Liimets: Overview of Estonia's foreign policy in 2021

On Tuesday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets (Center) presented an overview of Estonia's foreign policy in the Rigiikogu. ERR News republishes the minister's speech in full.

Members of the Riigikogu, your excellencies, dear guests,

Writing his memoirs, George Kennan, an American diplomat and one of the authors of the policy of containment, included a takeaway from his meeting with the Polish prime minister in 1944. "The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other."

For those neighbours of Russia who are not members of NATO nor the European Union, this is as relevant as it was 78 years ago.

In recent months, we have witnessed a large-scale build-up of Russia's military forces on Ukraine's borders. Massive joint exercises of Russia and Belarus with tens of thousands of troops are underway as we speak, culminating in a few days. This is a clear threat of force, which blatantly violates the Vienna Document and other international principles. Russia's troops and weapons on Ukraine's borders in addition to the troops sent to Belarus change the existing balance of power in Europe, which has been stacked in favour of one side militarily for quite some time. In light of the developments of recent days, an imminent attack against Ukraine cannot be ruled out. This means we need to deal with these threats and stand up for Estonia and the entire democratic space of values. In this situation, Estonia must be completely prepared to deal with the consequences of the crisis.

The territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine have been blatantly violated. The country has faced years of political, economic and military pressure and this has escalated into a stand-off that affects all of Europe. Our support for Ukraine in enacting political, economic and military reforms goes beyond words. We are supplying defence equipment, investing in cybersecurity and digital systems, offering diplomatic support to Ukraine's efforts and also providing humanitarian and development assistance through increased cooperation and supporting them politically in NATO, the EU, the OSCE and the UN. We are doing all this to make sure Ukraine is a free, sovereign and democratic European country.

Estonian and Ukrainian flags. Source: Erik Peinar

No country is threatening the territorial integrity of Russia, while Russia has done so repeatedly to other countries. Let us recall the 2008 war against sovereign Georgia or the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the military intervention and support for separatism in eastern Ukraine. Yet the Kremlin is trying to convince the world that the West is threatening stability and peace in Europe because it disregards Russia's security. It is unclear which security guarantees Russia is demanding from others at a time when it itself is threatening the security of its neighbours and Europe.

In the geopolitical stand-off unfolding in Europe and posing a direct threat to us, Russia is trying to meet three objectives at the same time. To stop democracy from taking hold in Ukraine and the country's continued integration with Europe, to use this conflict to restore spheres of influence in Europe and ensure that NATO led by the United States gives up its military presence in this imagined Russian sphere of influence. These wishes were presented by the leadership of our neighbour in the form of an ultimatum demanding security guarantees.

We have responded to the ultimatum with a joint response that there can be no bargaining over Europe's security and international law and the policy of spheres of influence has no place in Europe today. Moreover, military threats against any country are unacceptable in the year 22 of the 21st century.

Every independent country has the indisputable right to decide its own future and make its foreign and security policy decisions accordingly. This is stated in the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris. This is also reaffirmed in Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states, "the Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty". I would like to stress that all countries who have joined NATO have done so voluntarily and no country that is not a member of NATO has veto rights on the matter.

A NATO flag at Estonia's Ämari Airbase. Source: Ardi Hallismaa

Members of the Riigikogu,

In the current tense security situation, the West and Estonia cannot afford any strategic lethargy, confusion or dithering. We must be prepared for a continued and prolonged crisis and escalating confrontation, where diplomacy has weight thanks to credible deterrence not acquiescence. Only the resolve of the West, including boosting the defence capabilities of NATO's Eastern Flank, efficient work on the sanctions package and comprehensive assistance to Ukraine help prevent a further escalation of the situation.

Reinforcing transatlantic cooperation and cohesion is an important pillar of our foreign policy. From here I will travel to Washington to meet with the US Secretary of State Blinken. Here it is important to note that we are boosting bilateral relations with all Allies on a daily basis, reinforcing what holds us together. To this end, we have drawn up various action plans and the Cabinet has adopted, for instance, the objectives and main activities of Estonia's US policy, and objectives and main activities in our relations with the Nordic countries and Baltic States.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefed the Cabinet on Estonia's foreign and defence policy goals in NATO and planned activities to meet these goals. Transatlantic relations are based on the shared views of Europe and North America. The most important values of NATO are unity, resolve and the capacity to defend each other. In the current crisis, the Alliance has demonstrated a common political posture and threat perception and has decided to reinforce its deterrence and defence posture in the south-east and east. The UK-led Allied presence and NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission are part of that and our defence cooperation with participating states has grown closer. 

We must be prepared for Moscow testing the unity of NATO in one way or another. This is why we are constantly working on increasing Allied presence in Estonia and boosting defence and political cooperation among the Baltic States. All this is a precondition for making sure the opponent does not make a miscalculation about how collective defence works. NATO's deterrence and defence measures are strengthened in line with Russia's military positioning and the arrival of additional forces from the United Kingdom is a good example of that.

UK soldiers from the eFP battlegroup in Tartu in December 2021. Source: Helen Wright / ERR

The increasingly complicated and unpredictable security situation requires NATO to have a strategic view and response to all challenges facing the Alliance. This year will be significant. At the June summit in Madrid, NATO's updated strategic concept is set to be adopted. It should clearly reflect current threats and include solutions from the Alliance for responding to these threats. Objectives for the next decade should also be clarified.

I would like to emphasise that security begins at home. In 2022, our defence spending rises to 2.3 percent of our GDP, that is, €748 million, and the government has decided to allocate an additional €380 million for national defence for the upcoming years in light of the current security situation. With these additional resources, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can improve the development of secure communications between our foreign missions and the ministry, and boost the safety of diplomats and operational continuity in embassies. The government is ready for a further increase in defence spending to develop necessary capabilities should the security policy crisis deteriorate.

Dear audience,

Like other Allies, Estonia always supports dialogue. Diplomacy must be given a chance because it is the frontline of security. Naturally, we are in favour of dialogue with Russia in all forums and formats created for that purpose, including bilaterally. Diplomatic communication with a neighbour is needed to find ways to ease tensions and cooperate constructively in areas where it is possible. The foreign service has made great efforts to this end. Estonia's constructive approach is also evident in our continued readiness to move forward with the border treaty. This requires political will from Russia based on previous agreements, which would mean that the ratification process should take place in parallel in both countries. The government continues to hold the view that the ratification of the border treaty contributes to our security and stability.

Honoured members of the Riigikogu,

In addition to military threats, unconventional threats have also increased in Europe. Joining their forces, Europe managed to stop the hybrid attack by the Belarusian authorities that saw them exerting enormous pressure on the external borders of the European Union by artificially creating of a wave of irregular migration. Estonia's contribution in managing this crisis is remarkable: we immediately went to the assistance of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, further strengthening our close relations of trust with these countries.

Lithuanian-Belarusian border. Source: Erik Peinar

The current security situation requires the European Union to be able to take on more responsibility in its foreign and security policy. In order to adapt to the changed security situation, the European Union plans to adopt a substantive security initiative this year – the Strategic Compass aimed at strengthening our common foreign and security policy. Along with the Strategic Compass, the first joint threat assessment of the European Union was drawn up last year and Estonian experts actively contributed to putting together this common perception of threats.

Estonia thinks the European Union can and should support the efforts of member states in boosting their military capabilities and offer tools for increasing their resilience in face of hybrid threats. This is predicated on the member states having shared strategic goals and a common political will to achieve these goals. In conclusion, European Union processes should contribute to improved operational capabilities of Europe and reinforced transatlantic relations, and complement NATO's activities.

In addition to our common foreign and security policy, the European Union has also addressed many important areas. In particular, I would like to highlight Estonia's active work on building a digital union in line with the Estonia 2035 action plan of the government of Estonia and the Foreign Policy Strategy. It is in digital and cyber issues where Estonia is considered an opinion leader. This presents us with an opportunity in the European Union and also makes it our responsibility to be a pioneer in the uptake of the e-ID and building a forward-looking data economy.

I am glad to note that last year we reached an agreement on establishing e-Codex, the European Union solution for digitalising justice, in Estonia, expanding the mandate of the eu-LISA agency based in Tallinn. Tallinn was also chosen as the location for the Baltic Regional Coordination Centre of electricity systems.

Internationally, we are concentrating on presenting and mainstreaming the concept of trusted connectivity to ensure it becomes an important part of work in the European Union, the OECD and transatlantic relations. The 2021 Tallinn Digital Summit was an important milestone in this process.

Foreign minister Eva-Maria Liimets (far left) and her B9 counterparts in Tallinn on Wednesday. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Members of the Riigikogu,

Only a few weeks ago, I spoke to Secretary-General Guterres about Estonia's experience as a member of the UN Security Council. Our campaign for a seat on the Council and the subsequent two-year membership expanded our foreign and security policy reach. Estonia made full use of the opportunities that come with the elected membership of the UN Security Council.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and growing geopolitical tensions affecting practically the entirety of Estonia's membership, we managed to achieve a great deal in the priority areas we had set beforehand.

As an elected member of the Council, Estonia vocally stood up for European security and upheld the principles of international law, and consistently kept the focus on grave human rights violations across the world. We were also consistently working on making sure the UN Security Council kept up with the times and addressed new areas of security policy. We also successfully completed our penholdership for negotiating resolutions on extending the mandates in Afghanistan and the European Union's Irini mission on the Mediterranean.

As an elected member, Estonia held 19 UN Security Council meetings and supported several initiatives of like-minded countries. Additionally, Estonia submitted proposals and led the negotiations for five resolutions.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets speaking at the UN Security Council about Belarus in October 2021. Source: Marko Muum.

As an elected member of the UN Security Council, we also reinforced our image as a country that values openness and transparency. Most of the meetings called by Estonia were open to the broader membership of the UN. As we broadcast the meetings over various channels, they reached a broader audience than has been the custom so far. Both the campaign and the UN Security Council membership itself provided Estonia's foreign service with first-time and crucial experience that can now be used in protecting and promoting Estonia's interests in the UN and other international organisations.

Our global impact has grown in our two years of membership, as has Estonia's international profile. We felt a particular obligation to respond strongly when we saw actions against human rights and freedoms, and naturally, developments with critical implications for our own security in our immediate neighbourhood – Belarus and Ukraine.

Members of the Riigikogu,

I would like to stress in particular that the protection of human rights and advancing democracy worldwide is among the most important foreign policy activities of Estonia because it reinforces the values-based international order on which our security directly depends. This way, our human rights diplomacy supports our security policy. Last May, I presented Estonia's first human rights action plan to the government, setting out Estonia's foreign policy actions for protecting human rights and advancing democracy. Among other aims, it highlights the rights of women, girls, indigenous peoples, and the freedom of expression and internet freedom. Authoritarian regimes across the world are expanding their influence and violating human rights with impunity. Violations of the human rights of the most vulnerable people have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Estonia's actions in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms are connected to our activities at home. Despite the difficult pandemic, we organised an international media freedom conference in Tallinn last week, bringing together ministers, journalists and civil society representatives from around the world. We hope the discussions of the conference and commitments by various parties contribute to the protection of media freedom in Estonia and beyond. According to international assessments, Estonia ranks 15th in freedom of the press and 2nd in internet freedom in the world. Authoritarian leaders often move to restrict access to the internet. We are opposing this. Estonia is a member of the Freedom Online Coalition, and we are increasing our contribution this year and highlighting these issues in our work in international organisations.

Liz Truss and the Baltic foreign ministers at Chevening on October 11. Source: FCO.

Global climate change affects everyone and fighting climate change requires global efforts and burden-sharing. Last year, the government adopted its climate diplomacy action plan. In the European Union's climate diplomacy, we always highlight Eastern Partners, but we are also engaged in Africa – for example, we are planning green data centres with partners interested in digital cooperation. We have worked towards a network of offshore wind farms spanning the entire Baltic Sea, which would boost our energy security.

Estonia sees a chance to contribute to the sustainable development of the Arctic. To shape Estonia's positions on the Arctic, we will initiate a broader action plan that would entail foreign and security policy, climate policy and research.

Honoured members of the Riigikogu,

In the past year, Estonia has become significantly more active in Asia and the Pacific. To increase Estonia's presence, we opened embassies in Singapore and Seoul. In July last year, the first visit by a Japanese foreign minister to Estonia took place and a month later, the Estonian president met with the prime minister of Japan in Tokyo.

Last year is also characterised by China's growing influence in international relations. Estonia is interested in good and pragmatic bilateral relations with China, and also between the EU and China; however, this cannot happen through the suppression of values. For example, we will not accept China's pressure on Lithuania and this needs a common European position.

European Union flag. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The objectives and main areas of the actions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs outlined in the Foreign Policy Strategy set out informing and updating a broader space of ideas with knowledge-based policy-making, which would involve universities teaching and researching topics that make a substantial contribution to Estonia's foreign policy. This year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is allocating nearly €1 million to research and increasing analytical capabilities in Estonian universities, concentrating of Asia, Russia and the Arctic. I would like to thank the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu for our excellent cooperation in developing research and analytical capabilities for policymaking.

Dear guests,

One of the three pillars of the Foreign Policy Strategy is boosting foreign trade, aimed at increasing prosperity in Estonia. In addition to contributing to security, advocating for the interests of Estonian entrepreneurs and boosting Estonia's economy through increased investments are listed as a priority in the Foreign Policy Strategy and the Estonia 2035 action plan. In May 2021, the cabinet adopted Estonia's action plan for the protection of investments, setting out a specific plan for concluding agreements on the protection of investments both on European Union level and bilaterally. The implementation of the action plan is underway and we have held consultations with Kuwait, Kenya and South Korea.
A more efficient use of foreign missions and economic diplomacy in advancing and protecting the interests of Estonian companies on foreign markets and attracting foreign investment is a priority. We have an excellent cooperation in this field with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications and the Estonian Business and Innovation Agency. From 2022, we will plan and set our objectives and analyse results together. Together, we have considerably boosted our new embassies in Singapore and Seoul, where representatives of the agency are working alongside the embassy staff. We have also cooperated successfully at the Dubai EXPO, organising visits for more than 10 large business delegations and smaller specialised business delegations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also plans to post additional economic officials to our representations in Helsinki and Ottawa. This would result in creating a solid Team Estonia that works efficiently to open up new opportunities for Estonian entrepreneurs.

An important contribution to our economic diplomacy has been made by our honorary consuls who form a global network more than 200 strong. In July, we are organising an honorary consuls conference in Estonia to find additional and improved ways for them to represent Estonia and Estonia's economic interests.
We are working on creating new economic diplomacy tools and methods by using the European Union's recovery and resilience plan. We plan to develop entrepreneurship centres in seven countries, prioritising our new embassies in Seoul and Singapore. The creation of the Development Cooperation Centre adds to Estonia's capabilities to participate in the projects of the European Union and other major international donors, ensuring Estonia's greater visibility and increased foreign policy influence.

Honoured members of Riigikogu,

Estonia's people are its most cherished asset. To preserve Estonian identity far away from home, we have completed an action plan for the Estonian diaspora, which the state is implementing with specific measures. When Estonians who were born abroad or have lived there for an extended period of time move to Estonia, the society as a whole can help them feel welcome.

It is the task of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to offer both Estonian and foreign nationals the most convenient and affordable services, and based on the Foreign Policy Strategy, we will increase the availability of consular services. Considering the dispersed nature of Estonian communities across the world and the limited reach of our foreign missions, the only way for us to offer high-quality services is to digitalise them to a large extent. This goal requires joint efforts from several government agencies.

In 2016, an amendment to the Identity Documents Act entered into force, and according to this amendment, a passport or an ID card can be issued by mail through a secure postal service provider. This provision has not been implemented fully so far. We are working with the Ministry of the Interior to come up with solutions and make sure that in the course of 2022, Estonian nationals can receive identity documents more quickly and conveniently. This way, Estonian nationals across the world will have a chance to receive their passports by mail.

Members of the Riigikogu,

Last year, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the restoration of our independence. For three decades, those shaping and implementing Estonia's foreign policy have worked relentlessly to make sure our security is protected and we are never alone again. The security of Estonia and Europe are inextricably linked and in the current difficult security policy situation, upholding, protecting and reinforcing international law and the rules-based order is a direct duty of Estonia.

Estonia's foreign policy is working tirelessly to ensure the protection of Estonia's security, economy and citizens, and maintain our security and the unity of the West of which we are an integral part. The key to the success of these efforts lies in cooperation that transcends ministries and, more importantly, political parties. Only then can we be successful, protect our interests and achieve our goals.

Thank you.


Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!

Editor: Helen Wright

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: