LONDON — Two ministers in Estonia’s new coalition government made a hand gesture interpreted as a symbol for “white power” during a swearing-in ceremony.
Former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves tweeted a picture of Mart Helme and his son Martin on Monday, after they were sworn in as the country’s interior minister and finance minister respectively.
Mart and Martin Helme are from the far-right nationalist Estonian Conservative People's party (EKRE). The party, led by Mart Helme, claims to defend the interests of ethnic Estonians. It has adopted a fierce anti-LGBT and anti-migrant rhetoric and platform.
In last month’s Estonian election, EKRE won nearly 18% of the vote, making it the third largest political party in the Baltic country, which is a member of the European Union.
The father and son have a history of making racist comments. In 2013, Martin Helme, 43, told a talk show, "I want Estonia to be a white country.”
Earlier this year, Mart Helme, 69, wrote in an opinion piece that “indigenous people are [being] replaced by Slavs and negroes.” Helme is Estonia’s former ambassador to Russia.
A photo gallery on the website of the Estonian public broadcaster ERR shows Martin Helme appearing to make the white power sign twice, in the corridors of parliament, and again in the chamber during the ceremony.
The broadcaster said that sign was “either a far-right signal or a ’dog whistle’ gesture aimed at the party's opponents.”
Footage of the swearing-in ceremony was also posted online by Estonia’s parliament, the Riigikogu.
A diplomatic source suggested the use of the sign was most probably not accidental given the ministers’ politics.
The hand gesture, which began as a sarcastic meme, is associated with white supremacists around the world. It was also used by the terrorist in the Christchurch attack, who killed 50 people in March in New Zealand, when he appeared in court last month
Sweden’s former prime minister, Carl Bildt, called the gesture “genuinely worrying.”
During Monday’s ceremony, Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid wore a sweater with the words ''Sõna on vaba,'' which translates as ''speech is free.''
President Kaljulaid left the chamber when it was the turn of another EKRE minister, Marti Kuusik, to take his oath, ERR reported. Allegations of domestic abuse have been made against Kuusik, the incoming IT minister.
Estonia’s new coalition government comprises Prime Minister Jüri Ratas's Center Party, EKRE, and the conservative Pro Patria (Fatherland) party. The three parties hold five cabinet posts each.
Ratas's party was a distant second to the liberal Estonian Reform Party in last month’s election, but took the controversial decision to enter into talks with EKRE, turning down an offer to form a coalition with Reform.
The Estonian government has been approached for comment.
Estonia's President Kersti Kaljulaid was not present in the chamber when IT minister Marti Kuusik was sworn in. A previous version of this post misstated the number of times she had absented herself from the chamber.
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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