The Speaker of the Estonian Parliament Eiki Nestor was in Washington June 26-28 for a Nordic-Baltic Eight (NB8) conference to foster transatlantic relations. The NB8 includes Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden in a format that focuses on regional cooperation. Parliamentary speakers from all nations except Denmark took part in the visit.
EANC President Marju Rink-Abel and Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey were given the opportunity to interview Speaker Nestor. While not direct quotes, the answers below reflect the substance of Speaker Nestor’s responses.
- The purpose of your visit to the U.S. is the Nordic-Baltic 8 conference in Washington, being held from June 26-28. What are the important topics discussed? Have any decisions or agreements been reached?
Answer: Meetings were held with Speaker Paul Ryan, the State Department, Commerce, the Vice President’s staff, Senator Menendez and other offices. Discussions have been frank. The NB8 is based on common regional understanding even without common memberships in European and transatlantic organizations (i.e., some members belong to NATO, others to the EU, and some to both). We’ve made recent visits to Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova to encourage politicians and NGOs to work toward independence and being part of the Western world. If we lose those countries, they’re likely to fall into Russian influence. The NB8 works to both secure ourselves and to help the vulnerable nations in Europe. The Baltic nations serve as bridge for higher aspirations, showing what is possible to those facing challenges.
In the U.S., the NB8 seeks to relate to the larger Congress and Administration. We want to hear what’s going on here and don’t want to be left alone. We work to strengthen transatlantic ties and to convince officials here that those ties are in the interest of the U.S., too.
In our meeting with Senator Menendez (D-NJ), he affirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article 5. His comments were reassuring, stating that it is easy to find common ground and strong partners in Congress. [Highlights from the meeting with Speaker Ryan are provided below.]
- Security of the Baltic Sea region is a major concern not only to the Baltic peoples but also to Baltic Americans. What is the latest information about Russian incursions into Estonian airspace and other means of intimidation? What deterrence approaches are working and what more needs to be done?
Answer: Good Nordic and NATO cooperation and boots on the ground are very important. Russia is not much different from the Soviet Union – its behavior is based on the face of the enemy and its leader must protect Russia from that enemy, which now is NATO and the EU. No one believed Russia would invade Crimea or start a war in Ukraine. We are in favor of sanctions and it’s important to understand that Russia acted first. Their upcoming Zapad exercise (on the Belarus border) will be larger than previous exercises. There are big concerns in Estonia that we need to be well-integrated in NATO and the EU. Why would Russia spend so much money in an area where they have no interest?
- What is the anxiety level among the population in Estonia? Is there a difference in the Russian-speaking minority? What steps is the Estonian government taking in this regard? Are there specific actions aimed at the Russian speakers?
Answer: Estonia launched ETV+, a Russian-language TV station in 2015 and it’s working well but it’s similar to Estonians watching Finnish TV during the Cold War – people are free to make their own choices. Social media disinformation is easy to propagate and it can be difficult to change to a new channel. We can’t integrate the Russian population just through TV. Younger people with Estonian education are more comfortable. Others miss the Soviet Union and aren’t comfortable in a Western environment. Russian citizens in Estonia don’t think they need any kind of protection from Russia. They see life in Ivangorod, are content where they are and don’t feel threatened. Politicians need to avoid creating a political climate where Russian speakers grow up into enemies of Estonia.
On an encouraging note, Estonia is the only new democracy in Europe with two years of positive population growth. Some who left for other parts of the EU are now coming back – and a big draw is to get their children educated in Estonia’s strong school system.
- What are the primary agenda items for the Riigikogu? What do you hope to accomplish before the next Riigikogu elections in 2019?
Answer: Presidency of the EU is the #1 focus. Meetings with the European Parliament have already started. Opening ceremonies are on July 4th and Estonians are well-prepared for the job, hoping to cultivate better understanding both ways. We will promote the uniqueness of Estonian digital life, digital government and cooperation as tools against terrorism.
On a national level, we will promote local government and state reforms and have ideas for a new pension system. Foreign policy and defense policy will remain strong and active; those are two committees in Parliament that work well in consensus despite the current six party system.
- Estonians abroad, as well as activists in Estonia, have stated that they oppose the yet-to-be ratified boundary agreement (piirileping) with Russia. What are the benefits to Estonia that will come from this agreement? Considering recent Russian aggressive actions, why should any such important agreement be considered by the Riigikogu?
Answer: A clear border with Russia is in Estonia’s security interest. The Tartu Rahuleping is a holy document but would take huge changes in Russia to ratify, and Estonia won’t ratify it if Russia doesn’t. Russia has said repeatedly that it’s “not a good moment.” To have a signed agreement is not against the Tartu Rahu, though it probably won’t happen in the next two years. The Zapad exercise contradicts the possibility that Russia will “find a good moment” anytime soon.
- How familiar are you with the activities of Estonian Americans, particularly in the political sector? What can the diaspora do to help Estonia’s security in the future?
Answer: I read Vaba Eesti Sõna regularly and encourage you to be proud Estonians. Keep the language and culture going and keep your children and grandchildren interested. Explain where Estonia is to your friends. The Embassy here is very professional and very good at advocacy. The EU presidency also helps.
- Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers in the USA?
Answer: Don’t worry – Estonia is independent, free, and well-developed. Lots of countries are trying to follow our example. Good luck, be proud, and we hope to see you in Tallinn next year to celebrate our great 100-year milestone!
A press release from the Riigikogu at the end of the trip summed up Speaker Nestor’s impressions. He stated that the joint visit went better than the NB8 group expected when they planned the trip late last year. Since transatlantic relations were the main focus of this trip, reinforcement of firm U.S. support for NATO and Article 5 was well-received. House Speaker Ryan’s office issued a statement after his meeting with the delegation stating that “Interparliamentary cooperation is a bedrock of our transatlantic alliances. Together, we are determined to work toward a more safe and secure future…” The Riigikogu’s press release, dated Thursday, 29.06.2017, is available on its website. Speaker Ryan’s is posted at www.speaker.gov, dated June 28, 2017.
EANC thanks Speaker Nestor and his office for making the interview possible. We wish them and Estonia the best in its term in the EU presidency and look forward to continuing our reporting of news on Estonia from both sides of the Atlantic.