Advocacy

EANC supports Global Magnitsky Act

eanc-logo-imageEANC joined a coalition of 23 groups concerned with human rights in signing an open letter to Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin stressing the importance of implementation and enforcement of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.  Global Magnitsky was signed into law in December 2016.  It authorizes the President to imposed financial sanctions and visa restrictions on foreign citizens who engage in certain human rights violations and acts of corruption.  The Departments of State and Treasury hold primary responsibility for enforcing the sanctions.

The letter was drafted and coordinated by Human Rights First (HRF), a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York, Washington D.C., Houston, and Los Angeles.  They also vetted and submitted in conjunction with the letter 15 case files for review under the act.  The HRF press release is available on their website at humanrightsfirst.org under blogs and press releases for September 13th (titled NGOs Identify Human Rights Abusers…).  The full letter and case summaries are also linked from the press release.

EANC advocated for Global Magnitsky and fully supports its provisions and enforcement.  The Estonian parliament unanimously passed a similar law, also in December 2016.  Several European countries, Canada, the U.K. and the European Parliament have also passed similar legislation.

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Advocacy

A Perspective on Zapad 2017

As Russia’s quadrennial military exercise Zapad gets underway, there’s no shortage of analysis and commentary on what to expect.  Scheduled to start on September 14th and run for seven days, Zapad 2017 has been a hot topic among think tanks, NGOs, Russia experts, military experts, and other interested parties for the last several months.  The most comprehensive source of information may be the Center for European Policy Analysis and its dedicated website, Road to Zapad 2017 (infowar.cepa.org/the-road-to-zapad-2017).  That said, countless other sources, including the Atlantic Council, Baltic Times, Military Times, National Interest, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, and German Marshall Fund, have contributed to varying degrees on the topic.

The main question posed in the coverage has been about whether or not the West should be worried.  Although fictitious adversarial states were created for the exercise, the scenario has been reported as a simulation of a NATO attack on Belarus, with Russia coming to its neighbor’s aid in defending the attack.  There is general consensus that the number of troops Russia is sending exceeds that of past Zapads and that Russia is not meeting the reporting requirements laid out in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Vienna Document.  Russia and Belarus have put the number at less than 13,000 – the level at which the Vienna Document mandates OSCE inspections –  while previous exercises have approached the 100,000-troop mark.

The worst-case outcome would be Russia’s use of the exercise as a cover for stationing permanent troops or equipment in Belarus, an intention they have demonstrated in past large-scale exercises, as in Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008.  Previous Zapad exercises have simulated invasion of the Baltic states, a nuclear strike on Warsaw, and bombing runs against Sweden, but did not end in violation of any nation’s sovereignty.  While Belarus has invited military observers from seven countries – Ukraine, Poland, Sweden, Norway and the three Baltic nations – to take part in specific visitors’ days, this, too falls short of OSCE transparency measures.

Reuters Zapad graphic

Graphic of Russian and Belarusian participation as reported by the Russian Ministry of Defense.  Source: Reuters.

Russia is downplaying the scale of Zapad, accusing the West of overreacting and risking stability in Europe with its concurrent buildup of NATO forces in the region.  They characterize the event as practicing strictly defensive maneuvers and that they pose a threat to no one.  Meanwhile, educated viewpoints in the West criticize the scenario as completely unrealistic and place responsibility for any instability along Russia’s borders squarely in the hands of the Kremlin.

The Estonian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has indicated distrust of the numbers reported by Moscow based on past experience with other Russian exercises and has been closely monitoring preparations for this one.  According to a news article on the MoD website, Minister Jüri Luik is “…hoping to see greater transparency and observance of international agreements both prior to and during the exercise” (see kaitseministeerium.ee/en/news for 28.08.2017).  Estonian representatives will take part in the observer program 16-20 September and Estonia’s defense attaché will attend a program for all defense attachés accredited to Moscow at the Luga training ground, about 90 miles south of St. Petersburg, 18-19 September.

An interested party could spend days trying to digest all the information available on different aspects of Zapad 2017.  Until the exercise is finished and its aftermath is clear later in September, much of what has been written so far will remain speculation.  While there are indications that troop movements and naval deployments exceed what Russia and Belarus have reported, and it seems likely that far more than 13,000 soldiers will be mobilized, the endgame will only be revealed once the dust settles.  Analysis and commentary at that point will undoubtedly be much more consequential.

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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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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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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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