Estonia torn over Ukraine aid as elections loom

Divisions over assistance to Ukraine are looming large in Estonia as the country prepares for parliamentary elections in which far-right nationalists are set to make gains.

The Baltic state, a member of the EU and NATO, has led international calls over the past year for more military aid to help Ukraine fight Russia's invasion.

However, the far-right EKRE has argued against providing Ukraine with more arms, saying that Estonia should not worsen its relationship with Russia.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas's Reform Party is set to win, according to opinion polls, but would likely have to form a coalition to stay in power.

The Reform Party is to win 28.7 percent in Sunday's elections, according to a February survey by Kantar Emor that put the far-right EKRE in second place with 18.2.

"We support an open, friendly, Western-minded, European, smart country," Kallas told AFP.

"My biggest competitor thinks that we shouldn't help Ukraine, we shouldn't support Ukraine, we should only look for our self-interest," she said.

- Calls for fewer refugees -

The EKRE has also called for Estonia to stop accepting Ukrainian refugees and to lower immigration rates to protect Estonian workers.

"We shouldn't be further escalating tensions on our part. I just don't think that's sensible," EKRE leader Martin Helme told public broadcaster ERR.

Estonia's military assistance to Ukraine currently amounts to more than one percent of GDP -- the biggest contribution of any country relative to the size of the economy.

At the same time, the cost of living crisis has spiralled.

The country has one of the EU's highest inflation rates, totalling 18.6 percent in January on a 12-month comparison.

The Centre Party, which is traditionally popular with Estonia's large Russian-speaking minority, is set to come third with 13.4 percent, the poll estimated.

Its support of government policies on Ukraine and Russia has put off some Russian-speaking voters, and rates of abstention among the minority, which numbers around a quarter of the population, could be high.

- 'Drastic turn towards populism?' -

Estonia last went to the polls in 2019.

The Reform Party won but failed to clinch a deal for a majority coalition.

Instead, the Centre Party forged a coalition with EKRE and the Isamaa (Fatherland) party, but that government collapsed in 2021, and Kallas came to power at the head of a new alliance without EKRE.

During the latest campaign, the Reform Party, the Social Democrats, and another party called Estonia 200, have ruled out a coalition with EKRE.

The Centre Party and Isamaa have been more vague.

Centre and Reform have alternated in government ever since Estonia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union.

Reform is a centre-right liberal party which appeals to business owners and young professionals.

It has promised to raise military spending to at least three percent of GDP, ease taxes on business and wants to pass a law approving same-sex civil partnerships.

The Centre Party is centre-left and is promising more investment in infrastructure and affordable housing.

In a nod to the Russian-speaking minority, it promises to continue with bilingual school education while the other parties want Estonian-only teaching.

With so much at stake, public interest in the elections has been high, and by Wednesday nearly 20 percent of eligible voters had already cast their ballots online or at polling stations opened for pre-election voting.

"I'm very interested in the elections because it depends on them whether Estonia stays on its liberal course or there is a drastic turn towards populism," said 53-year-old Arni Alandi, a journalist.

"The outcome will also determine whether Estonia will continue its Ukraine-friendly policy and providing concrete aid," he said.

The results of the election to all 101 seats of parliament are expected early Monday.

"The Reform Party will probably have the leading position when it comes to forming the government as they are capable of forming a coalition with all the parties except EKRE," said political analyst Rein Toomla.

He said an alliance between Reform, Estonia 200 and the Social Democrats was possible, as was one between Reform, Centre and Isamaa.

"EKRE's chances of forming a government are more modest because EKRE isn't any other party's first choice," he said.