Advocacy

History of Estonian American National Council Advocacy

As the newly-elected council takes their seats in November for the next four-year term, it seems like a good time to review how the Estonian American National Council (EANC) came about and some of its political accomplishments over the decades.

EANC was born in 1952 from the need for a single national organization to unify and lead Estonians exiled in the U.S. in their pursuit to restore Estonia as a free nation.  It has a 66-year history of advocacy in the U.S. throughout the changing landscape of Estonia’s occupation, its struggle for independence, and its evolution into a partner on the world stage.  Its founding aim was to coordinate efforts in fighting communism and liberating Estonia, along with the other nations trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Freedom 1977 NY

Captive Nations Week demonstration in New York, July 1977 (Photo courtesy of the Estonian Archives in the U.S.)

In the early years, Estonians who had come to the U.S. had fresh memories of the trauma of the war, of the struggles of leaving, of family left behind, and of Estonia as a free nation.  While still working to establish themselves in their new home country, many were motivated by strong feelings of injustice and purpose to engage with the U.S. government and the broader public, first just to educate them on where Estonia was, and second, to raise awareness that Estonia, and half of Europe, had unlawfully fallen under repressive Soviet rule.  The 1940 Welles Declaration, issued by acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles, established the U.S. policy of nonrecognition of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic nations, and provided a foundation for EANC’s work.

Early advocacy successes tended to be more symbolic than substantial, and they often came from cooperation among groups of diaspora activists from many nations.  Estonian Americans were active in groups like the Assembly of Captive European Nations (ACEN), which was formed in New York in 1954 with offices located intentionally across the street from the United Nations headquarters as a daily reminder to the global community of the ongoing occupations in Europe.  It represented communities from nine captive nations (Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania), and its goals were the peaceful liberation of their nations from communist rule – through educating public opinion on the realities of life behind the Iron curtain – and enlisting the cooperation and support of the U.S. and other governments and NGOs in working toward this liberation.

Estonian advocacy evolved over the next several years as Estonian activists became better acquainted with the workings of Capitol Hill and more confident in their advocacy.  In 1961, the first resolutions demanding action on Baltic freedom were introduced, calling on President Kennedy to initiate action in the UN to withdraw Soviet troops, return Baltic exiles, and conduct free elections in the nations.

1961 was also the year the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) was formed by its parent organizations, EANC, the American Latvian Association and the Lithuanian American Council.  JBANC’s mission was to help coordinate the parent organizations’ activities in Washington, DC with the U.S. Congress and administration and its related agencies in conjunction with issues related to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  Coordination and consolidation of advocacy for the common interests shared  by the Baltic American communities formed the basis for much of EANC’s activism moving into the 1960s and beyond.

Rep Miller with JBANC certificate

Representative John Miller (R-WA) presented with Baltic Freedom Award by Joint Baltic American National Committee  members Ojars Kalninš (American Latvian Association), Mari-Ann Rikken (EANC), and John Genys (Lithuanian American Council). (Photo courtesy of JBANC)

A significant moment came in 1975 when Baltic leaders were granted a meeting with President Ford to discuss their concerns over that year’s Helsinki Conference.  The conference addressed European security issues and post WWII boundaries, and the Baltic communities, among others, were concerned that the U.S. policy of nonrecognition might change and the three counties might be permanently sold out to placate Moscow.

A protest was organized in DC that April and a crowd of over 4,000 gathered to send their message.  Congress declared recess for the day so Members could speak at the rally, and Senator Bob Dole of Kansas was among the notable participants.  Despite rumors that the U.S. would abandon the Welles Declaration, President Ford held his ground at the August convention and reaffirmed the policy, to the relief and celebration of the Estonian American community.

The 1980 Moscow Olympics brought another opportunity for activism.  EANC led a grassroots letter campaign to protest the International Olympic Committee’s approval of Tallinn as the site for the games’ sailing competitions.  The campaign noted that the Soviet government’s agenda included showing that Estonia’s annexation was a foregone conclusion, defying the principles of the Olympic Games and casting doubt on the Estonian people’s right to self-determination.  While the primary basis for President Carter’s ultimate decision to boycott the games was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he wrote a letter of thanks to the EANC president for Estonian American support, and in it, he cited the status of Estonia and issues concerning dissidents as factors that contributed to his decision.

As the 1980s progressed, there was a growing sense of urgency around getting results.  The Estonian population was in decline and many felt they were becoming an endangered species.  As Estonian American efforts intensified, Moscow pushed back by jamming western radio broadcasts, ironically prompting EANC to call on the White House to protest Soviet violation of the very Helsinki Accords that Baltic leaders had dreaded only a few years before.

Reagan signing

Baltic-American delegation witnessing President Reagan’s signature on a proclamation designating June 14, 1986 as Baltic Freedom Day. 

The Reagan years finally began the process of real change that Estonian Americans had been fighting for.  Baltic Americans in California had been strong supporters of Governor Reagan and quickly established ties with his White House staff.  Legislation that called for his 1982 designation of June 14th as Baltic Freedom Day, commemorating the mass deportations of Baltic citizens in 1941, was another victory for Baltic advocacy.

The approaching 50th anniversary of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Eastern Europe again raised awareness of the injustices that led to the annexation of the Baltic nations, leading to Black Ribbon Day observances by Estonian and Baltic communities around the U.S.  EANC also worked during this time to focus Congress on the fate of imprisoned Estonian political dissidents, an issue that many Members of Congress increasingly spoke out against.  The 1980s was a decade of mushrooming Estonian Americans activism that eventually led to its ultimate goal.

Once Estonia reestablished independence in 1991, EANC was involved in the transitional period, helping to form a temporary government structure in Tallinn and formally insisting on legal continuity of the original Estonian Republic.  They demanded restoration of the terms of the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty, in which Soviet Russia recognized the Republic of Estonia and renounced forever all rights over the nation, and which they clearly violated with their military occupation.  EANC pushed Congress to call for removal of Soviet troops from Estonian territory and called on the U.S. government to provide assistance in establishing all key areas of the new democratic government.

One very important relationship that arose in the 1990s, through the work of the Department of Defense, EANC and the Baltimore Estonian Society, was the National Guard State Partnership Program between Estonia and the Maryland National Guard.  These state partnership programs helped many newly independent nations establish their defense forces in the democratic model and provided instruction in all aspects of building military services in a democracy.  They helped nations prepare for NATO membership by guiding them through their NATO membership action plans, and eventually evolved into the Offices of Defense Cooperation that still manage continuing cooperation programs. In the case of all three Baltic nations, such programs include building the necessary infrastructure and making other preparations to host NATO troops deployed under the Enhanced Forward Presence mission, as an example.

While throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, EANC’s main advocacy goal was NATO

2001 WH meeting group on steps

    A group of Baltic American community representatives – including current EANC president Marju Rink-Abel (third from left) and EANC president at the time Mati Kõiva (fifth from left) – delivering petitions to support NATO enlargement to the White House on September 10, 2001.

membership for Estonia, the fight for NATO membership didn’t just happen in the Baltics.  Other new nations also wanted to join the alliance and saw advantages to pooling their resources.  In 1994, the Central and East European Coalition (CEEC) was established by groups with common interests in the region.  The coalition is made up of eighteen national, membership-based organizations representing Americans with heritage from twelve nations, including Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine.  The Coalition serves as a liaison among these national ethnic organizations and cooperates in calling attention to issues of mutual concern, especially regarding U.S. policy toward the region.  While the original goal was NATO membership (and remains so for at least two coalition members), the CEEC continues to collaborate in advocating in Congress, publishing coordinated statements on issues of concern, and hosting events on Capitol Hill to call attention to and inform Congressional staff on their issues.

2001 WH meeting color

Inside the White House meeting to deliver petitions supporting NATO membership for the Baltic nations.  The Administration was represented by (from front right) Ambassador Daniel Fried (then-Special Assistant to President George W. Bush), Ambassador Beth Jones (then-Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia) and Ambassador John Tefft (then-Ambassador to Lithuania). EANC was represented by then-board member and current President Marju Rink-Abel (back left) and President at the time Mati Kõiva (not pictured).

EANC continues to maintain its active role in the coalition, in JBANC and in bilateral contacts with Congress, the Estonian Embassy in DC, the State Department, and other agencies in Washington foreign policy circles.  The main topics currently discussed include continued support for NATO and the Defense Department’s European Deterrence Initiative funding, implementation of sanctions against Russia for interference in democracy and the sovereignty of its neighbors, energy security, and support for Ukraine.  Another main topic with Senators and Representatives is membership in the Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus or House Baltic Caucus.

Several resources have documented EANC’s history in great detail.  The following references are available to those wishing to learn more about Estonian American life from the first migrations to the present.

EANC published a history book in 2016 titled Estonians in America 1945-1995: Exiles in a Land of Promise, which catalogs information on all aspects of the communities and

Estos in America book cover

EANC’s history book, Estonians in America 1945-1995.  Available on Amazon.com starting in November.

organizations the Estonian diaspora in the U.S. established to keep alive the Estonian language and culture – including academic institutions, churches, schools and youth organizations – and also to engage in political advocacy from grassroots to national levels.

A major contributor to the Estonian cause in the U.S. is the newspaper of the Estonian American community, Vaba Eesti Sõna, or Free Estonian Word.  The paper was founded in New York in 1949 and has been issued weekly ever since.  It was essentially the sole source of news for Estonians in America, and published news from Estonia, on Estonian activities in the U.S., and news from communities in other countries.  While serving as a valuable historical archive of events for research, it also played a crucial role in maintaining the cohesion of the Estonian diaspora, and it continues to do so, as a physical newspaper and in online form at www.vabaeestisona.com.

The Estonian Archives in the U.S., located in Lakewood, New Jersey also holds a vast collection of relevant material.  They maintain a trove of photos, documents, publications, personal histories, and artifacts, acting as the keepers of Estonian American history and playing a monumental role in collecting and preserving all aspects of the diaspora’s story.

EANC has a proud 66-year history of supporting and representing the Estonian community in the U.S.  The newly elected council, the 22nd, which will meet on November 3-4 in Philadelphia, will carry on the tradition while also adapting its approach to its mission as the community evolves.   EANC will continue its role as a resource for Estonian Americans to help them maintain their cohesive communities, cultural activities, connections to their language and heritage, and political activism and looks forward to four years of great work.

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Advocacy

Estonian Experts in DC

Two Washington think tanks recently held their annual events looking at the security situation and hybrid threats in the transatlantic sphere.  Both featured Estonian officials speaking on strategic communications, cyber security and hybrid warfare.  EANC’s Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey caught up with the Estonian guests at both events.

In late September, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) hosted its tenth annual CEPA Forum, which bills itself as “the leading annual transatlantic conference in Washington D.C., representing the largest gathering of European officials, experts and industry leaders in the United States.”  This year’s featured participants included Commander of U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Curtis Scaparotti, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Ambassador Kurt Volker, and foreign and defense ministers and senior officials from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Slovakia, Romania and NATO.  More information and video coverage from the event are available at cepaforum.org.

Indrek at CEPA 2018

Mr. Indrek Sirp speaking at the CEPA Forum (Photo courtesy of CEPA).

Estonia was represented by Mr. Indrek Sirp, currently the Director of National Security and Defense Coordination of the Government Office (Riigikantselei) and former Defense Counselor at the Embassy of Estonia in Washington.  He participated in a panel discussing strategy for containing hybrid challenges in the 21st century.  The panel highlighted Baltnews as a prime example of a Russian government-funded news outlet that on the surface looks like a legitimate, independent website while actually engaging in an aggressive disinformation campaign guided by the Kremlin.

The panelists then discussed means that have been effective in practice for combatting hybrid threats.  They commended organizations like the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga, Propastop in Estonia, and the new European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki, which focus on exposing the sources of disinformation and publicly assigning attribution that clearly identifies agents of the Kremlin’s information warfare.  Once identified, an international, interagency response based in allied solidarity and trust is critical to ensuring that the exposure and attribution are met with public acceptance and resilience.  Finally, it is incumbent on individual nations to keep their own affairs in order by effectively addressing corruption and money laundering within their borders.  The panel ended by observing that nations that have successfully eradicated their own corruption issues are also successful in resisting hybrid tactics and strategies employed against them.

In early October, the Atlantic Council hosted its Global Forum on Strategic Communications and Digital Disinformation (StratCom DC), which took a closer look at disinformation campaigns and cyber operations, their employment of false narratives, their manipulation of political processes and the West’s slow response to the growing threat.  Featured speakers included Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Swedish Ambassador to the U.S. Karin Olofsdotter, and former CIA director General Michael Hayden.  Two Estonians were also featured panelists during the off-the-record second day of the event.  More information and video coverage of this event are available at stratcomdc.org.

Merle at STRATCOM

Panelist Ms. Merle Maigre at the Atlantic Council’s StratComDC event.

Ms. Merle Maigre is currently the Executive Vice President for Government Relations at CybExer Technologies, an Estonian firm that specializes in providing governments and organizations with cyber training and sophisticated, large-scale cybersecurity exercises. She shared her expertise on a panel covering cyber threats to critical infrastructure and showed a video of this year’s multi-national Locked Shields exercise based in Tallinn.  Since 2010, Locked Shields has simulated live-fire cyber attacks using fictional scenarios to practice defense of national IT systems and critical infrastructure.  Ms. Maigre’s extensive  background in these topics  is based in her previous experience, including serving as director of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn, as security policy advisor to Estonian Presidents Kaljulaid and Ilves, and NATO positions in Brussels and Kyiv.

Ms. Liisa Past is the Chief Research Officer for the Cyber Security Branch of the Estonian National Information System Authority (Riigi Infosüseemi Amet) and participated in a panel discussion on legal frameworks to address influence operations.  Her work has focused on information security and the social and political impact of technology.

Liisa at STRATCOM - cropped

Ms. Liisa Past, panelist at the StratComDC event

Recently, her comprehensive risk assessment of technology used in elections in Estonia was the basis for interagency cooperation on election security there.  She will be back in Washington on this topic later in October for a seminar on election security hosted jointly by the Embassies of the Czech Republic and Estonia.  She is also currently a Next Generation Leader fellow at the McCain Institute for International Leadership.  During this nine-month fellowship at Arizona State University, she will work on developing through collaboration at the university new ways to bolster long-term cyber defense planning in Estonia.

EANC is thrilled to see so many talented Estonians invited to the U.S. to share their expertise.  U.S. organizations clearly recognize the value Estonian experts can add to their events.  EANC will continue to track Estonians participating in key forums and keep Estonian Americans informed on the range of topics they’re contributing to.

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