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Tiny Country, Global Player: Estonian Foreign Policy in 2013

On January 16th, 2013, Indiana University was paid a special visit by the Ambassador of Estonia to the United States, Marina Kaljurand. This visit was sponsored by the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, the West European Studies Center, the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, the Russian and East European Institute, and the Embassy of the Republic of Estonia.

Perhaps a little known fact is that IU is home to one of the oldest Baltic and Finnish Studies programs in the United States, a program all of the sponsoring institutions have had a close and enduring relationship with. Ambassador Kaljurand highlighted this distinctive relationship and the special gratitude Estonia has for the program at IU:

“The reason why I am here is that this special university… has offered courses on Estonian language, culture, and Estonian history during the time when even we in Estonia were not allowed to say everything about our country, our history, our culture, our language.”

“We are extremely grateful to the University, as well as to the personalities, the people who have worked for the University, starting with Professors Oinas and Alo Raun, and the current Professor Toivo Raun, his assistants Piibi Kai, and all the others, who, in one position or another, have committed, or have participated in introducing Estonia here in Indiana.”

Estonia’s entry into nationhood in the twentieth century was one interrupted by the turmoil of the two World Wars and several decades under Soviet rule. But Ambassador Kaljurand was confident that in the present day, a year marking Estonia’s 95th anniversary, history would not repeat itself. This confidence was earned through the hard work and strategic decisions made by Estonian people and policymakers who, since regaining independence in 1991, have prioritized multilateral cooperation, as well as the development of the unique talents of their country to meet niche demands in a global market.

Learning from its troubled past, Estonia recognized its vulnerability as a small country and the security to be found in multilateral cooperation.

“In 1991 we escaped from the Soviet Union, and it was very emotional to become members of any other organization…. But we have learned from our history that the best security guarantee for a small state is close integration with which we share the same views, the same principles, the same understandings, with like-minded states.”

Estonia is today the most integrated nation in Northern Europe, with memberships in international organizations such as the European Union, NATO, United Nations, the OECD, and Eurozone. In spite of having so many memberships to juggle, Estonia takes its commitment to each of them very seriously. Ambassador Kaljurand stressed that a key principle Estonia abided by was a fulfillment of their commitments. She cited the International Editor of The Economist, Edward Lucas, who said:

“At a time when other countries are breaking the rules, Estonia has shown that it is possible to keep them and prosper.”

Estonia’s commitment to aiding other countries is not driven solely by security concerns, but also by a sense of contributing back to an international community from which it has benefitted immensely:

“When Estonia regained independence, we were very much supported by the United States, by Canada, but also by our Scandinavian neighbors: Finland, Sweden, Denmark had very strong influences on the reforms. They were helping us with experts, financial support; they were extremely, extremely supportive. And now we understand that…we have to be supportive to those who want to learn from our experiences.”

As a result, since 1999, Estonia has been a player in international security and development initiatives, with priorities in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. 

Estonia also regards its partnership with the United States as one of key importance:

“The United States has always been a very close partner, close ally, and close friend to Estonia.”

In particular, Ambassador Kaljurand highlighted the special place the United States has become, as a new home, for Estonians who had to flee the turmoil of the Second World War. As such, Estonia also shares strong cultural ties with the U.S.:

“Part of our culture sits here. Hemingway once said that there is an Estonian in each and every port. During my visits to different states and universities, I’ve discovered that there is one Estonian, at least, in each and every community. And those people are the people’s ambassadors.”

In terms of its economic development, Estonia is continually seeking out niche markets for bilateral or multilateral cooperation. In the U.S., Estonia’s biggest investment is in the oil shale industry in Utah, where it hopes to create 2,500 jobs there with the start of the project a few years down the road.

Estonia has also invested in many IT start-ups in Silicon Valley and Boston’s high tech beltway. In fact, information technology, specifically cyber and e-services, is one of the major niches that Estonia has found for itself in the global market. This was due to both fortuitous timing and the foresight of Estonian planners:

“We were lucky because all the changes in internet freedom, in the Information and Communications Technology sector, took place during the time when we were reconstructing our government, our political system, and our everyday life and everyday work. So it was easy for us to introduce electronic services.”

One result of this is that Estonia has been the leading country in internet freedom for three years in a row, ahead of even the United States. Estonia has been the first country to introduce internet voting in 2005, and most of their government services are available online, from managing healthcare to filing taxes. Additionally, nearly 100% of Estonia is covered with internet, with widespread, free wifi access. Estonia’s capital is also home to the NATO Centre of Excellence on Cyber and also the IT center of the EU.

“We are becoming kind of the EU cyber or e-services capital, and that is important for us.”

Being at the forefront of global developments in cyber technologies, Estonia has a clear vision for multilateral cooperation in the cyber realm that echoes the very principles that have led it to become the successful little country it is today:

“We are a country that believes that internet freedom is a human right. In the UN, we are among the like-minded countries who are absolutely against restricting internet freedom. We agree there have to be some rules, but you have to find the right balance between security and freedom.”

Podcast of Kaljurand's Speech: