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The Best of Enemies: Identity, Recursion, and the Convergence of Kremlin and Estonian Strategic Narratives in the Global Populist Discourse

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Part of the The Palgrave Macmillan Series in International Political Communication book series (PIPC)

Abstract

What explains the rhetorical convergence between anti-Kremlin parties and the Kremlin? Far from an anomaly, the rhetorical overlap between the nationalist, anti-Moscow right-wing populist parties in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe and that of Moscow not only defies expectations, but goes beyond cheap talk. From 2019 to 2021, rhetorical convergence isolated Estonia from its NATO and EU allies and constituted costly signaling on the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE). This chapter capitalizes on the outcome of the 2020 US presidential elections and the fall of the Jüri Ratas II government to chart the convergence in strategic narratives between the Estonian far right and the Kremlin in a hard test for convergence in narratives, based on an original, hand-coded dataset of pro-EKRE content. The chapter then examines the role of online “relay stations” repurposing Russian content and recirculating such content to unwitting anti-Russian audiences in a global ideological recursion loop. In conclusion, it reassesses its theory of uncoordinated rhetorical convergence between two hostile actors.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This may be a reversal of Centre’s intentions, if one is to believe retired politician and former Centre member Ain Seppik, who claimed in a recent interview that Centre co-founder and former prime minister Edgar Savisaar aided in EKRE’s founding in hopes that Centre would have a “younger brother” through which to capture a hostile electorate and eventually form a governing coalition: Vilja Kiisler, Ain Seppik: muidugi ei mõelnud Edgar, et EKRE Keskerakonnast mööda läheb, Eesti Päevaleht, September 23, 2021, retrieved October 16, 2021, https://epl.delfi.ee/artikkel/94649259/ain-seppik-muidugi-ei-moelnud-edgar-et-ekre-keskerakonnast-mooda-laheb

  2. 2.

    Interview with an Estonian academic and scholar of information operations and security studies, Tallinn, Estonia, September 5, 2018.

  3. 3.

    Interview with a senior Estonian Defense Forces officer commanding a counter-disinformation unit, Tartu, Estonia, September 4, 2018.

  4. 4.

    This is not to indiscriminately lump together different sources. Telegram’s editorial choices are more eclectic and weighted toward the conspiratorial, without a coherent political ideology. In stark contrast, Uued Uudised presents more homegrown Estonian far-right content while importing content from global alt-right websites. Objektiiv is perhaps the paragon of the contemporary globalized alt-right local online journal, in that with Varro Vooglaid at its helm, it imports global Catholic far-right narratives in a state where Catholics are a small minority but appeals successfully to far-right audiences in Estonia—allegedly with French managerial support and ten million euros in funding routed from Poland, according to a team of journalists affiliated with Eesti Päevaleht: Oliver Kund, Kuidas ehitatakse uusi SAPTK-e ja Objektiive: juhtimine Prantsusmaalt, raha Poolast, Eesti Päevaleht, December, 30, 2020, retrieved October 16, 2021, https://epl.delfi.ee/artikkel/92111933/kuidas-ehitatakse-uusi-saptk-e-ja-objektiive-juhtimine-prantsusmaalt-raha-poolast

  5. 5.

    For one example, https://pohjaeesti.treraadio.ee/kordus/6167/raagime-asjast. Tre Raadio broadcasts the Helme family radio program weekly on its FM frequencies across Estonia, while the archives for the Raadiosaade “Räägime asjast” are available on https://www.mixcloud.com/raadiosaade/, including the November 8, 2020, Sunday program that led to Mart Helme’s resignation https://www.mixcloud.com/raadiosaade/räägime-asjast-08112020/; retrieved October 11, 2021.

  6. 6.

    As with every major Estonian party, EKRE provides high production values in written, visual, and audio content through its official Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/rahvuspartei/, retrieved October 10, 2021.

  7. 7.

    Right-wing populist movements across the world have arguably benefited from the labeling of the alternative right, and these populist groups outside of Estonia are a key source of pro-EKRE content. However, this chapter concurs with the literature on EKRE and its supporters in classifying them as far-right and therefore refers to them as such, much as the party enjoys the support of those who do not classify themselves as such, including from former supporters of Isamaa and Keskerakond.

  8. 8.

    Interview with the editor of an Estonian right-wing news daily, Tallinn, Estonia, May 18, 2020.

  9. 9.

    Interview with an Estonian political analyst, Tallinn, Estonia, January 17, 2021.

  10. 10.

    Interview with a leading Estonian scholar of the far right, Tartu, Estonia, December 3, 2019.

  11. 11.

    Interview with an Estonian media entrepreneur, Tallinn, Estonia, October 12, 2021.

  12. 12.

    Sputnik Eesti served as the Estonian-language affiliate of the Sputnik network of Russian foreign-directed state media, operating at least eight Facebook accounts directed at Estonians, but failing to resonate with Estonian audiences. Sputnik Eesti shut down after Estonian authorities threatened to prosecute staff members under EU sanctions against Russia.

  13. 13.

    That separate dataset for a parallel project relies on the random selection of 15% of all the posts published by the official Facebook accounts of ERR, Sputnik Eesti, and Delfi in each calendar month from January 2017 to December 2019 for manual topic labeling. The time period under study is chosen because Sputnik Eesti started operating only in 2016, with fewer than 1000 followers until 2017 and suspended its operations in Estonia on January 1, 2020. These three outlets combined published over 100,000 posts on their respective Facebook pages. The labeled data will be used to train semi-supervised natural language processing models to classify the remaining 85% unlabeled posts into topics.

  14. 14.

    Interview with an Estonian academic specializing in military history and security studies, Tartu, Estonia, September 4, 2018.

  15. 15.

    Interview with an Estonian scholar of Russian info ops, Tartu, Estonia, October 24, 2019.

  16. 16.

    These results, analyzed in greater detail in a separate project, are based on a random sample of 418 posts from both Sputnik Eesti and Delfi combined, and posted on Facebook from November 1 to December 31, 2019.

  17. 17.

    In a telling moment, EKRE may have violated state bilingualism by campaigning in Russian-speaking majority city Narva with only Russian-language slogans.

  18. 18.

    One should not overestimate EKRE’s ability to make inroads with Russian-speaking voters, however, if its performance in the October 2021 municipal elections is an indicator of current political preferences among Russophones. While EKRE invested heavily in running a platform of Russian-speaking candidates in Russophone-majority Narva, the party failed to make the 5% threshold. Instead, EKRE’s appeals toward Russian-speaking voters appear to be a longer-turn strategy to break out of the ceiling imposed by its ethnic Estonian right-wing constituency and into Keskerakond’s base, in order to position the party as an unavoidable interlocutor in future Estonian coalition governments.

  19. 19.

    As witnessed through SAPTK’s online presence mobilizing protestors; PRESSITEADE: Riigikogu ees tuleb suur meeleavaldus perekonna ja demokraatia kaitseks. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from SA Perekonna ja Traditsiooni Kaitseks: https://saptk.ee/arhiiv/meeleavaldus-perekonna-ja-demokraatia-kaitseks/

  20. 20.

    Pressed over his hosting of Marine Le Pen in Estonia and the positions of his European far-right allies regarding Russia, Helme instead side-stepped the question completely. “What we have in common with Le Pen and others is that we do not want the European Union to become an empire.” Konstantin Eggert, Estonian Interior Minister: Sanctions will not make Russia a democratic country [Glava MVD Estonii: Sanktsii ne sdelayut Rossiyu demokraticheskoy stranoy], Deutsche Welle, October 15, 2020, retrieved October 13, 2021, https://www.dw.com/ru/helme-sankcii-ne-sdelajut-rossiju-demokraticheskoj-stranoj/a-55277490

  21. 21.

    Though not for want of effort, as the attempts of Sven Sildnik and other founders of the Estonian Independence Party years before EKRE’s electoral breakthroughs show.

  22. 22.

    The opposition as the “aggravated drunken Soviet” being a typical headline; Staff, Opositsioon kui laamendav purjus sovjett, Uued Uudised, November 10, 2020, retrieved October 12, 2021, https://uueduudised.ee/uudis/eesti/opositsioon-kui-laamendav-purjus-sovjett/

  23. 23.

    Uued Uudised compared press scrutiny of Mart Helme to that of Biden family members, for instance; Staff, Mida Mart Helme tegelikult ütles?, Uued Uudised, September 11, 2020, retrieved October 12, 2021, https://uueduudised.ee/uudis/eesti/mida-mart-helme-tegelikult-utles/

  24. 24.

    Continuing in this vein, another article read: “Those who today condemn Mart Helme have themselves leveled ridiculous statements against the legitimate president Trump;” Staff, Tänased Mart Helme hukkamõistjad on ise seadusliku president Trumpi suhtes mõnitavaid avaldusi teinud, Uued Uudised, November 9, 2020, retrieved October 12, 2021, https://uueduudised.ee/uudis/eesti/tanased-mart-helme-hukkamoistjad-on-ise-seadusliku-president-trumpi-suhtes-monitavaid-avaldusi-teinud/

  25. 25.

    “He was the absolute best interior minister I know,” […] “He has the qualities of a super leader, he always has a strategic vision, he is strong-willed, he was never afraid of responsibility and he cared for his people.” Staff, Mart Helme nõunik:Terve maja on kurb, et ta ära minna otsustas. Tal on superjuhi omadused ja ta hoiab oma inimesi,” Uued Uudised, November 11, 2020, retrieved October 12, 2021, https://uueduudised.ee/uudis/eesti/mart-helme-nounik-terve-maja-on-kurb-et-ta-ara-minna-otsustas-tal-on-superjuhi-omadused-ja-ta-hoiab-oma-inimesi/

  26. 26.

    “Mart resigned because there were more important things for him than the position of minister. The right to express one’s opinion clearly and straightforwardly, faithfulness to the truth was one of them. The desire to maintain a government that has agreed on a referendum on marriage, restricting immigration through changes to the law on foreigners, building borders and border guards […]. He has sacrificed himself for greater things than his own chair.” Martin Helme, Martin Helme: mitmes umbusaldus see oli, mis põhjusel ja kellele? Vahet pole, nagunii kukub alati läbi…, Uued Uudised, November 9, 2020, retrieved October 12, 2021, https://uueduudised.ee/arvamus/martin-helme-mitmes-umbusaldus-see-oli-mis-pohjusel-ja-kellele-vahet-pole-nagunii-kukub-alati-labi/

  27. 27.

    Uued Uudised understands the political power of satire, as its reaction to Andrus Kivirähk’s work likening Mart Helme in his resignation to a senescent Brezhnev demonstrates. Staff, Allakäinud kirjanik võrdles Helme tagasiastumist Brežnevi surmaga, Uued Uudised, November 13, 2020, retrieved October 12, 2021, https://uueduudised.ee/arvamus/repliik/allakainud-kirjanik-vordles-helme-tagasiastumist-breznevi-surmaga/

  28. 28.

    As almost invariably, the main strategy was that of repeating claims by Trump and his defenders without challenging or correcting them. Bret Schafer, Foreign Amplification of Voter Fraud Narratives: How Russian, Iranian, and Chinese Messengers Have Leveraged Post-Election Unrest in the United States, German Marshall Fund Alliance for Securing Democracy, November 24, 2020, retrieved October 1, 2021, https://securingdemocracy.gmfus.org/foreign-amplification-of-voter-fraud-narratives-how-russian-iranian-and-chinese-messengers-have-leveraged-post-election-unrest-in-the-united-states/

  29. 29.

    As Mart Helme plaintively remarked in his resignation speech, “I have not said anything that has not already been reported by the American media, the American free media.” Indeed, in the materials examined here Helme had not invented anything; he merely repeated the same American alt-right content that many on the Estonian far-right were repeating at that same time. Staff, Minister of Interior Mart Helme resigns, ERR News and BNS, November 9, 2020, retrieved October 9, 2021, https://news.err.ee/1156858/minister-of-interior-mart-helme-resigns

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Correspondence to Noel Foster .

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Foster, N. (2022). The Best of Enemies: Identity, Recursion, and the Convergence of Kremlin and Estonian Strategic Narratives in the Global Populist Discourse. In: Chakars, J., Ekmanis, I. (eds) Information Wars in the Baltic States. The Palgrave Macmillan Series in International Political Communication. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-99987-2_13

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