While several organizations and members of the Estonian diaspora have denounced the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' announced plans to close its New York and San Francisco consulates, the ministry is nonetheless moving forward with the closures, citing needed budget cuts.
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made these decisions involving €1.2 million in cuts as a result of lengthy deliberation," Minister of Foreign Affairs Margus Tsahkna (Eesti 200) told ERR, adding that this involved both layoffs and reductions in services.
"We had a choice – whether to close an embassy or review consulates' operations," he continued. "We decided that the New York and San Francisco consulates will be closed, but the availability of consular services will not worsen."
Tsahkna doesn't believe consulates' closures will diminish the ministry's reputation.
"The Foreign Ministry's reputation is that we must ensure Estonia's security at the foreign policy level, and in order for us to be able to do so under austerity conditions, we must also make unpopular decisions," he noted.
Commenting on news reports that Estonia pays €30,000 a month in rent for the Estonian ambassador to the UN's residence in New York, the minister said that this reception space was selected some time ago, and that the prices they are paying are on the average side or even below it in New York terms.
"We previously didn't have a reception space in New York where we could host events," Tsahkna claimed. "We cannot lower our standards in terms of this functionality. The costs of assigning consuls general and their housing costs have likewise been in the same ballpark as those of the UN ambassador's residence."
'Diaspora should be encouraged to apply for passports'
The most recent appeal to the media regarding Estonia's planned consulate closures came from John Kissane, cofounder of and board member at the Baltic-American Chamber of Commerce (BACC).
"We are genuinely concerned about Estonia's recent decision to close its consulate general in New York," wrote Kissane, who believes the state should revisit its decision.
"Since the founding of the BACC in 2016, the consulate has played a vital role in coordinating our activities, and helped the Baltic states develop strong economic and trade relations with the U.S.," he highlighted. "Closing the Consulate General of Estonia in New York would without a doubt hinder our ability to draw attention to the economic opportunities available in Estonia."
Californian Estonian diaspora organizations and spokespersons have spoken out in support of the consulates as well.
"Estonia has career diplomatic missions in 24 European countries," said Estonian honorary consul in Los Angeles Jaak Treiman, whose appointment by Ernst Jaakson in 1986 predates even the restoration of Estonia's independence. "In the U.S., which covers approximately the same geographical area, it has three career diplomatic missions, and it is proposing reducing the number thereof to one, while also adding two people to the remaining outpost."
"The U.S. has one of the biggest diaspora [Estonian] populations outside Europe, consisting of 30,000 people of Estonian origin who should be encouraged to apply for 25,000 Estonian passports," local filmmaker Juri Koll wrote in an open letter to the media on behalf of LA's Estonian community. "Among these are an awful lot of kids, who would ensure our future freedom. The future of Estonia and our culture is in the hands of our citizens, our diaspora and especially our children all over the world. Estonia thinks big, even as we are small. We fight hard for ourselves and our friends. But we need all the help we can get to survive."
Organizations, community members issue joint statement
Earlier this month, 15 Estonian-American as well as more than 80 members of Estonian society and the Estonian diaspora issued a public statement (link to PDF, in Estonian) calling on Estonian state leaders to reevaluate their decision to close the Consulate General of Estonia in New York and find a way to ensure the continued operation of the consulate.
The closure of the consulate general would result in the disruption of longstanding robust cultural and business diplomatic ties in the heart of the cultural and financial world, the statement read.
Organizations to cosign the statement included the Estonian Relief Committee (EAK), New York Estonian Educational Society (NYEHS), New York Estonian House (NYEM), Foundation for Estonian Arts and Letters, Estonian Students Fund in USA, the U.S. chapter of the Estonian Students' Society (EÜS), New York Estonian School, Lakewood Estonian Association, Lakewood Estonian School, Boston Estonian Society, Boston Estonian School, Chicago Estonian School, Estonian Cultural Society of Chicago (EKSC), Connecticut Estonian Society (CES) and the Estonian Guiders Council in USA.
'How can one put a dollar value on the diaspora?'
"The announcement on September 26 stating that the Estonian Foreign Ministry will close its only U.S. consulates, in New York and San Francisco, in mid-2024 came as a shock and disappointment to Estonian Americans," ERKÜ wrote in its own statement published September 29. "The negative impact of this decision will be felt widely in the United States. Many have contacted the Estonian American National Council to voice their dismay and feelings that the support given by Estonian Americans to Estonia, not only during [the] re-independence years, but the long 50-year period of occupation to ensure the legal continuity of the Republic of Estonia, is no longer valued by the Estonian government."
The council acknowledged that the ministry is facing severe budget constraints.
"Yet, this reduction feels short-sighted," it continued. "How does one monetize good will? How can one put a dollar value on the Estonian diaspora? The New York consulate, previously headed by the legendary diplomat Ernst Jaakson, has been the focal point and symbol of Estonian independence for Estonian Americans ever since Soviet occupation in 1941 – over 80 years. It is a vital part of the history of Estonian Americans and of the Republic of Estonia."
ERKÜ has since released several more statements and calls to action in showing support for preserving Estonia's two U.S. consulates, linking to petitions, urging people to write directly to Foreign Minister Tsahkna as well as Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee chair Marko Mihkelson (Reform).
It has also detailed steps the committee itself has already taken, including hosting a virtual town hall on Tuesday, October 24, meeting with Estonian Ambassador to the U.S. Kristjan Prikk to express their concern and dismay, and contacted the Foreign Affairs Committee chair and government officials to "receive explanations on this shortsighted plan and to make sure the government considers the Estonian American interests and hears our position (made very clear by the public – perhaps the most unified message we have received to date in reaction to an Estonian government action)," according to an update published October 9.
"After all, it was just three years ago that connections and cooperation with Estonians around the globe became embossed in Estonia's foreign policy, and it was just two years ago that we all celebrated the grand opening of the excellent consulate in San Francisco," ERKÜ wrote. "Indeed, the legacy of the Estonian Consulate in NY is the legal continuity of the Republic of Estonia; the Estonian flag was flown with pride and determination throughout the half century of Soviet occupation of Estonia. The value of the work done by the Consulates and their professional and skilled staffs is immeasurable."
Estonia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in late September that in order to cut costs, it would be eliminating 45 positions as well as closing its consulates in New York and San Francisco from summer 2024.
Editor: Aili Vahtla