Estonia’s president has been forced to apologise to her Finnish counterpart after a nationalist in the Baltic country’s government slurred Finland’s new prime minister.
Mart Helme, the Estonian interior minister and head of the nationalist Ekre party, on Sunday said in a radio interview that a “cashier” had become Finland’s prime minister and was now seeking “to liquidate Finland”.
That follows the election last week of Sanna Marin as Finland’s centre-left prime minister, making the 34-year-old who used to work in a bakery and as a cashier as the world’s youngest serving head of government.
Kersti Kaljulaid, Estonia’s president, telephoned her Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto on Monday to apologise and asked him to convey an apology to Ms Marin and the government.
The extraordinary spat between two close neighbours across the Gulf of Finland underscores concerns that the unexpected decision to take the Estonian nationalist Ekre party into government was causing damage to its reputation.
“It is very extraordinary. I can’t think of anything similar,” said Kristi Raik, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute. “Comments like this give lots of negative publicity to Estonia. How long-lasting or serious the damage will be depends on what happens after these comments,” she added.
Opposition parties in Estonia have already said they would call a vote of no confidence in Mr Helme if Prime Minister Juri Ratas refuses to fire him for the latest in a series of contentious comments. The interior minister has previously said Estonia was working on a plan B in case Nato fails, before being contradicted by other members of government, and made a gesture widely considered a symbol for white power when sworn in.
In his latest comments on state radio on Sunday, Mr Helme accused Ms Marin and her government of being part of the “reds”, the losing side in the 1918 Finnish civil war that tried to start a Soviet-backed socialist republic in Finland. “What has happened now in Finland still makes my hair stand on end,” Mr Helme said.
Mr Helme said on Monday afternoon that he would not apologise, adding: “It is very likely that the [Estonian] government will collapse.”
Ms Marin has made no direct response to the comments but on Sunday night she wrote on Twitter: “I’m extremely proud of Finland. Here the child of a poor family can educate themselves highly and reach many goals in life. A cashier can become Prime Minister, for instance. Finland would not survive without its workers. I highly value the work of every employee, professional and entrepreneur!”
Estonia, which has 1.3m people and became a well-respected member of the EU and Nato after regaining its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, is well known for its use of digital services for citizens and increasingly its world-class education system. But the liberal elite in the Baltic country has been shocked by Ekre joining government and their nationalist discourse.
“It’s a Trumpian style of political rhetoric. But Estonia is not the United States; it’s a small country that needs good friends. It can’t afford to behave like this,” said Ms Raik. The row has brought some respite from other problems for the new Finnish government, which was formed after the previous Social Democrat prime minister had to resign over a postal worker dispute. The government is locked in divisive talks over what to do with Finnish children and mothers held in a northern Syrian refugee camp.