ESTONIA: Estonia reaches twin goals of EU and NATO membership
Ambassador Kanat Saudabayev
May of this year will be an important month in Estonia's history. On May 1, Estonia will enter the European Union as a full member. Also by that time, the 19 current members of NATO will have ratified Estonia's entry to the alliance.
The United States Senate voted unanimously in May of last year to ratify the addition of seven former communist countries -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia -- to NATO. The second NATO enlargement (the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were admitted to NATO in 1999) is now in the process of ratification and by April all member countries are expected to have deposited their ratification letters with the US Government, as the NATO charter stipulates. The real festivities will take place at the NATO summit in Istanbul on June 28-29.
Following the Senate vote, President Bush staged a White House celebration for the 'New Europe'. "They have proven themselves to be allies by their action. And now it is time to make them allies by treaty," the president said during the celebration. The president has reason to be grateful. The candidate countries backed Bush's Iraq war plans when France and Germany opposed him. The support of the 'New Europe' was indispensable for Bush in declaring to the UN that 'most' of Europe was behind him.
How did Estonia decide to support a war that has been very unpopular in other European countries? And what made the country decide to seek NATO membership?
"The decision to apply [for NATO membership] was not taken lightly in Estonia. If there is war, we help our allies," Estonia's ambassador to the United States, Jüri Luik, says. "But the Estonian people have been in favor of NATO from the beginning."
Estonia sent troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq. The country has had eight soldiers wounded in Iraq, a large number for a small nation. "We're doing a lot to stand by our friends. We believe it is an absolute necessity," Ambassador Luik says.
"NATO is in a process of change, as seen in the NATO involvement in Afghanistan," the ambassador continues, "and we welcome that. But the glue holding NATO together are its core principles, like article 5, the mutual defense clause. After September 11, NATO activated Article 5 for the first time and came to the assistance of the United States. Who would have thought that the first country to receive assistance under Article 5 would be the United States. Article 5 is a very important part of the NATO charter even in the era of the war against terrorism."
How does a country like Estonia, once incorporated by force into the Soviet Union, get invited to become a member? How does the issue even reach the negotiating table?
"We used different strategies to convince the NATO security policy elite about the viability of Baltic membership. If they had thought it was too much of a risk, no public pressure would have helped. We built our intellectual case," Ambassador Luik says.
"We also tried to become the best possible candidate. We went through an extremely painful transformation," the ambassador continues. "You can't lie about your country. What happens inside the country matters immensely."
"And last, but not least, there was the public support. In the US few things happen without public support. The Baltic Diaspora was very positive. We got a lot of help from people who understand our painful history. The Polish community was essential. State legislators took decisions in support of our cause, so did several mayors."
In May, Estonia will be one of ten countries to enter the European Union, along with Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Malta, and Cyprus. The Estonian public has been overwhelmingly positive also about EU membership. In a politically binding referendum on September 14, 2003, two-thirds of the Estonians voted in favor of entering the union.
"It was a very well-balanced vote," Ambassador Luik says, "the two-thirds yes-votes were evenly distributed between urban and rural areas, between Estonians and minorities, such as the Russians. It showed that Estonia is fairly unified when it comes to EU accession."
So what does Estonia hope to gain from EU entry?
"We are a natural part of Europe, and we have a number of priorities, both political and economic. We're expecting a further activation of trade and economic relations. Most of our trade is already with EU countries, mainly with Finland and Sweden, but we hope this trade will grow and also diversify, increasing trade with countries like Germany. We also hope that this will help to change change Russia's trade regime towards us. Up until now, we have not managed to convince Russia to use the normal MFN [Most Favored Nation] regime, used by the WTO countries. EU has such a regime with Russia."
In some aspects, the newcomers face more obligations than the countries already in the Union. For example, the new members will not have choice whether to enter the European Monetary Union, but will be expected to join after two years.
"New members are expected to fulfill the monetary criteria within two years," the ambassador says. "We fulfill the criteria already."
Estonia has all intentions to become an active and integrated member, and to bring something to the organization.
Estonia is already taking an active part in EU policy debates. In an article in The Financial Times, Estonian Prime Minister Johan Parts, together with his British counterpart Tony Blair, argued for the Union to maintain individual tax policy for its member states and not strip countries of that sovereignty.
So after the country is admitted into NATO and EU, what is left to do?
"We'll try to help others," the ambassador laughs. "Estonia has been very active in Georgia, in Ukraine. We'll look at providing assistance to other countries. We have a lot of experiences to share. For example, how do you write a civil code? How do you write a constitution? Some of this could be used in, for example, Iraq. Even though it's a different culture, Estonian expertise in building civil society can be used elsewhere."
"Then come the challenges of ordinary life," the ambassador continues. "Of how to protect Estonia's interests as a small state interacting with much larger nations, of how to keep the transatlantic dialogue alive. Trade and investment issues will come to the foreground and military issues will stay in the backround. It's a positive process."
Curriculum Vitae of Ambassador Jüri Luik
Name: Jüri Luik
Born: August 17, 1966
Marital status: married, one son
Tallinn 7th High School
University of Tartu, journalism
1995-1996 postgraduate research
1990 Editor of monthly journal "Vikerkaar"
1991 Estonian Institute, reporter for US and UK
1991 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Political Department, then diplomat in the Embassy of the Republic of Estonia in United Kingdom
1992 Director General, Political Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
1992 Member of the Riigikogu (parliament), 7th Assembly
1992 - 1994 Member of Government of the Republic of Estonia, initially as Minister without portfolio, then Minister of Defense
1994 - 1995 Member of Government of the Republic of Estonia, Minister of Foreign Affairs
1996 - 1999 Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Estonia to the Benelux countries and NATO
1999 - 2002 Member of Government of the Republic of Estonia, Minister of Defense
2002 - summer of 2003 Counselor in NATO and security policy matters, Head of Government Delegation in Accession Talks with NATO, Ministry of Foreign Affairs