Experts: President Kaljulaid's foreign policy was successful

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President Kersti Kaljulaid during her official visit to Italy earlier in the week. Source: Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia

During her five-year term of office, President Kersti Kaljulaid has made over 100 foreign visits, met with dozens of world leaders and participated in many high-profile agenda-setting international forums. ERR spoke to experts to see how they assess Kaljulaid's foreign policy.

While the role of Estonia's president is often ceremonial, they have a big opportunity to impact the country's foreign policy.

Since taking office in October 2016, Kaljulaid has met with 59 presidents, eight monarchs, the pope and an emir. She has made 138 foreign visits, said Mailin Aasmäe, spokesperson for the President's Office.

In addition to working visits, Kaljulaid has made six state visits to Finland, Georgia, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia and Kuwait as well as seven official visits to Poland, Chile, Germany, the Vatican, Greece, Ukraine and Benin.

Before handing over the presidential chain to incoming President Alar Karis on October 11, Kaljulaid will make a state visit to Kenya, an official visit to Sweden, working visits to Italy and Germany and participate in the UN General Assembly in New York.

Kersti Kaljulaid speaking at an event to promote Estonia's campaign for Arctic Council observer status. Source: Office of the President.

Over the last five years, 36 heads of state have visited Estonia including the presidents of Romania, Latvia, Italy and Lithuania and the King of the Netherlands. 

Kaljulaid has hosted the leaders of Georgia, Denmark, Croatia, Norway, Austria, Iceland, Sweden, Great Britain, Germany, Kosovo, Poland, Finland, Iceland, Bulgaria and Ukraine - twice.

Notable occasions include the Gaudeamus Song Festival in Tartu in July 2018 and the Summit of the Three Seas Initiative in October 2020.

"Special mention may be made of the working visit of the President of France Emmanuel Macron, the official visit of the President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the visit of Pope Francis, the state visit of Sergio Mattarella, President of Italy, the state visit of King Willem-Alexander, the official visit of Alexander Van der Bellen, the official visit of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and the working visit of King Philippe of Belgium," Aasmäe told ERR.

President Kaljulaid has also received the credentials of 135 ambassadors accredited to Estonia.

Data from the President's Office shows Kaljulaid made a similar amount of visits to former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (2006-2016), who, over his two terms, made 251 visits. These included 16 state visits and 13 official visits. Seventy-three heads of state visited Ilves during his decade in office.

In comparison, former President Arnold Rüütel (2001-2006) made a total of 81 foreign visits, including 17 state visits and seven official visits. Thirty-three heads of state visited Estonia.

President Kersti Kaljulaid with Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah on Tuesday. Nov. 5, 2019. Source: Mattias Tammet/Office of the President

Experts: Kaljulaid has been active and visible

ERR's Estonian language portal spoke to experts who said Kaljulaid was active in foreign policy and they especially highlighted her contribution to Estonia winning a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Kristi Raik, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute said: "Foreign policy is one of the areas where the president can have the greatest influence in Estonia because their role in domestic politics is quite limited. If the president is visible and active, they can do a lot for Estonia in the international arena. Kaljulaid has been active and done a good job."

Erkki Bahovski, daily newspaper Postimees' opinion editor and foreign policy journalist, said: "In general, she did well. The shoes left behind by the previous president Toomas Hendrik Ilves were very big, especially in terms of foreign policy, but in general, Kaljulaid was successful."

Kaljulaid's term fell during Estonia's campaign for a UNSC seat and she was very active in the campaign - but not everyone was convinced Estonia should run.

Raik added: "[Now] It seems that even those people in Estonia who were initially opposed to Estonia running for office now admit that we have gained invaluable experience in world politics there and highlighted our priorities."

Estonia's longest-serving foreign minister, current MEP Urmas Paet (Reform), agrees Kaljulaid was visible and active in foreign policy. This section of her term was successful, he said.

Paet also highlighted Kaljulaid's contribution to Estonia's UNSC campaign. "However, she also participated in the work of the UN later, when Estonia was already in the Security Council. In connection with the UN Security Council, Kaljulaid's activities were more significant and visible," he said.

President Kersti Kaljulaid casting her ballot in the election of the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council for 2020-2021. June 7, 2019. Source: Eleri Ever/Kersti Kaljulaid/Facebook

Both Paet and Bahovski also highlighted Kaljulaid's active participation in various international forums.

Raik added: "Kaljulaid has also contributed to the issue of cyber security, which is one of Estonia's trademarks in the international arena, for which Estonia is known and evaluated."

All three also mentioned Kaljulaid's visit to Moscow in April 2019 where she met with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The visit to Moscow was one of the most controversial events of her foreign policy activities," Raik said. "But unlike the critics, I think we have to deal with neighbors with who we do not agree. That does not mean we have to give up our views. The preparations, details and also the consequences of this visit can be discussed, but there's no reason to doubt its necessity."

Bahovski added: "The fact that she met with President Putin was also good because there are not many people in Estonia who have met Vladimir Putin face to face and talked."

Paet highlighted the visit took place in the context of the opening of the renovated Estonian embassy. He said the meeting with Putin did not have significant consequences because the government did not have a clear plan on how to use the meeting. 

President Kersti Kaljulaid meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow during a 2019 official visit. Source: Stanislav Moškov, VPK

Paet said Kaljulaid's foreign policy has been strongly affected by the coronavirus pandemic that broke out at the beginning of 2020, which made foreign trips and arranging meetings more complicated and often impossible.

Bahovski questioned some of Kaljulaid's recent visits this year: "Why did the president have to go to Afghanistan when it was already known that troops would be withdrawn? I don't think I would have gone to Japan during the Summer Olympics either. This visit is incomprehensible to me. "

"But in general, Kaljulaid has flown the Estonian flag high, strongly represented the Estonian e-state and participated prominently in international conferences," Bahovski concluded.

On Tuesday, the Riigikogu elected Alar Karis as the next President of Estonia. He will take the oath of office on October 11, bringing Kaljulaid's term to an end.

President Kersti Kaljulaid in the Afghan capital, Kabul, during her official visit on Wednesday, April 21 2021. Source: President's office

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Editor: Helen Wright

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