Advocacy

EANC Hosts Lively Public Forum in Florida

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.

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EANC members attending the event 

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.

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Estonian Ambassador to the U.S. Lauri Lepik

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.

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Advocacy

Baltic Ambassadors Discuss Priorities

The Lithuanian embassy recently hosted the Baltic ambassadors and Baltic American community representatives for this autumn’s quarterly JBANC-Baltic embassies meeting.  Ambassadors Lauri Lepik of Estonia and Rolandas Kriščiūnas of Lithuania were in attendance, while the Latvian embassy was represented by Deputy Chief of Mission Ilmars Breidaks.  The embassies updated us on their countries’ priorities and upcoming events, and a productive exchange occurred on many relevant issues.

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From right: EANC board members Lya Karm and Marju Rink-Abel, Estonian Ambassador Lauri Lepik, Estonian Political Affairs Secretary Kristjan Kuurme, Lithuanian representatives Tomas Sadauskas and Henry Gaidis, and EANC Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey discuss U.S.-Baltic relations.  (Photo credit:  Raits Eglitis)

A primary topic discussed was the upcoming reception to recognize the 20th anniversary of the formation of the House Baltic Caucus (HBC).  The event is set for December 7th and will include a program of policy discussions and presentations showing appreciation for caucus members.  Parliamentary representatives from all three nations will be in Washington and a good turnout of Members of Congress is expected.  The HBC is a registered caucus of the United States House of Representatives; current membership is at 66 Representatives from both the Democratic and Republican parties.  More information and the full list is available at housebalticcaucus.webs.com.  All readers are invited to review the list for your Representative and to invite him or her to join if they have not already.

Ambassador Lepik briefed the group on a recent meeting of NATO ambassadors and Members of Congress, which confirmed that NATO and European engagement have wide bipartisan support in both chambers.  The Senate continues its active role in foreign policy, indicating eagerness to act on the Russia sanctions bill that was signed into law during the summer.  Lepik identified as key goals working with Congress on the agenda for next year’s NATO summit, and planning an event with Congress and the White House to celebrate the Baltic nations’ centennial.  They are also closely following the appropriations process for European Deterrence Initiative and other NATO funding.

JBANC’s update indicated 2017 might have been its busiest year since it worked toward NATO enlargement in the early 2000s, due to its push to advocate for the Russia sanctions bill.  Since the bill was signed into law, their focus has shifted toward meetings in Congress to encourage implementation of the sanctions.  Other issues they’re following include continued efforts in support of Ukraine and possible changes to visas that might affect interns and summer camp staff coming from the Baltics.  They also mentioned a major advocacy event the American Latvian Association is planning for next May, which may include new legislation tied to the Baltic centennial celebrations.

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A strong turnout of Baltic Embassy and Baltic-American community representatives.  (Photo credit:  Raits Eglitis)

The meeting’s overall tone was positive and forward-looking.  It was followed by a reception hosted by the three ambassadors to celebrate productive cooperation between U.S. officials and the embassies, and to welcome newly arrived Baltic diplomats to their new postings.  It was well-attended by representatives from Congress, the State Department, the Pentagon and other agencies.

The gathering validated the importance of continued cooperation among the three nations working together with both parties on the Hill to draw more attention and attract a bigger audience than they could individually.  EANC will remain engaged in supporting the embassies’ priorities and provide updates as all of these initiatives develop.

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