Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 93

Estonian President Toomas Ilves

At the height of Russian bullying of Estonia, the country’s President Toomas Ilves flew to Georgia to tell that country — which also borders on a hostile Russia — that “Georgia is not alone.” Ilves’ decision to proceed with the previously scheduled, three-day official visit despite the Russia-orchestrated crisis demonstrated, first, confidence in the capacity of Estonia’s government and society to cope with the situation effectively; and, second, the futility of Russia’s intimidation tactics, notwithstanding which Ilves resoundingly endorsed Georgia’s goals to join NATO and the European Union.

The May 7-10 visit was Ilves’ second in eight months as president — a reflection of Estonia’s and the other Baltic states’ policy priority to support the anchoring of the Black Sea region to the institutional West. The Estonian former prime minister Mart Laar, architect of that country’s free-market reforms, has in the last two years served as economic adviser to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. A delegation of some 40 Estonian businessmen accompanied Ilves on this visit for an Estonia-Georgia investment forum.

In the meetings with Saakashvili and other Georgian leaders, Ilves endorsed Georgia’s goal to obtain a NATO Membership Action Plan soon, based on Georgia’s successful performance on military reforms.

The discussions focused, however, on Estonia’s experience of economic transition and ultimate accession to the EU — a process in which Georgia now finds itself at a stage comparable with that of the Baltic states in the early 1990s. Estonians are, for example, advising Georgians on introducing a system of standards and certification for their goods to correspond to EU requirements and qualify for export to Western markets.

The analogy extends to trade with Russia. The latter practically closed its market to Estonian products during the 1990s as a punitive measure (through the discriminatory doubling of customs duties), as it did in 2006 with regard to Georgia (through transport blockade and “sanitary” measures). Georgia’s response, following Estonia’s example of the previous decade, is to accelerate the reorientation of exports toward markets other than Russia’s. Georgia has adopted Estonia’s view that the closure of the Russian market worked as a blessing in disguise, spurring competitiveness and modernization in the target country. With the reorientation of trade, Russia loses some of its leverage — a point illustrated albeit in reverse by the Moldova, which has failed to diversify exports and remains vulnerable to Russian political leverage through the commercial embargo.

Addressing faculty and students at Tbilisi State University, Ilves noted the parallels in Estonia’s and Georgia’s histories as “nations subjugated militarily by the same empire,” experiencing national awakening at the same time, state independence in 1918, and Soviet Russia’s wars of aggression, which wiped Georgia off the map in 1921, then Estonia in 1940, followed by half a century of occupation. The parallelism continues in a shared freedom that Russia regards as a threat to itself: “As small nations without the benefits of oil or gas, we have managed something that our mutual neighbor has not: We have freedom, free speech and press, free and fair elections …. Democracy on Russia’s borders is perceived as a threat while a lack of democracy is perceived as stability. Our success is a counter-example to the ideology of ‘managed’ democracy. And as long as we thrive, we will be regarded as a threat.”

In other remarks during the visit, Ilves urged stronger involvement by the EU in efforts to settle the unresolved conflicts. He called for new approaches and innovative thinking to change “the existing format of ‘peacekeeping,’ which has failed for almost 15 years.”

During Ilves’ visit, the Georgian parliament adopted a declaration of support to Estonia in connection with the recent riots by Russian rowdies in Tallinn and threats from Moscow, following the relocation of the Red Army monument from Estonia’s capital. The declaration asserts that relocating the monument is Estonia’s sovereign right, and it was exercised in dignified conditions; it condemns the “disorders and hooliganism” in Tallinn as well as the officially encouraged siege to the Estonian embassy in Moscow, fully supports the Estonian authorities’ handling of the situation, and defends every nation’s right to decide how to treat events in its own history.

(BNS, Civil Georgia, The Messenger, Rustavi-2 Television, May 7-10)