A small country needs to punch above its weight to be noticed and refrain from isolating itself, former ambassadors Jüri Luik and Harri Tiido say of foreign policy in re-independent Estonia.
Tiido left the foreign service during the previous government's time and can therefore take greater liberties in his opinions than recent MP, now Estonian Ambassador to NATO Jüri Luik.
Gentlemen, did you know to be afraid when the August Coup that placed President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest and dispatched Pskov paratroopers to Tallinn kicked off in 1991?
Luik: Not really – to be honest. From the point of view of foreign policy and the foreign ministry, the entire independence movement was a series of various events. From international, such as the reunification of Germany, to an endless domestic policy maelstrom in the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin's rise to power and his major conflict with Gorbachev. By then, the January attack on the Baltics [in Latvia and Lithuania] had already taken place, Yeltsin had visited Estonia…
Ultimately, events unfolded so quickly and tempestuously that I believe we did not realize the true danger of the putsch. It was in fact very dangerous for everyone involved in the Estonian independence movement, had it succeeded. But we did not realize it before it was over.
Tiido: My memory is rather hectic. It so happened that I was on call at Eesti Raadio on the morning we learned of the putsch. When I was about to read out the "Väliskommenaatori märkmik" (Foreign Correspondent's Notebook) section, I passed a teletype on my way and on it were two rows of text in Russian: Some kind of a special situation committee has seized power in Moscow.
I didn't fully understand what it meant and just read the lines. After that, I went to the editorial office, tuned in to BBC and started to get a picture.
I believe that everyone who was engaged in some sort of activity was too busy to think about whether they were scared. The first time I went home to put on a clean shirt was 38 hours later.
Jüri Luik, who had just turned 25, was working in Toompea Castle that was home to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while Harri Tiido, about to celebrate his 38th birthday, was working at the radio building. Both locations would have been stormed by the paratroopers had things really heated up in Tallinn. Did you consider that?
Luik: We did and moved communications equipment to several Tallinn apartments so as to be able to stay in touch with the world should things spiral out of control. That said, it was not what we considered to be the main problem at the time.
The main task was to contact as quickly and widely as possible our by then considerable network of contacts in the world, starting with good friend to Estonia Paul Globe who headed the Baltic desk at the U.S. State Department and had been glued to his seat in the operations center from early morning as Washington realized the Baltics could be the first place were the hammer fell. But also uncounted contacts in the Nordics, Germany and everywhere else, to inform them of what was happening in the Baltic states, then of Estonia's intention to declare independence and finally that it had happened.
When the gavel of [Speaker of the Supreme Council of Estonia] Ülo Nugis fell [late on August 20, 1991], we did not know the putsch was over. It happened at its height. We had no idea how long the Republic of Estonia we had just declared would last.
And the people at Eesti Raadio did not know how long they would stay on the air?
Tiido: We had ideas. Because I also worked for [Finnish daily] Iltalehti at the time, I asked the editor-in-chief to send a cell phone by ferry, whereas an acquaintance of [one of the heads of Päevaleht] Peep Kala would have secured us a room on the top floor of the Olümpia Hotel.
Cell phone reception was very limited at the time, but it would have worked up there. [Head of the Estonian desk at Radio Free Europe] Toomas Hendrik Ilves was keeping a phone line open for a Helsinki number in Munich. The idea was, should the radio building fall to the paratroopers, for me to escape and make it to the hotel to call the number in Helsinki and go on the air from Munich.
It seems to me that the organizers of the putsch did a great service to the Baltic countries as our independence bid had reached a dead end by August 1991. Everyone knew that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania wanted out of the Soviet Union, while no one knew how and when they could get out before the putsch provided a clear solution.
Luik: That's right to an extent. Estonia and its Baltic neighbors had achieved notoriety and support, down to the fact that the Baltic question was raised and various options discussed every time the U.S. and Soviet administrations met. Even though Gorbachev had backed away from the violent solution he attempted in Vilnius [in January of 1991], he remained very tough and showed no willingness to accept Baltic independence. And the Soviet colossus was strong enough for countries to refrain from putting too much pressure on it.
There was a G7 summit in London in the summer of 1991. Lennart Meri and I attended and talked about a need for a qualitative leap in the process. That we have achieved everything we set out to achieve, have the blue, black and white, everyone understood we would be restoring the republic based on legal continuity etc. But we couldn't bring about that final step, the restoration itself.
Some still remember that Meri proposed some fantastical ideas, such as paying the Soviet Union a billion dollars for Estonia's independence, which – as we all understand – was a political gesture. We did not have a billion dollars, nor were our allies prepared to cough up the money. But it was an attempt to find a new approach, a new solution. Lennart's idea was to approach our freedom from a commercial perspective. No one was expecting the deus ex machina that came in late August.
How did it look from the press' perspective?
Tiido: Things were muddy and a surge of electricity was needed to clear the water. The coup attempt generated that charge. From there, things followed a logical path.
At the risk of repeating myself, as I have already mentioned the memoirs of [former Russian Foreign Minister] Andrei Kozyrev in one of my Vikerraadio shows, Kozyrev recalls how Yeltsin sent him to Paris [when the putsch began] where he spent all night in a studio commenting on events as they unfolded. Asked what the West could do to support Yeltsin, Kozyrev said it should recognize the Baltics. Therefore, Kozyrev was the first person to publicly suggest it on the radio and the news spread from there.
When Kozyrev arrived back in Moscow, he learned that Yeltsin would be meeting with Baltic representatives and recognizing their independence an hour later.
Luik: I would add a thought. The collapse of the Soviet Union, as it unfolded during the putsch, was only possible because the Soviet structure was very fragile, while underneath it lied the Russian Federation that was strong and coherent enough, ran by popular politician Boris Yeltsin and that managed to seize power in the crisis. That is what facilitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I'm very glad Estonia had close ties to the Yeltsin administration by then. Those ties had been reinforced in January of 1991 when Yeltsin came here and urged Soviet troops to ignore orders to fire on Baltic peoples that was nothing short of a historic moment considering the times.
That is to say our close links to the Yeltsin administration saw the Baltics recognized without much ado once Kozyrev arrived back in Moscow, as Harri said. Because Yeltsin's people knew full well that it was needed, why it was needed etc.
Let us linger on Yeltsin. Presidents Yeltsin and Meri signed an agreement in Moscow on July 26, 1994 for Russian troops to leave Estonia, which process was finished by August 31 of the same year. Was it only then – three years after regaining independence – that Estonia could really launch international efforts in terms of membership in unions?
Luik: Definitely. It is clear that EU and NATO ambitions would have been impossible with Russian troops still in Estonia.
While our regained independence is the result of mammoth efforts, we also got lucky in a lot of things. And one of those things was the fact that Russian troops left the Baltics before the EU and NATO started opening up to a point where the Russians realized that the organizations were about to expand.
I'm absolutely convinced that they would have realized eventually that the easiest way to stop the Baltics from joining these organizations would be to stall the troop withdrawal or cancel it altogether.
I believe there was a vacuum there during which the Russian administration didn't know how to stall the Baltics' accession. It was later attempted using a border agreement.
Do you mean to say that had Russia foreseen these developments, how the Baltics would be negotiating EU and NATO memberships a few years on, Yeltsin and Meri would never have signed the July agreements in 1994?
Luik: It is speculation. There is no way for me to prove it, but the fact remains that the Russians were looking for ways to stop us moving West already at the time. Our fate differed from the rest of Central and Eastern Europe as far as the Russians were concerned. We had been absorbed into the Soviet Union and Russia – which is one of the reasons why the troop withdrawal progressed so slowly – wanted to maintain a semblance of that situation.
I don't know whether troop withdrawal could have been canceled altogether… But it could have been used to stop us plotting a westward course.
Tiido: A small country needs to be ready to seize the moment. And we seized ours. Several decisions made back then have been criticized in hindsight. But every decision is made in its own time and the circumstances of the day.
Another thing needs to be considered in hindsight. Yeltsin was no great democrat. Yeltsin was an opportunist. He also did us no favors and rather proceeded based on what he thought could be advantageous. For himself. I also believe he was thinking of himself more than he was Russia, but because Russia was behind him, it ended up benefiting them both.
Therefore, allow me to say once more that we seized an opportunity. That is the task of the leaders of small nations – taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.
Why did Estonia fail to emulate Finland and Sweden on the path of neutrality and sought instead to join the EU and NATO a quarter of a century ago?
Luik: Neutrality had completely discredited itself after Estonia declared itself neutral before World War II. The fate of neutral countries in WWII was a tragic one, as experienced in Belgium and the Netherlands…
Half a century had passed.
Luik: Neutrality would have meant finding ourselves alone. The important thing was to become part of the West, whereas we talked about keeping close to Western countries that had actual power.
After all, we fought against the Soviet Union and later had to withstand attacks from Russia. It was obvious we gravitated towards centers of power, just as it was clear neutrality was not an option for Estonia as we are so close to Russia. Neutrality would mean falling into Russia's sphere of influence.
While Finland is given as an example of how that might be done, their case is different. We can say that the Finns shed blood for their independence in the Winter War. It was a big part of how the Russians saw Finland. While we can also say that Finland's neutrality often required self-denial throughout the Soviet period.
Tiido: It was clear that declaring neutrality would have left us in Russia's reach and affected our foreign policy choices as a lot of things would have depended on Moscow's good will.
Therefore, we couldn't afford to be neutral. We were too close to the source of danger to be neutral.
Luik: There is an interesting fact here. Talks between the Americans and the Soviets touched on this "Finnish option" or whether the Soviet Union would agree on a status similar to that of Finland for the Baltics. Luckily, they did not agree. (Snorts) Just as they did not agree to any other solution that would have recognized our independence. So, we dodged a bullet there.
Then U.S. ambassador, later foreign minister and President Toomas Hendrik Ilves recalls a meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke from August or September of 1995 during which he said that Estonia's chances of making it to NATO were nonexistent. But Holbrooke suggested making efforts in Europe. Then, in December of 1995, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said that the Baltics would not make the EU either. Did it cause the foreign ministry to… lose hope? Realizing that the doors were closed.
Luik: The risk was there all along. The status of the Baltics was different not just from Russia's point of view but also for our partners in the West. We needed to break free of the status of a former Soviet republic and be seen standing next to Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary in whose case it was quite natural they would be included in Western structures. It required triple or even tenfold effort on our part.
I am very glad that the Baltics were successful and Estonia especially as we were invited to the EU in the first round of expansion. I must say Toomas Hendrik Ilves and I had a slight… we cannot call it a difference of opinion because he was foreign minister and what he said went, but personally, I did not regard it necessary to make such a dramatic choice between the EU and NATO.
Ilves' argument was that a double "no" would be the worst option.
Luik: Yes, and it most definitely would have been. But it seemed to me that consciously leaving aside NATO entailed the risk of neutrality we discussed before.
The choice was to concentrate on the EU first and leave NATO aside?
Luik: Right. It was a tactical choice and everything played out brilliantly in the end. It sometimes amuses me that in the end, we became a full member of NATO – whose membership is ratified by all recent members – before we did the EU.
Tiido: What can I add? The map is bigger as seen from the West, Estonia does not lie at the heart of it and the pawns move in more ways than one. What Holbrooke said back then – I did not know him at the time, while we later met on several occasions in connection with Afghanistan – ended up benefiting us in a way because he was in the habit of bluntly blurting out things that others tried to say in a roundabout way. His outburst was perhaps useful as you need a cold shower every now and then.
What did we need to do in the States? Our diplomats tried to utilize contacts from foreign Estonians and members of the diaspora themselves who could talk to their senators or congressmen. Every member of Congress must hear out all their voters no matter how small the constituency as they know it might prove decisive one day.
We had that much more to do. But short guys need to jump higher than everyone else or climb a hill to be seen…
Harri Tiido, it was back in 2000 when Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves invited you to leave behind the position of Kuku Raadio editor-in-chief and join the foreign ministry where you became deputy secretary general in charge of security policy. How difficult was it to get used to the bureaucratic way things are done at the ministry and the obligation to keep your personal opinion to yourself and your closest colleagues instead of sharing it with the public?
Tiido: I have been a poor diplomat in the sense that I have run my mouth too often, also when I was still working [at the foreign ministry].
However, I would make a distinction here. I joined the foreign ministry as I knew it from the 1990s. The ministry has changed by now, it was in the process of changing and becoming an officialdom back then. Foreign policy used to be something you crafted, something you lived – it was not a nine-to-five affair, sticking to a fixed hierarchy etc.
I joined the foreign ministry when it still had that old spirit that has gradually… It is probable the windows have been open often and the draft has done a clean sweep.
After the Soviet empire collapsed and came undone at the seams in the early 1990s, many felt that the Cold War was over and perpetual peace was here to stay. Could it have dawned for Estonia after 2004 when we had joined both the EU and NATO?
Luik: It was a rather brief moment in which we felt… (Sighs in relief). Lennart Meri used to say that some people are like seals – they climb a rock and say: "There… I have made it."
It took both organizations two years to ratify our accession, and new topics and problems were cropping up even then. Harri knows what was happening at NATO when it turned out NATO policed its members' airspace, while Estonia had no aircraft etc.
At the same time, Russia's behavior was changing constantly and we got a new task. That while we are now in the EU and NATO, do the organizations share our view of Russia, collective defense or a dozen other topics? It quickly turned out we disagreed on a number of issues with our Western partners and that getting on the same page would require a lot of work. That work continues to this day.
Have you ever felt a pang of regret on the part of allies in that it would have been more peaceful had we not accepted the Baltics into NATO or the EU?
Tiido: Most certainly. I was the first permanent representative [to NATO] and got skeptical looks from ambassadors who had been around when their governments had asked whether accepting the Baltics was a good idea. I believe more than a few regret letting the hobbits in the door to this day…
Things were much simpler before, during the Cold War when NATO ambassadors in Brussels belonged to one of two camps: those who played golf and those who played tennis. Suddenly, there were these hobbits who couldn't play either and started talking shop – collective defense, air policing and other such things.
And wanting to see boots on the ground.
Tiido: Yes, that too.
It is often suggested that what we say doesn't matter as according to Moscow, the Washington obcom (from the Soviet oblast committee or territorial power center – ed.) simply tells us what to do. I can assure you that the Americans asked us for advice and approval.
Nicholas Burns was the U.S. ambassador [to NATO] at the time, and I remember him calling me to ask about an idea they'd had on several occasions. I said it was a bad idea at best, and while I can relay it to the capital, it will not fly. Burns said "okay," adding later that he killed off the idea. Therefore, we have been asked and I believe we still are.
No matter what is believed in the east about how these organizations work, consensus is consensus. And you never know when someone you have repeatedly insulted on some level will say "no" to something if only out of spite. And that will be that. Communication has been constant, and that is precisely why we want to be behind that desk. We are equal in certain context, even though we [Estonians] only number enough to fill a small city in India.
To what extent has the list of Estonia's allies and adversaries stayed the same or changed in the last 30 years?
Luik: The allied relationship has become changeable in many aspects today.
We are often focused on Russia as it is definitely the number one security threat for us. However, very different coalitions can exist in many trade or tax matters, also concerning foreign policy. And as concerns Russia.
As long as the UK was still in the EU, there was a coalition made up of the Baltics, Poland, perhaps Romania but also the Brits and Sweden who were perhaps the most critical of Russia. It is very interesting and reflects quite a dramatic shift in Swedish foreign policy, going from strict neutrality to being very critical and principled when it comes to Russia.
That is to say these in-house coalitions change and it is only natural. The EU and NATO are made up of democratic countries that hold elections that often affect – especially in the case of large countries – their foreign policy heading, style and Russia attitudes. This keeps our diplomats busy both in those organizations and member state capitals.
I count among the strengths of our foreign policy the fact we have never settled for working in the EU or NATO and know that the same topics need to be discussed in capitals. NATO ambassadors get their instruction from member state capitals when it comes to more important matters, meaning we have to work both with the ambassador in NATO and their capital. This complex approach has served Estonia well.
Harri Tiido, what about allies and adversaries?
Tiido: We have both. But if you mean to ask whether our allies also include adversaries, the answer is no. They are allies too, while we sometimes have differences of opinion.
It seems to me that these international organizations have developed… not clubs exactly but changeable constellations, circles. It depends on the interest. We are on the same page with one group of countries regarding a particular matter, while we may stand with another group concerning something else. I believe it is normal. I see it as no great tragedy, even though it is said such fluid groups inside an organization might have a detrimental effect on unity. I find it completely natural because we are different, looking at this fellowship [NATO] geographically, climatically etc.
And we have different interests
Tiido: Yes. There is a certain core. Let us define that core – it is what unites us. After that come somewhat looser circles that have different associations. I find it to be entirely normal, and it is the business of our embassies, representations, envoys and diplomats to go about their business in these various constellations and neutralize those who seem to sport antagonistic positions and strengthen ties with those who share our views.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has said that foreign policy refuses to listen to those that shout and ignores those who keep quiet. What is the correct way to go about foreign policy in order to be heard and noticed?
Luik: It is clear, as Harri suggested, that small countries need to punch above their weight. Reputation is a kind of security guarantee of its own for a small country.
Thinking back to the Munich agreements in 1938, [British PM] Chamberlain said, roughly quoted, that Czechoslovakia is a small and faraway country we know nothing about…
That was pretty much the sum of it when Czechoslovakia was carved up.
Luik: Indeed. Making sure not to be that small faraway country and being instead well-known and part of the family – that has been the goal of Estonian foreign policy. Because let's be frank, if we want to adopt a cold look based on realpolitik, many countries say or could say that defending the Baltics is so difficult…
Well, it is.
Luik: It is. But we are part of a family in the West where no one is left alone. That is the idea.
It is a fact that the Baltics are small, our political pull is weaker. This means that the risks or the decision-making threshold for supporting the Baltics are also different. Being part of the same space of values is crucially important.
To what extent has domestic policy affected foreign policy over those three decades?
Luik: It does have an effect. It used to be mutual. Looking back, Estonia became a member of the Council of Europe in 1993, while it had to pass a series of conventions before that could happen. For example, the convention on children's right to a nationality, dropping the death penalty…
Foreign ministry employees were involved in domestic policy and lobbied for these conventions to be passed, the death penalty erased from our legislation etc. There is fairly little of that today.
Right now, there is quite a clear line between state officials and politicians. That said, political approach to various matters affects foreign policy to a far greater degree today than it did in the 1990s or early 2000s.
Why is Harri Tiido smiling?
Tiido: I'm simply reminded of how we had a long list of things that needed to get done for NATO and the EU and how a diplomat could walk up to politicians and say: listen, we need to get this done for which we need to take care of these things first. And it was a legitimate argument. Those days are gone now.
They were interesting times in some ways and whenever people ran out of arguments, they simply said that whatever they were after was necessary to get into NATO. After that, there was naught you could say and it had to be done.
There are no such arguments now.
Tiido: We are a NATO member. While some are now suggesting leaving the organization and shaking off the Brussels obcom.
I will now ask a question Jüri Luik cannot answer because he is part of it. Harri Tiido, how lucky have we been with our foreign ministers – Meri, Manitski, Velliste, Luik, Sinijärv, Kallas, Ilves, Mälk, Ilves again, Ojuland, Lang, Paet, Pentus-Rosimannus, Kaljurand, Ligi, Mikser, Reinsalu, Liimets?
Tiido: We have not been very fortunate. There have been good ones but most were in the past. I would say the downward spiral started with Ojuland, which is when… Politicians tend to live for clicks every now and again. Paet lived for clicks as did Reinsalu who just had to be the groom at every wedding and the deceased at every funeral, have a say on every single topic. That is what they were primarily interested in and there was a certain phase shift in foreign policy.
Okay, let us say that Paet knew more about foreign policy than Ojuland. But that's not hard. And from there, I believe that some foreign ministers have had a negative effect on the foreign service as its employees have started looking to the minister for everything. A colleague asked me why I had to answer back to the minister. I said that I had a different opinion only to be told that my conservation partner never disagrees with the minister after working at the ministry for a long time.
I believe it is catastrophic when there are no differences of opinion and when the minister prefers to surround themselves in yes-men and women. It is hardly beneficial from the point of view of foreign policy.
It is my opinion and not the official position of the foreign ministry, which should be clear enough.
Both of you signed the so-called diplomats' letter to then PM Siim Kallas around 20 years ago that criticized Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland and warned against a wave of populism that had reached foreign policy. If until then, many foreign experts had considered not being run-of-the-mill "post-Soviets" Estonia's strength, you perceived the danger of Estonia falling into that very "post-Soviet" swamp and losing a good chunk of its foreign policy capital. How has our foreign policy fared?
Luik: I believe that the things that sparked this notorious letter exist everywhere in democratic countries. The further politicians are from state officials, the greater the risk of such tense situations developing.
But I do not think it is somehow overly tragic because the main lines of Estonian foreign policy have been set irrespective of who is minister. I do not think any of them sought to change the core task or heading of Estonian foreign policy. I believe Estonian foreign policy has been successful in that sense.
And having been both a politician and a state official, I can tell you that the latter also make mistakes sometimes.
In an ideal world, there is synergy between politicians and officials as they broadly pursue the same agenda, which I believe is what has been done in Estonia all along. I see no dramatic problem here.
Tiido: No sense in overdramatizing things. Estonian foreign policy has been rather successful despite all foreign ministers. Whether thanks or despite them.
The problem is that some people see themselves in history, while other see history around them and goals that need to be achieved. This means they are acting in the name of something. But if that something is personal reputation, future career etc., it will become a hindrance.
The foreign ministry has been quite resilient in that sense. When Kristiina Ojuland became minister, it was a matter of which ministry would go to the Center Party and which to Reform. I thought that since the foreign ministry is strong enough to survive a Centrist, let Sven Mikser become foreign minister and Ojuland move to the defense ministry. The opposite happened. But it was quite fortunate in the end as Mikser proved himself very capable and the foreign ministry managed to survive Ojuland.
And that is how it goes. This kind of bureaucratic transformation can be useful in terms of automation. Every system has a momentum and it cannot be stopped simply by raising your hand. The momentum will be retained and the process continue. Even if someone slows it down or tries to channel it, one minister cannot derail the train. They can only have a slight negative effect.
Editor: Marcus Turovski