April 23, 2019

Same, but Different: Estonian and Russian Presidents Held a Historic meeting

AFP/Scanpix
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Estonian counterpart Kersti Kaljulaid at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 18, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Estonian counterpart Kersti Kaljulaid at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 18, 2019.

This year’s Easter Thursday was a historical day for Estonian diplomacy: president Kersti Kaljulaid made a visit to Moscow and held a long meeting with her Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

For the first time since the end of Soviet occupation in 1991, the heads of state of the two neighbouring countries had a meeting where a broad range of international and bilateral issues was discussed. The meeting did not change the big picture of Estonian-Russian relations, which are an inseparable thread in the texture of the EU-Russian and Western-Russian troubled relationship. However, it did raise Estonia’s profile in this picture as a country that seeks to bring a constructive tone to this relationship.

It is crucial for Estonia that its voice is heard in the discussions on Russia in the EU and NATO context. However, in the past years, the basis of Estonia’s expertise on Russia has been gradually eroding. Contacts between the two countries have been very limited especially at the level of high politics. The previous meeting at the level of presidents took place in 2008. The new generation that grew up in the post-Soviet era devoted most of its energy to relations with the West (and rightly so). Russia remained a latent threat, while the Kremlin did not hide its dissatisfaction with the Baltic states going their own way.

Estonia, just like Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, became known as hardliners vis à vis Russia within the EU and NATO after the eastern enlargement of both organisations in 2004. Their critical assessment of Russia’s authoritarian developments and efforts to maintain a privileged role in the post-Soviet space was often met with annoyance in Western Europe. This changed only in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and instigated the still ongoing war in Donbas, to which the West responded with a clear condemnation and sanctions.

Estonia has been a firm supporter of EU sanctions against Russia and has worked hard for the strengthening of NATO’s presence in the Baltic region. Needless to say, none of this has changed. President Kaljulaid did raise at the meeting the conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine and highlighted these disagreements with her host. At the same time, she noted in her interview to the Russian newspaper Kommersant that Estonia did not see a threat to its own territorial integrity, as it was confident about the firmness of NATO support.

In addition to international topics, the presidents reportedly discussed a range of bilateral issues. In recent years, positive experiences of cross-border cooperation and cultural relations have offered some bright spots in the generally dark picture and are set to continue. The situation is more complicated in the field of economic relations. For Estonia, trade with Russia constituted over 10 % of total external trade in 2011. Since then it has almost halved. The Estonian public expected from the meeting above all an opening for business opportunities. There is no ground for great optimism, though, for a number of reasons: the basic parameters of the Estonian-Russian relations did not change, and there are broader structural limitations to trade, including the EU sanctions and Russian countersanctions, as well as the structural weaknesses of the Russian economy. Furthermore, it is wise for Estonia to avoid too close business ties with Russian (openly or covertly) state-controlled companies in strategically important sectors.

President Kaljulaid also raised other sensitive topics and explained Estonia’s education and citizenship policies vis à vis the Russian-speaking minority, as well as the situation regarding the ratification of the Estonian-Russian border treaty which has not been taken forward on the Russian side in recent years. Now the process is expected to stall also on the Estonian side, since the new government (to be appointed in late April) includes the radical right-wing Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) that opposes the treaty.

Altogether, expectations for the meeting were modest, and so were the outcomes. The fact that the meeting was conducted in a respectful atmosphere was a positive achievement as such and placed Estonian-Russian relations on a somewhat more equal footing than they had been previously. It is to be hoped that increased bilateral contacts will give Estonia a more solid basis for contributing to EU and NATO policy on Russia. At the same time, as long as the fundamental disagreements between Russia and the West over the European security order and Ukraine remain unresolved, the relationship will not become genuinely good. The meeting took place at a period of heightened concerns about European security at large. As President Kaljulaid noted after the meeting, she was worried about the erosion of the international legal order because “some countries” did not respect it. In such times, bilateral relations with countries that are crucial for one’s own security, for better or for worse, deserve extra attention.

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