Saturday
Apr212018

President Kaljulaid’s Visit – An Estonian American Perspective

- By Karin Shuey

Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid visited Washington, DC on April 3rd and 4th in conjunction with the summit meeting between President Trump and all three Baltic leaders.  Her busy agenda included meetings at the White House followed by a joint press conference; a U.S.-Baltic business summit hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; a dinner event at the Atlantic Council that featured outgoing National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s final address before leaving his post; President Kaljulaid’s first solo public speaking appearance in the U.S., also hosted by the Atlantic Council; a visit to Arlington National Cemetery; and finally a reception at the Estonian embassy.  EANC was represented at several of these events.  While reporting of the visit is widely available on the websites of the organizations that hosted the events and of many Estonian and U.S. press outlets, this article will focus on insights picked up by EANC’s Washington, DC Director as she moved through the week.EANC Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey before the White House press conference.

Everything EANC’s representative witnessed, from the press conference and business summit to the second Atlantic Council event and embassy reception, left an impression of President Kaljulaid as an intelligent, dignified, diplomatic leader.  She joined her colleagues in treating the summit as a meeting of equal partners on the transatlantic stage and demonstrated expertise on a variety of topics, including digital society, cyber security, artificial intelligence, genome mapping and global economics. 

The business summit showcased the Baltics as a great place to do business.  President Kaljulaid emphasized Estonia as the first stop for secure commerce, especially in the technology sector, finding it “weird” that all countries don’t require digital identification at both ends of transactions to ensure the safety of corporate and personal data.  She described the success of public-private cooperation in building Estonia’s secure internet backbone as a model for other nations to follow.  Panelists from U.S. companies doing business in the Baltics confirmed through their very positive experiences that the Baltics are open for business, citing work ethic, drive for innovation, loyalty, and resourcefulness as assets offered abundantly by business leaders in the region.  Also at the event, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who attended the White House meeting, noted that the Baltic presidents developed a good rapport with President Trump, who was impressed with their candor on topics including defense, economic, and energy cooperation.  A video of the business summit is available at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce website under Recent Events.

The Atlantic Council’s Conversation with President Kersti Kaljulaid highlighted Estonia as the world’s most digitized nation.  The president discussed artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, cyber security and Estonia’s creation of a borderless and secure digital society, and how all these factors impact Estonia’s digital government.  While addressing these very complex topics, Kaljulaid’s delivery made them surprisingly understandable.  She noted that there isn’t much Russian oligarchic money in Estonia because their digital economy is so transparent, and that the 2007 cyber attack didn’t meet the threshold for a NATO Article 5 response because it didn’t come close threatening Estonia’s security and sovereignty, having shut down certain services for only a few hours.  She also mentioned Estonia’s bid for the Eastern European non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council next year with a plan to bring discussion of the digital realm to the international table.  The full video is available at the Atlantic Council’s website under Events/Webcasts for April 4th.  The video of the dinner event, titled 100 Years of US-Baltic Partnership, is also posted on the same page.

The Estonian president’s visit to Arlington National Cemetery paid respects to three men with connections to Estonia.  She visited the graves of Robert Frasure, the first U.S. ambassador to Estonia after independence in 1991; General Aleksander Einseln, who retired from a distinguished U.S. Army career in 1985 and returned to his native Estonia in 1993 to become the chief of Estonia’s defense forces; and Private Jaak Kuri, who was born in Estonia, fought for the U.S. in Vietnam, and was killed there at age 24.  General Einseln’s full honors interment ceremony took place on April 2nd and was attended by the author on behalf of EANC.

President Kaljulaid’s final appearance of her U.S. visit was at the Embassy of Estonia, where she shared some thoughts about her trip to a gathering of Estonian Americans, government officials, and other friends of Estonia.  The reception also featured the presentation of the book, Sailing to Freedom, by Voldemar Veedam and Carl B. Wall.  It is the second printing of the 1952 account of the trans-Atlantic crossing in the small sailboat Erma from Sweden of Estonian refugees to find security in the US.

The president noted that every journalist who interviewed her during the week asked some version of the same question:  What did you get from President Trump?  Her response clearly illustrated her intent to hold equal ground with the U.S. leader.  She said she did not come to the U.S. “with an empty bag, [asking anyone] to fill it with goodies.”  She, along with President Grybauskaitė and President Vējonis, showed their mettle as world leaders and contributors to international security, standing side-by-side with their colleagues to solve global challenges together. 

EANC was honored to take part in this historic visit and extends its thanks to the Embassy of Estonia, the Department of State, the White House Press Office, the Atlantic Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for their successful execution of the week’s events.

Wednesday
Mar142018

Estonian Ministers Visit Washington

- Karin Shuey 3-14-18

Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser and Minister of Defense Jüri Luik were in Washington last week for meetings with their U.S. counterparts. 

Minister Mikser made a joint visit to the State Department with his Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts on March 5th.  They held a productive meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, where all agreed on the need to address with deeper cooperation the Kremlin’s malicious disinformation and cyber campaigns against the West.  Strategies to combat Russia’s threat to broader European security and Putin’s lack of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of neighboring nations were other important topics on their agenda.  They also discussed preparations for the Baltic summit President Trump will host in April and the July NATO summit in Brussels.  According to ERR News on March 6th, Minister Mikser highlighted the importance of  the U.S. as an ally in the Baltics, the need to strengthen the allied deterrent in the region, and hopes for progress on trade and stronger regional security as goals for the Baltic summit on April 3rd.

Minister Luik met with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis on March 7th, where NATO, Russia, and cybersecurity were again main points of discussion.  Mattis’ appreciation for Estonia’s decision to support a larger NATO contingent in Afghanistan and Luik’s gratitude for continued European Deterrence Initiative funding were also emphasized.  More complete coverage of the meeting is available at ERR News for March 8th.

Minister Luik held a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a DC think tank, the following day, where he shared several insights.  He noted that there has been a mental change among NATO member nations since the 2014 and 2016 NATO summits that has led to increased defense spending among allies who had traditionally avoided it.  Estonia enjoys political consensus on its defense budget, which largely goes toward developing its self-defense capabilities and host nation support infrastructure to accommodate allied troops deployed to Estonian bases.  He observed that training in Estonia has added value to visiting British, Danish and French forces’ readiness.  Estonia offers unique forested military training grounds not found in other western European nations and that French troops have affectionately dubbed “the cold jungle.”   Minister Luik’s recommendations for improving NATO’s effectiveness in the event of conflict included better facilitating the movement of allied troops across borders, streamlining NATO’s command structure and decision-making process, strengthening nations’ political will to act if necessary, and better communication to the European public on the allies’ commitment to act as one.

EANC expects more developments on these topics as the U.S.-Baltic and NATO summits approach in the coming months.  Please follow this space for updates as U.S.-Estonian cooperation evolves.

Tuesday
Mar062018

EANC on the Road

Estonian American National Council’s Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey had the honor of addressing the Los Angeles Estonian community for their Eesti Vabariik 100 celebration on February 24th.  Their festive program at the Los Angeles Estonian House included greetings from the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and consul generals and honorary consuls resident in Los Angeles, along with songs and poems performed by the local mixed chorus and Sunday school students.  It also featured the unveiling of a plaque from the Estonian government that recognized the community for its successful execution of the XXXIII West Coast Estonian Days last summer as one of the first official EV100 events in the U.S.Karin Shuey at Los Angeles Eesti Selts

After congratulating the community and reviewing some history of Estonians in Southern California, Ms. Shuey’s remarks focused on EANC’s mission, the issues tracked in Washington, and how the local community could help with Baltic advocacy.  She made an important pitch for supporting Vaba Eesti Sõna, the most enduring source of news for Estonian Americans that is facing financial difficulty. She encouraged all our readers to subscribe to either the online or print version.

Another important priority covered by Ms. Shuey’s remarks was elections to the EANC council.  Estonian Americans throughout the U.S. are invited to run for one of fifty seats in the council membership.  EANC’s mission includes supporting Estonian American organizations that preserve and promote Estonian heritage, language and culture; and working to raise awareness of, and support for, Estonia among all Americans, and in Congress and the Administration.  Newer goals include bringing all the communities and demographics that we represent together through a new website and social media, and appealing to a broader audience with more information on topics Estonian Americans are interested in.  For anyone eager to participate in EANC’s evolving mission, the deadline to submit applications is March 31st.  More information is available at www.estosite.org.

The issues emphasized on EANC’s Washington radar include ending Russia’s occupation of Ukraine and Crimea; continued U.S. support for NATO’s presence in the Baltics and Poland; upholding democratic values and institutions in Europe; implementing the sanctions that the Administration has signed into law that punish Russia for attacking democracy in Europe and the U.S.; and enacting programs that combat Russia’s disinformation campaigns here and in Europe.  All of these issues have active legislation in the works and are items that EANC brings up when visiting members of Congress and their staff, often in conjunction with our Joint Baltic American National Committee and Central and East European Coalition colleagues. 

Ms. Shuey also highlighted several local Representatives who are members of the House Baltic Caucus and others whose membership would be welcomed.  Just based on Members of Congress who have announced their retirements so far, the House Baltic Caucus stands to lose 10% of its membership at the end of this session.  That number could go up depending on the results of the midterm elections in November.  The HBC membership list is at housebalticcaucus.webs.com/members.  Ms. Shuey encouraged the audience to check for their Representative’s name, and if not listed, to make a call to ask that they join. 

Ms. Shuey’s trip to California was the latest evidence of EANC’s efforts to give more communities first-hand information about EANC’s activities.  Over the last two years, EANC has held its annual meeting and public seminars and dinners in San Francisco and St. Petersburg, Florida.  Ms. Shuey traveled to Seattle for that community’s Independence Day program last year, and her next trip will be to Cleveland in June for their Victory Day and Midsummer commemoration.  She will be joined by EANC President Marju Rink-Abel in early June at Stanford University for a panel discussion at the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies Conference on the 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence. 

EANC values its relationships with Estonian communities throughout the U.S. and welcomes opportunities to bring its message to them.  If anyone would like a representative to come to an event in  their city to share more information and engage with community members on a more personal level, please see the EANC website at www.estosite.org for contact information.

 

Thursday
Feb152018

Senate Committee Issues Major Report on Russia’s Assault on Democracy

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) in January released a comprehensive report on Russian President Putin’s asymmetric assault on Western democracy and commissioned by then-ranking member Senator Ben Cardin.  The press release for the report, including links to the full 206-page study, is available at the SFRC website under Ranking Member’s Press for January 10, 2018.  According to the press release, the document “comes one year after Senator Cardin introduced the Counteracting Russian Hostilities Act of 2017, which served as the basis for the sanctions package signed into law last August, and makes a series of recommendations to adequately bolster U.S. and European defenses and counter the growing Kremlin threat to democratic institutions.”

The report includes a section dedicated to the Baltic states (starting on page 100) that outlines several aspects of the problem in the region, such as the history of Russian government influence operations, vulnerabilities, organizations carrying out the operations, and efforts to counter the Kremlin’s actions.  The study identifies five Russian objectives that focus on:  ethnic division of the populations to control and manipulate their Russian minorities; creating mistrust toward the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; undermining Western democratic values and instead promoting populism and radicalism; weakening Western alliances like NATO and the EU; and marginalizing the nations’ cultures and historical achievements so that the population will be less inclined to come to their governments’ defense.SFRC report cover

All three nations have taken action against state-sponsored Russian propaganda outlets by creating media literacy through education programs and establishing a center for professional Russian-language journalism, among other measures.  In Estonia, the government has instituted three Russian-language television stations that are watched by about 20 percent of the Russian minority population.  Even private citizens are organizing to expose disinformation in social media.

The study also credits the three nations’ intelligence services for their efforts to expose propaganda and influence networks.  Estonia’s Internal Security Service (Kaitsepolitsei or Kapo), along with its counterparts in Latvia and Lithuania, publishes annual reports of Russian intelligence activities and corresponding government responses.  The Eston Kohver case is cited as perhaps the most egregious incident in recent years.  The Estonian government holds a “zero-tolerance” policy toward illegal Russian intelligence activities and prosecutes caught operatives to the maximum extent of the law.  Their annual reporting also publicizes names of people and organizations who are suspected of working with Russian intelligence services.  Corruption, criminal circles, and areas such as the energy sector, where businesses are trying to influence state policy, are other major fields of Kapo’s concern.

The committee concluded their report with three main lessons learned.  They found that publicly reporting details of Russian intelligence activities is effective, strong cyber defenses are essential, and exposure to Western culture through exchanges and programs like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA) increases resilience.  To that end, RFE/RL-led program Current Time, in cooperation with VOA, was launched last year and is making great strides in providing balanced, spin-free Russian language news coverage over multiple platforms in Russia and nearly 30 other countries, including the Baltics.  Please see the RFE/RL press release from February 7th for details.

The report clearly highlights that Putin’s campaign against the West is relentless and will continue to evolve, and that it can be deterred.  Supporting U.S. programs to counter its effects and build resilience, at home and in unison with our European allies, is a major focus of EANC’s advocacy this year.  We will continue to follow the issue and welcome our community’s support in reaching out to Members of Congress to call for policy and action in neutralizing the Kremlin’s efforts to undermine democracy in our homeland.

-Karin Shuey

 

Monday
Feb122018

EANC Meets with State Department

Estonian American National Council (EANC) representatives recently joined Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) colleagues for a briefing from the Department of State (DoS) Baltic team.  The Director of Nordic and Baltic Affairs and desk officers for Latvia and Lithuania shared their insights on policy and current and upcoming events relevant to U.S.-Baltic relationships.  Representatives from the Global Engagement Center (GEC) and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (BECA) were also present to brief us on their programs.

The meeting started by recognizing the centennial celebrations the nations are holding throughout 2018.  Each embassy has a long slate of events across the U.S. that State is facilitating to ensure their success.  The Department is also creating a pictorial display for one of their main lobbies showing the evolution of U.S.-Baltic relations over the years, highlighting significant events such as the 1940 Welles Declaration that established U.S. refusal to recognize Soviet annexation of the nations, and the U.S.-Baltic Charter of 1998 supporting the nations’ full integration into European and transatlantic structures and cooperation.

The display will coincide with a possible Baltic summit in the works for this spring in Washington with the three Baltic presidents.  The event will likely include two half-day programs.  The White House portion will not be open to the public while the second program, featuring U.S.-Baltic business opportunities, will encourage public interaction.  The embassies are coordinating with the Department of Commerce, private entities, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to highlight the success of Baltic business in the U.S.

The GEC representative described GEC’s work to counter disinformation by engaging at local levels with governments, NGOs, schools, social and civic leaders and others.  Having learned that issuing active rebuttals to false messages is ineffective, they have shifted their focus to helping their partners establish credibility through positive messaging and building resiliency.   In the Baltic countries, they are working with local organizations and agencies to identify the key goals of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns, create media literacy among audiences, and facilitate information sharing among the countries to improve their effectiveness against the information threat.

The discussion with the BECA representatives centered around proposals to reduce the number of J-1 visas, which allow foreign citizens to come to the U.S. as students, au pairs, participants in exchange programs, short-term workers and in other temporary capacities.   Participants emphasized the importance, both to the Baltics and to the U.S. Baltic communities, of educational opportunities, internships, exchanges, and the like, that require the J-1 visa. They recommended increasing, rather than decreasing, the number of visas available.

The meeting closed out with a review of upcoming events and agreement to mutually support each other wherever possible.  All in attendance clearly shared appreciation for the milestone this year marks for Baltic independence will continue work to strengthen U.S.-Baltic relations.

- Karin Shuey 2/7/18