Interview with H.E. Mr Harri Tiido, Estonian Ambassador to Poland

Harri Tiido, Estonian ambassador to Poland, former ambassador of Estonia to NATO, statesman and journalist, visited Natolin on the 17th of February to brief the students on the many challenges of the Baltic region. He agreed to sit with the Natolin blog’s Simone Benazzo and Valentin Luntumbue to talk about NATO, Russia and Estonian politics.

S.B. In 2003, before Estonia joined NATO, you said: “We move NATO’s eyes further.” One of our professors, Richard Sakwa, claims that the very enlargement of NATO has been instrumental in triggering a sharp reaction by Russia, leading also to instability in the EU neighborhood. What do you think about that? Do you think that NATO is a mere defensive alliance or its very existence may also amount to a security challenge vis-à-vis Russia?

H.T.  It’s a security challenge for those who have aggressive plans. NATO is a defensive alliance and even if you look at NATO wording of different documents [it] is mostly [about] defense, there is no offensive posture. So NATO is a defensive alliance, but of course it’s a challenge, challenge for everyone, or anyone who intends to attack neighbors, do something else, which is not in accord with international law. So for them, for potential aggressors, NATO is a challenge, NATO is an adversary. It’s natural.

V.L. Russia uses a lot of that narrative, saying NATO is a threat – in Russian propaganda, in Russian media, using the example of the Balkans. Is there any way that we could avoid NATO being perceived in Russia as an existential threat, as it has been perceived since the time of Russian Foreign Minister Primakov (1996 – 1998)? 

H.T. It’s quite simple: change the official ideology and tell TV to present everything as it is. In Russia people watch mostly TV and information comes via TV. All state rhetoric, all Russian channels are under government control. You can have a horse as senator in Russia, no problem at all: it would be explained on TV. In order to change the view of Russians, the perception of Russians of NATO, NATO does not have to change. The change has to be in Russia, it has to be more open to the world, more open to the West, which is not feasible during this leadership, to my understanding.

S.B. So can we say that it’s only a matter of propaganda?

H.T. It’s first and foremost a matter of propaganda, because Russia also needs an enemy. The psychology of Russian leadership is based on having an enemy, having strong adversaries, because, due to this enemy they can explain any kind of economic troubles, economic problems, by the fact that “sorry, sovereignity, independence and Russian state comes first, because there is NATO, there is the US.” It’s the modus vivendi of Russian leadership. Putin is not the first one, the Soviet Union used the same propaganda weapon. So it’s just a continuation, unfortunately. There was a small period in Russian history, when they tried to change, but it didn’t work.

S.B. When exactly?

H.T. It was during Yeltsin’s years. And Putin, when he started, when he became first Prime Minister, then President, he was also Pro-Western. I mean, more or less liberal. At least he seemed to be, because, after having been in Eastern Germany, he still wanted to be respected by the West.

S.B. What happened afterwards?

H.T. Afterwards Putin found out that they don’t get respect out of the blue. It means they have to become like the West in order to be respected by the West. But that was too much for them, because the ownership, the leadership model, all this was different. You cannot have oligarchs like you have in Russia or the closeness between money and power like they have in Russia. There is connection between money and power in a number of countries, but it’s on a different level, because there is this checks and balances system, which is working. In Russia it’s not working.

V.L. President Trump has been saying he intends to be less involved in the defense of the European continent and the NATO framework. A few voices have arisen to say that maybe it is time for creating a European Defense Union, as it was attempted in the past. Not only radical leftists, but for example Guy Verhofstadt has been one of the prominent voices saying that European states would gain from working together on defense issues. Edward Lucas, also said, for example, that if Baltic states and Poland could put their defense budgets together, it would equate to half of what Russia is spending. So, as someone who has worked with NATO, how do you see the possibility of moving towards a European Defense Agency, something that could allow the continent to have a more autonomous policy towards Russia, but also towards itself and maybe antagonizing Russia less?

H.T.: First there are two questions. Two questions that are interconnected but separate as well.

[Taking] what Trump said about NATO:[US] Defense Minister Mattis has strong support for NATO. The new administration is saying what the previous administration was saying and the administration before that. Most of the [US] administrations, after the collapse of Soviet Union, have been saying: “Europeans are spending too little on defense,” which means that US share of common defense, in money terms, is too big. And they are reiterating what the earlier administrations have said and Trump, as a business man, has been telling that – well, if you want to have security, you have to pay as well, it’s not us that should be investing money in Europe for European defense, so pay up. It’s logical: basically my country is supporting this attitude. Estonia is one of the few countries that spends more than 2 percent of GDP on defense.

Coming to the European Union Defense aspect: the Defense Agency we already have is a separate entity and I won’t be talking about this agency. I talk about the principle. This talk about having [an independent] European Defense has been going on for decades. The closest to European Union Defense League or Defense Unity was ….. when France proposed it. And France was the one who killed it later on as well, during a vote in the French Parliament.[1] So it has been on and off all the time. Now it’s on again, due to the changes in the US administration, but it started earlier. I spent four years, before coming to Poland, in Brussels as [an EU] Political and Security Committee Ambassador. It was on all the time [as an issue]. It means creating an EU [military] headquarters….an operational HQ, or even a general HQ for the European Union. Those critical of it, especially the UK, which is leaving soon the EU, claimed that there is no sense in [such a project]….I agree to some extent. For example, Estonia has one set of troops. We don’t have EU troops, NATO troops, UN troops. It’s one set of troops. So the first basic line is close cooperation and coordination between NATO and the EU. An ideal world would have NATO and the EU having overlapping membership. Unfortunately, we are not living in an ideal world. So the EU should start from allocating more resources to defense, not maybe even thinking whether it would be used, in terms of NATO or in terms of EU. Because the EU does have operations in a number of countries and my country has also participated in them. But they are of different nature. So the EU and NATO in coordination should decide the division of labour. What kind of operations are left for NATO? Are they military operations? What kind of operations would be left for the EU?

S.B. So it would be a kind of coexistence.

H.T. Yes, coexistence and, basically, coexistence in real terms. It’s living together. It’s like a family having one family budget. Currently we have two budgets and it will be two budgets, but we should count this money together, as a husband and a wife, because, unfortunately, as I said, we have one set of troops. I don’t see contradiction here. In a way it seems positive that this issue has come up again, but not in a sense that the EU should take over the role of NATO in Europe. If the EU becomes stronger, it would mean that the NATO European pillar would become stronger. So I think it’s a perfectly logical development and I hope it would lead to results. Fortunately, already the last year we saw the increase of defense expenditure of some countries. The day before yesterday there was the news [that] Finland decides to increase troops and defense expenditure. It means that the country understands that they have to contribute and, basically, that’s why Mattis did not specify that by this year it should be 2%. He said: “Europeans should have plans on how to address this issue.” It means: every nation, depending on domestic situation, will decide how to increase.

But the understanding is there. There is even an additional understanding: for example, a number of countries – Sweden, Germany, (Lithuania has decided already) – intend to return to conscript service, which is cheaper, but provides more people, more militaries. So it’s again the same tendency: they understand the world has become more dangerous and they have to have an answer on their own as well, not only hoping that someone – Uncle Sam – will take care of it. No, all of us have to contribute. For us it’s easy, because we don’t have to change anything. For some, such as Southern European countries, maybe they have to change something domestically. It might be politically more complicated, but I hope that… they’ll … see that this is reality, that Americans are not going …. pay 70% of NATO anymore. If they see the consequences, not only for Eastern Europe, but for Southern Europe as well, because Southern Europe is also interested in defense forces, although for different reasons. Southern Europe maybe is more suitable for EU operations than Eastern Europe. They face mostly the migration issue and you don’t need troops to push back migration, although there is a maritime component that is also dealing with these issues.

S.B. My next question touches upon a different topic. You are a member of the Trilateral Commission.[2]

H.T. I was. Not anymore.

S.B. So you were a member of the Trilateral Commission and actually I am very interested in this topic, because normally this group is mentioned in crazy, bizarre conspiracy theories… my question is : is there an idea that the Trilateral Commission advocates for Europe, is there a certain proposal regarding the development of the EU within this institution?

H.T. I have been out of the Trilateral Commission for about six years, if not more, so I don’t know the latest one. But the Trilateral Commission has interests which are global. It’s economic, financial and political, because they are connected. Thus, they compile and order regular reports – for example there was a report on Russia for which I was also interviewed at the time. There have been reports on East Asia, Europe also… so it depends on the issue, but they meet only twice a year. Once the European group and once a plenary session of the whole. Because it used to be the U.S., Canada, Western Europe and Japan, then the European group started to expand and then they decided to add also South Korea, for example. The talk was also about India. From the Baltics, Estonia has been the only member, because you cannot join the Trilateral Commission, you are invited.

S.B. Do you think there is a specific idea about the EU?

H.T. No, because everyone represents himself, there is no representing country. There are CEOs of big companies, former politicians… for example, if you are in government you cannot be a member of it. You have to go. That is why I left. Because it was not compatible with my status as ambassador.

S.B. But there are many European members, this is why I am wondering, there should be a kind of discussion…

H.T. No, then it is just in European meetings. It’s mostly Europe, European issues and Europe vis-à-vis other countries. Basically it’s European. Totally. And usually, in some of the countries, target countries are discussed. For example, there was a meeting in Budapest and there was quite a heated discussion about Hungarian policies. At that time, although it was long before the current leadership. But still, already.

S.B. Because now they are more heated I guess…

H.T. Now, mostly. If they even have meetings in Budapest…

V.L. A few last questions. The main topic of the next campaign in Estonia promises to be interesting. It is about the naturalisation of the Russian non-citizens in Estonia. Is that an opportunity to build bridges with Russia through the integration of these populations ?

H.T. What do you mean by campaign?

V.L. The electoral campaign. Is that a possibility to build bridges with Russia, further the integration of the Estonian state or a  potential security threat?

H.T. Next elections are local elections. It is not Russia’s business.

V.L. Yes, but it is going to be at the core of the debates.

H.T. One political party promotes more rights for Russian-speaking people, easier acquisition of citizenship.[3] Currently, several pieces of legislation have been adopted already so that non-citizens can have it easier. It means that children who are born to non-citizens can have citizenship from their birth day – the only thing is that their parents have to ask about it. We cannot force anyone to take Estonian citizenship. That is an issue that is not quite often understood. In Estonia, being non-citizen means holding a grey passport – non-citizen meaning non-citizen of any country. You can work and travel in Estonia, in the European Union and in Russia as well without any visas, any permits. Estonian citizens can work and travel only in the EU, if you want to go to Russia, you need visas, permits, etc. Russian citizens can travel and work in Estonia, in the European Union, and in Russia without any visa. But young men have to go and serve in the Russian army. Grey passport owners don’t have any obligations anywhere. And they can vote in local elections. So, practically, or pragmatically, for them, it’s more profitable to be non-citizens. They have all the basic rights with the exception of the right to vote in national and parliamentary elections or being a politician or member of government.

S.B. And do you think there is an issue in Estonia with the Russian-speaking minority?

H.T. Of course it’s an issue because the Russian-speaking minority – most of them – are living in a different information sphere. In Estonia you can watch all Russian TV channels, we have no limitations.

S.B. So it is easy to have Russian propaganda there, you say?

H.T. Yes, I watch Russian TV almost every evening, if I have time, if I am at home.

S.B. Be careful with Russian propaganda.

H.T. Well, I date back to the Soviet Union, so… I am trained. My wife is Russian, and she is also an Estonian citizen and an Estonian diplomat. Because she belonged to the so-called “Old Russians”. “Old Russians” are those who were living historically in Estonia, “New Russians” are Soviet Russians, those who came after the war. Quite often “Old Russians” despise “New Russians” – Soviet Russians – more than Estonians do. Because, they say, these Soviet Russians spoiled the image of Russians. They had high reputation in pre-war Estonia, because they were aristocracy, military officers from the White Army, businessmen, etc. And my wife made an experiment. And being a diplomat, she is currently doing her PhD in sociology here in Warsaw. Being a diplomate and a Russian speaker, she decided to watch one week of only Russian TV. No other source of information. And after the week, she said “Well, if I weren’t a diplomat”, it means having this background, “my world view would [now] have been different.” It was after one week, of what you see on these channels.

S.B. So you mean that this Russian propaganda is really powerful?

H.T. Yes, well, as a journalist, I would say it’s professionally done. And it’s very well done, they spend huge amounts of money. It means they can buy the best. Their technical facilities are the best. Everything is the best money can buy. And of course for example, in Estonia we have little, our public radio and TV don’t have so much money.

S.B. Finally, last brief question. Do you think that in the near future, in the next ten years, Russia can become a real military threat for Estonia ?

H.T. Well, it’s a constant military threat for a number of countries. Estonia is one of them. We are a borderline country, a frontline country. What I would advise not to talk about is the Third World War starting in Estonia. It’s a worrying trend because it is affecting investments. Otherwise, for us Russia is not a problem. For Western countries it’s a problem. For us Russia is a neighbour, a next door neighbour. We’ve been living next to a volcano for hundreds of years. You are not waking up every morning living next to a volcano thinking “Jesus Christ, now there can be an eruption.” It can erupt. So I just have to listen to it, to what it says. It’s the same with us. There is always a kind of information that warns you ahead that something is about to happen. And we’re constantly ready. That’s why you have that more than 2 percent of defense expenditure, we have that paramilitary voluntary league[4], we have rights to keep weapons at home – you know – to avoid destroying the arms depots. We have reserve forces.

S.B. It sounds like a kind of paranoia.

H.T. No ! Are the Swiss paranoiac ?

V.L. They are ! They all have atomic shelters.

H.T. They have been living hundreds of years this way. And it works. And we hope it works in our case as well.

[1] In 1950, the Pleven Plan attempted to create a supranational European army, within the framework of a European Defence Community. A rival project to NATO, it was to incorporate the Benelux, France, Italy and West Germany. It was killed in 1954, when the French parliament failed to ratify the 1952 treaty – over fear the EDC would threaten national sovereignty.

[2] The Trilateral Commission is a discussion group founded in 1973 by private citizens of Japan, European Union countries, United States and Canada, including David Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brzezinski, with prominent members such as Henry Kissinger (after leaving office) among others. It aims at fostering “closer cooperation among these core industrialized areas of the world with shared leadership responsibilities in the wider international system.” Originally established for three years, the group has been renewed every three years ever since.

[3] The Eesti Keskerakond or Estonian Centre Party, chaired by the current Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, is widely popular amongst the Russian-speakers of Estonia. There are around 320.000 Russians in Estonia (a little less than 25 percent of the total population), and 80.000 of those Russians are not citizens of Estonia – a minority of them being actually stateless. Mr Ratas recently announced its party’s intention to grant Estonian citizenship to any person who lived in the country for at least 25 years, without them having to take the mandatory Estonian language proficiency exam, or to make that question the main topic of the upcoming elections.

[4] “Re-founded” in 1990 with the name of a former pre-war militia, the Eesti Kaitseliit (or Estonian Defence League) is an organisation which regroups paramilitary corps under a unified command structure. It claims around 15.500 active members and 24.500 volunteers in reserve.

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