Exclusive interview Estonian Foreign Minister.
1. Are there any new tasks in Estonian foreign policy for 2014, and if there are, which ones specifically?
Estonian foreign policy has two main goals – firstly ensuring national security and secondly increasing the well-being of Estonian citizens. Our steps dwell from the universal values such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law, as well as economic freedom and sustainable development. The actions speak for themselves. Estonia is closely integrated with Euro-Atlantic space and the shift away from Soviet society to the free world has been rapid and successful. But that does not mean that Estonia’s foreign relations are somehow completed. Also this year we keep working for reaching our overarching goals.
On the other hand the world is inevitably changing and we have to keep up with its pace. Contributing to world’s stability and increasing its prosperity requires sometimes steps taken also far away from our own borders. After a closer look we recognize also the distant problems as your own. For example conflicts on different continents may have global reach and before you realize they start to affect your everyday life considerably. Estonia acts as a responsible member of international community and contributes to the peace and stability. Therefore in the beginning of this year we have decided to contribute in a European Union-led peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic with an infantry platoon. States respecting the human rights have to be ready to mobilize its forces to defend the civilians and peaceful outcome from the escalating tensions. Violence has tragic consequences and we have to do everything at our disposal to avoid horrible atrocities.
Use of weapons cannot silence the justified anticipation of citizens to have a better life. Just as the recent events in Ukraine have proven. Corruptive and I would even say arrogantly flamboyant way of governing is not acceptable. It is living at the expense of ordinary citizens. Of course this is extremely short-sighted. The strength of the Ukrainian nation is impressive and we support every step to restore the stability in Ukraine that would allow the society to return to democratic path based on rule of law and human rights.
Speaking about human rights I would like to emphasize that Estonia is currently the member of UN Human Rights Council. In our activities we focus on the rights of women and children, consideration of the gender perspective in conflict situations as expressed in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the fight against impunity, protection of the rights of indigenous people, freedom of expression and internet freedom.
This year Estonia holds the chairmanship of Freedom Online Coalition, an intergovernmental body that works for maintaining the freedom of expression in the internet. The history has taught us that supressing the civic activism can do only harm. Only one “right” truth is false already by definition and therefore it is only the cause for regress. Freedom of speech is a human right that has to be protected both offline and online. Probably the biggest international event Estonia will be organizing this year is dedicated to this issue. Estonia will host the 4th annual conference of Freedom Online Coalition from 28 to 29 April, 2014 in Tallinn. Being one of the leading countries in using information and communication technology, Internet freedom is of special concern to Estonia. We are sure that the full potential of the Internet can only be reached when everyone on the globe can freely participate.
So there are many new tasks and perspectives for Estonian foreign policy this year. Taking part in Central African mission, tackling the situation in Ukraine and addressing the pressing issue of Internet freedom are only few examples.
2. How can you comment of the oncoming April EU Summit in Prague and Eastern Partnership member-states?
The Eastern Partnership (EaP) Vilnius Summit marked an important step in the development of the EaP. These developments should be reflected in today’s EaP. There are already some judgments that we can make today. EU has been often criticized that it offers something our partners cannot understand. We need to communicate it in a more efficient way to the public of partner countries explaining what does the association mean: especially, what are the advantages of association agreements (AA/DCFTA) and the practical impact of implementation of the EU regulation framework.
Communication of our aims, motivating our partners, spelling out the horizons is of paramount importance.
No doubt, the differentiation is also more important than never. We have to continue supporting more those partners who are ambitious and committed to reforms. Rewarding those committed, should, at the same time, motivate others.
One of the conclusions we will have to draw is about our relations with Russia. We have to explain to Russia that EU Eastern Partnership policy is not about creating dividing lines and it is not directed against Russia. It is about bringing stability and prosperity to our close neighbourhood. President of the Commission Mr Barroso has very well pointed that in the early 1990s, after some Eastern European countries signed up to Free Trade Agreements with the EU, within 6 years, the GDP per capita in these countries had increased by 57%. Investment per capita had increased by 61% and exports per capita had increased by 65%. Well, one could ask a relevant question: how much for example Belarus’s GDP has increased in the Customs Union?
About the relations with Eastern Partners: working on preparation of AA/DCFTA agreements with Georgia and Moldova for signature and abolishment of visa regime with Moldova. Ukraine: crucial that EU retains political presence and engagement, IMF financial assistance with clear conditions, EU offer to sign AA stands. With Azerbaijan: goal should be to finalize the AA negotiations for the Riga Summit. Armenia needs a new co-operation framework. Belarus: working on visa facilitation agreement.
3. How do you estimate current status of bilateral relations between the Republic of Estonia and the Russian Federation?
Relations between Estonia and Russia are pragmatic and business-like. On February 18, 2014 Estonia and Russia signed Border Treaties, which is an important step that also contributes to the further enhancement of the bilateral relations. Several other bilateral agreements are also ready for signature and will hopefully be finalized in the coming months. Trade dynamics is positive and Russia is currently Estonia’s third export partner after Finland and Sweden. Trade turnover in 2013 was 2.2 billion Euros. The number of tourists is continually growing and the increase in 2013 was 14%. Cultural exchange is also quite intense.
However, there remain some issues of concern and disagreement, e.g. import restrictions on Estonian agricultural products (on fish, meat and dairy products) and livestock, different interpretation of history and Russia’s discontent and reproach with Estonia’s policies on citizenship and education.
4. Can you outline some certain achievements, and, probably, lost opportunities of Estonian foreign policy in the regions of Central Asia and South Caucasus?
Estonian foreign policy is very active and diverse in both regions. We have appointed ambassadors to all the Central Asian countries and there have been numerous high-level visits to encourage business, cultural and civil society contacts. A few years ago we opened an embassy in Kazakhstan, in Astana, that has proven to be successful promoter of Estonian-Kazakh business relations. Besides economic relations there is fruitful cooperation developing on many other fields. Environment, education, social affairs and of course information technology are only few examples. We are also working to strengthen the contractual relations between Estonia and Central Asian countries. But it is not the treaties itself that are set to be the goals, but the content or the substance that the particular treaty presents. There is no point of doing things just for the sake of fulfilling an excel sheet. The trade volume, people to people contacts, development of civic society, improvement of living standard and progressing of the friendly partnership between the countries are the determinants that should define the relations between two countries.
In both regions – in Central Asia and in South Caucasus – we see positive prospects for the closer engagement with European Union. Both regions are important for the EU. Talking about Central Asia there is a lot of room for improving economic relations. The region is especially attractive for cooperation in energy and transport. Besides economy, the EU is contributing considerably to the development of Central Asian civil societies – there are cooperation projects that deal with the rule of law, education or also with water – definitely one of the crucial topics in the region.
Estonian relations with South Caucasus states have been close on bilateral level already for many years. For example with Georgia. Estonia has supported the Georgian reform process aimed at closer integration with EU. We have launched different development cooperation projects in Georgia in order to share our experience that we have gained from our reforms. In 2014 we will allocate 800000 euros for development cooperation projects in Georgia. Right now our foreign policy in South Caucasus is mostly shaped by the EU’s Eastern Partnership. In Georgia we have focused our support to swift and seamless signing and implementation of association agreements (AA/DCFTA) that were approved by the EU during Vilnius Summit last November. When it comes to Armenia we are disappointed that the AA/DCFTA negotiations were cancelled. However we hope that there is a chance to revive the process and Armenia finds the way to return to the closer integration with EU.
Cooperation on energy policy has the key importance for the South Caucasus region. Therefore we see a lot of unused potential in relations with Azerbaijan. There is plenty of room for improvement also on bilateral economic cooperation between Estonia and Azerbaijan. However we have had some successful joint projects recently. One of them is the implementation of x-road which is a software solution that enables secure and unified information exchange between different state databases. X-road has played central role in Estonian e-governance system that is really easy and efficient to use. In the end both – the state and the citizen – win, because due to the x-road one saves considerably time and money. We are glad that Azerbaijan is now implementing the similar kind of data exchange layer based on Estonian x-road innovation. Hopefully also Azerbaijan continues the partnership with EU through closer integration.
When dealing with South Caucasus one cannot forget the regional conflicts that are unfortunately in a frozen state. Estonia supports the steps taken to ease the tensions and finding sustainable solutions. Conflicts in Abkhazia, South-Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh are not beneficial for anybody. Instead of confrontation there could be compromise and cooperation that serves the best interests of the citizens. Future is being built through dialogue and negotiations.
5. This May there will be personnel rotation in the administering EU bodies and the European Parliament elections. How can these events influence the European Union policy?
There will indeed be elections to the European Parliament this year, after which, in November, also a new European Commission will be formed.
The election date in Estonia is 25 of May. Estonia has six seats in the EP (of a total of 766) and Estonian political parties are in process of forming their candidate lists. There is also lively discussion taking place in our society concerning EU issues.
Regarding the new European Commission, where every Member State has one Commissioner, it has been customary in Estonia that the Government selects a candidate for the Commissioner’s post. The EP of course has a right to approve or reject the candidates proposed by national Governments.
The possible influence on the EU’s policies can be predicted with more detail after the EP elections and after a new Commission has taken office. Up to then the composition and thus the political make-up of both the Parliament and the Commission can only be speculated on. However, no drastic changes can be foreseen.