After four years in Vilnius, Estonia’s plenipotentiary and extraordinary ambassador to Lithuania, Toomas Kukk, admits he is aware of the jokes that Lithuanians tend to make about Estonians but he shrugs them off, insisting that it is normal for neighbors to poke fun at each other. “Frankly, I don’t understand some of the Lithuanian jokes, but Finns cannot grasp some of the jokes Estonians make about them either,” the ambassador says.
Back in the 1990s, Lithuania would vie with Estonia for the regional leadership. Today Estonia scores better on many key economic indicators. To what do you attribute Estonia’s success?
Indeed, I’ve had this feeling for a long time that there is certain competition between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I believe, though, we should not be comparing ourselves against each other, but try as a whole region to get closer to the best performing countries in the world.
On the other hand, drawing comparisons is a natural thing. Especially, given that we are countries very similar in terms of size, history and culture. Obviously, there are things that make Lithuania best in the Baltics and, sure, there are achievements that Estonia deservedly takes pride in. The same goes for Latvia. In the future, I personally want to see all the three countries sharing their best experiences.
Nevertheless, you cannot downplay some of Estonia’s achievements. The average salary in your country is 1,082 euros, compared to 700 Euros in Lithuania; the minimum wage is 390 Euros in Estonia and 325 euros in Lithuania, with most other economic indicators also being better in your country.
Indeed, the Estonian statistics are often better. I believe this is a result of the fact that we started all the economic reforms in Estonia a little bit earlier than Lithuania and Latvia. So perhaps we still hold some advantage over the neighbors regarding the reforms. Another important factor for the average salary in Estonia is its proximity to Finland, where the average salary is much higher than in Estonia, Lithuania or Latvia. In order to be more competitive with the Finnish labor market and not see all the Estonians ending up working in Finland, Estonian employer are motivated to raise salaries as high as possible.
Is there something that Estonia can learn from Lithuania?
First of all, Estonia can learn a lot from Lithuania’s experience of hosting the EU presidency in the second half of 2013. As you probably know, Estonia will be the host nation in 2018 and we are now in the process of learning from the experience that Lithuania accumulated. The preparations in Estonia are now entering a concrete phase. I am very happy to note that the Lithuanian Government and all officials have been very helpful and forthcoming in sharing their acquired knowledge.
When it comes to the foreign policy arena, Estonians are closely observing Lithuania’s current membership of UN’s Security Council as a non-permanent member. Estonia hopes to be awarded the same seat in the Council, too. Estonia is about to start campaigning for membership and I hope the mandate will come in 2020-2021. During this process Estonia is closely monitoring the Lithuanian experience, which is very valuable for us.
Speaking of energy issues, Estonia has considerable interest in the successful liquefied natural gas project in the Lithuanian seaport of Klaipėda, where a LNG terminal is operating. Thanks to the terminal, not only has Lithuania been able to cut loose from the Gazprom gas monopoly but Estonia has as well. Just one telling fact: in December last year, Estonia’s dependency on Russian gas was 100 percent, but today, with around 30 percent of natural gas imports coming from Klaipėda, the monopoly is over.
However, Estonia is pursuing its own liquefied natural gas terminal even though the Klaipėda LNG terminal has the potential to satisfy Estonia’s demand for natural gas fully. Why?
Indeed, we are developing a regional LNG terminal. I believe having a variety of options is good for all the countries involved, as all the terminals and gas interconnections will someday form a broader Baltic gas market where all the participants are interlinked. When we have all the different terminals and gas links in place, we will be able to talk of a functioning natural gas market, with different suppliers, different demands and possibilities.
What are the trends in bilateral trade?
First of all, typically for neighboring countries, Lithuania is – and I’m sure will remain – a very important trade partner for Estonia. Currently, Lithuania is fifth in the ranking of Estonia’s largest export and import partners. In reality, Lithuania is the No 1 investment destination for Estonia even though, statistically, Cyprus sits on top of the tables because its ship registry includes many expensive Tallinn-based ships. Estonian companies have invested more in Lithuania than Latvia, which is our immediate neighbor. And speaking of trends, I see the intensity of our economic relations increasing. Energy-wise, the shift from Gazprom gas to Klaipėda LNG has been a big, defining moment in the countries’ economic relations. And in daily life, I see a lot of Estonian merchandise in Vilnius shops.
What for example?
Sausages, yogurt, cheese, not to mention Baltman suits, Olympic Casinos and Prisma supermarket.
Do you prefer Estonian goods over Lithuanian stuff?
(Smiling) Not always, but I am certainly happy to see them available here. I’ve tried many local products in Vilnius, but I do buy Estonia’s Alma yogurts and Nõo sausages, for example. I always stop by a Prisma supermarket in the Lithuanian capital. I was pretty surprised to see some dairy products in Vilnius supermarkets come from the Estonian island of Saaremaa.
How different and similar in your eyes are the capitals, Vilnius and Tallinn?
I’ve said to many people I know here that Vilnius and Tallinn share a lot in common. Some of the architectural resemblances have been determined by the Soviet past. I have noticed two nearly identical architectural structures in both capitals. I’m talking about the TV towers, which were built using the same pattern, and the Valley of Songs in Vingio Park in Vilnius, which is very similar to the one we have in Tallinn. Both buildings are the relics of the Soviet past. That Tallinn is situated by the Baltic Sea and Lake Ülemiste makes it more limited in terms of development and expansion, which is not an issue in Vilnius.
How big is the Estonian community in the Lithuanian capital? Can you pinpoint an Estonian walking down the street? Are people similar in both countries?
To my knowledge, there is an Estonian community of around a hundred people in Vilnius. Most of them came here during the Soviet era and are now in retirement. Others include businessmen and students.
I certainly cannot tell who is who on the street. But, well, if we were to look at the residents in Tallinn and Vilnius from the perspective of Brazilians or Spaniards, Lithuanians and Estonians would seem pretty much similar. Despite the different languages and religions, there are obviously many similarities when it comes to our culture, traditions, history and mentality.
Lithuanians often portray Estonians as slow persons who are standoffish in relationships with others. Thence the numerous jokes about cold-hearted slowpoke Estonians. Have you heard any of them?
(Laughing) I have and, frankly, I have wondered about the sources of some of these jokes. Interestingly, I have never heard anyone making jokes about Lithuanians in Estonia. Perhaps you are too far away to laugh at!
You obviously don’t find Estonians slow, do you?
Well, being slow in one thing or another is a relative thing. As we’ve talked about in the beginning, Estonia has proved it can be fast when it comes to reforms and novelties. I think that neighbors poking fun at each other is a normal thing. You’ll be surprised that in Estonia we tend to think that Finns, our closest neighbors, are slow in their pace of life. And when it comes to Latvians, there’s a joke that they have six toes (laughs).
Getting back to serious matters now, being a member of EU and NATO sets out Estonia’s and Lithuania’s common policies, but the tones of rhetoric about Russia by the countries’ heads-of-state, Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite and Estonia’s Toomas Hendrik Ilves, has varied significantly with the Lithuanian President being known for her plainspoken remarks on Russia. Is the different rhetoric only a reflection of their different personalities?
Obviously, the heads-of-states have different personalities. But in my opinion, when it comes to the substance of the messages the presidents convey, I believe they are effectively about the same. I’d say all three Baltic countries’ takes on the issues of Ukraine, Baltic defense and mutual cooperation are very close. This makes me very happy as Estonia’s ambassador to Lithuania.
Would you, like Grybauskaitė, call Russia “a terrorist state?”
When we look back at what Russia has done in the past – and recently in Ukraine, I mean the annexation of the Crimea and warfare in Ukraine’s east - there are many things that make us worry about Russia. And nowadays, all the ongoing military exercises over the border and flights near the NATO territories - all of this is very alarming and worrisome. I’d say not only for the Baltics, but for the EU and NATO, too.
How real do you believe is Russia’s threat to the Baltic States?
Since we are NATO members, I believe the possibility of Russian war action against the countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia is very low. However, we cannot exclude the possibility of provocations and miscalculations coming from Russia. Obviously, it is important for the countries to stand together and strengthen security in the region within NATO. The opening of NATO Force Integration Units (NFIU) in Vilnius and five other NFIUs in Central and Eastern European countries serves this purpose and make us all safer, no doubt.
Estonia is the first former Soviet republic to have legalized same-sex partnerships, which is an indication of tolerance in the country. What do you believe Lithuania and Latvia, as well as the other Soviet bloc countries, can learn from Estonia in terms of tolerance and diversity promotion?
Diversity and tolerance now is a very acute topic in Estonia and, obviously, elsewhere in Europe amid the migrantion crisis.
Certainly, there is understanding that we have to show more tolerance to those who are different from the majority. But in the light of the refugees swarming into Europe, there are many discussions just how open and embracing Estonia can be.
Both Lithuania and Estonia share another challenge – low birthrate. How can families be encouraged to have more children?
Indeed, this is a very real and acute issue for our nations and it poses a big challenge for the political leadership. As a father of three children, I’d invite all to follow my own personal example. With three children in a family, the issue would not be so urgent, certainly. I believe that our governments and societies have to do whatever it takes to support families. To raise three or more children, certain social support mechanisms need to be created and some very practical issues, like the availability of places in kindergartens and schools and securing jobs for parents, have to be solved.
If we also could change the public’s attitude towards maternity, even on a simple daily level such as being more attentive and offering a young mother with a baby a seat on the bus. There’s room for improvement when it comes to this, and I believe, we’d see more children around. Having and raising children has to come from the hearts and be a joy, though. It cannot be pursued because of the benefits one or another states provides.
Ambassodor Toomas Kukk was interviewed by ERR News's new contributor Linas Jegelevicius, who has studied journalim at Vilnius University and currently works as an editor for the regional newspaper Palangos tiltas in Lithuania.
Editor: M. Oll, S. Tambur