KAJA KALLAS, a former competition lawyer and member of the European Parliament, is just the sort of businesslike politician one expects in Estonia. She took over as leader of Estonia’s liberal Reform Party last year; polls show it in a dead heat with the ruling Centre Party. She has run a technocratic campaign, focusing on education and tax policy. But she loses her cool when she talks about EKRE, Estonia’s anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic populist party. “They want to destroy everything,” she says: all the institutions that have made her open, tech-savvy nation more successful than “other countries that had the same starting-point. Take Moldova, for example.”
Indeed, take Moldova. Like Estonia, it declared independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. Both tiny countries have big Russian minorities, and both have struggled with emigration and shrinking populations. Yet in many ways they are polar opposites. Estonia joined the European Union in 2004 and the euro zone in 2011; Moldova’s EU candidacy has ground to a halt. Transparency International deems Estonia squeaky-clean, the 18th-least-corrupt country in the world. Moldova is 117th. Estonia is an IT hub, Moldova a farm economy whose pride is its excellent wines. Adjusted for purchasing power, Estonians are five times richer than Moldovans.
This week both countries held elections. Estonia’s polls close on March 3rd, but internet voting started ten days earlier. Moldova’s vote took place on February 24th. The results gave some hope for progress in Moldova. An alliance of reformist parties called ACUM, headed by two corruption-fighters, Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase, took 27 of parliament’s 101 seats. But the Socialist Party (PSRM), aligned with the Russia-friendly president, Igor Dodon, got 34. In second place with 30 seats is the ruling Democratic Party (PDM), a nominally pro-European group headed by the country’s biggest oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc.
Since ACUM has vowed to stay in opposition, a coalition seems to require the PSRM and PDM. But Mr Plahotniuc may have other plans. In Moldova, MPs often switch parties, lured by rewards or threats. Then there is the party of Ilan Shor, a 31-year-old Israeli-born businessman who, as an MP, now enjoys immunity from prosecution.
In 2015 Mr Shor was elected mayor of Orhei, a modest town an hour’s drive north of Chisinau, the capital. He has donated money to restore parks, repave streets and build social-housing units. Last year he opened a free amusement park called Orheiland. The town is dotted with Mr Shor’s “social stores”, offering wares at subsidised prices. Three dozen new buses ply the streets.
The question is where the money comes from. In 2017 a court convicted Mr Shor of playing a role in a scheme that used fake loans to Russian companies to siphon nearly $1bn from the country’s banking system in 2014. Mr Shor has appealed. He blames another oligarch, an ex-prime minister serving nine years in prison.
Ms Sandu, a former education minister revered for battling corruption in the exam system, thinks the entire political class is rotten. Though nominally rivals, “[President] Dodon and the Democratic Party are working together”, she says, blackmailing European countries into maintaining aid by threatening to turn towards Russia.
The EU nevertheless cut off most aid last summer, after Mr Nastase won Chisinau’s mayoral election only to see it annulled on flimsy grounds. Political rot and poverty have driven many to emigrate. Over a million of Moldova’s 4.3m citizens live abroad, and remittances are about a fifth of GDP.
If Estonia’s politics seem boring by comparison, Mart Helme, the leader of EKRE, is trying to fix that. On February 24th, the national holiday, EKRE led a torchlit march of 6,000 followers through Tallinn, the capital, chanting Eesti eest (“For Estonia!”). Mr Helme compares “so-called liberal democracy” to communism, and the EU to the Soviet Union. His party wants schools serving the country’s Russian-speaking minority to switch to Estonian, and to restrict the numbers of Ukrainians coming in for low-skilled jobs. It is polling at 17%.
The Centre Party of Juri Ratas, the prime minister, gets most of the Russian vote. It is used to EKRE exploiting ethnic tension. But the fearmongering has less traction in this election, thinks Raimond Kaljulaid, a Centre Party MP. Young Russians are better integrated, and Estonian culture is doing well, with successful hip-hop artists and novelists. After a huge decline from 1991 to 2014, the population has risen for the past three years. Last year more Estonian citizens returned to the country than left.
How has Estonia avoided Moldovan-style corruption? Some believe it made better choices early on, privatising state enterprises in a more transparent fashion. Tarmo Juristo of Praxis, a think-tank, credits Scandinavian banks with establishing norms in the financial industry. But others think it may have got lucky. Lucan Way and Adam Casey, of the University of Toronto, argue that former Soviet states democratised better when they had a deep-rooted nationalist movement. This was stronger in Estonia, which was independent from 1918 to 1940, than in Moldova, which was ruled by Romania or Russia for centuries. To judge by EKRE, though, that nationalism may not be entirely benign.