What rights do we expect in a futuristic Estonia? A lense into LGBTIQ equality in EKRE’s Estonia

*opinions expressed are those of the author.

In Estonian mythical folklore, Valge Laev is a white ship that brings freedom, or takes people away to a better land. Led by the prophet, the people gather near Tallinn to wait for the ship. If the new technology that Estonia has introduced is building the big white ship, will the conflicted values between its passengers make it capsize?

Estonia brands itself to be the country of the future, with initiatives highlighting the digitalization of daily lives; leveraging blockchain and AI to build a new generation of technological smart state. What’s more, Estonia has made tremendous progress in promoting equal rights of citizens, including LGBTIQ people. From case by case recognition of same-sex marriage established abroad; to adoption of children; to no requirement for surgical intervention for obtaining legal gender recognition; and enactment of gender neutral cohabitation legislation available to same-sex couples, Estonia has been the front-runner in terms of LGBTIQ equality among former Soviet states.

The most recent Estonian Parliamentary election held in March concluded with the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), a right-wing nationalist and eurosceptic party, gaining almost 18% of the vote. EKRE became the third largest party in the country, more than doubling its number of seats in Parliament. As of April 2019, “the Estonian government entered a coalition with far-right party controlling environment, rural affairs as well as foreign trade and IT.” *11 This striking imbalance between the recent advancement and the success of a party with anti-immigration and homophobic rhetoric probe me to further investigate what will be the effect of a right-leaning party representation, and what that it could mean for the future of LGBTIQ community in Estonia.

First of all, some of the legislation that has been passed might face a further delay in actual implementation due to the rise of EKRE. In 2014, Estonia passed the Gender Neutral Civil Partnership Act, becoming the first post-Soviet country to recognize same-sex partnership. As the country’s wish to depart from its past and embrace a Scandinavian and European identity, it was a liberal leap. However, the implementation of this legislation is still lacking in 2019. In 2015, because of the “change of the coalition government and the opposition by the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, the implementing acts needed for the law to enter into force were left hanging in the balance.”*9 The necessary acts are still taking time to be passed, causing inconvenience and confusion for the LGBTIQ community. “This legal mismatch caused people problems, as they did not know which notaries were willing to sign a partnership contract or which social guarantees cohabitation entailed.”*4 Even though the Supreme Court ruled that the cohabitation act is a part of Estonia’s legal order, the failure to adopt implementation measures significantly affect its impact.

What’s more concerning, is that the topic of LGBTIQ-inclusive legislation has evolved into a political power struggle in Estonia. Especially the cohabitation act has led to a division of Estonian society, with each party establishing a platform around the topic as a battleground for splitting voters. Bouncing back and forth between party and party at the expense of the community to achieve voting outcomes and amass political power. While the Social Democratic Party has made the act one of the cornerstones of its programme, EKRE strongly opposed it. “In 2017, EKRE prepared a new bill that intends to repeal the Registered Partnership Act. “*2 Although the bill was voted down in 2016, and EKRE acknowledged that they simply don’t have enough votes to repeal it now, will EKRE slowly be able to gather enough support to revoke the act in the future? “EKRE is to receive in the coalition agreement the opportunity to hold referendums with which to later achieve what it wants.” Helme, chairperson of the EKRE party said. *14 “If voter turnout exceeds half and they support the referendum proposal, then it will automatically enter into force,this means that we can put the repeal of the cohabitation act to a referendum. “*15 This uncertainty and potential setback leave the affected LGBTIQ community of Estonia living in uncertainty and even fear. Instead of questioning the validity of the legislation, its implementation should be the focus to move on with strengthening trust among the society. For a young country like Estonia, trust building between citizens and different authorities is extremely important.

In addition to difficulties of implementation of the cohabitation act, there are also inconsistencies in reconciling domestic laws with international law. In 2015, Estonia initially refused to register the marriage of Swedish nationals residing in Estonia. However, the Tallinn Circuit Court later ruled that marriages performed abroad must be entered into the registry. In 2017, the same court ruled that marriages established abroad do not confer to residency rights in Estonia in the case of an American-Estonian spouse. This decision was, in-effect overturned by the European Court of Justice in 2018 in the Coman case, which stated that “same-sex couples must be treated the same way as opposite-sex couples in the issuance of residency permits. “*10 Ekre''s coming to power could halt the implementation of crucial judgments like the Coman judgment, affecting the local LGBTIQ community.

Another key challenge facing LGBTIQ people in Estonia is hostile public attitudes. According to a survey by Estonia Human Rights Center, “the attitudes of Estonian people towards gays and lesbians have improved during the past 3 years, but over half still regard homosexuality as rather or completely unacceptable. “*5 The determining factors were age, language and education. “Opposition is higher among older respondents and the Russian-speaking community, which is generally more religious. ”*6 This community has stronger connection with the Orthodox faith. Furthermore, there is a broad spectrum of hate speech. “Recognising hostility is becoming more widespread. At the same time, those groups in society hostile to LGBTIQ people have become more active too.”*7 As Estonia march towards to be a more digital state, online harassment and controversial comments are also on the rise. In addition to tensions with technology, religious conflicts is further manifested in Estonia. The Jewish Community of Estonia expressed that “Many statements of this party (EKRE) are antagonistic toward national minorities and aim at dividing society into insiders and outsiders.”*11 According to Aili Vahtla, a prominent Estonian human rights activist, some local organizations, including LGBTIQ organizations, or churches have faced vandalism and theft, many of the members express concerns of safety of coming to the premises of support groups. “The organization's psychological counselor has further added that the new populist forces in politics and their messages have made people even more vulnerable.”*8 These current strains with technology and religion are seeing a climax with the rhythm of the surge of far-right aggression in the country.

Lastly, a key concern is EKRE's vision drifting away from the EU. As the EU has championed respect for the human rights of LGBTIQ people across the Union, intentional deviation from it could have a strong effect on LGBTIQ people's lives in Estonia. Even though “the coalition deal also enshrines Estonia’s continued membership of the EU,”*13 with EKRE’s leadership taking charge of registration, public administration and immigration matters, it is difficult to believe that they will follow the blueprint and guidelines EU set out for human rights compliance.

What are the recommendations for this country that is roaring on the technology highway? That road won’t be smooth for too long if the respect for equality and dignity aren’t maintained and upgraded. It is imperative for the morals of the society to reach a level of agreeable social contracts with each of the minority communities, and use technology as a tool of advancement to facilitate basic rights for all citizens. It is critical that Estonia does not regress the standards of rights for its LGBTIQ community. While we see Poland, Hungary, Austria, and other countries struggle with mounting phobic rhetoric, our community is stronger when we ally with each other to learn more about shared tactics and strategies to stand in solidarity in the trampling of right-wing leaderships. Eventually ensuring that the political setback won’t become a setback of legislation and the efforts that have been hard fought.

Maybe that Valge Laev white ship, is already in the heart of every Estonian.


Citations:

  1. Rainbow Europe. https://rainbow-europe.org/#8631/0/0
  2. Estonia World. “Estonia Drinks Maker Stands Up For LGBTQ Rights.” Silver Tambur. Last modified October 6th 2017.
    http://estonianworld.com/business/estonian-drinks-maker-stands-lgbtq-rig...
  3. ERR News. “Circuit court: Same-sex marriage cannot be considered valid in Estonia.” Aili Vahtla. Last modified November 24th, 2017.
    https://news.err.ee/644719/circuit-court-same-sex-marriage-cannot-be-con...
  4. ERR News. “Opinion | Everyday life for Estonian sexual minorities: Beating and threats.” Aili Vahtla. Last modified January 28th, 2019.
    https://news.err.ee/904776/opinion-everyday-life-for-estonian-sexual-min...
  5. Human Rights Center. “Attitudes towards LGBT topics in Estonia.” Egert Runne.
    https://humanrights.ee/en/topics-main/vordne-kohtlemine/attitudes-toward...
  6. Human Rights Center. “Attitudes towards LGBT topics in Estonia.” Egert Runne.
    https://humanrights.ee/en/topics-main/vordne-kohtlemine/attitudes-toward...
  7. ERR News. “Opinion | Everyday life for Estonian sexual minorities: Beating and threats.” Aili Vahtla. Last modified January 28th, 2019.
    https://news.err.ee/904776/opinion-everyday-life-for-estonian-sexual-min...
  8. ERR News. “Opinion | Everyday life for Estonian sexual minorities: Beating and threats.” Aili Vahtla. Last modified January 28th, 2019.
    https://news.err.ee/904776/opinion-everyday-life-for-estonian-sexual-min...
  9. Estonian World. “Estonian drinks maker stands up for LGBTQ rights.” Silver Tambur. Last modified October 6th, 2017.
    https://estonianworld.com/business/estonian-drinks-maker-stands-lgbtq-ri...
  10. ERR New. “Court: Partner in same-sex partnership has right to residence permit.” Aili Vahtla. Last modified November 17th, 2018.
    https://news.err.ee/862075/court-partner-in-same-sex-partnership-has-rig...
  11. Time of Isreal. “Estonian party seals deal to form government with far-right.” Last modified April 7th, 2018.
    https://www.timesofisrael.com/estonian-party-seals-deal-to-form-governme...
  12. Time of Isreal. “Estonian party seals deal to form government with far-right.” Last modified April 7th, 2018.
    https://www.timesofisrael.com/estonian-party-seals-deal-to-form-governme...
  13. ERR News. “Coalition compromise: EKRE to be given ‘golden key’ in referendums.” Last modified 01/04/2019.
    https://news.err.ee/925767/coalition-compromise-ekre-to-be-given-golden-...
  14. ERR News. “Coalition compromise: EKRE to be given ‘golden key’ in referendums.” Last modified 01/04/2019.
    https://news.err.ee/925767/coalition-compromise-ekre-to-be-given-golden-...