Tiit Vähi: anti-Russia torch of war damaging to business

Andres Reimer
, business journalist
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Photo: Liis Treimann

Estonia ought to alter current course and support removal of anti-Russia economic sanctions imposed after annexation of Crimea says former prime minister turned transit businessman Tiit Vähi.

Creation of NATO bases and massive exercises is damaging to Estonian economy, says Mr Vähi, as a successful was against Russia is not possible. According to him, in wake of regained independence, governments were pursuing a successful policy while the current ones act like former Estonian SSR top communist cadre Karl Vaino, obeying orders from above and not thinking for themselves.  

-Today, you are suggesting that the anti-Russia sanctions be removed. According to reference work, however, while you were prime minister Russia slapped double custom tariffs on Estonia goods which only disappeared as Estonia joined EU.   

The reference work would surely also tell you that in 1995 I signed the application to join the EU. Today I have understood that Russia is seeking cooperation with the EU. Even now, Vladimir Putin has said they are not against the EU. If Europe removes the sanctions imposed on Russia, Russia in turn will remove the countersanctions.

I have been invited to the recent Russian industrial forums. I have listened how the ministers and Mr Putin are answering. This forms a picture. I as an Estonian am received normally, because I am from the EU and differ from those who remained in CIS. They want to cooperate with me and the port. In spite of the serious problems, interest towards the Port of Sillamäe is great both in Russia and Europe. But the sanctions are significantly hindering the business.

I have been asked by members of Estonian parliament if we could not do without Russia. I have told them that of course we could, but let us try and picture the book by a nice Russian author Saltykov-Shchedrin «The history of a town» where the mayor of Glupov wanted to ban America. No need to ban anything, that would be foolishness.

We can indeed do without Russia, but the export and economy have shrunk as also reflected in the income of the people. The Dutch and Belgian businessmen currently interested in Port of Sillamäe are actually interested in the opportunity to via Sillamäe cooperate with Russia.

Should we build a big wall on the Narva River, they would definitely not be willing to come here. As seen in the fact that these past couple of years European investments have left Estonia as they see no way of making a profit here. Estonia`s market is small and of no interest to them.

-Though positive statements are occasionally made by both Russian and European politicians, any change of circumstances is still unlikely, it seems, in near future...

There is this hysteria currently that Russia is coming to attack us. Before the invasion of Iraq there was the hysteria that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Turned out afterwards they did not. Later, the British prime minister Tony Blair indeed apologised but a million or more Iraqis had been killed or driven from their homes.

I am deeply convinced that Russia does not want to attack the Baltics and Estonia. Such attack would make no sense; they would not gain anything but would lose a lot, finding themselves in international isolation. I for one agree with the German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that the creation of NATO bases and the bringing into Estonia of massive exercises is negative regarding security, rather.

If from both sides, tanks, missiles and armed soldiers are planning to cross the border, the goods are unwilling to go the same way. At the moment, such a situation is the biggest problem for Estonian enterprises, especially for such as want to do business between Russia and the European economic space.

When politicians and generals are arguing if we will be conquered in three days or four, makes no sense to invest. If my wife would suggest that we change two old armchairs at home, I would say no. If we are preparing for war. We might just as well think about buying two coffins.

I think Estonia might be a peacemaker and mediator between the EU and Russia, just like Finland.

-But didn’t Finland gain a greater confidence to be the mediator after it boosted its defence capacity in the 1980ies by purchasing the Hornet fighters?

When in Estonia recently, the Finnish president Sauli Niinistö very clearly stated that Finland would defend itself, responding to any aggressor. Finland has invested in its defence capacity and will continue to do so. But Finland is also offering the opportunity for mutually beneficial cooperation. When this mutually beneficial cooperation is working, why would Russia attack anybody.

When reading comments by our mainstream politicians, every day they are talking about war and armament. They say Estonia needs no narrative. One gets the impression that there remains just one narrative: a victorious was against Russia. But we do not have the option and this is very dangerous.

Should the war in Ukraine escalate and a NATO nation, Turkey, be added there, the war may also expand to the region over here. According to military experts, NATO conventional armament exceeds that of Russia tenfold. If that be true, nuclear arms will probably be applied.  

Then, it no longer maters if one nation is able to destroy the other ten times or just once. The result will be horrible. Therefore, for the sake of the future, for the sake of our children and of our wives, we must stop the threatening. Instead of the threatening, we should seek a political solution.

No way is Russia intending to attack the Baltics; meanwhile they are trying to prevent NATO getting overly close to their territory as they dem this to be dangerous and are willing to take extreme measures. I do not understand why Russia would hinder Ukraine joining the EU if Russia itself wants to works with Europe.

Furthermore, I do not believe that Ukraine's negotiations with the EU would turn out to be significantly shorter that those with Turkey. I do understand, however, when the Russians do not wish to se NATO bases next to Sevastopol or Kharkov.

-But the problem with Russia is that from the grand stands they say one thing and the actions are otherwise. And that’s the way the annexed Crimea. Even against Estonia a silent railway blockade has been enforced.

In political circles, promises are often broken. Was Russia promised lightly – or seriously – that NATO would not be expanding towards Russian borders ... but, anyway, the promise has not been kept. There were no problems as Eastern Europe and Baltics joined NATO.

The reaction came as, at Bucharest NATO summit, they begun to talk about admitting Ukraine and Georgia. That was the place where Kremlin said stop, war or not. And, in Ukraine, it came to war, didn’t it.

Mr Niinistö said that if Russians and Americans would solve that conflict, the conflict near here would solve itself.

-Must we conclude, from this, that we ourselves have nothing to do here, and we must quietly wait it out till the big powers solve the issue?

You are getting me absolutely wrong. Had we lived on according to this thinking at the end of 1980ies, we would indeed be some small Russian province right now. But then we were thinking that the destiny of our country was up to us.

The mainline politicians of Estonia today are behaving exactly like Karl Vaino in his day: with shaky voices, they read out to the nation the diktats from the centre. Instead of developing the state and the economy, a torch of war is what we are holding high instead. No, I don’t like this thing.

While serving as transport minister in the government of Edgar Savisaar, already when still under Estonian SSR we were preparing to take over ports, railway, aviation and communications; right after August 1991 we created Estonian Air, took over the shipping trade and railway, carried out the reforms as our narrative was to build up our own economy, execute monetary reform, and join the EU.  

But what do we have remaining of the national infrastructure enterprises by today: not a single cargo ship in the Estonian register. Mr Savisaar, who invited me to the Popular Front (Rahvarinne) and, as a torch bearer went forward for the reforms, is now persecuted, hunted and one-legged.

Our current goal ought to be preventing the threat of war, not poking the neighbour all the time. The defence spending needs to be increased but not talked about constantly. Seeing that Mr Niinistö and Mr Steinmeier are no fools. Sweden has said it is not about to join NATO and, at the moment, Finland is living in more peace without NATO that Estonia with NATO.

Let us recall that Estonia was occupied as the world was divided in Yalta, in 1945. Next to Stalin, Mr Churchill and Mr Roosevelt being present. To gain world peace, they paid with our deportations, lives and deaths. And now, then, there’s this hysteria that Russia is coming to get us.

Is the aim to have a war here and, again, pay t divide up the world with our blood and lives. I don’t agree with that. We must be able to avoid this war, or else advise that our children go live in some place more peaceful.

-Would that mean that Estonian politicians should speak up for removal of anti-Russia sanctions?

Estonian politicians should be for removal of the sanctions. But when EU members decide to continue the sanctions, our politicians should join the decision out of solidarity.  

-Remembering the earlier times, when Estonia has actively been seeking improvement of relations with Russia, it has not been too successful. Would it be otherwise now?

We must try to get it better. With sanctions removed, nothing will be changing just like that – this is no panacea. But it will be possible to act towards our interests.

In 2014, exports of Estonian goods into Russia was €1.2bn, and a year later it was €0.8bn.

I’m inclined to think that largely what dropped away was the export of agricultural products, which will show where the sanctions hit the heaviest. We must move back towards the basic principles of cooperation with Russia: economic cooperation, movement of capital, visa freedom.

-Has the unofficial Russian blockade been removed from the railway in Estonian direction?

I do not see any of the blocks removed – they all remain. Even this year, the railway and harbour volumes in Estonia are down by some twenty percent in five months. Nothing has improved. Surely, the truth also is that the economy has contracted and there is nothing to send.

At the St Petersburg economic forum, Mr Putin said that as the West removes the economic sanctions, Russia will remove its own immediately. At that, Russia’s decision hangs on the decision of one man and needs no lengthy preparations. In the EU, every member state has its say.

-Regarding your friends and business partners Andrei Katkov and Jevgeni Malov, shareholders in Port of Sillamäe: what are they doing in the Russian society to ease the tensions?

They do not fear the war, but they are against the war; they believe that this will not lead to war and are of the opinion that the hysteria of war is damaging to cooperation and quality of the lives of people.

-Your partners own the isle of Gogland (Suursaari), in Russian territorial waters. Sailing past the island would provide a significant boost to open a Kotka-Sillamäe ship line. Why doesn’t Russia grant permission for that?

They had a plot on the island, not all of it. To sail right past the island, we would need an agreement between the states. The agreement cannot be between businessmen, this has to be between foreign ministries. Had Estonia at least sat at the table as the Nord Stream project was being negotiated, I am absolutely certain we would have gotten the ship line. But as we said that we would not sit down to talk about the topic of interest to the Russians, why would they sit down to talk about what interests us.

Realising also that Nord Stream happened despite of our opinion, because the Germans won’t eat frozen fish in the winter but want to fry it. For that reason also, there will be Nord Stream 2.

-What is the Port of Sillamäe outlook to partake of construction work for Nord Stream 2?

Port of Sillamäe has made a proposal to Nord Stream builders to offer stevedore services. But we are rather sure we will not get the contract as they can do this via Ust-Luga or Kotka.

I did participate in the opening of stage one of Nord Stream with then speaker of Finnish parliament Mr Niinistö also present. I told Mr Niinistö that due to Estonia’s resistance, stevedore work went to Kotka not to Sillamäe. «Excellent!» said Mr Niinistö.