Kristi Raik: Covid showed that states can be very egotistical

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Kristi Raik. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The Finns cannot and refuse to understand how many Estonians are affected by their decision to block labor migration, Director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute Kristi Raik, who has worked and pursued research in Finland, says. She also talks about why patience is needed in supporting Eastern Partnership countries to deliver them from under Russian pressure.

What to think in a situation where the Estonian ambassador in Helsinki describes Finnish policy as "wrong, unfair and tragic"?

It is definitely an exceptional statement from the ambassador that shows relations are strained.

Estonia's patience ran out last week when Finland's travel restrictions decisions became unfair and aimed specifically against Estonia – Estonians working in Finland were allowed to commute by plane but not by ferry.

Friends do not describe each other's conduct as wrong, unfair and tragic.

Perhaps that is just what friends must do when it's true. Friendship can survive such statements.

We have no other option than to try and maintain a close relationship with Finland. It is indispensable on both sides. I remain optimistic in terms of moving forward together once these restrictions are overcome and crisis moods dissipate.

Is the Estonia-Finland bridge undergoing repairs?

(Pauses) It has been closed, at least in part.

Does it need repairs… We need to solve these current problems, and I'm sure the bridge will see us to the other side again. I would not be too pessimistic.

Chairman of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson described the situation as "senselessly toxic." What is your diagnosis?

It is one of the toughest moments in Estonian-Finnish relations in recent decades.

However… Debate culture in Estonia is different from Finland, and once our patience ran out, we saw people racing to say the meanest thing about Finland. I'm not sure it is the best approach in the current situation.

We need to keep looking for solutions. I do not want to join the ranks of those competing to insult Finland.

The situation is not complicated: Estonia's northern neighbor has blocked labor traffic from Estonia because of the coronavirus crisis, while Estonia is applying pressure to see it restored. How far should this pressure be taken?

It was good that Estonia sent a clear political signal – Estonia is displeased and disappointed. The prime minister raising the issue and summoning the ambassador constituted an extraordinary move but a necessary one.

But work needs to continue on trying to find a way to restore labor migration. This is where the EU context comes into play. The union wants to adopt digital Covid passports by the end of June countries could use to facilitate travel. Finland wants to join the initiative and is preparing relevant legislation…

It seems to me that one thing that has caused Estonia to take offense has been Finland's categorical unwillingness to even discuss any kind of exception for Estonia. We tend to believe we have a special relationship with Finland, while that is not always how they see it. Finland's view is that they have their own exit strategy that prescribes gradual opening. Estonia has moved much faster. The Finns are saying they want to minimize the spread of the virus, while Estonia has no such goal.

This leads to miscommunication and Estonia expecting Finland to demonstrate flexibility. An understandable expectation, considering the close relations between the two countries – tens of thousands of people moving between them, living and working on both sides. One would expect a special solution to be sought, while that is not how Finland has seen it.

My Finnish acquaintances keep telling me it is not something aimed specifically against Estonia.

That Finland is treating all countries equally?

That is indeed their message.

Former Ambassador to Finland Harri Tiido recently wrote in Eesti Päevaleht that Estonia has never been as important for the Finns as Finland is for Estonians and that Estonians' expectations for Finland far outweigh reality. Could this explain the fate of people commuting to Finland?

Yes, precisely.

Estonia expected special treatment already last year, whereas the Finns did not understand why they should get any. Rather, Sweden has traditionally been Finland's special neighbor, with relations there also complicated. There have been historic moments that have eroded trust between the countries…

For example, when Sweden said it wants to join the EU without warning Finland first?

Precisely. The Finns still recall that from time to time. [Influential Finnish diplomat] Max Jakobson described it as a knife in the back. The Finns were worried over whether Sweden could pull something like that regarding NATO, while the Swedes have promised not to.

But yes, there is a younger and older brother dynamic there, just like there is between Estonia and Finland. Sweden also doesn't regard Finland to be as important as the Finns do Sweden.

In your opinion, should Estonian officials and politicians try to appeal to Finnish colleagues in mutual communication or through a public media battle?

In most cases, it should be the former. Yes. The prime minister raising the issue publicly was justified in the current extraordinary situation, while this approach and sharp statements should not be maintained.

Kristi Raik. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

It constitutes a trap for the government as talking over the phone and holding meetings behind closed doors allows the opposition to criticize the government for inaction, which the press is quick to pick up on.

What is being done behind the scenes can also be explained to the public – that efforts are being made to reach a solution.

You know how domestic policy can affect foreign policy. We have seen it with previous governments, from the passionate UN migration pact debate to Estonia's lukewarm interest in receiving Belarusian IT workers running from repressions.

Yes, it is likely a modern trend that domestic policy has come to influence foreign policy to a greater degree, also in Estonia. The current government is feeling similar pressure.

Estonian domestic policy became a problem in mutual relations in a very different but sharp way during the previous government's time.

To what extent could Finland's attitude be influenced by the insult thrown by Estonia's interior minister before last that "a shop assistant has become the prime minister and other street activists and uneducated people have joined the government"?

I do not think it has affected recent decisions regarding travel restrictions. I believe that the Finns are completely sincere when they say that they have their own strategy and approach that applies to all countries and Estonia should expect no special treatment…

It has nothing to do with Estonian domestic policy or old insults.

Are the Finns thinking that local elections are looming and the government does not want to give the True Finns any ammunition?

It is an interesting argument proposed by Estonia according to which greater migration flexibility could play into the hands of the True Finns' rating. But I see no grounds for it, looking at local debate in Finland before local elections.

There are people in Finland, just like in Estonia, who do not like foreign labor.

Yes. But if we look at the coronavirus measures debate in Finland in recent months, criticism that restrictions are too tough is becoming louder. Especially from businesses, but also cultural circles that have suffered and continue to suffer because Finland has exceptionally tough restrictions on cultural events.

I'm sure some political forces would have benefited had Finland made different choices [regarding labor migrants]. But it is not a standoff just between the True Finns and the government, there are a lot more different voices and criticism of the government from many directions.

Movement of people across the Gulf of Finland will be restored sooner or later. Could it be that Estonia-Finland relations will have deep scars from all of these statements by then?

During the previous crisis, when a member of the Estonian government [Minister of the Interior Mart Helme] insulted the Finnish prime minister, it also seemed very dramatic and it was discussed whether it would leave a scar. But both sides wanted to move past it as quickly as possible. I believe that is also the case here.

There are simply so many ties between Finland and Estonia and on so many levels that we – Estonians and Finns – understand that a single minister's words or even a government's position does not reflect how society feels.

We know many people on both sides of the gulf, know that we have different opinions but still want to maintain relations. Our economies are intertwined… Cooperation isn't enough to describe it. We do things together, whether we're talking about music, culture or education.

We need to consider how Estonia and Finland could work together to better market themselves. We have strong digital societies, education sectors… Naturally, there are differences between countries, while it is our common interest to stand out together and become more attractive in the eyes of the world.

Looking at the current "senselessly toxic" situation, people tend to forget that tomorrow and the day after will dawn and that Estonia and Finland will continue to matter to each other.

The agitated mood and feeling that the situation is toxic only exists on the Estonian side.

Finland has no wider public debate to suggest something terrible has happened. It is, of course, a part of the problem that the Finns do not and refuse to understand just how many Estonians are affected by their decision and its consequences for thousands of Estonians working in Finland. But the Finns do not see it as all that tragic.

Perhaps the Estonian government should say it will stop all traffic across the Gulf of Finland in the interests of public health that would seriously hamper movement of goods from Finland to the rest of Europe and vice versa?

(Pauses)

Or would that be too radical?

I do not think such steps would contribute to a sensible solution.

The Finnish government has said it treats all countries equally, while it has been self-servingly selective in terms of the foreign labor it does allow in – medical workers and bus drivers can enter the country, while construction workers or cleaners who usually go to Finland on Monday morning and return to their families on Friday evening cannot. What does this kind of egoism tell us?

We have seen countries act in an egotistical manner in the coronavirus crisis, taking care of their own safety and that of their citizens and giving less thought to how it affects neighbors or people from other countries. This observation goes beyond Finland. We saw the coronavirus crisis create tensions between countries everywhere in Europe, especially toward its beginning.

It was an important lesson in terms of EU member states' conduct in an unexpected crisis that creates concerns and even panic.

That conduct was very poor from the point of view of the European Union.

Precisely. If we think about its paralyzing effect on the EU… It is something we need to ponder, thinking about crisis preparedness in whichever field.

The next crisis will surely be very different, something very surprising will take place and countries might become uncommunicative again at one point. It is just how countries operate, and we cannot say Estonia somehow behaved very differently in the recent crisis.

I'm reminded of police and border guard patrols on the southern border to make sure not a single Latvian crosses.

Indeed, so we cannot really say we were better than everyone else.

Common interests are often overshadowed by differences – your words on Nordic-Baltic cooperation. Do they apply to the current state in Estonia-Finland relations?

They serve as a rather good characterization.

We should not, in the current situation that you described as toxic, forget that the situation today can be overcome. Looking ahead, Finland is a very important neighbor for us. There is no way around that. And it is in our interests to have the best possible relationship with them. Even if it is not always easy, even if they sometimes make us mad, we must work toward having good relations.

It is especially important in light of regional security. Nordic and Baltic countries increasingly see the security situation in a similar light, which was not the case ten years ago. We have moved much closer to one another. A common view, common sense of danger is what ties us together. We must not lose sight of the big picture when addressing everyday problems that are acute today but can be resolved.

Should we understand the Finns in the current situation and how?

We need to understand that they have their own approach to the crisis, their own strategy, and once the Finns decide on something and lay down rules, they follow them. It might seem stubborn, that they are not flexible or quick to revisit their position even when the reality changes around them. They are slower than Estonians… a national peculiarity if you will.

When two countries are so close, it is important to have people who know the other society well enough to be able to interpret it. It is not the same as making excuses. I do not want to make excuses for Finland's decisions from last week that also crossed a line for me as I used to be rather understanding, especially when the Covid situation was much worse in Estonia. I understood why they wanted to dial back traffic from Estonia back then.

But suggesting that commuting is fine by plane but not by ferry – that was too much…

That is in no way justified. And looking at how much the coronavirus situation has improved, how many people have been vaccinated, whereas none of it has had an effect on the Finns' position, it does seem unfair.

Yet, Estonia keeps slamming its head against the wall with all of its public demands, demarches and expostulations.

It is quite possible there will not be a solution specifically for Estonia. There will hopefully be a Europe-wide model soon (EU digital certificate – ed.) that will solve the impasse between Estonia and Finland.

And Finland can say they have always treated everyone the same.

Kristi Raik and Toomas Sildam. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Let us change the subject. The Office of the President said, in connection with the visit of Kosovan President Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, that "Estonia is a strong proponent of EU expansion, offering to share its accession experience with current and future candidate countries and motivate them to carry out reforms." Do you consider EU expansion a possibility in the near future?

The EU has made the promise to West Balkan countries and has never withdrawn it. That these countries will be accepted into the EU once they meet the accession criteria.

Will we see it in our day?

I would refrain from making predictions, while we can see that the countries have not been successful at moving in the right direction. A major problem on the EU side is that we have heard very controversial messages when it comes to expansion in recent years. Officially, the EU remains open to expansion, while we know that key member states are not really keen. France has made such statements, as have others.

What we need to remember is that the EU has so-called old member states who were not thrilled about the previous round of expansion that saw us join. They have perhaps still not accepted the EU being as big as it is, nor do they feel comfortable in it.

If we add to that what we have seen in Hungary in recent years, it has also affected member states' attitudes regarding expansion. Also, Poland to a lesser extent, while I would not lump these two together as their situations are different.

Member states' willingness to move forward with expansion is questionable. Of course, member candidates know this and it undoubtedly affects their motivation to move forward with EU reforms.

Pollster Norstat gauged the attitudes of Estonian residents regarding development cooperation and learned that public support for development assistance funding has grown considerably. A positive development?

It is a very European position.

While we could talk about Africa and the drought of vaccines in the context of development assistance, let us remain in Europe. You said in a foreign policy study that closer ties between Estonia and the EU with Eastern Partnership states is a strategic interest for Estonia. Pardon me, but why do we need Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine?

The very short answer is security.

Ukraine is at the heart of geopolitical tensions in Europe today, while tensions can also be felt in all Eastern Partnership countries. Russia is imposing its vision of European security in those countries. Russia would like it if major players would agree on spheres of influence to which small countries would belong.

Those six would fall into Russia's?

That is, of course, how Russia sees it. It is a fundamental matter. We need to make efforts so this vision would not become the new normality or the de facto reality. It is unacceptable from our point of view when major countries dictate spheres of influence where smaller ones belong. This would make it impossible to create stability in Europe or improve the security situation. We need to oppose it as it concerns Estonia, which is why we need to support Eastern Partnership countries that are all under pressure from Russia – some more than others.

We need to help them counter it, manage it and defend the principle according to which they have the right to make their own choices.

Signing of the EU association agreement led to the events that culminated in the annexation of Crimea and war in Eastern Ukraine.

Yes, we can say that the agreement delivered the impulse. However, the tensions were already there and what happened could just as easily have happened without the agreement. Therefore, I definitely do not agree with those who accuse the EU and its association agreement of starting the war in Donbas.

Neither do I, while it is one example of how EU Eastern Partnership policy cannot be separated from the Russia topic.

Yes, and the EU was a little naive here – some members more than others – when Eastern Partnership was launched in 2009…

It was the initiative of Sweden and Poland [following the Russia-Georgia war] promoted by their foreign ministers Carl Bildt and Radoslaw Sikorski.

And I have no doubt that Bildt and Sikorski were very much aware of Russia's considerable influence in the region and that the EU offering these countries an alternative could add to geopolitical tensions.

Back then, EU rhetoric emphasized economic integration and closer political ties with Eastern Partnership countries. Security was hardly discussed, even though the EU wished for unresolved conflicts to be resolved and tried to contribute to that end.

But talking about how it could affect regional security and EU member states' willingness do to something should tensions mount was taboo in Eastern Partnership debates. There was no preparedness to even discuss it. Some member states were surprised to learn the Ukraine association agreement sparked such a sharp conflict.

At the same time, there were debates in more than a few capitals on whether these Eastern Partners should be so supported, that it might irritate Russia and harm Russia-EU relations…

Such debates existed, while efforts were made to leave them aside at the time. The EU tried to convince itself and others that its efforts in Eastern Partnership countries were not aimed against Russian interests. While the EU might have been sincere in its attempt to see it like that, it was never how Russia saw it.

It should have been realized right away, while I'm afraid that Eastern Partnership would never have been created had the issue been raised on that level from the first. Even in 2004, when the orange revolution was underway in Ukraine, the EU started actively talking about eastern neighbors and the question of whether Ukraine could one day become an EU member landed firmly on the agenda, there were enough voices in the EU, at least behind the scenes, saying that we cannot rattle Russia this much.

Perhaps the honest thing to do today would be to admit that Armenia, Turkey-backed Azerbaijan and increasingly authoritarian Belarus should be crossed out as Eastern Partnership prospects and that efforts should concentrate on Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine?

I do not think so. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are clearly in a separate category as all three have association agreements with the EU and have chosen close ties. Of course, greater efforts need to be made there as the chances of achieving something are that much greater.

That said, Belarus is an EU neighbor, part of the same region. Looking at the near history of EU-Belarus relations, it has been in Belarus' interests to balance its strong Russia dependence through having relations with the EU. It has become impossible for Lukashenko to maintain that policy, those days are done. But Belarus will still be next to us once Lukashenko is gone. Relations need to be maintained, with the opposition and civil society today. The Eastern Partnership framework will have to wait for better days, hopefully.

Eastern Partnership provides these countries with an alternative. A chance to reduce their dependence on Russia and make their own choices. Some countries have made relevant choices, while others have not been as clear. But the EU offer can still be the same for all six.

The EU or a member state actively engaging the civil society in Belarus today would end in tragedy for the latter, likely in temporary or permanent holding facilities.

It is clear today that the ability of the EU or member states to affect processes in Belarus is extremely limited. We need to admit as much. We would very much like to support civil society there and we are to some extent, while the focus is on Belarusian activists who have managed to escape the country. There are quite a few and more are coming.

What are the main Eastern Partnership keywords – hope, indifference, fatigue or hopelessness?

There is definitely a lot of fatigue. Fatigue in Ukraine was talked about back when Eastern Partnership policy was first introduced as great expectations that followed the orange revolution soon proved too lofty.

It is difficult to find positive examples in Eastern Partnership developments of the last few decades, looking at the situation of democracy in those six countries. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are semi-democratic. Freedom House refers to them as hybrid regimes, partial democracies. Elections are held, rulers change, while rule of law, for example, remains very problematic.

Then we have Armenia that is not far behind the trio.

Belarus and Azerbaijan form a separate category, being among the most authoritarian countries in all of Eurasia.

That situation has not changed over the years, with only slight variations in either direction. Those countries are standing still, despite having tried their hand at reforms and attempts from the West to support them.

The security situation is even worse off than democracy. We can clearly say the situation is more fragile than it was a few decades ago. It is probably inevitable if these countries want to retain their right to make their own choices and Russia is not prepared to accept that.

We will not be able to solve these problems in the coming years, we need to learn to live with them. Resilience has become a new keyword in Eastern Partnership and other EU policies in recent years that points to the ability to weather crises, including coping in a constant conflict situation.

President Ilves told Kärt Anvelt in an interview five years ago, before leaving office, that the EU has come to a crossroads in terms of whether and how to move forward with Eastern Partnership. Where have we moved since then?

Nowhere.

Member states failing to agree on the strategic goal of Eastern Partnership has perhaps been its greatest problem. There is still no agreement, and it is quite possible we have moved away from it compared to 12 years ago.

We could say that our goal is to see economically successful and politically stable democratic countries in the near vicinity of the EU that could potentially join the union in a theoretical future, while that will not be tomorrow or the day after.

That is more or less how it is now. Naturally, everyone is willing to support neighboring countries being democratic, wealthy and stable.

And Europe-oriented.

Yes… I'm sure no one has any problems with that, but then we get to the matter of possible EU accession. The EU Council has spent countless hours arguing over that since 2004 when the topic first surfaced in connection with Ukraine.

That was the right moment, immediately after the orange revolution, to tell Ukraine that it will be made a member if it can meet criteria. But it was not done.

We will never know whether it would have changed domestic policy in Ukraine, whether the country would have pulled itself together and been more effective pursuing reforms. We do not know, and it is quite possible none of it would have happened, while it would surely have given them extra motivation.

Now, we can hear controversial signals regarding even the West Balkans in terms of whether the EU is willing to accept them, not to mention Eastern Partnership countries that make for far more complicated cases and are further away from meeting accession criteria.

Their situation is completely different from that of the Baltics that saw an opportunity we wanted and knew how to seize and that opened the door to the EU for us.

The geopolitical context was also very different back then. It was an extraordinarily favorable moment for the Baltics to plot a westward course and the opportunity was seized. Current Eastern Partnership countries were irresolute at the time and really didn't know in what direction to move, they were incapable of making decisions. Now, that Russia has become stronger and started to impose its geopolitical vision, it has all proven much more difficult.

Of course, Russia already had corresponding ambitions back in the 1990s, we all know that, and the Baltics could have ended up with frozen conflicts of their own that would have kept us out of the EU and NATO. We were familiar with Russia's pattern of behavior back then. However, Russia was weak and dependent on the West in terms of its economy and had to consider its position.

Also, Yeltsin, as perhaps the most liberal Russian leader in history, was president at the time.

It is a very different story today.

How to sustain Eastern Partners' motivation and strengthen their ties to the EU in a situation where they have no accession outlook?

It seems to me that Russian actions help sustain that motivation the best.

There are many pragmatic steps the EU can take to gradually integrate states, even if they are not promised an accession outlook today. Extensive free trade agreements are in place. The possibility of joining the four free movements of the common market is being discussed. That would be one way for the countries to take their EU relationship forward.

Patience is also needed, both on the part of the EU and the Eastern Partnership states.

Patience is definitely needed.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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