Estonia’s new Ambassador to Ukraine Gert Antsu is something of an expert on the politics of European integration. Prior to his summer 2016 arrival in Kyiv, the engaging Baltic diplomat had spent almost half his 18-year civil service career as part of Estonia’s diplomatic presence in Brussels – initially as deputy head of the Estonian mission to the EU itself, then for the last four years as Estonian Ambassador to Belgium. This experience has provided him with important insight into the challenges facing Ukraine as it seeks to draw closer to the EU while transforming itself from within. Ambassador Antsu sat down with Business Ukraine magazine at the stylish new Estonian Embassy building on Kyiv’s Pushkin Street to discuss post-Maidan reforms, EU unity, and Estonian support for Ukraine’s digital revolution.
A changing EU environment
Ukraine’s post-Maidan pivot towards the European Union is widely viewed as Europe’s most ambitious geopolitical project since the last great wave of EU enlargement, which culminated in the accession of 10 new member states in May 2004. Estonia was one of three former Soviet Republics among those 10 new EU members, making it theoretically well placed to offer informed advice to Ukrainian policy-makers looking to plot a course towards Brussels. Ambassador Antsu believes Estonia can play a supporting role in Ukraine’s integration process, but is wary of drawing direct parallels. Crucially, the Baltic nation did not have to address the geopolitical ambiguity Ukrainian society has wrestled with for much of the past two decades. “It is difficult to compare Ukraine’s current position with the Estonian experience,” he says. “Practically from Day One, it was always clear that Europe was our destination. For Estonia, regaining independence was first and foremost a means of returning to Europe.”
The Europe of today is also strikingly different from the EU of the mid-1990s when Estonia’s integration process began in earnest. As one of 10 nations working towards future membership, Estonia benefited from a sense of collective momentum that Ukraine does not enjoy. “All the candidate countries competed against each other,” Ambassador Antsu recalls. “There was always the danger that you might fall behind and end up relegated to a second wave of enlargement. This was an important tool. It played on the vanity of our politicians and helped maintain political support for reforms. Ukraine lacks this peer pressure and must effectively compete with itself.”
No EU membership roadmap
In another sign of the changing times, Ukraine also has make do without a specific end goal to drive its integration ambitions. While the nations of the 2004 enlargement wave were able to focus on the clearly signposted objective of European Union member status, Brussels has been extremely careful to avoid any reference to possible future Ukrainian membership. Ambassador Antsu cautions that too much focus on this absence of a membership perspective could be disastrous, leading to a depressed mood that could completely derail reform efforts. Instead, he says Ukraine should seek to pursue reforms for itself and not in order to meet Brussels expectations, and argues this approach may eventually prove decisive. “If Ukraine reforms and becomes a model of successful transition, it will actually become very difficult to keep it out of the EU.”
The Estonian Ambassador is moderately generous when it comes to assessing the progress Ukraine has made since the Revolution of Dignity. In response to increasingly vocal claims that nothing has actually changed in the country, he argues there have been more reforms since 2014 than in the entire preceding 23 years of Ukrainian independence. Nevertheless, he accepts that the pace could have been significantly faster. “Nobody said it was going to be easy, but concrete steps are being taken and specific deadlines are being met.”
Regardless of the frustrations over the speed and depth of the transformations taking place in post-Maidan Ukraine, it remains far from clear whether a more dynamic reform process would have had a decisive impact on the country’s European integration progress. Indeed, the timing of Ukraine’s big geopolitical gambit could hardly have been worse, with the EU currently struggling to address the twin ailments of enlargement fatigue and a rising tide of nationalist populism. Once you factor in the mood of anti-immigrant anxiety generated by the Syrian refugee crisis, you have a near perfect storm of EU opposition to greater engagement with Ukraine.
Then there is the entire issue of the Russian hybrid war in east Ukraine, which has sparked markedly different reactions across the 28-nation bloc. While the European Union has so far managed to maintain a united front in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, the process has been fraught with difficulties. Various individual EU nations have sought to safeguard their bilateral economic and political ties to the Kremlin by attacking sanctions, while business communities across the continent continue to lobby for a return to ‘business as usual’. Ambassador Antsu plays down these differences as the inevitable result of such a broad and geographically diverse union. “It’s natural to have a range of different attitudes within the EU,” he says. “From the Estonian point of view, events closer to the Mediterranean and the Middle East are more distant. For others the opposite is true.”
When it comes to the Russian threat, geography certainly does seem to play a major role in determining responses. Support for sanctions is generally stronger in frontline nations located close to Russia’s borders, despite the fact these countries have also suffered the greatest financial losses in the tit-for-tat sanctions confrontation with Moscow. “There are some things that are more important in the long-term than the immediate benefits of selling apples,” the ambassador quips. He says one of Estonia’s current tasks is to engage with EU partners and help highlight the dangers posed by a resurgent Russia. “It is objectively true to say we are more knowledgeable about Russia and the surrounding region. There used to be a perception (within the EU) that we were anti-Russian when we talked about certain threats. It is sad to see those threats materialize, but it has also increased the credibility of our warnings.”
Ambassador Antsu regards the existing sanctions as a major EU achievement, but acknowledges that the current response does not go as far as many of those closer to the conflict zone would have liked. “This crisis has been the biggest test yet for a common EU foreign policy. There have been intense debates but we have always managed to arrive at a common stance. Some, including Estonia, would have liked to see a stronger policy, but others wanted less. With 28 member states, that is only to be expected.”
The election of Donald Trump as the next US President has heightened regional security concerns, not least due to Trump’s ambiguous campaign trail comments regarding NATO and his team’s remarks describing Estonia as ‘a suburb of St. Petersburg’. “The US is a crucial partner for all NATO member states and an important partner for the EU,” the ambassador says. “We hope the US will continue to value the Trans-Atlantic partnership in the same manner as before. It is really important for the US to continue its contribution to European security even if we can agree that European partners will have to increase their own defence expenditures to meet NATO obligations.”
Estonia adapts to the new post-Crimea Russian realities
The Russian attack on Ukraine has forced the entire Baltic region to reassess its security policy, with Estonia’s Baltic neighbours dramatically boosting military spending while seeking a greater deterrent presence from NATO allies. Ambassador Antsu describes the Russian takeover of Crimea as an ‘incredible event’ that few could have previously imagined possible, and sees it as a watershed moment in modern European history. “On an emotional level, it was shocking,” he says. “Although most of us recognized that it was still extremely unlikely, people in Estonia inevitably began playing out scenarios in their heads and asking ‘could the same thing happen to us?’”
With Russian-speakers making up just over 25% of the Estonian population, the tiny Baltic state is also ostensibly vulnerable to the kind of hybrid destabilization tactics deployed by the Kremlin in Ukraine. Efforts to integrate this population have received a significant spur following events in Ukraine, but most observers believe local conditions are sufficiently different to deter the Kremlin. “The economic argument is a big factor,” says Ambassador Antsu. “If you could go back in time to before the conflict and invite Russian-speakers in Ukraine to migrate to Russia, many might have been tempted if there was a good job on offer. In Estonia, there are very few who would be willing to move. Economically speaking, they are better off than Russians living in Russia. Despite the propaganda, their political rights are also much better protected in Estonia than they would be in Russia.”
Estonian efforts to counter Moscow’s influence on the country’s Russian-speakers have included creating a Russian-language TV channel, but Ambassador Antsu recognizes the difficulties in trying to take on the vast Kremlin media empire with the limited resources at Estonia’s disposal. “It’s an impossible task. Russian state-run media does not have much in common with journalism as we perceive it in the West, but it has massive funding and very high production qualities, with the kind of pop culture shows that are attractive to modern audiences. It is hard for Estonians to create something on the same level. Russian TV produces programming for 100 million viewers. In our case, it is closer to 100,000 viewers. What we can do is offer an alternative. We can offer local content. And we can offer the truth.”
Aiding Ukraine’s e-revolution
In many ways, Ukraine is currently Estonia’s first line of defence. This strategic importance is underlined by the fact that Ukraine is the largest recipient of Estonian cooperation aid. “For much of my career Estonia was a recipient nation itself, so we are relative newcomers as a donor nation. It feels like we have grown up and matured,” says the ambassador. The sums involved are relatively underwhelming when compared to the vast amounts of international funding currently flowing to the Ukrainian government (Estonian aid to Ukraine totaled EUR 2.7 million in 2015), but it is nevertheless significant that Tallinn has chosen to prioritize support for Kyiv.
These aid efforts focus primarily on Estonia’s main strength – the country’s world-beating IT sector. Key initiatives include e-governance capacity building and introducing internet-based learning tools for Ukrainian schoolchildren. The objective is to help Ukraine make the most of its own IT potential and create a more digitally integrated economy. The ambassador acknowledges Ukraine has a long way to go before catching up with Estonia - where voting in elections has long been possible online - but he remains convinced the cost savings and transparency benefits of electronic innovation will quickly make themselves apparent.
Reforms and approval ratings
Attempts to make Ukraine more e-efficient are just part of a massive overhaul currently underway throughout the country. Resistance is coming from numerous quarters, with a deeply embedded old guard eager to prevent the proposed changes in Ukrainian society from disrupting their lucrative self-enrichment schemes. At the time of Ambassador Antsu’s interview with Business Ukraine magazine, the country was still reeling from the revelations contained in e-declarations outlining the vast personal wealth amassed by thousands of politicians and civil servants. These e-declarations illustrated both the e-governance opportunities open to Ukraine and the huge task of transforming a deeply corrupt system. Ambassador Antsu warns that a populist backlash could potentially derail the already slow-moving reform process and counsels political courage. Based on his own memories of the often deeply unpopular Estonian reform process during the 1990s, he says Ukraine’s leaders would be wise not to focus too much on falling approval ratings. “You have to take the longer perspective and not worry about short-term setbacks. It is a law of nature that ratings will drop significantly for any reformers. In a country waging war, there is no miracle recipe unfortunately. One has to keep the faith. There is no other way.”