes, demographic groups with which EKRE have traditionally been popular.
“The Reform Party stands for an inclusive and caring society,” its campaign literature reads.
At the photo exhibition in the Tallinn mall, Lindemann the restaurateur said EKRE’s pitch to the elderly and the less well off — based on an idea that cutting immigration could free up more money for welfare — could be Kallas’ Achilles heel.
“I don’t like what EKRE says and I don’t agree with it, but I can see from talking to people around me that it is effective,” he said.