Advocacy

Black Ribbon Day Observance in DC

BRD 2017 VoC group photo

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOCMF) and the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) held their annual observance of Black Ribbon Day on August 23rd at the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, DC.  The ceremony recognized the 78th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Ambassadors from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Latvia made remarks, all stressing the importance of ensuring that totalitarian regimes never again violate the sovereignty of independent nations.  EANC and the embassies of Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland were also represented, along with dozens of participants from other embassies, organizations, and communities, who gathered to remember the victims of the 1939 pact.

For more information, please see the VOCMF blog.

(Photo courtesy of VOCMF.)

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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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