September 18, 2008

Vignettes on Lennart Meri and NATO Enlargement

History, often so cruel to the Baltic states in the past, opened up a window of opportunity in the 1990s for them to join the West. But without far-sighted leaders such as Lennart Meri, this opportunity might have been lost.

History, often so cruel to the Baltic states in the past, opened up a window of opportunity in the 1990s for them to join the West. But without far-sighted leaders such as Lennart Meri, this opportunity might have been lost.


Ronald D. Asmus

Vignettes on Lennart Meri and NATO Enlargement

History, often so cruel to the Baltic states in the past, opened up a window of opportunity in the 1990s for them to join the West. But without far-sighted leaders such as Lennart Meri, this opportunity might have been lost.

There are historical individuals who help define an era, people who through their efforts and actions come to epitomise an issue or cause. For those of us involved in the Baltic quest to join the European Union and NATO in the 1990s, Lennart Meri was one such figure. Without denying the historical contribution of other leading Baltic or Estonian politicians, Lennart – and all of his friends referred to him as Lennart – stood out as a unique historic personality who helped steer the Estonian ship of state from the collapse of the Soviet Union to independence and then to the safe shores of the EU and NATO.
Today there is a tendency to look back at the Baltic drive to join the EU and NATO and to take it almost for granted, as something that just happened and which perhaps was almost inevitable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, one wonders whether it would be politically possible today in the changed geopolitical environment. In reality it was an uphill, almost Herculean, struggle to overcome the widespread reticence in the West and the overt hostility and opposition in the East. That quest was anything but inevitable. The fact that it happened is a near miracle and a story that has yet to be told in its entirety. History, often so cruel to the Baltic states in the past, opened up a window of opportunity in the 1990s for them to join the West. It happened because far-sighted leaders grabbed this opportunity and pushed to make it happen. Lennart Meri was one of them.
His presence will be missed by many, above all his family. He will also be missed by those of us who had the privilege to work with and experience him; his wit and irreverence, as well as his occasional scorn or anger if he disagreed with you. In a world of diplomacy often filled with bland and risk-averse personalities, Lennart stood out as a towering personality – full of new ideas, willing to challenge conventional thinking and determined to secure his country’s future, be it through argument, cunning or storytelling. He stood out due to his combination of steely determination and commitment and his at times irreverent and fun-loving nature. Paying a visit on Lennart was always an experience – a combination of the philosophical, practical and at times the mischievous.
Lennart personified the link between the new post-1991 Estonia and the pre-war Republic. His life had made him a wise man and he know how to convey and communicate the aspirations and sufferings of Estonia and the other Baltic states to Western leaders and audiences who often had little feel for the Baltic situation. We have all heard his stories of being a child in Germany in the 1930s, returning to Estonia to experience Soviet occupation and the subsequent struggle to preserve Estonia’s culture and national identity. I can still hear that deep, sonorous voice and feel that piercing look as he reached over to make one final point – namely how this whole tragic trajectory could only be stopped and changed by including Estonia in the EU and NATO.
I have been thinking a lot about Lennart in recent weeks as the news reached me that he was not well and had entered the twilight of his life. Several memories are especially powerful and I would like to share a handful of them. Each in its own way underscores the important role that Lennart had and the special way in which he worked.
The first was Lennart’s impact in shaping the views of a number of American diplomats and thinkers who would come to play a critical role in NATO enlargement in general and the Baltic states in particular – Strobe Talbott, Dick Holbrooke and of course myself. Many people have attributed Strobe’s special interest in and commitment to the Baltic issue to me. I would attribute it to Lennart. Strobe had first met Lennart in the second half of the 1980s when he had travelled as a Time journalist to what were then still the Baltic Republics. Talbott often recalled to me and others how Lennart had been a key figure in helping him understand the depth of the Baltic contempt for the Soviet regime, their ambition to regain their independence and their desire to become again part of the West. It was Strobe’s friendship with Lennart that led him to drag one of his best friends, Dick Holbrooke, to the Baltic states for the first time so that he too could meet and experience this quixotic figure fighting for Estonia’s independence. Holbrooke was of course another historic personality who would push through the internal US decision to support NATO enlargement in the early 1990s over the opposition of the Pentagon and many others in Washington.
In private Strobe often recalled a visit to Tallinn to meet Lennart in 1991, when Meri was Foreign Minster. The two men shared a ferry ride from Tallinn to Helsinki and Strobe returned convinced the end of the USSR was near and Estonia’s commitment to independence and going West was strong. Talbott’s dialogue and friendship with Meri were factors that helped convince him that the Baltic states were a litmus test of the US ability to both encourage reform in Russia and protect and integrate the smaller and newly independent states. In many ways, Lennart was the Baltic leader that Strobe and other key Americans were closest to, politically and intellectually. These friendships were a key factor in the formative years when Washington was first developing a Baltic policy and first made its commitment to push for Baltic membership of NATO.
But dealing with Lennart was not always easy. Nor was he always a trusting partner. One of the other lasting memories I have of Lennart is how he lectured Strobe, Eric Edelman and me about our alleged naivete towards Russia in a hotel room in The Hague, a lecture that culminated in Lennart comparing himself to Moses. Like many other Baltic leaders, Lennart feared that Americans in general – and the Democrats in particular – were a touch too trusting when it came to dealing with Moscow. While Lennart was a friend, he also did not hesitate to let us – and Strobe in particular – know that he feared that Washington’s “Russophilia” might get in the way of Estonia’s own interest. The trauma of history was still very real and at times one could not help but feel that some Baltic leaders almost expected the West to betray them yet again.
This most dramatic incident took place in the spring of 1997 in the run-up to the first round of NATO enlargement and the negotiations that would produce the first NATO-Russia Founding Act. Baltic anxiety was at an all-time high. President Clinton had just met with Yeltsin in Helsinki and the air was full of rumours about some kind of special deal where Moscow would accept enlargement but in return the West would exclude future Baltic membership. In reality, that is exactly what Yeltsin had pushed for in Helsinki, but Clinton had done a masterful job of standing up to him and killing the idea. At the same time, Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Strobe had decided not to publicise this incident to ensure that Yeltsin would not lose face and that we could conclude the negotiations with Primakov that led to what became the NATO-Russia Founding Act. It was not until Strobe published his memoirs years later, that the Balts could read just how President Clinton had defended their future right to join the Alliance.
Knowing that Baltic anxieties were on the rise, I had suggested to Strobe that he meet with the three Baltic Presidents to assuage these concerns in the margins of a meeting in The Hague in late May 1997, commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Marshall Plan. It was the day after the signing of the NATO-Russia agreement in Paris. The meeting was one of the worst I witnessed in my years at the State Department. Lennart took the lead in criticising the US for sacrificing Baltic interests in an attempt to accommodate Moscow. He said that the last week had been one of the most difficult in recent memory for the Estonian nation. He concluded his emotional presentation by comparing himself to an Estonian Moses who had been chosen, “in a biblical sense” to lead his people back to freedom and Europe. And he was convinced we had betrayed him and his people.
As Meri talked, Talbott looked at me for help as to what Lennart was so upset about. I had no idea what Lennart was talking about. And when Strobe started quoting scripture back to Lennart, I was getting truly lost as note taker. Then Talbott’s temper flared. Looking at Meri, he told him that they had known each other for years and had always spoken openly and honestly. If it were not for the U.S. commitment and this President, NATO enlargement would not have happened. Similarly, if it were not for Washington’s leadership, enlargement would surely have stopped after a single round and the Baltic states would have been excluded. The President had defended the right of the Baltic states to join NATO with Yeltsin at Helsinki and there was nothing in the Founding Act “in large print, fine print or between the lines” that in any way discriminated against the Baltic states or closed the door to their entry into NATO. Estonian accusations were “just plain wrong.”
The Balts did not have a better friend in the West than the United States and the Clinton Administration, Talbott continued. The distrust shown by Meri was unfair and he challenged Meri to name a single instance where the U.S. had failed to deliver what it had promised. Moses, he pointed out, also had a little bit of help. While making no claims to divinity, he told Lennart that the U.S. was just as committed to leading the Baltic states back to Europe as he was. His outburst was met by silence. It was the low point in our relations with the Balts. After the meeting broke up, Edelman put his hand on Talbott’s shoulder and said, “Remember what he and those people have been through. Besides, Moses was probably a pain in the ass too after forty years in the wilderness.”
But the meeting proved to be cathartic. The distrust and anger on both sides had been vented and the air cleared of the former acrimony. A week later, Estonian Foreign Minster Ilves and Defence Minister Luik visited me at the NATO Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Sintra, Portugal for drinks. Talbott dropped by and we started to patch things up. Several weeks later I was back in Tallinn for the first round of talks over the US-Baltic Charter. In Tallinn, I paid a courtesy visit on Estonian President Lennart Meri. By this time, I had developed my own personal relationship with Meri who I admired greatly as a kind of Havel of the north. He was known for playing practical jokes on his staff and friends. As I shook his hand, he looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes, reached up and touched the lapel on my suit and asked, “Ron, have you brought the security guarantee?” It was his way of reminding me that he was determined to use every ounce of his political capital and energy to make sure his country would be safely anchored in the West. He then took me back into his private office where we had a long one-on-one talk about the document and our future strategy. It was one of many such talks he and I had over the years to discuss or settle sensitive issues.
As the Baltic leaders started to believe that we were indeed committed to using American influence to guarantee them the prospect of eventual NATO membership, they started to relax and focused on doing their homework to get ready – and even started talking about how to improve relations with Moscow. During this period, Talbott and I would grow particularly close to Lennart Meri and the Estonian team, especially Foreign Minister Tom Ilves and Defence Minister Jüri Luik. In the summer of 1999, Talbott and I were invited to spend a day as Meri’s guests at the Estonian President’s retreat on the Baltic coast.
It was one of those memorable experiences that I suspect all of us remember even today.
We spent the day taking a sauna, swimming in the Baltic Sea and talking politics into the wee hours of the morning – hardly your normal stiff and formal diplomatic consultation.
That evening we sat down to have dinner with Lennart and his team with a magnificent view of the Baltic Sea and sky behind us. As we took our seats, I could not help but notice that Lennart had placed several very thick books next to his place setting. Over smoked salmon, he proceeded to mention to Strobe that he had been doing some “light reading” which he wanted to share with us. The books were a multi-volume documentation of what had happened to the leadership of the former Estonian Republic after Tallinn had been annexed by Moscow. It documented the execution and exile of the overwhelming majority of the leadership and intelligentsia of the then Estonian political class by the USSR.
Lennart’s choice for his so-called “light reading” was of course not an accident. One of the issues we were supposed to discuss over dinner that evening was Tallinn’s treatment of its Russian-speaking minority and amendments to a new law that were under discussion. As Lennart concluded his tour d’horizon of the horrors that Moscow had inflicted on the Estonian nation, he looked at us and noted that since independence there had not been a single political hate crime committed by an Estonian against a Russian and went on to add, “Oh yes, I understand you wanted to talk tonight about how we treat our Russian-speaking citizens.” It was his subtle, or perhaps not so subtle, way of making a point. We stayed up for hours that evening in a very deep and far-reaching debate about Russia, where it was headed and what the West might do. In the helicopter on the way back, Talbott said to me, “You know we already talk to these guys as if they were our allies. Indeed, we talk more openly to these guys than some of our current allies.” It was a dramatic change from the scene in that Dutch hotel room in May 1997. With a little help, Moses was now moving in the right direction.
A final memory of Lennart Meri I would like to share was the emotional ceremony held in the White House, on January 16, 1998, when President Clinton and the Presidents of the three Baltic states met to sign the U.S.-Baltic Charter. Clinton said that the U.S. would never consider Europe to be fully secure until the three Baltic states were also secure and pledged that the United States was “determined to help create Lithuania can one day walk through that door.” After the ceremony Lennart walked over to me and embraced me and with the deep sombre look of his said, “Thank You.” He didn’t need to say anything else.
One year later, after the Washington NATO summit and the war in Kosovo, I decided to leave the State Department. Having returned to private life, Lennart and the government of Estonia were kind enough to grant me the Republic of Estonia’s Order of the Cross of St. Mary’s Land. My wife and I were deeply touched by this gesture and travelled to Tallinn as I wanted to receive the medal from Lennart personally. In an emotional ceremony, Lennart greeted me and started to read from a little statement he had prepared. Initially looking quite serious, I then noticed that he had that famous little twinkle in his eye and saw a smile spreading across his face. I knew something was coming. He went on to say that that he – and not only he! – considered me to have been the “leading ideologue” of NATO enlargement. It was typical Lennart. Coming from a man like him, that was the highest compliment I could receive.
We will all miss Lennart. It was an honour t have had the chance to work with this warm and remarkable man and to consider him friend. Estonians are very fortunate to hav had him when and for as long as they did. Per haps we can take some solace in the knowledg that Lennart has left us, but with his dream o a free and secure Estonia anchored and embed ded in the West fulfilled.

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