Kaljulaid explained Russia approach in Austria

Evelyn Kaldoja
, välisuudiste toimetuse juhataja
Alexander Van der Bellen and Kersti Kaljulaid.
Alexander Van der Bellen and Kersti Kaljulaid. Photo: Mattias Tammet/Vpk

We talked about Russia directly and at length, President Kersti Kaljulaid said when commenting on her Austria visit.

The term “state visit” has a special significance. What does it add? It seems more ceremonial than a work visit.

And it is to some extent. On the other hand, both work and state visits emphasize business diplomacy. State visits merit more attention in the local media. Even though this has ceased to be a problem also in the case of work visits during the pandemic: these days, when visits are few and far between, it is lovely to see how much attention we are paid by larger countries.

The role of a state visit is to reaffirm that we have met – as they do not come around often – and remain dedicated to working together.

I have not attended any of your state visits, while I have attended earlier ones. A change seems to have taken place in terms of business delegations – they used to come across as excursions for the wealthy. Today, the participants are younger and the emphasis largely on information technology. Is it this particular visit or a broader shift?

It goes beyond IT. We had two business delegations for the Greece visit – traditional companies (ports and construction) and the IT sector separately. Simply to meet demand.

We described a perfect business delegation together with Enterprise Estonia (EAS) back in 2016. It is relatively compact and every member has particular business in the country.

Participants need to tell us what it is they are after. And I take the time to learn what they have in common. Here, these common denominators are smart transport and compatibility.

There is not always such a common marker, while we still look for ways to include these topics in press conferences and meetings with presidents and prime ministers, so they would make their way into memos, spread and offer our companies the chance to pursue cooperation.

We return to the companies about a year later and ask them whether there have been any developments. Hopefully, our efforts are something we can measure. But a lot of work is done to prepare entrepreneurs before visits.

I also try to find the time to talk to members of the delegation, usually before we arrive, to get an even better picture of what they’re after.

For example, materials did not reveal that Estonian scooter manufacturers want European countries that subsidize bicycles to also support people buying scooters. Things you cannot know before you talk to entrepreneurs on the eve of the visit.

This kind of business diplomacy is something of a secret weapon for us. It is especially effective in larger countries. They are used to heads of state being familiar only with major companies, while it is not uncommon for Estonians to know relatively small startups and how to tell their stories. It gives the latter a boost as they have told me during visits.

Other nice things have happened upon our return.

What could be an example of business diplomacy where you feel you managed to help?

I will not name the company, but there was this one time when we wanted to sell something to the Ukrainians, while they couldn’t afford it. It was not even a business delegation visit but rather an event where we were after good contacts with potential future German chancellors. We stumbled upon a nice German minister during the coffee break whom we told about our product and the Ukrainians who couldn’t afford it. The Germans found the necessary funds.

There are other examples when sales get made even before the business delegation has had time to make introductions. For example, the Samelin footwear factory once managed to sell a solid quantity of warm boots to a country where it never gets cold.

Once, we were in Latin America with an Estonian startup that has a global timber company for a partner. The latter’s people were very grateful that we had brought with us representatives of their Estonian partner that they had not had the chance to meet.

Just imagine – an Estonian startup and an old-school company getting things done without ever having met. It is an exciting world once you really start looking into these stories.

To what extent did you discuss Russia to which Austria seems to take a different view?

To a considerable extent, and we were quite direct about it. In some ways, their view is not all that different. We all feel that Russia is unpredictable. We have no disagreements there.

Perhaps they sport a somewhat different perception of how far that unpredictability goes and what could be its potential consequences. They also do not see Russia feeling that their window of opportunity is closing. As they grow less influential in economic terms, the clock is ticking for Russia to change the game in their interests.

We are always asked: “But why are they doing this?” We have perhaps realized more clearly that Russia sees the world as one sphere of influence expanding at the expense of the others.

This was demonstrated once more during the Belarusian protests that Russia rushed to diagnose as the EU trying to expand its influence. This shows that they still do not believe what was agreed in Helsinki, that every nation has the right to choose. They do not really believe that, despite the Soviet Union having signed the Helsinki Accords. And they believe we also think that way.

That is usually at the heart of relevant discussions.

To what extent have events in Belarus shaken the Austrians?

Greatly. But they seem to have more faith than us in that Belarus can handle it independently. They believe it might come as a massive surprise for Russia.

Knowing the close ties between Russian and Belarusian armies and secret services, while we do not yet know whether there was knowledge or involvement, we perhaps perceive it as more of a single system than other European countries.

What signals did the Austrians try to send?

Their main concern is good old Russian stratcom according to which the Baltics take special joy in Russia being what it is and have succeeded in making their friends also see Russia as the enemy – because we perceive Russia as an unfriendly state.

That is not true. We need to constantly stress that the fact Russia has not become a democratic European country is the greatest disappointment for us.

But I can honestly say that I never saw Russia moving in any other direction than the current one back when it all began with Boris Yeltsin. What reason was there? That is the angle they find surprising. Next, you need to explain that we are the most concerned and also stand to lose the most in economic terms. The huge market to the east just isn’t trustworthy and you cannot make long-term plans there.

I’m sure you have brought yourself up to speed with Austrian topics both before and during the visit. In what could Estonia emulate Austria?

Their climate turn plans are more clearly phrased and outlined. The clearer the roadmap, the bolder private investments become because business realizes its investments have a good chance of success – there is no danger of last-minute change of heart or amendments.

That is where we still have a lot to learn. Their signals regarding the green turn are very clear. Austria should be climate neutral by 2040 that serves as a noble example.

Which visits and meetings being canceled by the coronavirus crisis do you regret the most?

A lot has been done over video conference. It has simply merited less attention.

Perhaps I hoped we could do more on the East Asia heading – for example, South Korea as a manageable market and a digital partner who takes an interest in Estonia. But perhaps there is still time to do something there this summer.

To support our companies moving beyond European markets. I’m afraid that every canceled visit is a missed service export opportunity.

Emotionally, I’m saddened by the UN General Assembly being canceled. It is a powerful podium from which to address the world, and we do not know what will happen come autumn.