Estonian President’s U.S. Visit Reflects A Special Relationship

U.S. President George W. Bush received Estonian President Toomas Ilves for a two-hour meeting at the White House on June 25, a high point of Ilves’ June 24-27 visit to the United States.

Bush had paid a visit to Estonia as recently as November 2006, two months after Ilves’ election as president of that country. Exchanges of presidential visits at such short intervals are highly unusual for the United States, particularly when involving a small — even if, as in this case, closely allied — country.

One reason behind this relationship is Ilves’ authority in Europe and the United States on policy issues involving Euro-Atlantic relations, NATO, the EU and its eastern neighborhood, and relations with Russia. “I am dealing with a man who is a clear thinker, he speaks with moral clarity and authority, a voice for reason and hope in the world,” Bush told the press in receiving Ilves (RSS Feed White House, June 25). The two presidents had shared the spotlight as keynote speakers at an international conference in Prague the preceding month.

Bush had issued the invitation to Ilves in early May, as a demonstration of support in the immediate aftermath of Moscow-instigated street riots in Estonia and the Russian cyber attacks on that country’s information systems. Defense against this novel form of warfare figured prominently on the visit’s agenda.  Bush endorsed Estonia’s proposal for establishing a NATO cyber security research center (Center of Excellence for cyber defense) in Tallinn with U.S. participation. As a leading European country in terms of Internet usage under its national Tiger Leap program, Estonia now proposes capitalizing on that advance for a NATO-wide, U.S.-led Tiger Security program of cyber defense. NATO discussed this issue at its June 24 meeting of defense ministers.

In his public remarks, Ilves alluded to proposals he made to Bush for rethinking the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation in Afghanistan. Criticizing a one-sided emphasis on military aspects to the detriment of civilian dimensions, Ilves called for the adoption of an overall political strategy to win over Afghanistan’s and also Iraq’s populations. At the same time he reaffirmed Estonia’s commitment to the operation in Afghanistan (as do Latvia and Lithuania) in terms of mutual assistance obligations and indivisibility of security among NATO allies.

On the eve of the visit (June 23), two Estonian soldiers were killed and four wounded in ISAF’s ongoing operation in the Sangin valley, Helmand province. Such events resonate painfully for a small nation that suffered demographic reverses during the Russian occupation. Estonia has participated in the ISAF operation since March 2003. It currently fields almost 150 troops in Afghanistan, authorized by the parliament in December 2005 for a two-year period. The troops include an ordnance disposal team (ordnance disposal being an Estonian niche capability within NATO), an infantry company, and logistic support and staff elements. Most Estonian troops operate with a British Task Force in southern Afghanistan.

In meetings with Bush and Vice-President Richard Cheney at the White House and Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon, Ilves called for continuing assistance to bring the Georgian and Ukrainian armed forces into line with NATO standards. If positive developments continue in Georgia, Estonia will support the adoption of a NATO Membership Action Plan for Georgia (along with Western Balkan countries) at the alliance’s 2008 Bucharest summit. The Baltic states, he noted, support reforms in the countries of Europe’s East and anchoring these to the free world as a continuation of the process that saw the Baltic states join Euro-Atlantic institutions in recent years.

On related strategic issues, Ilves called for coordination in U.S. and EU policies on energy supplies (a matter on which Washington and Brussels seem to be overtaken by events) and for speaking in a common voice to a Russia that “incomprehensibly fears democracy and democratic neighbors.” Ilves authored last year (shortly before becoming president) the observation that Russia feels uncomfortable and insecure with democratic neighboring countries, but comfortable and secure with undemocratic neighbors — an adage widely echoed since then. Its repetition (like that of some other Ilves comments) without crediting the author is a sign of the generalization and internalization of such views.

Bush did credit Ilves for “pushing me very hard on visas” — that is, enabling citizens of allied countries in Central and Eastern Europe to travel visa-free to the United States. The visa ordeal is particularly vexing to the new member countries of NATO. “Our people don’t understand why is it that those countries that have been the strongest supporters of the United States find it often the most difficult to visit,” Ilves told the press with Bush at his side (RSS Feed White House, June 25). Bush acknowledged that U.S. policy is inconsistent on this issue while the legislation to extend the visa-waiver program to these new countries is bogged down in Congress. The issue came up repeatedly in Ilves’ meetings with Congressional leaders as well.

Eurasia Daily Monitor

(BNS, June 25-27; USINFO White House, June 25; see EDM, April 27, May 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 11)

–Vladimir Socor.

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