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Estonia’s president plays down criticism over Putin meeting, Guardian

Estonia’s president plays down criticism over Putin meeting, Guardian © Guardian

15.05.2019

Estonia’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid, has brushed off criticism of her recent visit to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin, the first meeting between the Russian president and a leader of one of the three Baltic states in nearly a decade.

“Talking to all neighbours is only natural, and it’s a bit unnatural that I have to explain it,” she told the Guardian, in an interview in Tallinn.

Kaljulaid visited Moscow last month to open Estonia’s renovated embassy in the Russian capital, but the centrepiece of her visit was a long meeting and working lunch with Putin in the Kremlin.

Relations between Moscow and the Baltic states, which were annexed and occupied by the Soviet Union during the second world war, have been fraught since the three countries regained independence in 1991, and almost non-existent since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

But Kaljulaid said boycotting contact was ill-judged. “We had a decent debate where I stuck to my principles and we spoke about Georgia and Ukraine, but also we talked about bilateral issues … We do have bilateral relations, not all trade is under sanctions, and our people have close relations,” she said.

Kaljulaid said she had approached Putin and suggested meeting when the two spoke briefly at Armistice Day commemorations in Paris last November, and Putin had agreed.

The visit prompted a flurry of criticism from the other two Baltic states. The Lithuanian foreign minister, Linas Linkevičius, said Estonia should have consulted Latvia and Lithuania. “It’s always more effective when we coordinate things and act in a more united way … There will always be attempts to divide us and test the unity of European countries or the Baltic countries,” he told a local news agency.

In Latvia, too, there was disquiet over the visit. “Dialogue has been tried. God knows, Chancellor [Angela] Merkel alone, I don’t know how many times [the German leader] made efforts to speak with Putin,” the former president of Latvia Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga told the Guardian by telephone from Riga. “He can be quite charming and you can have a nice dialogue with him if he’s in the mood, but it doesn’t lead to anything.”

Kaljulaid said the boycott policy was often a convenient excuse. “It’s difficult to talk when you have to talk to someone with whom your values so much differ, and it’s easy to point out that there are others who don’t want to talk to you,” she said.

She also said there was a concern that Baltic security was being discussed without politicians from the region present: “I don’t want to be on the menu, I want to be at the table.”

Kaljulaid said Putin had been polite and respectful, and had not sought to lecture her on any issues relating to Estonia’s Nato commitments or its treatment of the country’s Russian-speaking minority, which in the past have been standard Kremlin talking points. “We both gave each other a respectful hearing,” she said.

However, when asked if the meeting had led to the two leaders finding any new common ground, her answer was succinct: “No”.