Advocacy

EANC Meets with State Department

Estonian American National Council representatives joined Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) colleagues for a briefing from the Department of State (DoS) Baltic team on Friday, August 11th.  The newly appointed Director of Nordic and Baltic Affairs, Ian Campbell, and desk officers for Latvia, James Lovell, and Lithuania, Carol Werner, shared their insights on policy and current and upcoming events relevant to U.S.-Baltic relationships.

The visit to Estonia by Vice President Mike Pence on July

Aug 2017 State meeting

Participants in the JBANC meeting with the State Department Baltic team.  From left:  Anna Udre, Julia Lazdins, Chris Evans, Karin Shuey, Ausma Tomsevics, Carol Werner, Henry Gaidis, Ian Campbell, Karl Altau, Peter Blumberg. Photo courtesy of JBANC.

30-31 was a main topic of discussion.  Tallinn was his first stop on a European trip that also included Georgia and Montenegro.  He addressed the three Baltic presidents and military troops from Estonia, the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France, serving in the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in Estonia, at the Estonian Defense Forces headquarters in Tallinn.  His remarks reflected the close relationship and keen understanding the Administration holds regarding security challenges in the Baltic region and beyond – a message that got stronger as his trip progressed.  The vice president’s full remarks are posted on the White House Briefing Room Speeches & Remarks page for July 31st.  Our State Department colleagues reported that the he was glad to also discuss a broad range of non-security issues, including Estonia’s EU presidency; energy, economic and financial cooperation; trade and investment; and collaboration on cyber security.  The next opportunity for Baltic leaders to engage with the Administration will likely be at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Russia was another major topic covered.  The Zapad military exercise in mid-September is of concern to all and will be closely monitored.  While confidence was expressed in the EFP’s ability to keep a close eye on the exercise, there was less certainty in Russia’s reporting of the numbers of troops taking part and what course of events the exercise scenario will take.  Determination of any U.S. response will depend on observation of what actually happens, which EFP troops are well-positioned to do.

The DoS representatives emphasized that not all interaction with Russia is negative.  While the Kremlin is not doing the right thing in basic international relations, most notably in its invasion of Crimea and violation of several nations’ sovereign borders, there are areas where maintaining good relations is important.  Open channels of communication regarding our nuclear arsenals is critical to global security.  Trade and cooperation on space programs are other examples where continuing dialog is good for both sides.  The U.S. should be hard on Russia for violations of international law and other crimes, but it’s a complex relationship and we can’t close doors on all collaboration.

The recently-passed sanctions bill serves as a clear condemnation of Russia’s bad behavior.  Congress is now in the process of negotiating how to implement the sanctions in concert with U.S. allies; what form it will take is still in question.  It’s important to send a deliberate message of censure while understanding the economic partnerships involved.  The U.S. will remain sensitive to those partnerships and will avoid putting them at risk throughout the course of implementation.  One early indication that Russia is taking the sanctions seriously was their expulsion of U.S. diplomats in response to the bill’s passage in Congress.  We can be optimistic that the sanctions will effectively deter future Russian transgressions.

Other priorities discussed included energy security and the campaign against disinformation.  Even with proposed budget cuts to State’s Global Engagement Center, propagating objectivity through public diplomacy will remain a mainstay of the embassies’ missions.   There are multiple funding streams and many levels of approach that will keep combating disinformation a top priority.  Energy independence also remains a major concern and DoS will continue to support a competitive market with access to options so no nation’s energy will be controlled by a single source.

Finally, our DoS colleagues expressed awareness of the importance of the Baltic nations’ centennial celebrations next year.  They are fully confident that each embassy will be involved with programs and events supporting its host nation’s milestone.  The State Department is also looking at options for recognizing 100 years of Baltic independence and will keep us informed as their plans develop.  They clearly share the same concerns for Baltic security that EANC and JBANC are engaged in daily and we appreciate their continued support.

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Advocacy

The Russian Sanctions Bill: Persistence Pays Off (A How-to Guide for Calling Your Representative)

The process of getting this summer’s sanctions bill through Congress and passed into law was a real cliffhanger!  After passing in the Senate almost unanimously in mid-June, then getting delayed and revised in the House and eventually passing there, also almost unanimously, and going back to the Senate for another vote of overwhelming support, H.R.3364 – the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act – went to the President’s desk on July 28th and was signed into law on August 2nd.  Officially the bill also contained new sanctions on Iran and North Korea as well as Russia, but the main focus was clearly the latter. While the bill was in Congress, The Estonian American National Council (EANC), the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) and our Central and East European Coalition (CEEC) colleagues were tracking its every move, with staffers and volunteers visiting offices in both congressional chambers and encouraging our constituents and supporters through social media and other channels to contact their Members of Congress (MoC) on supporting the bill.

JBANC with flyers

The JBANC team getting ready for a round of meetings with Representatives (photo courtesy of JBANC).

While we can never really know how much influence our work and grassroots efforts had on the passage of this bill, we do believe that complacency is our enemy.  The non-profits representing Americans of CEE descent work daily to make sure the issues affecting that part of the world remain a focus in Congress, and your help is always appreciated!  In particular, we invite you to contact your MoC to voice your interest in Estonian security and an active and engaged US policy for the region.  We in Washington can make the rounds and deliver letters on the Hill all year long, but the biggest impact comes from the MoC’s actual constituents, whose votes matter to those lawmakers we’re visiting. We’d love your help in letting them know that Estonian-Americans support a stable Europe that is a strong US ally, and that Estonia is an important part of this stable Europe.

Now for the how-to part:  Several sources in Washington have told us that phone calls to the MoC office are more effective than written correspondence, so we recommend calls over e-mails, letters or social media posts.  It’s easy to find the contact information using Google. If there’s a group of Estonians living in the same district, you could coordinate to focus on one issue and make your calls all on the same day.  Voicing your issues in person – by visiting your MoC local office or attending town hall meetings – can also get their attention.  Best, of course, is visiting or calling the Washington DC office of the MoC, where it is likely that the staff will be most conversant with foreign policy issues. Even if you are hesitant about visiting a Washington Congressional office on your own, consider letting the EANC or JBANC staff know when you are going to be in town, so that you might be able to visit the Congressional office together. The EANC or JBANC staffer can be an invaluable source of background information and ensure that the key message is delivered clearly to the Congressional staffer. At the same time, you, as a constituent, can open doors to Congressional offices that are not as easy for Washington-based EANC or JBANC personnel to access.

Should you decide that a phone call is the better way for you to reach out, your call will generally be answered by a young staffer whose only job may be answering calls from constituents.  Depending upon the office, there are sometimes staffers who specialize in certain topics such as foreign policy, so it might be good to begin by asking for the staffer who deals with foreign policy matters. Congressional staffers get a lot of calls daily on many topics and take notes to pass on to the MoC.  Many offices keep a database of calls organized by topic, and your call will likely be added to whatever record-keeping system they use.  Before you make your call, it’s a good idea to think about what you want to say. While you do not want to sound too scripted, remember that the staffers are busy, and will appreciate your getting to the point fairly quickly.  Still, personal stories showing why an issue is important to you are especially memorable and effective; just make sure you’re respectful as you share your thoughts.  Remember, it’s their job to listen to you and learn what you think is important. It is fine to express a general sentiment that you value the support of the MoC for issues that help ensure the support of the US for its Estonian ally. But if there is a particular piece of legislation that is being discussed, make sure that you mention your support (or, if necessary, disapproval) of that particular legislation. Then, it certainly helps to know the name or number of the bill in question, before you call.

For ideas on issues to bring up with your MoC, a list of current legislation and other high-priority topics is available at ceecoaltion.us.  Details for all of the bills listed are available at the Congress.gov website.  If you contact your Representative on a House bill, it’s always a good idea to also ask them to join the House Baltic Caucus, or express thanks if they’re already a member.  You can check to see if your Representative is already a member at housebalticcaucus.webs.com.

EANC will continue to support legislation that addresses European security policy pertinent to Estonia and we’ll facilitate efforts by our members and constituents to do the same.  Our activities in Washington will continue to ensure that the administration and lawmakers are aware of issues important to Estonian Americans, and we hope you’ll join us in sharing our message!

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Advocacy

CEEC Releases 2017 Policy Summary

The Central and East European Coalition (CEEC) recently published its annual policy brief, listing the legislative priorities the group is focusing its advocacy efforts on this year.  Highlights include upholding current sanctions against Russia for its occupation of Ukraine and enacting new sanctions in the wake of interference in U.S. elections last year (now on the President’s desk); ensuring State Department funding remains sufficient to conduct effective diplomacy and continue support to our non-NATO partners; expanding the Visa Waiver Program to include Poland; and closely monitoring Russia’s large-scale Zapad exercise in September for indications that the Kremlin may expand its military aggression into new areas.  The full paper is available at ceecoalition.us.

CEEC members are currently conducting meetings with the offices of House Foreign Relations Committee (HFAC) members to share the policy brief and hear their views on the progress of the group’s top priorities.  Office calls have been held

CEEC D-B office visit photo

EANC and CEEC colleagues met with Representative Diaz-Balart’s (R-FL) staff to share priorities and discuss policy.

with eight HFAC offices so far.  Senate Foreign Relations Committee offices will also be targeted.

The CEEC was established in 1994 and is composed of eighteen national, membership-based organizations representing Americans of Armenian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, and Ukrainian descent.  It was established to coordinate the efforts of ethnic organizations whose members continue to maintain strong cultural, economic, political, and religious ties to the countries of Central and East Europe and serves as a liaison with these national Central and East European ethnic organizations.  These organizations cooperate in calling attention to issues of mutual concern, especially regarding United States policy toward Central and East Europe. It has cooperated on a wide range of issues including calling attention to Russia’s policies toward its neighbors, NATO enlargement, and U.S. assistance programs for the region.  EANC has been an active member since the coalition’s inception.

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Advocacy

EANC Interview with Speaker of Parliament Eiki Nestor June 27, 2017

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.

Speakers

House Speaker Ryan met with his Nordic-Baltic counterparts, including Estonian Eiki Nestor (far right), on June 28th.  Photo by Tomas Enqvist.

  1. 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.]

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Nestor interview

EANC President Marju Rink-Abel (center) and Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey interview Estonian Speaker of Parliament Eiki Nestor.  Photo courtesy of Riigikogu.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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Advocacy

EANC and JBANC Support Ukraine Advocacy

EANC’s sister organization from the Central and East European Coalition (CEEC) representing Ukrainian Americans held an advocacy event on June 14 in Washington to call attention to legislation relevant to ending the conflict in Ukraine.  The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA) together with the Ukrainian National Information Service (UNIS) sponsored their thrice-yearly “Ukraine Days” advocacy event on June 14th and were reinforced by EANC and JBANC support.

Feinstein meeting

EANC and JBANC reps join Ukrainian-American advocates in meeting with Senator Feinstein Legislative Correspondent Anup Rao (second from left).  Photo courtesy of JBANC.

The program included a morning briefing session with leaders of the Ukrainian-American community from throughout the U.S., followed by visits to both Senate and House members’ offices.  EANC Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey and JBANC Managing Director Karl Altau, along with JBANC interns Lina Sullivan, Ojars Berzins, Elīna Dīce, and Anete Rožukalne, joined the team of Ukrainians from Virginia and California to visit offices representing those states.  During the course of the day, they met with staff working for California Senator Dianne Feinstein and Virginia Representatives Don Beyer and Barbara Comstock.  Since one of the Ukrainian-American advocates was a constituent of Representative Dana Rohrabacher, he made time to meet with the group himself for a lively and sometimes contentious discussion of the issues. This group also included a Crimean Tatar and a Georgian soldier who volunteered in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.  The day ended with a reception in the Capitol, offering another opportunity to discuss issues with Members of Congress and staff and other friends of Ukraine.

This event works in parallel with EANC’s and JBANC’s mission, including JBANC’s biennial security conference, in calling attention to the legislation and issues that impact

Rohrabacher meeting

Representative Rohrabacher (back row, second from right) meets with Ukrainian- and Russian-Americans, along with EANC and JBANC reps.  Photo courtesy of JBANC.

the nations along Russia’s border.   Much of the legislation JBANC supports is the same as that highlighted on this advocacy day.  By reinforcing Ukrainian priorities in Congress, JBANC and EANC also bolster the cause for democracy, border integrity, fair elections, rule of law, military and diplomatic cooperation, and other democratic principles and institutions that form the foundations of European security and a stable world order.

EANC and the other member organizations of the CEEC will continue to work together to keep Congress focused on our common interests.  While the Estonian-American community makes up a small percentage of most congressional district populations, teaming up with the communities from our former Soviet Republic and Warsaw Pact neighbors, our voices become much stronger and more likely to get the attention of our lawmakers.  Our ongoing work with the CEEC produces policy statements and press releases, summaries of relevant legislation that we distribute on the Hill, and forums for Congressional staffers and members of the foreign policy community that draw high-level speakers to shine a light on the hottest topics affecting our region.  For more information on the CEEC, please visit www.ceecoalition.us.

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Advocacy

Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation Honors Mart Laar

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VoC) held its tenth annual Roll Call of Nations on June 9th.  The event each year commemorates the more than 100 million victims of communism worldwide and those still living under totalitarian regimes.  Over twenty embassies and other government agencies and thirty nongovernmental organizations took part this year, setting a record for attendance.  Former Lithuanian head of state Dr. Vytautas Landsbergis was the keynote speaker.

Dr. Mart Laar was honored with this year’s Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom.  VoC has awarded the medal annually since 1999 to “individuals and institutions that have demonstrated a life-long commitment to freedom and democracy and opposition to communism and all other forms of tyranny,” as quoted from its website.  The award was presented by VoC Chairman Lee Edwards.

VoC group photo 2017

VoC ceremony group photo.  Photo by Kevin Allen, courtesy VoC.

Laar was the first Prime Minister following Estonia’s re-independence in 1992 and was elected again in 1999.  His leadership in creating an accountable government, implementing free-market reform, and paving the way for Estonia’s membership in the EU, along with his extensive background in human rights and publicizing Estonia’s history of anti-Soviet resistance, earned him the recognition.  Edwards also credited him with Estonia’s ‘Baltic Tiger’ economic reputation and leading the Singing Revolution.  Estonian Deputy Chief of Mission Marki Tihhonova-Kreek accepted the award on Laar’s behalf.

The VoC Memorial Foundation was established in 1993 to educate the public on the crimes of communism and honor the victims of communism around the world.  The memorial itself was dedicated by President George W. Bush in 2007.  Its statue is a replica of the one erected by Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in 1989.   VoC Executive Director Marion Smith noted that it is the only known memorial dedicated to all victims of communism around the world.  He also noted that younger generations are “woefully ignorant” of twentieth century history and the dangers of communism that arose during that time.  VoC is now working toward building a world-class International Museum on Communism in Washington dedicated to education and a historical archive of communism’s tyranny.

EANC supports the VoC and its mission several times each year.  In addition to this event, we take part in the VoC’s observation of the of Black Ribbon Day each August and the commemoration of the March 1949 mass deportations from the Baltic nations.  EANC also provided financial support to the building of the memorial and to the anticipated museum.  We thank VoC for its enduring commitment to keeping the memory of communism’s crimes alive.

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Advocacy

Ambassador Daniel Fried – Keynote Remarks at JBANC Baltic Security Conference – “Our work is not done.”

Please note:  This is an abridged version of Ambassador Fried’s remarks in Washington, DC on May 20, 2017.  For the full version, please see the JBANC website.

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here with JBANC. I first met with JBANC in 1993.  Back in those days, NATO enlargement even to Poland was considered a dangerous and radical idea, and the NATO enlargement to the Baltics was considered a kind of elaborate rhetorical device not to be taken seriously, and yet here we are, with the EU and NATO having embraced a hundred million Europeans between the Baltic and the Black Sea, who liberated themselves from communism and Soviet domination.  But our work is far from done.  The Free World faces challenges from without, from Russian aggression; and from within, not just from the Russian trolls and bots and useful idiots, but by the doubts within the West itself, as to our purposes and our achievements and our values.

Fried speaking

Ambassador Fried delivering keynote address. Photo by Mariliis Eensalu.

The enlargement of NATO was not done for its own sake. NATO was an instrument of achieving a united Europe, democratic, prosperous, and free for the first time in its history. Credit for that goes to President Clinton – Bill Clinton made the decision to enlarge NATO over the objections of many. The decision to invite the Baltic states to NATO is to the credit of George W. Bush, who might have decided otherwise. And then let’s give full credit to Barack Obama, who ended up supporting sanctions against Russia, and led NATO’s decision to put in its forces and America’s parallel decision to put in national forces into the Baltic states and Poland. So, full credit to three American presidents in a row; very different people who carried out in their own way the same policy and did so successfully.  But the real credit for all of this belongs to the people and governments of the Baltic states.  The Baltic states did what they had to do.  And in doing so, they generated political capital for themselves, which then their friends in the West would use.

What does Putin want?  He wants the empire back, as much of it as he can claw back.  It doesn’t mean he won’t settle for less, but it means he wants as much as he can get.  And he also wants to weaken the institutions of the West in general, because he wants to show that the West is not what it claims to be. He judges us by his own standards, and he thinks we are no more than our worst selves. We need to prove him wrong. And we need to resist Russian aggression. Putin does all of this, because his own rule and Russian autocracy is safe only if democracy is weak, because autocracy at home for Russia depends on democracy being on the defensive abroad.

We have a responsibility to mobilize ourselves to meet the threats, to do and to remember that our work is not done. Our tasks still lie ahead. They include securing what we achieved from Russian aggression; facing up to the problems in the West that have raised such doubts, and never giving up on the notion of freedom in the conviction that our time will come again.

So thank you and thank you to JBANC for all the work and cooperation over so many years.

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