Thursday
Jul122018

EANC Meets with Baltic Embassies

The Estonian embassy hosted Baltic diplomats and Baltic American community representatives for the first JBANC-Baltic embassies meeting of 2018.  The ambassadors updated us on their countries’ priorities and upcoming events and a productive exchange occurred on many relevant topics.  In addition to the three embassies and the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC), the meeting included representatives from the Estonian American National Council (EANC), the American Latvian Association (ALA), and the Lithuanian American Council (LAC).  EANC was represented by President Marju Rink-Abel and Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey.

Topics discussed included the progress made this year on Capitol Hill, the NATO summit taking place July 11-12, Congressional visits to the Baltic nations and other upcoming events.  Participants noted that House Baltic Caucus (HBC) membership increased by 50 percent since the beginning of 2017, which is the biggest increase in HBC history.  H.Res.826 congratulating the three nations on their centennial celebrations is gaining ground, with a goal for it to pass by July 23rd.  The date is significant as the anniversary of the 1940 Welles Declaration establishing the U.S. policy of non-recognition of Soviet annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  Upcoming events include commemorations of the anniversary at Sumner Welles’ gravesite and the August 23rd Black Ribbon Day remembrance of the victims of Stalinism and Nazism.

Discussion on the NATO summit overwhelmingly affirmed the need to maintain unity in the alliance and continue transatlantic cooperation.  All will be watching the summit closely and EANC will report on the outcomes relevant to the Baltic region.

The meeting marked the last official event for the tenures of Ambassador Lauri Lepik and Deputy Chief of Mission Marki Tihhonova-Kreek, who is returning to a position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after three years of service in Washington.  EANC led the participants in thanking both for their work and wishing them well in their future endeavors.Baltic diplomats and JBANC representatives met on June 29th to catch up on events and priorities. Photo credit: Estonian Embassy

Wednesday
Jul112018

Estonian Perspectives on NATO and the Summit

In the weeks leading up to the 2018 NATO Summit, several Estonian officials have been through Washington to share their views on NATO’s priorities and outcomes for the summit.  They have included Ambassador to NATO Kyllike Sillaste-Elling, Ministry of Defense Permanent Secretary Jonatan Vseviov, Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Marko Mihkelson, head of NATO’s Cyber Defence Section Christian Lifländer, and International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) Director Sven Sakkov.  Their overwhelming consensus called for a clear affirmation of transatlantic unity and commitment to the democratic values on which the alliance was founded. 

The main topics of the summit will likely include burden-sharing, or meeting the 2% of gross domestic product benchmark for defense spending reaffirmed at the Wales summit in 2014; cooperation between NATO and the European Union; and streamlining NATO’s command structure to be more efficient in responding to threats.  While past summits have had some focus on the Baltic region, this one may not put Estonia and its neighbors in the spotlight.

Nonetheless, Estonia has been a NATO success story.  It has been meeting the 2% goal since 2013.  The Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) mission to deter Russian military aggression “has become part of the furniture” according to Ambassador Sillaste-Elling, indicating seamless cooperation among the British, French and Danish forces stationed in Estonia and their host nation’s troops.  Estonia continues to be a leader in cyber defense.  Mr. Lifländer stated that cyber attacks are “becoming more common but not necessarily more sophisticated” as defense against them has evolved from a “technical phenomenon to part and parcel of what we do.”  Secretary Vseviov cited the success of EFP and the speed of its implementation from planning stages in the fall of 2016 to boots on the ground in April 2017.  He also commended the first-ever cyber tabletop exercise in Tallinn, where EU defense minsters learned the strategic-level implications of responding to cyber threats.  NATO and EU cooperation are critical when such challenges arise.

Estonia has also made good use of its allocation from European Deterrence Initiative funding by enhancing its infrastructure to host allied forces and increasing its own defensive capabilities.  The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2019 allocates $6.3 billion to deter Russian aggression in Europe under the European Deterrence Initiative and Estonia will likely get a portion to continue improving its forces.

Several challenges remain in the region, as identified by these leaders during their meetings.  One important point is that deterrence is a process, not an end state.  While the EFP presence is a good start in addressing land-based threats, the deterrence mission needs to evolve and keep pace with air- and sea-based aggression, as well.  Mr. Sakkov and ICDS recently released a report concluding that air defense “is the biggest military capability gap in the [Baltic] region, and while the three states have taken steps to address this, the full range of systems required…is prohibitively expensive” for their defense budgets.  Overcoming the logistics and administrative efforts involved in moving troops and equipment across borders is another critical challenge. 

But the most critical overarching need is for the alliance to remain unified in its purpose and commitment to a Europe whole, free and at peace.  Without unity, the finer points are moot.  The summit will take place Jully 11-12 in Brussels; EANC will monitor the meetings and report on the most relevant outcomes from an Estonian American perspective.

Presentation on Capitol Hill of ICDS report on the status of Baltic air defense. From left: Estonian Embassy Political Affairs Secretary Kristjan Kuurme, ICDS Director Sven Sakkov, report co-author Sir Christopher Harper, Estonian Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Marko Mihkelson. Photo credit: Karin Shuey

Wednesday
May232018

State Department hosts exhibit Celebrating 100 years of U.S.-Baltic Diplomacy

The U.S. Diplomacy Center (USDC) will host an exhibit for the month of June highlighting diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from 1918 to the present.  The Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) and its parent organizations – the Estonian American National Council (EANC), American Latvian Association (ALA) and Lithuanian American Council (LAC) – were invited by the Department of State to prepare a display depicting the history of the U.S.-Baltic relationship.  The exhibit officially opens on May 30, 2018.

The exhibit consists of three panels, each covering one of the major periods in Baltic history and how the U.S. played a role in each era.   The first panel shows the period starting from 1918, when the nations first declared independence and enjoyed over twenty years of freedom.  The second panel starts in 1940 with the division of Europe and covers the Soviet era, ending with the first Baltic grassroots demonstrations for renewed freedom.  The final period is from 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union to the Baltic nations’ current status as members of NATO and significant players on the world stage.  The exhibit will also include a display case with artifacts from the three time periods.

Visitors to the exhibit are able to access the USDC lobby via the entrance at 330 21st St NW.  The displays are located in the back right corner of the lobby.  Hours of access are Monday to Friday, 9:00-5:00 and the exhibit will be on display through June 28th.  Groups of five or more people arriving together need to make an appointment; for more information, please contact Leslie Goodman, Nordic Baltic Public Diplomacy Desk Officer at 202-647-5624. 

The space for the USDC was dedicated in 2000 by then Secretary Madeleine Albright.  It was envisioned as a museum to “educate and inspire all visitors…showcas[ing] how diplomacy has shaped our nation’s history and how diplomacy continues to play a vital role in their lives,” according to its website at diplomacy.state.gov.  The project has been supported by every former Secretary of State since Warren Christopher.  Construction of the pavilion broke ground in September 2014 and was completed in January 2017, enabling completion of exhibition design and fabrication.

Credit for developing the U.S.-Baltic Diplomacy exhibit is shared by members of JBANC, its parent organizations, and other supporters.  The project was led by JBANC Managing Director Karl Altau, EANC Washington, DC Director Karin Shuey, ALA Museum Director Lilita Bergs, and LAC representative on the JBANC board Henry Gaidis.  All were instrumental in gathering artifacts and photos, writing copy, and contributing to its design.  A large number of artifacts in the display case came from the personal collection of Mr. Gaidis and from the Latvian Museum in Rockville, Maryland.  The Estonian Archives in the U.S. were very generous in allowing access to their photo archives.  Finally, the graphic displays would not have been possible without the talent and dedicated work of Estonian American graphic designer Kristina Jõgi of Baltimore. 

JBANC will work with the State Department and Baltic embassies to find other locations for the exhibit once this showing closes.  All involved look forward to sharing the work with as many interested parties as possible and hope to see a steady stream of visitors through the USDC to learn more about the history of U.S.-Baltic relations.

Tuesday
May082018

Advocacy Day Draws Baltic American Activists

- Karin Shuey 5-8-18

Estonian Americans from Maryland, Virginia and Ohio joined over 80 Baltic Americans from across the U.S. on May 3rd for Baltic Advocacy Day 2018.  The event was coordinated jointly by the American Latvian Association, American Latvian Youth Association, Joint Baltic American National Committee, Estonian American National Council, and Lithuanian American Council.  The group held meetings with over 50 Congressional offices representing 18 states to discuss issues important to the region.  The day ended with panel discussions featuring experts on Russia sanctions and disinformation.

Participating constituents met largely with foreign relations and foreign affairs staffers in their Senators’ and Representative’s offices.  Their discussions highlighted the importance of continued support for NATO’s presence in the region, implementation of sanctions against the Putin regime, combatting disinformation, and securing the region’s energy supplies.  Participants also thanked the Senate offices for passing a resolution congratulating the Baltic nations on the centennials they are celebrating this year and asked their Representatives to support H.Res.826, a similar resolution working its way through the House.  Senators and Representatives were also asked to consider joining the Senate Baltic Freedom and House Baltic Caucuses.

The afternoon panel event, in the Rayburn House Office Building, was titled Prescriptions for the Information War and Sanctions Policy and was standing room only.  The first panel, on Using Sanctions to Force Change; Development, Implementation, and Enforcement Challenges in the Current Climate, included Latvian Member of Parliament and former ambassador to the U.S. Ojars Kalnins; Human Rights First Senior Vice President Rob Berschinski; and Kyle Parker, Chief of Staff for the U.S. Helsinki Commission.  They highlighted the effectiveness of exposing corruption and human rights violators and agreed that sanctions should do harm to regimes and oligarchs, not ordinary citizens.

The second panel, Hostile Influences at Home and Abroad; Fighting State-Sponsored Disinformation, featured Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vice Chairman of Open Russia; Vineta Mekone of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Latvia; and Brian Whitmore, Director of the Russia program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and author of the Power Vertical blog.  They stressed the need to counter disinformation through truth and exposure of propagators, education of media consumers, and legal regulations against bots and other modern propaganda tools.  The West should also do a better job of sharing the story of democracy, who we are, and what we stand for in terms that the target audience can relate to.  Understanding how opposing messages are delivered and received is another important aspect of creating an effective defense against disinformation.  The panelists recognized the great work happening in the Baltics to address the issue and encouraged teamwork at all levels, from local engagement to national governments and NATO, to make a difference in addressing the problem.

Participants were resoundingly enthusiastic and satisfied with the day’s results.  There was consensus that Baltic Advocacy Day should become an annual event.  EANC thanks the organizers, panelists, participants and offices that made time to meet with us for making it a successful day.  We will keep our readers informed on next year’s event and what can be done in the meantime!Over 80 Baltic Americans gathered in DC to advocate for the Baltics. Photo by Jonas Cyvas

Tuesday
May012018

President Kaljulaid Makes Second U.S. Visit

President Kaljulaid returned to the U.S. just two weeks after the April 3rd summit between President Trump and the Baltic presidents.  Her schedule for this visit brought her back to Washington, DC and then took her to Arizona for the prestigious Sedona Forum hosted by the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.

While in Washington, her main engagement was at the International Monetary Fund/World Bank Group’s Spring Meetings 2018, where she appeared as a panelist in the event’s discussion on universal health coverage.  The conference acknowledged Estonia as having one of the best health systems in the world and President Kaljulaid addressed the success Estonia has had with its online approach, along with innovations they have in development.  In describing Estonia’s fully digitalized public sector, she noted that “the only things [Estonians] don’t do digitally are…sell property and get married.” 

The president was also interviewed as part of the Spring Meetings 2018 Global Voices series, where she discussed a variety of subjects including health care, technology, gender equality, and the global digital economy.  Videos of the Towards Universal Health Coverage panel and the interview are available at live.worldbank.org by searching in the Event Finder for April 20th.  Her other appointments in Washington included an interview with Washington Post journalists Josh Rogin and Christian Caryl, and a visit to the Michael Sittow exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, guided by the museum’s curator John Hand.

President Kaljulaid then attended the Sedona Forum 2018, which took place on April 20th and 21st.   According to its website (www.thesedonaforum.org), the annual off-the-record event “convenes thought-leaders, decisionmakers, activists and diverse experts to discuss approaches and solutions to real-world problems.” The president joined Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Open Russia founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky as panelists addressing the question, Russia: Now What?  The panel examined expectations for Putin’s renewed term in power and options for responding to the Kremlin’s policies that continue to defy and attack the norms of national sovereignty, democratic rule, and international relationships. 

Posts to President Kaljulaid’s social media (twitter.com/KerstiKaljulaid and www.facebook.com/KerstiKaljulaid) indicate she had conversations with several other Forum contributors, including Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) on NATO issues and energy security, and actor/activist Ashton Kutcher on curbing the problem of human trafficking.   The full list of world-class participants and agenda for this year’s forum are available on its website.

The wide range of topics covered by President Kaljulaid’s second U.S. trip in a month again highlighted her ease with many complex challenges leaders currently face on the global stage.  During the summit and on this visit, she cemented her status as an intelligent, competent, caring leader of a nation that deserves attention as an example to follow for others seeking to modernize their governments and better serve their citizens in a digital world.  EANC looks forward to following her impact on the issues that define U.S.-Estonian relations and reporting on future visits.