TALLINN, ESTONIA—The following is the full transcript of my interview with Estonian opposition leader Martin Helme.
You can read my profile about the 45-year-old Member of Parliament, former Minister of Finance and the leader of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) – which is currently leading in the polls – here.
The transcript is lightly edited for clarity.
ROSENBERG: Martin Helme, great to meet you, and I appreciate the time for you to talk to ALL ISRAEL NEWS. I'm honored to be here in Tallinn for my first trip to Estonia.
MP MARTIN HELME: Thank you for having me. I'm hoping you are enjoying our country.
ROSENBERG: I am, though we are here at a very difficult moment. I'm here to speak at the Jerusalem Prayer Breakfast to mobilize Christians to pray for Estonia and the Baltics, pray for peace and security in Ukraine and, of course, pray for the peace of Jerusalem. As an Evangelical, it's very, very important to me. So, it comes at an interesting moment for the threats that you are facing right now. I want to talk to you about your positions on Israel in the Middle East. But first, talk to me for a moment about the threats coming from Moscow and how you see them.
HELME: Well, this is something that we're sort of used to – living under the everlasting threat. I mean, over the past 1,000 years, almost every 100 years, Russians have attacked us. So, this is part of our history, knowing that we will never have real peace and we will always have to be prepared to defend ourselves.
Of course, nowadays, one way to be more secure is being part of NATO. But what people tend to forget when we talk about NATO is that every country has its own obligation to have a working defense, as well. It is impossible to have a defense alliance where only one or few countries have defense forces.
And, especially in light of what's going on in Ukraine – or in light of what's happened in Georgia, for instance – we need to beef up our own security and our own weapons systems, as well.
When it comes to the current situation with Ukraine, we do believe that the situation, in a sense, is really depressing. The Russians are the only ones who have weapons to back up their demands. Everyone else – especially the Western European countries – are talking about how we need to preserve peace, and that has a worrying echo of a Munich mentality, a 1938 mentality. Or, if we go to the example of Israel trading peace for land, or land for peace, that somehow if we satisfy the Russians’ demands to a degree, then they won't attack Ukraine.
I think it is the wrong mindset.
Having lived next to Russia, having lived next to Russians in Estonia, I can say with certainty that Russians only respect force. And if you do not show strength, you will not have peace. That is a false hope.
So, I don't see anyone other than Ukrainians preparing to defend themselves, which basically tells me that Russians will decide whether they want or don't want a war in Ukraine. And if they get their goals, if the Russians achieve their objectives without the war, there will be no war. But that doesn't mean that the West or Ukrainians haven't lost. So, that is one of the sad truths of the situation.
The other one is that Putin has said it quite clearly that the biggest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union.…
ROSENBERG: As somebody whose family escaped out of Russia, I thought that was one of the good things of the 20th century. You were liberated.
HELME: So do we. So do we. We got our independence back because of the collapse. But if you look at the 20-year rule of Putin, he has systematically tried to undo that. After the events in Kazakhstan, he basically now has the whole of Central Asia locked under his grip. After the war in Georgia, and the war in Chechnya, he has Caucuses under his grip. After the events in Belarus more than a year ago, in August 2020 – when there was the presidential elections, which of course weren't legal or honest, and he played everyone – so, after these events, he now has control over Belarus, more or less.
ROSENBERG: And now 30,000 [Russian] troops on the ground [in Belarus].
HELME: Which is the result of that [2020 election].
ROSENBERG: So, he [Putin] is effectively taking it [Belarus] over without anybody really saying anything.
HELME: Exactly, and what he still hasn't taken back or gathered from the lost bunch is Ukraine and the Baltic countries. So, if he's done with Ukraine, he'll come after the Baltic countries. That's as clear as day to us.
ROSENBERG: But you're an Article Five NATO country. [NOTE: Article Five of the NATO charter is that is one country is attacked, all the member states in NATO will rush to its defense.]
HELME: I think one of the main objectives of Putin in Ukraine is to show to the world that actually NATO doesn't function as everyone expects it to function. And we don't know what provocation he'll use to make that point, but if he effectively makes that point, then the unsaid understanding everywhere – in Moscow, in Beijing, in Western European capitals, in Washington – is that actually the eastern flank of NATO is undefendable, and is effectively again under Russia’s sphere of influence.
ROSENBERG: So, just to be clear, even though Ukraine is not a NATO country, I think what I'm hearing is that you're saying it's a test for NATO.
ROSENBERG: And while each of the Baltic states are NATO countries, as well as Poland and others, but Article Five is not enough to rest on that you can trust that everybody is going to come to your defense. If there's a crisis, you want that, you need that, but Article Four is the part about your need to be strong enough yourselves to not get rolled over.
[CORRECTION: I cited Article Four, but the self-defense provision in the NATO charter is actually Article Three.]
ROSENBERG: Am I hearing that correctly?
HELME: Yeah, you are hearing that correctly. What is being played out in Ukraine right now is the strategic security architecture of our time is being challenged. And if that is successfully challenged, then nothing that we have taken for granted no longer can be taken for granted. So, every country in the eastern flank of NATO needs to beef up their own security in order for NATO to actually work. So this is the reality of the situation.
Of course, I am extremely critical of the separate diplomacy of France, what President [Emmanuel] Macron has done. He has flown to Moscow over the heads of the Ukrainians, has promised the Russians that the Ukrainians will change their constitution to please the Russians, in order to show himself as a peacemaker. So, he is basically giving away Ukrainian sovereignty and territory to Russia in order to be able to say before the presidential elections in France that he has been, you know, a peacemaker. Now that is, first of all, it's not the way to do diplomacy, although the French tend to do that. And, of course, that's not the way to stop Russian aggression. That's not the way to stop Russian plans, either.
ROSENBERG: I'm guessing from what I'm hearing you say, you're more of a Churchill guy than a Chamberlain guy?
HELME: That would be true.
ROSENBERG: Okay. So, your father was the interior minister. You were recently a finance minister here in the Estonian government. The previous government. Your party is large and growing stronger, by all accounts.
HELME: Top of the polls at the moment.
ROSENBERG: Top of the polls at the moment. And the current government – the prime minister and her party – is slipping significantly. So, it's not inconceivable that this government is going to either collapse – or in March of next year there would be new elections – regardless of the scenario, you and your party are currently well-positioned either to be part of a governing coalition or potentially to lead one.
So, as the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS, I'm particularly curious on your view on Israel.
If you have the influence as a prime minister or as a major figure in a future government, what should people know? What should Christians know? What should Jews know? What should Muslims know about your views of Israel?
HELME: Right. All true. We are trying to get to the government and trying to do that by maximizing our vote, and therefore maximizing our leverage.
What people need to understand is that we are a patriotic or nationalist party, which in Eastern Europe, at least, is not a bad thing. Nationalism in Western Europe has a bad ring to it. Not here. So, we are unashamedly nationalists.
ROSENBERG: You are attacked by every liberal, progressive media outlet that I've ever seen.
HELME: Yeah, my point exactly.
ROSENBERG: Bitterly, let’s be honest.
HELME: Yes. And add to that, we are also conservatives. We are conservatives in a very traditional Christian way, which I think is something that would resonate with Christians everywhere. One of the main thrusts into politics for our party was our vehement and uncompromising stand against gay marriage. And that hasn't gone away. We are still working on that. I will promise we will roll back that legislation one day. So, the moral issues are the very core of who we are. And, of course, if you are a nationalist, and if you are conservative, the mainstream media just loathes you without any limitations.
ROSENBERG: We have some experience of that, both in the United States, certainly in Israel, as well.
HELME: Exactly. And if you are at least even vaguely aware of the labels they use to demonize such politicians and such parties, you'll know that everything is in the mix – [they call us] racists, homophobes….
ROSENBERG: Far-right extremists.
ROSENBERG: You’re not described in the media as a conservative. You're described as a far-, far-right lunatic, crazy, extremists, dangerous.
HELME: Of course, anti-Semitic as well. That's always in the mix, as well. Although, because we are very, very much against mass immigration – and mass immigration to Europe, [which] nowadays mostly comes from Arab countries – we do get the “Islamophobic” label, as well. So, the whole palette is there.
In reality, of course, I can say for myself, personally, and for the leadership of the party, we are very pro-Israel. We are.
And I am a practicing religious person. I go to church every week, basically, and a very significant….
ROSENBERG: Which is not entirely the norm here.
HELME: Not in Estonia – no, no, no.
ROSENBERG: It's the Christian tradition in Estonia [historically], but not exactly current practice.
HELME: No, no, no. Estonia is one of the least religious societies in the world, like most Nordic countries, anyway. So, it is not a norm in Estonia.
So, Israel – as part of my religious beliefs and as part of geopolitical thinking – has a very special place for me personally, but also because we are a conservative party, we draw a large part of our support comes from the Christian right in a statement, which is not a political force like in America. It's not politically organized, but most of those people who consider themselves to be religious actually support our party. So, the supportive view of Jewish heritage and Jewish religious philosophy is natural to our party.
ROSENBERG: But Estonia is certainly not considered particularly or distinctly pro-Israel.
HELME: No. It's not a big theme in Estonia. It's just not a big theme in Estonia.
ROSENBERG: Would it be [a big theme] in a government that either you were in, or leading?
HELME: It would be. And I want to add, because we are nationalists we understand instinctively what it means to have your own special place in the world, what it means to have your own land, your God-given right to live in a land. That's something that we instinctively understand and are sympathetic to.
ROSENBERG: And [you must understand] the threats from your neighbors.
HELME: Exactly. To live with a neighbor that wants to destroy you – has been wanting to do that for, you know, centuries – we can relate to it. We can relate to all of it.
It’s not in the important political discussions here or it's not a real [major] issue in Estonia because, you know, we have our own worries.
But at least for me, I can so easily understand the parallels or the thinking in Israel.
And also in my view, in just the plainest understanding, it would be completely irrational and folly to go against God's chosen people.
What's the point of it?
How can you be that stupid?
ROSENBERG: I know you're not surprised, but the rest of the world – many countries – don't see it that way.
HELME: Well, it’s the oldest hatred in the world. I know it's the oldest hatred in the world.
ROSENBERG: And anti-Semitism is growing. I don't know about here, but certainly in Western Europe.
HELME: Not here. But in Western Europe. But that is directly tied to the immigration. That’s directly tied to the immigration….
ROSENBERG: Of Islamists….
HELME: Basically [coming from] Muslim countries. Yes. Because everyone is fretting about neo-Nazis. I don't think there are that many neo-Nazis in the world left, maybe somewhere in some basement someone is still harboring some fantasies. Basically, anti-Semitism nowadays purely comes from Islamic countries, and with these people who migrate from Islamic countries to Europe, the attacks on Jews everywhere they become a large minority have been exploding.
So, but having said all that, I do know that we have had a few people in our party who have….
ROSENBERG: Yes, I was going to ask you.
HELME: They have said things that, first of all, I don't agree with. And secondly, in my view, they are just stupid, and as usual were blown out of proportion.
One of those is a later member of our parliament. Back when he was in high school, he wrote the short blog post philosophizing about the economic wonder of Nazi Germany, which was then interpreted as his admiration for the Nazi regime, which wasn't so, but it's impossible to explain it later.
And there have been, you know, a few instances like this and it always is seized by our political opponents and made into our main characteristics. But these are so few and such small statements from people who actually are not in the party, or in any significant position. You will probably find that in any organization, in anywhere in the world.
ROSENBERG: Well, you're not a stranger to controversial statements, either. One of them, of course, back from 2013. Almost any liberal Western publication that's doing a profile on you will cite that quote, which didn't sound good.
HELME: Well, yes. The statement itself was, of course, in a context. And back then I was not a member of Parliament. I was a talking head in a journalistic setting, our weekly show, and we were talking about mass immigration, and the effect of mass immigration to the Swedish society.
ROSENBERG: Uncontrolled borders.
HELME: Exactly — and the violence and basically the disruption of the civil society it has brought to the Swedish society. And then I said that we have to have a very strong immigration policy, which only follows one simple rule that ‘if it's black, send them back.’ So, that was, that was — yeah, if I had been in a in office, in political office, I would probably have chosen different words. But being a journalist, you have to be a bit sharper….
ROSENBERG: A pundit.
HELME: Yeah, exactly. You have to be….
ROSENBERG: Well, I would say it was not good….
HELME: But I have to say…..
ROSENBERG: And so it fits the — it adds to — the potential narrative that your nationalism may go too far, right? That's what you've got to convince people, that that’s not accurate.
HELME: I have to say that I have a different approach to it all. I refuse to allow the Left to decide what words I can use, what signs I can use, what concepts I can talk about. This is what Left has done in the West for 30, 40, 50 years. You can't say that word. Oh, you can't say that word. Oh, you can't even think that word. No, I will choose for myself what words I will use, what concepts I will advance. And the bloody, looney Left will not tell me how to conduct myself, and I enjoy watching them squirming in anguish and screaming and gnashing their teeth. I enjoy it.
ROSENBERG: On that one, though, you wouldn't choose that [expression] again, that formulation. I think that's what you just said. I'm not trying to put words in your mouth, but I'm….
HELME: Exactly. Exactly. I would probably use a different way to express it. But I still am very much of the view that mass immigration is a very problematic thing for any society.
ROSENBERG: Particularly for a small country.
HELME: Especially for a small country who has gone through mass immigration during Soviet occupation. I mean, we were before the Second World War, 97% of Estonia was Estonian. And then, when we regained our independence, 60% of Estonia was Estonian. And so we had, you know, 40% of the population was immigrant population. So, we know exactly what happens when that sort of societal change happens. It’s not a good thing. And no one needs in the western world mass unskilled immigration. That's just not in nobody's benefit.
ROSENBERG: Well, I appreciate it very much, you addressing that.
Two last questions.
One: as either prime minister or somebody central in a future — possibly, near-term — government, what's your position on where the Estonian embassy should be in Israel?
HELME: I think it's a no brainer. If Israel says its capital is Jerusalem, then we should have our embassy in Israel's capital.
ROSENBERG: And you would move it, if you had the chance?
HELME: I don't see what’s the problem? I don't see what's the problem. Of course. It would probably bring about heavy criticism from all the usual suspects, but..,.
ROSENBERG: But maybe not the United Arab Emirates anymore. Maybe not, you know, Bahrain. Maybe not even the Saudis. The world is changing in our part of the world in some interesting ways.
HELME: Exactly. And it's not a very difficult move to make. You just sell off one piece of real estate and you would probably get a very helpful hand from the Israelis [to buy another].
ROSENBERG: I suspect they would be very happy.
Okay, last question: given your security needs on the border of a very, very dangerous enemy, and given Israel's security threats and the technology that we have in our Israeli Defense Ministry, is there a scenario in which Estonia and Israel should be working more closely on [Estonia], buying Israeli technology or working together in some specific way? I don't think that's been the policy in the past.
HELME: No, well, back in the 90s, we had an arms deal directly from Israel. But I think we have the same problem. In Estonia and Israel we have the same problem. There is no strategic depth. I mean, the country is just small. Yeah, Israel is even more stretched out than Estonia, but basically the territory we are in is the same ballpark. So you have very, very little room to fall back to. And that means you have to have weapon systems that are up and running and are capable of stopping them [the enemies] right away. And yes, Estonia has a few very critical capabilities in the short distance….
ROSENBERG: In the short range.
HELME: Yes. We don't have mid-range air defenses. We don't have armored ability. And we are only now building up because when we were in government, we pushed it through — we are only now building up coastal defense. So we, really, really need mid -range air defense for yesterday. So, we can't go to your usual procurement process where it takes two years to procure, and then another two years to get the stuff in here, and then the next two years to train the people. We need them as if we were in the war already. So, that means a state-with-state agreement — an arms deal between two governments — and it’s as simple as that. And I think there are really only very few places in the world where we can go to such a deal, and one of those places would be Israel, in my view.
ROSENBERG: Fascinating. I appreciate very much you taking the time to go on the record with ALL ISRAEL NEWS.
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.