Tuesday
Aug152017

EANC Meets with State Department

- Karin Shuey, 8/15/17

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 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 combatting 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.

Friday
Jul282017

CEEC Releases 2017 Policy Summary

- Karin Shuey, 7/25/17

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; 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 scheduled 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, Belarusan, 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.

EANC and CEEC colleagues met with Representative Diaz-Balart's (R-FL) staff to share priorities and discuss policy.

Monday
Jul102017

EANC Interview with Speaker of Parliament Eiki Nestor

By Karin Shuey. 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.

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.]

2.  Security of the Baltic 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?

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.House Speaker Ryan met with his Nordic-Baltic counterparts, including Estonian Eiki Nestor (far right), on June 28th. Photo by Tomas Enqvist.

Thursday
Jun222017

EANC and JBANC Support Ukraine Advocacy

From Karin Shuey 6/22/17

EANC’s sister organization from the Central and East European Coalition (CEEC) representing Ukrainian Americans held an advocacy event on June 14 in Washington to call attention to legislation relevant to ending the conflict in Ukraine.  The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA) together with the Ukrainian National Information Service (UNIS) sponsored their thrice-yearly “Ukraine Days” advocacy event on June 14th and were reinforced by EANC and JBANC support. 

The program included a morning briefing session with leaders of the Ukrainian-American community from throughout the U.S., followed by visits to both Senate and House members’ offices.  EANC Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey and JBANC Managing Director Karl Altau, along with JBANC interns Lina Sullivan, Ojars Berzins, Elīna Dīce, and Anete Rožukalne, joined the team of Ukrainians from Virginia and California to visit offices representing those states.  During the course of the day, they met with staff working for California Senator Dianne Feinstein and Virginia Representatives Don Beyer and Barbara Comstock.  EANC and JBANC reps join Ukrainian-American advocates in meeting with Senator Feinstein Legislative Correspondent Anup Rao (second from left). Photo: JBANC.Since one of the Ukrainian-American advocates was a constituent of Representative Dana Rohrabacher, he made time to meet with the group himself for a lively and sometimes contentious discussion of the issues.  This group also included a Crimean Tatar and a Georgian soldier who volunteered in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.  The day ended with a reception in the Capitol, offering another opportunity to discuss issues with Members of Congress and staff and other friends of Ukraine. Representative Rohrabacher (back row, second from right) meets with Ukrainian- and Russian-Americans, along with EANC and JBANC reps. Photo: JBANC

This event works in parallel with EANC’s and JBANC’s mission, including JBANC’s biennial security conference, in calling attention to the legislation and issues that impact the nations along Russia’s border.   Much of the legislation JBANC supports is the same as that highlighted on this advocacy day.  By reinforcing Ukrainian priorities in Congress, JBANC and EANC also bolster the cause for democracy, border integrity, fair elections, rule of law, military and diplomatic cooperation, and other democratic principles and institutions that form the foundations of European security and a stable world order.

EANC and the other member organizations of the CEEC will continue to work together to keep Congress focused on our common interests.  While the Estonian-American community makes up a small percentage of most congressional district populations, teaming up with the communities from our former Soviet Republic and Warsaw Pact neighbors, our voices become much stronger and more likely to get the attention of our lawmakers.  Our ongoing work with the CEEC produces policy statements and press releases, summaries of relevant legislation that we distribute on the Hill, and forums for Congressional staffers and members of the foreign policy community that draw high-level speakers to shine a light on the hottest topics affecting our region.  For more information on the CEEC, please visit www.ceecoalition.us.  

Saturday
Jun172017

Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation Honors Mart Laar

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VoC) held its tenth annual Roll Call of Nations on June 9th.  The event each year commemorates the more than 100 million victims of communism worldwide and those still living under totalitarian regimes.  Over twenty embassies and other government agencies and thirty nongovernmental organizations took part this year, setting a record for attendance.  Former Lithuanian head of state Dr. Vytautas Landsbergis was the keynote speaker.

Dr. Mart Laar was honored with this year’s Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom.  VoC has awarded the medal annually since 1999 to “individuals and institutions that have demonstrated a life-long commitment to freedom and democracy and opposition to communism and all other forms of tyranny,” as quoted from its website.  The award was presented by VoC Chairman Lee Edwards. 

Laar was the first Prime Minister following Estonia’s re-independence in 1992 and was elected again in 1999.  His leadership in creating an accountable government, implementing free-market reform, and paving the way for Estonia’s membership in the EU, along with his extensive background in human rights and publicizing Estonia’s history of anti-Soviet resistance, earned him the recognition.  Edwards also credited him with Estonia’s ‘Baltic Tiger’ economic reputation and leading the Singing Revolution.  Estonian Deputy Chief of Mission Marki Tihhonova-Kreek accepted the award on Laar’s behalf.

The VoC Memorial Foundation was established in 1993 to educate the public on the crimes of communism and honor the victims of communism around the world.  The memorial itself was dedicated by President George W. Bush in 2007.  Its statue is a replica of the one erected by Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in 1989.   VoC Executive Director Marion Smith noted that it is the only known memorial dedicated to all victims of communism around the world.  He also noted that younger generations are “woefully ignorant” of twentieth century history and the dangers of communism that arose during that time.  VoC is now working toward building a world-class International Museum on Communism in Washington dedicated to education and a historical archive of communism’s tyranny.

EANC supports the VoC and its mission several times each year.  In addition to this event, we take part in the VoC’s observation of the of Black Ribbon Day each August and the commemoration of the March 1949 mass deportations from the Baltic nations.  EANC also provided financial support to the building of the memorial and to the anticipated museum.  We thank VoC for its enduring commitment to keeping the memory of communism’s crimes alive.

- Karin Shuey