Estonia joined the Euro during the crisis because it realized that this is the only way to meet the Maastricht criteria on inflation. Lithuanians should also join the Euro because the Estonian economy is benefiting from it, Toomas Kukk, His Excellency Estonian Ambassador to Lithuania said to the Lithuania Tribune. Estonia is also concerned about the emigration of the Estonians, even though the geographical proximity to Finland cushions it to some extent. Ambassador Kukk noted that Estonia is implementing a programme “Bring Talent Home” which helps not only to invite the emigrants back to Estonia but also promotes in the Estonian’s society the discussion about the problems of those who would like to return. Also read about Estonia’s community in Lithuania and with what Lithuania is associated to Estonians. The interview was conducted on 12 October. You can also read the first part of the interview.
Interviewer: How is the Rail Baltica project going from the Estonian side? Are you satisfied with the progress, with other projects which taken place in Estonia, and with the advancement of this project in Latvia and Lithuania?
Ambassador Kukk: Well, Estonia puts great importance on this project because it would literally open another path to Europe for us. It would be our first railway line with European gauge (1435mm). At the moment we see a good opportunity for implementing this project. EU member countries are now conducting negotiations concerning EU´s next multi-annual financial framework and one issue in those negotiations is also the new investment instrument called Connecting Europe Facility. From there, when it’s agreed, we hope to receive the funds to build Rail Baltic. Of course, once this Rail Baltic becomes functional, this will firstly be a very good opportunity for the Baltic countries to transport our passengers and our goods to the rest of Europe. It would also create another important transport channel for countries like Finland to transport their goods to Central Europe, and for countries from Central and Southern Europe to transport to our countries and to Finland. So I think the interest in Rail Baltic project is certainly broader than that of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. With respect to our three countries, I would say that I see great interest in and commitment to implementing this. From the Estonian perspective we are undertaking intensive preparations to work on the Rail Baltic project.
I: Estonia is the last country that joined the Eurozone, and some in Estonia equate this to Estonia boarding the Titanic. So is Estonia happy to board the Titanic? Do you have a lifeboat already, or do you deem such safeguards unnecessary?
A: Well, what we saw during the economic crisis and what we saw in all the three Baltic countries was that during the economic crisis foreign investors lost their confidence in our national currencies; they lost their confidence in the Estonian kroon, in the Latvian lats, in the Lithuanian litas. It was very hard, regardless of our actual economic situation, government’s finances etc., to convince investors that nothing bad would actually happen here in the Baltic countries and that our currencies would not be devaluated. So we regarded joining the Eurozone as a way out of this. Since being accepted to the Eurozone we have seen a number of positive changes. Firstly, as soon as it became clear that we were indeed going to join the Eurozone, all of the talk about a possible devaluation of the Estonian kroon ceased. I believe we also saw a kind of positive domino effect with Latvia and Lithuania in this regard – investors were not so pessimistic anymore also about the economic situation in Latvia and Lithuania. This once again proves the fact that in such a circumstances we are still considered as the one Baltic region. Secondly however, the other positive effect on Estonia has been that after joining the Eurozone we have seen quite a significant increase in our foreign investments; also, now for Estonia as a member of the Eurozone, the loans´ interest rates are lower both for our individuals and for our businesses. And last but not least, when one looks at the changes from the perspective of an individual, it’s much easier now for Estonians to travel to other Eurozone countries. There is simply no need to change money any more, which of course also means that for people from other Eurozone countries it’s much easier to travel to Estonia – and in recent years we have witnessed quite a big growth in a number of tourists visiting Estonia. So in short, we are satisfied by having joined the Eurozone and are not worried about nor expecting the collapse of the Eurozone.
I: In one of the panel discussions at the Riga Conference almost one month ago, your President Mr Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted that those EU countries on the Euro periphery who are not members of the Eurozone are going to suffer the most if the Euro experiences further and deeper trouble. However, even the optimism of the Lithuanian political establishment about joining the Eurozone by 2014 has been waning. They are beginning to state that indeed, Lithuania should satisfy the Maastricht criteria by 2014, but that we will have to wait and see. They are no longer so enthusiastic about joining the Eurozone. What would you say to these kinds of politicians?
A: Like for Estonia, the same goes also for all European countries that recently joined the European Union – the accession to the Eurozone is one of the commitments all our countries undertook when we joined the European Union [in 2004]. So the question to all of these countries is not if they are going to join the Eurozone, but when. However in order to answer this question it must be said that every country must of course establish for itself the best time to join the Eurozone. From the Estonian perspective, we found that the best time for us to join the Eurozone was during the economic crisis, and precisely because of the fact that our biggest difficulty in fulfilling the Maastricht criteria was the fulfilment of the inflation criteria. We ultimately realised that the only time we would be able to fulfil the Maastricht criteria would be during the economic crisis because it would only be at this time when inflation levels would be low enough. This is exactly what happened during the economic crisis – our inflation levels were indeed low, and because of this we fulfilled the Maastricht criteria and were able to join the Eurozone by 1 January 2011.
I: Now moving to a slightly different topic. How big is the Estonian community in Lithuania? Do you have any statistics on this?
A: The Estonian community here is not very big. We are only talking about 100 Estonian people here in Lithuania. A would like to add to our previous discussion about the economic relationship between our 2 countries, that the Estonian community here in Lithuania could be somewhat bigger than thought. This is of course due to Estonia’s geographical proximity, so it could well be that a significant number of Estonian businessmen and others are simply commuting between Estonia and Lithuania [and are therefore not registered as residents]. They do their business here in Lithuania and go home to Estonia for the weekends. So when we talk about Estonians living permanently here in Lithuania, like I said that figure is approximately 100. However, the actual number of Estonians who are staying here in Lithuania for various reasons is, I believe, significantly higher than this number of 100.
I: Lithuania is experiencing problems with emigration. There are some estimates which say that almost half a million Lithuanians have left the country since it declared independence in 1990. I understand that this is a slightly different case in Estonia, in that you have less people who have permanently left Estonia than Lithuanians have left Lithuania. How big a role do you believe the so-called “Finnish factor” plays in such statistics? As I understand it quite a few Estonians are working in Finland, and the latest estimates put that figure at 30,000. What role do you believe the Finnish factor plays in this phenomenon?
A: The emigration of our people is certainly a common challenge for Estonia and Lithuania, and it is also a problem for many countries in Central and Eastern Europe due to our similar economic situations, not to mention our similar pasts. You mentioned the role of Finland in relation to this phenomenon and yes, perhaps we are in a luckier situation because of this. Again, as a result of geographical proximity, there is quite a large number of Estonians who are going to Finland for the working week, only to return home to Estonia on weekends. Their families are in Estonia, they are bringing their money back to Estonia, and they regard themselves as residents of Estonia. At the beginning of this year, we conducted a national census. According to the results of the census, which was somewhat expected but nevertheless not regarded as positive news, our population has decreased by 5.5 percent over the last 12 years. Partly this is because of emigration, because quite a number of Estonians have left to work and live in other countries. In Estonia at the moment there is a lively debate about what we could and should do about it. For example – two years ago in Estonia the programme “Bring Talent Home” was initiated. The idea of this programme was to bring together Estonian entrepreneurs and Estonian young people who have been going abroad for studies or for work; to support those young people, who want to return to Estonia in order to continue their studies or work there. When we elaborated this programme and discussed it in public, then we realized also some very simple, very practical, yet very fundamental things. We asked from ourselves the questions like: do we have school or kindergarten places for their children? Is there a place in our society for the spouses of our citizens who are of a different nationality etc? And last but not least, we also realized that the general attitude of our society should be more positive and open towards those who want to return to our country. That Estonians from everywhere should indeed be very welcomed to return home. I think in this regard the same also goes for Lithuania and other countries with similar challenges.
I: Do you have dual nationality in Estonia?
A: Our laws only allow for possession of one citizenship.
I: Do you think that the introduction of dual nationality would help in keeping Estonians abroad tied to Estonia, will do you think it would not serve this purpose because in Lithuania there is also a debate about the issue of dual nationality. It has been said that indeed, if we were to introduce dual nationality that it would keep our emigrants closer to Lithuania. What is your opinion on this matter?
A: This is the part of debate we are currently having in Estonia too, and of course at the end of the day it will be a political decision as to whether and how we want to change our laws regarding citizenship.
I: Okay, I’m asking all ambassadors I meet this last question. Although you have only been here a short time, it’s fair to say you know something about Lithuania anyway from living in Estonia, or working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia. Could you please tell me in one word or phrase what comes to your mind when you hear the word Lithuania?
A: Well, from Estonia’s perspective, one of the first things that come to mind is the word basketball. Lithuania is, I believe, world-famous because of your great basketball players. Another famous name everyone in Estonia knows is [Lithuanian discus thrower] Virgilijus Alekna. Whenever we are crossing our fingers for [Estonian discus thrower] Gerd Kanter, we also see Virgilijus Alekna. But otherwise, as Lithuania is very close to Estonia there are many things which first come to an Estonians mind – via Baltica, the Baltic chain, and Trakai Castle to name just a few.