The Covid-19 crisis could cause lasting damage to western liberal democracies that adopted authoritarian measures during the pandemic, Estonia’s prime minister has warned.

Kaja Kallas told the Financial Times she was afraid that some countries had been slow to relax restrictions on free movement of people and goods, even as vaccination rates increased.

“What we have seen in this Covid crisis, this urge for a strong hand or an authoritarian way of governing is deep in our societies, even in some countries you would never believe.”

The prime minister of the smallest Baltic state said some governments had moved to vastly limit people’s rights. “Even if you don’t have the epidemiological reasons now, we are not giving people the freedoms back because it’s more convenient this way,” she said.

Estonia has been particularly exercised by travel restrictions in neighbouring Finland, which stopped numerous Estonians who work in the Nordic country from using ferries to return home. Finland relaxed those restrictions from Monday, after the interview with Kallas.

But the Estonian prime minister also criticised moves by bigger EU member states — including Germany and France — to impose export bans on protective equipment earlier in the pandemic. “These restrictions came quickly, out of nowhere. I’m worried that it’s too easily rising up in times of crisis,” she added.

Her comments carry weight as, since regaining its independence from the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago, Estonia has become one of the flag-bearers for liberal democracy as a staunch member of Nato and the EU.

Estonia — like its fellow Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania, which were also illegally annexed by the Soviet Union — has consistently warned the EU about the dangers from neighbouring Russia and Belarus.

Kallas said she was “glad” that last month’s forced landing by Belarus of a Ryanair flight en route from Athens to Vilnius and the seizing of the dissident, Roman Protasevich, had “opened up some eyes” in the EU to the country’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.

Speaking ahead of Monday’s decision by the EU to impose wide-ranging new sanctions on Belarus, she said Europe needed to target how Lukashenko financed his regime.

“Sanctions must be targeted so that they hit Lukashenko the most. The power structures in Belarus are behind Lukashenko so he feels quite secure. When he doesn’t have the money to finance the power structures, then there would be growing dissatisfaction and then there might be change,” she said in the interview which was conducted last week.

Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister since January, said the Ryanair incident had clearly been a message to all dissidents. “You’re not safe anywhere, we’re going to get you.”

She said the second message was: “We can do this. I don’t think they — meaning Belarus and Russia — expected any reaction. They only go as far as we let them.”

Before Kallas came to power, Estonia’s international image had taken a battering due to the presence in government of the far-right Ekre party, whose leaders have insulted everybody from gay people and immigrants to US president Joe Biden and Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin.

The government coalition — including Ekre and led by the Centre party — resigned in January over a sprawling property corruption scandal, paving the way for Kallas.

But the 44-year-old has endured a difficult start as prime minister. Estonia was hit hard by the third Covid wave as soon as she took office, becoming in March the European nation with the highest infection rate.

She claimed she had “inherited” the Covid situation from the previous government. Talking about taking power during a pandemic, she added: “I don’t know any other government that has started in a more difficult time. But I’m not complaining. There is an Estonian saying: ‘A peaceful sea doesn’t make a good sailor.’ The sea has definitely been quite stormy.”

Still, Kallas has faced domestic criticism for her handling of the pandemic, although the situation is now improving. Meanwhile, Ekre, back in opposition, has reached record support levels in opinion polls.

Kallas said Ekre were more suited to opposition as they were “always against something”. But she also criticised her coalition partners Centre for trying to “outspeak the opposition”.