We will not be tribute to win a strategy game

Joosep Värk
, reporter
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Photo: Eero Vabamägi

Wednesday witnessed the assumption of office of Estonia's new coalition government the first task of which was to explain to the world that Estonia has not fallen to pro-Kremlin forces the very same day. Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser (Social Democrat Party) says that while President Putin might try and test the red line in the Baltic region, the provocation can be prevented in allied cooperation.

Last time I interviewed you as the social democrats' prime ministerial candidate prior to the 2015 Riigikogu elections. You did not become prime minister, while Jevgeni Ossinovski has since then taken control of the party as chairman. It is said that the party is split into Ossinovski's camp and yours. Is that true?

No; even if there were camps, those things have long since been overcome. There is talk of opposing camps in all parties; however, the social democrats have no split personality issues.

There is no bitterness left in you from that period?

Politics needs to be viewed from a distance. People almost never end up holding office exclusively because they are objectively the best choice for the position; it is a matter of agreement. Similarly you cannot look at being forced to leave as personal injustice or betrayal. I try to rise above, while hurt feelings are only human.

You are one of the few Estonian politicians who can come on Kuku radio's “Välismääraja” program and spend a long time talking about Nasser's Egypt for instance; a testament to your deep interest in foreign policy. Is the foreign portfolio a dream come true for you?

It is definitely one of the positions I had considered before coming to this building. I have dealt with foreign and defense policy in my 17-18 years in politics and have corresponding interests.

There are a lot of capable administrators in politics; people who can be sent to the interior ministry one day and the social ministry the next. I believe that foreign and security policy are fields where interest and passion are, if not impossible, then at least extremely difficult to fake. In that sense I am a somewhat less mobile government asset.

Speaking of administrators, how important is it to have a foreign policy expert, not someone merely versed in how to act and talk like a minister, in that position?

Both are important qualities. I in no way want to underestimate administrative capacity. It is a valuable quality. More valuable of the two even – in some ministries that have a very big administrative area outside of the building. For example the interior and social ministries. I have immense respect for people who can handle these colossal systems.

Foreign policy is somewhat different. While we have foreign representations, they are an extension of the building. We do not have a sprawling administrative area that functions as an influential lobby group one needs to please before elections.

There are a lot of rules to diplomacy. How familiar are you with diplomatic protocol?

I've been the chairman of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee for four years. I've been in close contact with international parliamentary cooperation. I've served as vice president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, special rapporteur etc. It is definitely not new to me. I think that as far as Estonian politicians go, I'm quite well versed in how foreign policy and diplomacy work. That said, I'm sure I have a lot to learn from active diplomats.

It is said that more important decisions are made out of sight. Are you a strong behind-the-scenes diplomat?

I think that it is the case equally in the parliament, business, and diplomacy that once you step in front of the cameras to shake hands and sign papers the real work has already been done. People wonder at how the floor is empty and delegates only show up to vote in the Riigikogu; however, the debate takes place elsewhere. It is the same with diplomacy. A lot of things are solved before they reach the top floor or appear in front of cameras.

The prime minister has taken a more active role in international communication in recent years. Is it the effect of the office, or is it to some extent up to the person?

The prime minister of a country like Estonia needs to be active in foreign communication. The PM cannot remove themselves from foreign policy. It is perhaps possible in a situation, we had for a time, where the same party holds both the prime minister's and the foreign portfolio. Neither the foreign nor the defense minister can nor should keep to the background in Estonia.

If the prime minister is interested in a given field and wants corresponding exposure, it is within their rights. If they want to step between the relevant minister and the cameras at an event hosting all the government's members, it is their prerogative that cannot be held against them.

I would encourage Prime Minister Jüri Ratas to be active and forceful in foreign communication. It is very good Taavi Rõivas was active in foreign policy.

If there was anything that kept the previous government from making decisions, it definitely wasn't the PM's frequent absence. Having an active PM in terms of foreign relations is a very good and necessary thing for Estonia.

The European Union. One area in which I perceive the danger that people will be disappointed and find it is too complicated is the sheer number of decision-making levels. Decisions are needed from the parliament, commission, council, and it could still all collapse because of tiny Wallonia. Could the EU be simpler?

The EU is definitely complex. We are talking about a completely unique international organization of half a billion people that consists of several dozen nation states with their own sovereignty, interests etc. While hope that such an organization can be simple, able to be summed up in just a couple of sentences, and universally legible for everyone is understandable, human, it is unfortunately also misguided. It creates certain cataclysms, alienation that can be taken advantage of politically. It becomes possible to blame the EU for something that isn't its fault.

Social media thrives in the global information society. People's attention span is becoming shorter, the ability and opportunity to delve deep rarer. This surely includes a conflict, which we have seen manifest in recent elections.

In other words, failure to understand matters leads people to demand simpler matters instead of wisdom. How to combat the fact that mankind can be fooled by promises of simple solutions at elections?

It cannot be avoided entirely. We face the fact that the media landscape has changed. One US news outlet suggested “post-truth” as the keyword with which to describe the year 2016. Many politicians have gone after the mainstream media in several recent elections. What is mainstream media? It is traditional media that tells facts and comments apart, that checks its sources, their truthfulness. Non-mainstream media largely operates with hearsay and conspiracy theories.

There is a veritable plethora of media channels, and every one of them can cite or share something. Video broadcast media has replaced news with infotainment; comments on the economic situation can come from the central bank president and a clairvoyant in the same segment. A person stepping out of the kitchen and into the living room with a sandwich might not even be able to tell the difference. That kind of a situation surely affords populists their chance.

Mainstream politics has yet to realize we are living in a new era. Fringe forces have been quicker in recognizing their opportunity than their mainstream counterparts. The latter will catch up and adjust to the new situation eventually, while I'm afraid it hasn't yet.

The morning of Midsummer Day was a terrible one for me this year. I was hit by dread and anxiety as I did not believe Brexit would happen. I experienced the same emotions a few weeks ago, after the US presidential election. How likely that the effect of these events is being overestimated?

While both change the playing field considerably, change will be lesser than what the morning after emotion heralded. The initial shock was surely an exaggeration, while the Brits are adjusting their growth forecast down because of Brexit.

However, both the US presidential campaign and the new administration's numerous new headings will definitely have an effect. That effect will be long-term, but definitely not dramatic. While it does not constitute a new world order, saying that we voted for things to continue as they have would similarly be self-delusion.

It is said that the current century really began on September 11, 2001. Does the year 2016 signal the start of a new era?

The media loves great cataclysms that remake the world. The morning after rhetoric is that the world will not be the same.

Taking a step back, you see that there is a prelude to everything. No real world story begins on page one. September 11, 2001 was preceded by the shaping of a terrorist network that had its own story and intermediate stops. It was preceded by Afghanistan's war against Soviet invasion in which a lot of foreign powers severely miscalculated potential future events. The roots of that network were born there.

Looking back, all these events are links in a chain and none of them are as earth-shattering as they were made out to be by CNN at the time.

I in no way want to underestimate the recent work of Estonian foreign missions; however, can we say their work will now become as important as it was 12 or 15 years ago?

I believe that the role of the foreign service has never been reduced. The rhetoric that we need new goals and vision after securing EU and NATO membership because we have nothing to do belongs to the politicians and the media. The people who have pursued this work from one day to the next have never lost their vision.

Estonia's major victories happened as a result of superhuman efforts, while every victory opened a window of opportunity in which we had to achieve even more in an even shorter time to secure what we had gained. There has been no idle period for people involved in foreign or security policy.

One current unpleasantness Estonia cannot ignore is the war in Ukraine. It has raged for nigh on three years; is there no solution in sight?

I have no doubt that justice will prevail in the world. However, it may take a long time, a frustratingly long time.

Talking about the annexation of Crimea, we hear every now and then how the conflict is perpetual, why are we still talking about non-recognition. Allow me to recall that Estonia remained occupied far longer. A big part of the free world remained steadfast in its non-recognition policy and supported our efforts even when they seemed hopeless. Now we have been independent again for a quarter of a century. Saying that Crimea is irrecoverably lost after just three years is in no way sensible or responsible.

The united front of the EU, USA, and Canada has taken Putin by surprise. It has managed to avoid further escalation. The Kremlin's initial ambitions definitely went beyond what they have achieved so far. This unity has also sent the signal that it would be unwise to take such aggressive and provocative steps elsewhere.

It is said that God is slow but just. One needs patience in foreign policy and diplomacy.

You believe Europe has managed to surprise Putin by standing united?

I believe that Putin has managed to surprise Europe several times. He acted very quickly and decisively when he invaded Crimea, and the world's reaction was not strong enough at the time. He knows that he has one major advantage over the Euro-Atlantic coalition: he can make decisions alone and have them executed immediately. This provides him with a time advantage. He also knows that the democratic world is infinitely stronger and more powerful than he is. Morally and materially superior.

He made several miscalculations during that operation. He believed Ukraine would be less united and capable of mobilization.

He surely also believed the international community to be weaker and more indeterminate. The fact that these calculations proved misguided is on the one hand very good, but it is also a sign of danger as it proves Putin is capable of miscalculation. We definitely do not want him to miscalculate in our region.

We remain confident in our allies in that we will not be gifted away in some geostrategic game. It is important not only that we know this, but that Putin knows it.

We saw attempts by Russia to affect the US presidential election result using cyber attacks and relatively amateurish information operations. I currently do not think that Russia was very successful in influencing the end result. However, having them think they were is bad enough. Because then they will surely try a repeat performance at upcoming elections in Europe.

It is said that the transition of the US administration will be a confusing period. Should we be afraid of potential attempts by Putin to try something in our region during this time?

He's always doing something in our region. He might be tempted to test the new administration. To seize the day when the old administration is already out but the new one is not yet in. However, it can be prevented.

The clearer our collective messages, the fewer his attempts to try the line in the sand. The quicker the new administration takes office, the less likely these kinds of venture become.

What kind of attempts for example?

I would not like to speculate. He has been quite inventive. On the other hand, the international community will not step on the same rake twice. The steps might not resemble previous ventures. I do not think that Putin starts every day with the thought of conquering Estonia. Definitely not.

What worries us is that Putin knows the Baltic region is the one place in NATO where he has the upper hand. If generally he is incomparably weaker than NATO, he does enjoy a certain military-territorial advantage on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Facing NATO interests elsewhere in the world, it's easy to imagine he would like to counterbalance it here. That is something for which we have to be prepared.

This situation is manageable through strong deterrence that involves a political component, as well as a tangible component in allied units.