The recent change in the Estonian government and President Ilves's strong remarks last week in interviews in the British newspapers The Times and The Telegraph regarding Russia have initiated a debate in Estonia as to who actually determines Estonian foreign policy – the foreign minister or the president?
When Keit Pentus-Rosimannus became Estonia's Foreign Minister five months ago, it was speculated that because she is relatively inexperienced in foreign policy, she would hold the job only until the Parliamentary election in March. But since her nomination to the same position now, questions have arisen as to what direction Estonia's foreign policy might take in the next four years and whether she will be eclipsed by the highly experienced Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Opinions on this matter differ. When asked to comment, the former foreign minister, Urmas Paet, who was in charge of the Foreign Ministry for ten years – longer than any other Estonian foreign minister in history - told ERR that criticism aimed at his successor concerning a lack of clear foreign policy direction is unjustified. “The Foreign Ministry has aims and objectives in place and it is clearly understood what Estonia needs to do internationally and regarding to foreign policy. And as for the administration, it is in safe hands.”
Paet did not see any problem in President Ilves's active participation in Estonian foreign affairs. “If we look at our constitution, it mentions the president's role in shaping the country's foreign policy. As a former foreign minister, President Ilves knows the matters very well and clearly adds value to the discourse. Regarding the president's use of social media, such as Twitter, it is perfectly common practice and will only stir more interest internationally.” Paet said, however, that there are more sophisticated routes available for resolving disputes than social media tools.
Catlyn Kirna, a lecturer of international relations at Tallinn University, believes that the new coalition government will keep the same foreign policy principles as before, albeit taking a more specific stance on relations with Russia. “There is an argument in the air that something needs to be done about Russia, but the specific approach is lacking. Different countries have very different attitudes regarding Russia, and Estonia has not taken a proper stance as to where it stands. Estonia should make its voice in big issues better heard in Europe and it should make strong statements when needed – even if it turns out to be wrong.” Kirna added that big policies aside, the Foreign Ministry can manage daily affairs regardless of who is currently minister and that it is doing it well. But she conceded that a more impactful agenda is to be expected.
Ahto Lobjakas, a political analyst, was more critical, saying directly that President Ilves dominates Estonian foreign policy, expressing opinions that should not end up in a public domain such as Twitter. In a reference to Ilves’s critique of Europe’s “useful idiots” (the term used for Russian propagandists), Lobjakas recognized that Ilves had not said anything directly wrong, but argued that the president breached a certain diplomatic boundary. “Ilves needs to acknowledge that if he says something critical about fellow European Union member states, then he cannot assume that there will be no negative consequences.”
Lobjakas also questioned using Twitter as a foreign policy tool. “How do you expect to develop a meaningful and intellectual foreign policy discussion by typing in 140 characters?” - a reference to Twitter 's restriction on message length.
Lobjakas is concerned that since the previous foreign minister, Urmas Paet, left his job to become a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, President Ilves has taken the lead in shaping Estonia’s foreign policy, something that should, in his opinion, primarily be left to the government. “It is only possible because the current foreign minister and prime minister are weak in foreign matters. In every society, including Estonia, there is an ongoing debate over long-term foreign policy goals. But the foreign minister has not left any mark in this debate and entered the field unprepared. Under normal circumstances, it would be the foreign minister’s – as well as prime minister’s – job to counterbalance the president, but that is totally lacking now because the foreign minister has no authority.”
Marko Mihkelson, the head of the Parliament’s defense committee, added that while it is important to draw attention to what is happening across Estonia’s eastern border, it is equally crucial to remember that by being too alarmist, Estonia will place a question mark over itself. “Prospective investors might ask whether it’s wise to invest in the country - can it defend itself?”
Mihkelson stressed that Estonia’s ability to defend itself is foremost based on dignified diplomacy. "Estonia’s independence is best secured by wise and determined diplomacy. Independent Estonia has achieved all its great historical victories with its allies. Big defeats have struck us when we were alone. Never again alone – this is the most central issue in ensuring our security in the long term."
But Mihkelson has also previously argued that although Estonia has been active in foreign policy in the last few years, it lacks a brave and visionary spirit. "Without constantly supplementing strategic viewpoints, it is not possible to adjust tactical moves to strengthen our international position. Our diplomacy must get used to the fact that, even though we are a small country, we must view the world as a much larger place than just our near neighborhood in Europe," he said in speech made during the Parliament’s foreign policy debate on February 12, 2015.
Estonian foreign ministers since 1991
Lennart Meri (April 1990 - March 1992, Popular Front of Estonia)
Jaan Manitski (April 1992 - October 1992, independent)
Trivimi Velliste (October 1992 - January 1994, Pro Patria Union)
Jüri Luik (January 1994 - April 1995, Pro Patria Union)
Riivo Sinijärv (April 1995 - November 1995, Estonian Coalition Party)
Siim Kallas (November 1995 - November 1996, Estonian Reform Party)
Toomas Hendrik Ilves (November 1996 - October 1998, Social Democratic Party)
Raul Mälk (October 1998 - March 1999, independent)
Toomas Hendrik Ilves (March 1999 - January 2002, Social Democratic Party)
Kristiina Ojuland (January 2002 - February 2005, Estonian Reform Party)
Jaak Jõerüüt (February 2005 - February 2005, Estonian Reform Party)
Rein Lang (February 2005 - April 2005, Estonian Reform Party)
Urmas Paet (April 2005 - November 2014, Estonian Reform Party)
Anne Sulling (November 2014 - November 2014, Estonian Reform Party)
Keit Pentus-Rosimannus (since November 2014, Estonian Reform Party)
Editor: S. Tambur