New Estonian government ministers fuel concerns over sexism, white supremacy

/ CBS/AP

Helsinki — The new interior minister of Estonia on Thursday called the country's first female president an "emotionally heated woman" for walking out during the swearing-in of a Cabinet minister accused of domestic violence.

Mart Helme made the sexist remark as other European politicians expressed alarm at the fact that both he and his son, also a newly-appointed Estonian government minister from the same far-right party, have recently and publicly flashed the "OK" hand gesture. While their use of the gesture may have been intended as innocent enthusiasm, the hand signal has been co-opted by supporters of white supremacy.

Helme made the "heated woman" remark a news conference where he also accused Estonian news outlets of applying a double standard in covering abuse allegations against the now-former minister from his own far-right Estonian Conservative People's Party, or ERKE.

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President Kersti Kaljulaid, the first woman to serve as the Baltic country's head of state, left a Monday swearing-in ceremony for a new three-party government when it was time for the appointee at issue to take the oath of office.

Marti Kuusik was sworn in as technology and foreign trade minister along with the rest of Prime Minister Juri Ratas' Cabinet after news reports featured the domestic violence allegations.

Police opened an investigation to review the allegations hours later. Kuusik, a member of Helme's ERKE party, resigned the next day, saying the probe was based on "slander" and "a terrifying media attack" against him.

Helme called the reporting "an unconstitutional witch hunt." He also made clear his dim view of the president's decision to walk out during the ceremony and return to her seat when it was the next minister's turn.

"An emotionally heated woman can afford to do that," Helme told reporters. "But Kersti Kaljulaid is not simply a woman, but the president of the republic."

"She reads one article, becomes so emotionally upset as a woman that she makes a decision right away," he added.

Kaljulaid, who has been president since October 2016, did not respond Thursday to Helme's comments.

Helme and his son, newly appointed Finance Minister Martin Helme, have accused the news media before of displaying a negative bias toward the Estonian Conservative People's Party, or ERKE.

Signalling white supremacists?

The party has advocated abolishing legal recognition for same-sex civil unions, demanded changes to the abortion law and fiercely opposed European Union quotas for taking in asylum-seekers.

Photographs of the two flashing the OK hand sign at Monday's swearing-in ceremony have received attention from other politicians. The use of the familiar gesture by some extreme-right activists and white supremacists has given it an alternative meaning.

Estonian Finance Minister Martin Helme attends the swearing-in of the incoming coalition government in Tallinn, Estonia, April 29, 2019. REUTERS

Mart Helme hasn't responded to questions about his and his son's hand motions, but his son told Politico just an hour before throwing up both hands in OK gestures after he was sworn in earlier this week that, "No one will tell us what words we can say or what signs we can make."

The country's former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves posted a tweet on Monday with photos of both Helmes giving the signal, accusing them of doing so with nefarious intent.

Estonian ministers of Finance and Internal Affairs, giving the white power sign at their swearing-in ceremony before Parliament today. pic.twitter.com/VHQAmTW2dv

— toomas hendrik ilves (@IlvesToomas) April 29, 2019

Former Swedish top diplomat Carl Bildt said he was also "genuinely worried" about the public display as he retweeted Ilves' post.

Martin Helme, who told Politico that U.S. President Donald Trump was "absolutely" an inspiration to him, has been quoted previously as calling for a "white Estonia."

"Our immigration policy should have one simple rule: if you're black, go back. As simple as that," he said in 2013 according to Estonian news website ERR.

The OK hand signal gained popularity in 2017 as an inside joke among white supremacists online, who wrote about tricking liberals and the media into thinking the popular OK gesture had been co-opted by far-right groups, according to the Anti-Defamation League. But the joke eventually turned serious as white supremacists groups and figures, such as Richard Spencer in the U.S., continued to pose with it in photos and spread its use on social media.

EKRE entered Estonia's parliament in 2015. It emerged from the country's March 3 election with 17.8% of the vote to become the third-largest party in the national legislature. A party member is the current parliament speaker.

The party's role in governing expanded Thursday with Mart Helme's appointment as first deputy prime minister, a position that includes leading the Cabinet during the prime minister's absence.

First published on May 3, 2019 / 9:39 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Estonian Finance Minister Martin Helme attends the swearing-in of the incoming coalition government in Tallinn

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