Toomas Sildam: Meetings not to be followed up without Russia-policy

Toomas Sildam
Toomas Sildam Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Until we do not know the Russia-policy of the government of the Centre Party, EKRE and Isamaa, we can only talk about isolated meetings with no follow-up when it comes to Estonia-Russia relations, journalist Toomas Sildam writes in ERR's weekly comment.

President Kersti Kaljulaid met with her Russian colleague Vladimir Putin in April of this year. On May 9 next year, Kaljulaid will likely be in the Red Square when Russia will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of that part of World War II that directly concerned it. From there, it is not out of the question Putin will fly to Tartu in June of 2020 to attend the World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples as an invitation has been extended to him by Kaljulaid.

Meetings between heads of neighboring countries that sport diametrically different foreign policies are nothing extraordinary. What makes them peculiar is the fact that this spring was the first time an Estonian president visited Moscow to discuss topics ranging from the environmental situation of Lake Peipus to the conflict in Syria with their Russian colleague. Until then, presidents of the two countries have only met for specific reasons, like signing the agreement for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Estonia in 1994 or President Toomas Hendrik Ilves attending the Finno-Ugric Peoples' congress in Khanty-Mansiysk or the celebration of the anniversary of the end of the European battles of WWII in Moscow.

The Russian president has not visited Estonia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. If he did, it would fit nicely into the context of Estonia-Russia relations and Finno-Ugric peoples. Linguist Tõnu Seilenthal, who is also the Estonian representative in the Finno-Ugric peoples consultative committee, thought that Putin flying to Tartu "would send Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia a clear signal that what they're doing is not anti-Russian activity and rather something the Kremlin likes." So far, Russia has viewed small peoples' cultural autonomy with watchful suspicion and distrust.

What is the aim of such meetings? To sit down as neighbors and discuss mutual topics, what else. Without attempting some kind of mystical breakthrough, without trying to change Russia and without taking part in the West's attempt to woo Russia, or an onslaught of charm as put by Kalev Stoicescu, research fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security.

Kaljulaid said after the April meeting in the Kremlin that the main goal of the visit was the fact it took place. However, she also said Estonia wants new relations with Russia and is prepared for dialogue.

No publicly visible dialogue has followed.

It would be interesting to see PM Jüri Ratas meet with his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev instead, because heads of government do not meet out of courtesy but have specific agendas to pursue. What could those be, despite enduring EU sanctions over Russia annexing Crimea and supporting military action in the Donbas region?

Six months ago, Kaljulaid suggested the countries could renew railroad agreements, perhaps highway agreements and break ground in terms of an agreement for avoiding double taxation. The Estonian president added an important footnote, saying that if the government and ministers deem it sensible, she believes the door to Estonia-Russia relations is now ajar.

If the government and ministers deem it sensible… Long-time foreign minister Urmas Paet warned already at the time that Centre, EKRE and Isamaa will not be able to agree on a Russia-policy and that Kaljulaid's meeting will lead nowhere.

A few ministers of Ratas' government have attended international events in Russia in the meantime, but who can recall what it was they did there or who they met? A sentence included in Estonia's coalition agreement, according to which the government supports "promoting security, stability and good-neighborly relations in the region, including with Russia," remains every bit as vague.

It is indeed difficult to imagine a common Russia-policy of the Centre Party, EKRE and Isamaa. The interests and attitudes of the ruling trio are just too different today. The three have not even managed to agree on whether to ratify Estonia's border agreement with Russia.

And so the situation remains that if one asks the otherwise clever shapers of our foreign policy about Estonia's Russia-policy, all one hears is a diplomatic auto-reply: it is difficult to describe something that doesn't exist.

All this means that when it comes to Estonia-Russia relations, the only thing we can talk about are pleasant but isolated meetings with no follow-up.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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