In conjunction with its annual meeting, the Estonian American National Council held a well-attended public forum in St. Petersburg, Florida on 11-12 November. The program included panel discussions and a keynote address by Estonian Ambassador Lauri Lepik. The interactive panels addressed the topics of advocacy in Washington, Estonian entrepreneurship in Florida, and ties between Estonia and the Estonian diaspora.
The panelists for the first discussion were EANC president Marju Rink-Abel, EANC Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey, and Michael Sawkiw, Executive Vice President of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America. Ms. Rink-Abel started with a review of Estonian organizations in the U.S., their missions and responsibilities, how they interact, and EANC’s role relative to the other groups. Ms. Shuey gave an overview of the Joint Baltic American National Committee’s (JBANC) work in Washington. The main focus has been support for NATO, countering disinformation, and enforcing sanctions on Russia. She stressed the importance of working with other diaspora communities that share interest in the same issues so that our voices gain strength and effectiveness in numbers. Mr. Sawkiw finished the discussion on an inspiring note, reminding us that all politics is local, in that we need to keep our legislators engaged in the issues, and that it’s in U.S. national security interests to support the security and stability of the central and east European region, with Ukraine now on the front lines of defense.
The second panel featured four Estonian-American business owners living in Florida, who shared their personal stories that led them to entrepreneurship. Sigrid Bratic established a Greek restaurant in 2004 that has since grown into a franchise with 24 locations. Merle Liivand told her story of representing Estonia as a professional competitive swimmer and building on her experiences to welcome others into the sport through coaching, products, and consulting. Terje Van Schaik developed a U.S.-based green cleaning products company in 2006 from the company her husband established in Tallinn several years before. Kaie Põhi Latterner started her systems integration consulting business in the retail sector in 1984 after her own career in retail. She is also currently a candidate to be Honorary Consul for central Florida and hopes to eventually support entrepreneurs and start-up companies in Estonia. The experiences related by the four women brought forth many questions and highlighted the need for an Estonian American business owners network.
The third panel looked at Estonia and its official connections with Estonians abroad. Canadian-Estonian activist Marcus Kolga began by comparing the Estonian government’s diaspora initiatives with its neighbors’, pointing out that Latvia’s and Lithuania’s governments have point people who remain engaged with their diaspora communities and suggesting that we encourage Estonia to do the same. Ms. Rink-Abel reminded us that the Estonian World Council had jointly funded such a position with the Estonian Ministry of Population in the past, but with the Ministry’s dissolution the position was moved and became less effective. Renee Meriste, president of the Estonian Society of Los Angeles and host of this year’s successful West Coast Estonian Days, noted that there’s little communication between the Estonian government and organizations on the West Coast. Debate continued on questions such as which side would benefit more from a stronger government-diaspora relationship, what our communities’ goals would be in seeking more representation, how to reconcile the differences among the interests of Estonians in other countries, and whether the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Parliament is the more appropriate entity to work with. The discussion concluded that to make progress on this issue, we need clear goals and a detailed, long-term plan in order to raise awareness in the Estonian government of the benefits of a strengthened relationship with Estonian communities abroad.
Ambassador Lepik’s keynote address at dinner also touched on the relationship between Estonia and Estonians abroad, saying that the government has always endorsed diaspora engagement. He cited his top priority as ambassador as establishing a permanent U.S. troop presence in Estonia, not because Estonia faces a serious military threat but because it would send the clearest message possible that the U.S. stands ready to defend Estonia as a frontier nation of NATO and Europe. His other priorities include developing a stronger business and trade relationship with the U.S. and promoting events in the U.S. that celebrate Estonia’s centennial next year. More information on those events can be found at the EV100 website, www.ev100.ee.
The weekend was a positive step in EANC’s initiative to engage with communities throughout the U.S. EANC’s Florida members were gracious hosts and made all who traveled to the event feel welcome. The panelists evoked a number of questions and much debate, and their insights and experiences sent participants home with much to consider in how they can support EANC’s mission. Though options for the next meeting are still under review, the Council looks forward to visiting new communities in the coming years.