Experts increasingly impatient with invisible foreign minister

Meinhard Pulk
, ajakirjanik
Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets. Photo: Gert Tali

The decision to bring political newcomers Kristian Jaani and Eva-Maria Liimets to the government came across as a refreshing surprise in January. Warnings of what will happen when career officials are turned into politicians have now manifested at least in the case of Minister of Foreign Affairs Liimets.

The core of criticism is simple: Liimets, as the first Center Party foreign minister since Estonia regained its independence, has kept too low of a profile and rather concentrated on second-rate matters. She is said to lack the courage to make clear and unambiguous statements that has led to her reactions remaining noncommittal, cautious and vague.

Despite attempts to parry criticism by claiming that foreign policy is not pursued through press releases or that Estonia remains very active in the UN Security Council, Liimets is said to show no initiative and limit herself to reciting vague talking points also during closed doors meetings.

No major slip-ups

The good news, as put by Eiki Berg, University of Tartu professor of theoretical international relations, is that Liimets has managed to avoid major blunders.

“We can recall somewhat more active foreign policy from earlier periods – for example, the term of Liimets’ predecessor Urmas Reinsalu – during which questions appeared in terms of Estonia’s heading – whether the country is walking back its former position where retaining the global status quo is in our interests. Whether we have decided we don’t care if it gets torn down,” Berg said.

Both Berg and former Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand (SDE) suggested that Liimets’ vague disposition is also what has spared her from making major mistakes. “But the foreign minister cannot hide behind vagueness. Estonia having a weak foreign minister means the role will be fulfilled by others,” Kaljurand emphasized. She remarked that while Liimets has managed to avoid major slip-ups, she has nevertheless made statements best avoided. “Starting with praising the Taliban, while we saw them gun down a pregnant woman on TV just a little while later.” Her decision for Estonia to remain part of the Chinese 16+1 format, unlike Lithuania, has drawn flak. Estonia was also the last EU member state to drop air links with Minsk this spring.

Kaljurand also speculated that asking people who is currently Estonia’s foreign minister would see half of respondents suggest it is [head of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee] Marko Mihkelson or Urmas Reinsalu as both are more memorable through their personality and statements.

Overshadowed by Baltic neighbors

It is further bad news that Estonia, despite being a member of the UN Security Council, has been overshadowed by its Baltic neighbors in international media coverage.

“We have proceeded based on these being topics that do not concern us but our neighbors,” Berg said of excess caution on the regional level, pointing to the situation on the border between Lithuania and Belarus.

Criticism of Lithuanian foreign policy by Marko Mihkelson was echoed by the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) analyst Kadri Liik who said Lithuania should perhaps not be set as an example. “I would recommend taking a look at how much of Lithuania’s behavior is mere symbolism and how much of it is carefully considered policymaking. If we wanted to affect the situation in Russia or Belarus, it should be done differently,” Liik found. “A human chain from Vilnius to the border of Lithuania – yes, it was noticed. But what did it change in Russia or Belarus? I think nothing at all.”

Liimets’ style is in clear contrast to Reinsalu’s, with the former sticking to her administrative area, while the latter frequently meddled in legal and social affairs.

“Two very different people,” Mihkelson said. “A lot depends on the person, how visible, approachable and credible they are. Every person chooses how to do these things. Liimets is a professional career diplomat who has gone into politics. And it shows in her conduct.”

Karin Laup Lapõnin, former diplomat, executive manager of Eesti 200, said that Liimets is pursuing the same balanced, dry and traditional foreign policy favored by foreign ministers before Reinsalu, mostly from the Reform Party.

She said that while Estonia lacks an active foreign policy to allow it to jump over its small shadow, Reinsalu’s corresponding efforts were not half bad. However, said efforts remained somewhat chaotic and uncoordinated. Because he was not a foreign policy expert before becoming minister, he did not know the background of quite a few things that caused him to shoot from the hip, Lapõnin suggested.

Criticism according to which Estonia lacks an understanding of our role, goal and calling in foreign policy permeates the entire political spectrum, running from Eesti 200 to the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE). “We have adopted the role of a back marker. It is lack of a principled narrative, how we justify our existence on this tiny patch of land in Eastern Europe, what are our actual interests toward which we make diplomatic efforts,” MEP Jaak Madison (EKRE) said.

Madison describes Liimets as a convenience minister. Government circles hope Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) can compensate for Liimets’ shortcomings. Madison recalled an interview Kallas gave to BBC a few weeks ago. “Most people in the UK listened to the interview that made one want to hold one’s head and scream for help. If a journalist asks the premiere of a country how they plan to develop national defense and security considering the nearness of Russia and the only thing they are told is NATO Article Five, it is hardly reassuring in terms of [Kallas’] ability to represent Estonia on the highest international level and run the government in crisis situations.”

Existential questions concerning the future of Estonian foreign policy might also have been sparked by Alar Karis being elected the country’s next president. Foreign policy background was considered an important quality for the next head of state who is to follow Lennart Meri, Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Kersti Kaljulaid. Karis does not have direct foreign policy experience. That said, experts Postimees talked to believe that having headed several universities, met with diplomats and traveled for research, Karis should be able to perform as president.