Never alone again: How Estonia is helping to rebuild Ukraine

Urmas Reinsalu laid the cornerstone to the new Ovruch kindergarten during a visit to Zhytomyr Oblast, Ukraine in August 2022.
Urmas Reinsalu laid the cornerstone to the new Ovruch kindergarten during a visit to Zhytomyr Oblast, Ukraine in August 2022. Source: Ministery of Foreign Affairs.

Estonia has already pledged approximately €25 million to help rebuild Ukraine – next year's budget permitting. ERR News spoke to Margus Gering, head of the Ukrainian Development and Cooperation Program at the Estonian Center for International Development (ESTDEV) about plans, priorities, and why work needs to start now.

The cost of reconstruction and recovery in Ukraine after the first year of the full-scale invasion was estimated to be €383 billion, according to the World Bank Group, the European Commission, and the UN.

Seven months later there is still no end in sight, and that figure is rising every day.

While politicians in Brussels and beyond argue over how to finance rebuilding with Russian frozen assets, several countries have already started laying bricks and mortar. Estonia was among the first.

Estonia allocated €8 million for the rebuilding program in 2023, with a further €1 million from the European Commission, and an additional €2 million in humanitarian aid. Next year, this will rise to over €14 million. (However, it should be pointed out that next year's budget has not yet been passed and is still stuck in the Riigikogu).

After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested countries choose a region to help redevelop in May 2022, Estonia chose Zhytomyr Oblast, west of Kyiv, due to pre-existing connections and quickly got to work. 

Estonia has committed to reconstructing Zhytomyr oblast in northern Ukraine. Source: ERR News/ Datawrapper / OSM

"Estonia has been active in Ukraine since 1998. This is our natural partner. We know the country, we know the people, we know what the challenge is. And for us, it was a no-brainer," Gering, deputy head of the Estonian Embassy in Kyiv until earlier this year, said.

"We know our strengths, where we can bring in added value, but whatever we do, we consult with the Ukrainians, and we want to see a long-term strategy."

Priorities include restoring war-torn infrastructure; supporting Ukraine's integration into the EU; accelerating digital development; improving the quality and availability of primary and vocational education; and strengthening democracy. Twenty-seven projects are underway.

Children are already playing in a kindergarten in Ovruch, which was handed over in June, and is now undergoing expansion. Since October, traffic has been able to cross the Irsha River in Malyn once again after a bridge was repaired. Foster home designs for families adopting orphans in the city of Zhytomyr are now being drawn up, and it is hoped they will be completed by the end of 2024.

As taxpayers' money is funding the reconstruction efforts, Estonian businesses are also offered the opportunity to participate in projects by applying for tenders. "This is quite a unique model we're operating," Gering said, adding it also helps promote "business diplomacy" and bring companies into the Ukrainian market.

Margus Gering. Source: EstDev

Estonian companies will work with Ukrainian companies on the ground to create the final product. For example, parts of the kindergarten were constructed in Estonia and then taken to Ukraine and handed over to the local authorities.

Gerling says this benefits both sides: "Our strategic goal is to help Ukraine by partnering with Estonian companies to help them rebuild quickly and efficiently."

Involving Estonian private businesses also helps keep public trust high at home and helps mitigate corruption in Ukraine. This is important as several charities that raised money for humanitarian and military aid are currently being investigated, which could knock public confidence.

Estonia is not telling Ukraine what it needs or giving it what it thinks it should have. At the start of the process, Gering said there were discussions with ministries and the local administration about how to move forward, which have continued. Additionally, help does not stop once the building work is finished.

"We're not talking only about concrete walls and the roof, we also invest into ... people, the staff, the experts who are going to work within this building, within this service, we're also developing capacity for how to administer the institution," he said.

Specifically, this means sharing Estonia's best practices with early years education, teacher mentoring schemes, and digital solutions. One example Gering highlights is matching the kindergarten with an Estonian startup that simplifies meal planning for educational institutions. Previously, calculations were worked out by the cook, on paper.

"This is another example of how we digitalize services and also bring the Estonian business model to Ukraine," he said. The two countries already have a long history of cooperation on this subject and the e-Governance Academy has been working to digitize Ukraine since 2017.

But why start reconstruction now when no area of the country is safe from Russian attacks?

Gering compares the situation with Estonia sending 100 javelin missiles to Ukraine before the onset of the full-scale invasion. The aim was to encourage other countries to help and support Kyiv.

"And I think the same approach goes for reconstruction. The Russians have destroyed schools, medical institutions, households, infrastructure, energy infrastructure and why should one wait until the end of the war when the need for reconstruction is here today?" he said.

It is sometimes hard to understand why others are lagging behind, he said, although Estonia is not the only country to have started work. Latvia, Lithuania, and Denmark also have projects in progress.

Gering said many international funds and donor organizations are stepping in to build temporary solutions, but Estonia sees no point in doing this. One reason is that these structures can become permanent. Speaking about his previous posting at the Estonian Embassy in Georgia, he said some refugees from the war in 2008 are still living in temporary homes 15 years later.

"So why should we create some IDP [internally displaced persons] communities somewhere in the suburbs or in the middle of nowhere when we could really put effort into building something permanent?" he asked.

But it's not just physical infrastructure. "Developing, strengthening democracy and democratic institutions" are also priorities for Estonia.

One strand is helping Ukraine reform its institutions and meet the targets needed for the EU accession process. Ukrainian officials are keen to learn from Estonia's own experience which took place between 1997-2003.

The first 10 Ukrainian civil servants to participate in Estonia's joint training program. Source: ESTDEV

"Those people who were negotiating integration and agreements with the EU Commission, they are still [working] here and they can help Ukraine to reform," Gering said.

Estonia put together a training program for Ukrainian civil servants after a request from Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine Olha Stefanishyna. Two groups have already completed the course.

"It's a kind of mentorship program. They are coming to Estonia, meeting different experts and ministers, deputy ministers, and we're sharing our experience. And once Ukraine starts negotiations, they always know that they have backing from us, that if they are stuck somewhere they can always come back to us and we can think together creatively about how to make an impact on reforms and how to develop," he said.

Asked if Estonia's commitment is time-limited, Gering mentioned Estonia's foreign and security policy "guiding principle" of "never alone again" which it adopted after the restoration of independence in 1991. This policy pushed Estonia to join the EU, NATO, and as many international organizations as possible to make sure it has a say in decision-making at every level.

Since the start of the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, Estonia's message has been extended to Ukraine.

"We are not going to leave Ukraine alone. We will do whatever we can do to help them politically and practically on the ground," he said.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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