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

Wednesday
Jan172018

U.S. to Sell Arms to Ukraine

In case you missed it, shortly before Christmas, the Administration announced approval to sell lethal arms to Ukraine.  According to the Washington Post on December 23rd, the approval includes “light weapons and small arms…from commercial U.S. manufacturers” that are defensive in nature. Response to the decision so far has been mixed, with some lauding the move while others warn of increased complications in U.S.- Russia relations.  Below are summaries of some of what has been published so far to help readers assess the move for themselves.

Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker issued a press release at www.csce.gov shortly after the decision.  He called it, “a good first step to give the Ukrainian people the means to defend themselves.”  Senator Wicker is also a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and is hopeful the approval will eventually extend to anti-tank weapons and other heavy arms.

A Voice of America article on December 22nd stated that a U.S. company had already been selling weapons to Ukraine since last year, having obtained an export license and working closely with the State Department and Department of Defense.  Licenses have been granted for small-scale purchases in the past on a case-by-case basis.  The article also reported that Congress has approved “$350 million in security aid for Ukraine in its most recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including $47 million for defensive lethal weapons.”  Final approval is contingent on the successful completion of the 2018 budget process. 

The Washington Post article cited above also reported that Russian officials rebuked the decision.  Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that “U.S. weapons are capable of leading to new casualties in our neighboring country, and we cannot remain indifferent to that.”

The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported on December 20th that while the approval didn’t include everything the Ukrainians had asked for, it was a significant shift in the administration’s policy.  A senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation observed that, ““The way it was not rolled out tells you something, that they are concerned about the perception of this. They are not trumpeting this as a major policy shift or signature policy priority,” presumably at least in part due to concern over how it will be received by the Kremlin.

A Ukrainian colleague of the Estonian American National Council (EANC) offered his assessment of the approval.  He indicated he was happy with the decision, but noted that the approval was for arms sales, not grants.  Without corresponding military financial aid, the Ukrainian budget would likely not allow for the purchase of the weapons.  He also observed that fighting had subsided in recent weeks and that President Putin might intend to lead the Ukrainians to believe that the weapons aren’t even necessary.

This story is clearly still developing, and many opinions have already been and will likely continue to be expressed.  EANC will continue to track it and keep its readership informed.  In the meantime, we will support our Ukrainian partners in advocating for financial aid to support the purchase of weapons and hope for a lasting resolution to the Russian occupation of their territory.

- Karin Shuey 1/17/18

Wednesday
Dec132017

House Baltic Caucus Celebrates 20 Years

The House Baltic Caucus (HBC) turned 20 this year and was recognized with an elegant reception on Capitol Hill attended by members of Congress, Baltic parliamentarians, embassy officials and other friends of the Baltics.  The event was organized by the embassies of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC), to thank caucus members for their support over the years and to welcome new members.  Distinguished participants included caucus co-chair, Representative John Shimkus (R-IL), and caucus members Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), along with Marko Mihkelson, Chairman of the Estonian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee; Solvita Āboltiņa, Chairwoman of the Latvian parliament’s National Security Committee; and Emanuelis Zingeris, Chairman, United States Caucus, Lithuanian Parliament.

After welcome remarks by JBANC managing director Karl Altau, Mr. Mihkelson thanked the HBC especially for its work during the process of NATO enlargement.  He noted that Estonia is not just a consumer of security but has also become a provider.  Estonian troops have been active members of many NATO deployments and are currently increasing their presence in Afghanistan.  As Russia is testing the West wherever it can, we can’t take the world order for granted and the HBC’s role will remain as important as ever. 

Rep. Barr thanked the three Baltic governments for their commitment to allocating 2% of their budgets to defense and outlined areas where continued cooperation will be important.  Working together on deterrence, sanctions oversight, and pressing the Administration on the importance of energy security are key areas of focus.  He stressed that Article 5 is alive and well, and the U.S. will continue to be side by side with its allies, standing united in bipartisan, bicameral support.

Rep. Shimkus thanked the audience for remembering their ancestry and pushing their members of Congress to remain engaged in the region.  He also applauded the Baltic nations for helping their neighbors as they struggle with evolving democracies.  Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have set commendable examples for other countries that yearn to be free.

The HBC’s membership now stands at 74, with 22 of those joining in 2017, thanks at least in part to outreach by JBANC, its parent organizations, and their constituents.  EANC is proud to actively support these efforts and will continue to do so.  We also invite Estonian Americans to check the list of HBC members at http://housebalticcaucus.webs.com and make a call to thank caucus members or ask Representatives not listed to join.  The last 20 years have shown that Congress supports the Baltic region and welcomes engagement from their Baltic-American constituents.  We look forward to the next two decades of security, stability and progress bolstered by continued strong U.S.-Baltic cooperation.

- Karin Shuey 12/13/17

Distinguished guests from left: Emanuelis Zingeris, John Shimkus, Solvita Āboltiņa, Marko Mihkelson, Andy Barr, Karl Altau. Photo by Peteris Alunan.

Tuesday
Oct312017

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. 

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.

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.

- Karin Shuey 10/31/17

Monday
Oct302017

A Guide to Grassroots Advocacy for Estonia

From Karin Shuey, EANC Washington DC Director:

As members of the 115th Congress settle into their new offices, it’s time for us to start thinking about how to make sure issues that impact Estonian security get those members’ attention.  EANC and the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) are stepping up our work on the Hill in 2017, and our efforts would get a big boost from parallel grassroots support.  There are a few things outlined here that we can already start focusing on.  If you are inclined to contact your Senators and Representative, we appreciate your support and provide information below and on our website to facilitate whatever action you choose to take.

There are a number of ways you can contact your Members of Congress (MoC).  Letters, e-mails and phone calls are the most common.   Several articles have been published recently indicating that phone calls to Congressional offices have more impact than written correspondence.  This New York Times article does a good job of explaining why and also how to make your calls as effective as they can be.   Voicing your issues in person – by visiting your MoC’s local office or attending any town hall meetings they host – can also get their attention, especially if you can get a group together.  You can look up your representatives and find links to their websites with local office information at whoismyrepresentative.com.

If you’re unsure of what to say, EANC and JBANC have drafted sample letters for you to use as a guide.  You may use the text in letters, e-mails or as talking points.  While the NYT article states that personal stories stand out more than scripted statements, it’s up to you to do what works best for your situation and comfort level.

One top EANC goal is to increase membership of the Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus (SBFC) and the House Baltic Caucus (HBC).   While neither caucus meets formally, by joining, MoCs pledge to support Baltic security and NATO unity.  The purpose of the caucuses is to maintain strong relationships with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; promote democratic principles and human rights; assist in strengthening free market economies in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and work to support legislation bolstering the defense of the Baltic countries.  Look for templates on Karin Shuey's blog "What's Happening in DC" at the right for your use in asking your MoCs to join.

The first piece of relevant legislation introduced this year is the Countering Russian Hostilities Act of 2017 (S.94).  It was submitted by Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and cosponsored by a bipartisan group of nine colleagues. It proposes comprehensive sanctions legislation on Russia for their cyber intrusions, aggression, and destabilizing activities in the U.S. and around the world.  Please see the official press release for more information and inspiration for calling your Senators.

EANC appreciates your local efforts to further causes that support Estonian security and European unity.  We are working in a dynamic environment and action on multiple levels could help us achieve our goals.  If you have any questions about what you can do, please contact our Washington, DC Director, Karin Shuey, at karinshueyeanc@gmail.com.

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