Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has been dubbed Europe’s Iron Lady for her uncompromising approach to Russia’s war on Ukraine, having pulled no punches as she accused Western leaders of “naivety” for engaging in bilateral talks with President Vladimir Putin.
But despite once saying Margaret Thatcher “had many things right”, the 45-year-old centre-right leader is forging a new era in progressive politics in the Baltic state after her liberal Reform Party swept to victory in the general election last week.
At Europe’s eastern frontier with Russia, Estonia is facing a key moment – not only in the long military and ideological battle against Mr Putin, but also for the survival of Europe amid recent question marks over democratic institutions.
Under Soviet occupation for well more than 50 years until its unshackling in 1991, the small Baltic nation of only 1.3 million people is undergoing a transformative lurch towards liberalisation that may prove to be a blueprint for Ukraine, and following pro-EU protests halting a foreign agents bill, Georgia.
Ms Kallas, who embodies the scars of occupation and Estonia’s speedy pivot towards the West, received more personal votes than any politician in the country’s history in her re-election last week.
Her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother were all deported to Siberia. In an interview with the Financial Times, Ms Kallas recalled mixing sour cream with sugar because sweets were not available in shops. On a childhood trip to East Germany, her father – who served as prime minister in 2002-2003 – told her to breathe “the air of freedom that comes from the western side”.
Should coalition talks between Ms Kallas and two of the country’s left leaning parties – the Social Democrats and Estonia 200 –come to fruition, Estonia will have the most progressive government in its history.
Speaking to reporters on election night, she said that strong support for progressive parties showed that Estonians “overwhelmingly value liberal values, security founded on EU and Nato, and firm support to Ukraine”.
The challenges have been numerous, with Estonia’s conservative right-wing holding sway over Ms Kallas’ first coalition, which collapsed last year.
The far-right EKRE party angled for a softer approach on Russia, aiming to stoke anger at the rising cost-of-living impact for Estonians. The country is among the biggest donors to Ukraine per capita, while also facing 25 per cent inflation, the highest rate of all EU countries.
Yet it is a price that Estonians seem willing to absorb, taking in the second-highest number of Ukrainian refugees per capita.
Estonia’s liberalisation has been 20 years in the making. English proficiency is high among those under 45. So too is tech literacy, thanks to the digitisation of public services: taxes can be filed and paid within 20 minutes; businesses can be opened within 15 minutes.
More than half of voters cast their ballots online in the election, making Estonia the first country where virtual votes outnumbered paper votes. The seamless experience of everyday services has bolstered trust in technology, and by extension, trust in governance.
“Over almost 20 years of internet voting, there hasn’t been a single proven case of i-voter fraud, so people’s trust hasn’t been breached, and confidence has remained high,” says Maris Orav, communications manager for the country’s digital society, e-Estonia.
For Pallas Mudist, project manager of Estonia’s digital nomad visa scheme, there are other advantages. Quite simply, “you don’t have to wait in line in an old building”.
Challenges await at home and abroad. The success of a new progressive party, Estonia 200, may mean the incumbent prime minister finds natural allies in delivering much needed social reforms.
Estonia’s ethnic-Russian population feel politically alienated, despite Russian-language services and publications being readily available and EU money poured into Russian-speaking towns such as Narva, on the border with Russia.
Still, there is a quiet hope that where others in Europe fail, Estonia can lead a new era in progressive politics, and policies. All just a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin.