By Sarah McPhee
The room was already filled, but more people were still squeezing into a standing-room-only crowd for “NATO, Russia & 21st Century Atlanticism.” Deputy Chief of Mission Tanel Sepp said that he is getting used to such receptions. “Before Crimea, I was knocking on different doors on the Hill, maybe they would have 10 or 15 minutes to talk. Now people from the Hill come to me.”
Sepp insists that 2014 was a landmark year for bilateral relations with the United States, including high level meetings between Estonian ministers and US officials in Washington DC, a gaggle of senators traveling to Estonia, and President Obama’s trip to Tallinn. He acknowledges that the biggest question on everyone’s mind — “Is Narva next?” — creates some dilemmas for Estonians.
“What happened in Crimea was especially hurtful in Estonia.” He insisted that there are “too many parallels” between Ukraine and Soviet intervention in Estonia in 1940. “What happens in eastern Ukraine is difficult to watch because Russian activity is so blunt, so arrogant. Times are so different, but there are straightforward lies from the Russian side.”
Despite any public anxiety, Sepp asserted that Estonians experience very little insecurity. “Becoming a NATO country changed everything for us. We are prepared, and continue to enhance preparation.” Still, he explained that Estonians are somewhat frustrated with the constant questioning of their security. “If you ask a question too much, it creates a false narrative that there are green men on the way. Article 5 is rock-solid, as President Obama said. If we don’t believe that, it helps President Putin.” His assertion is all the more salient given the recent military exercises occurring simultaneously on either side of the Estonian border.
Sepp addressed the Estonian need to fight back against aggressive Russian propaganda campaigns, which Estonia manages through several approaches. He offered the example of a poll of 1000 people in northeastern Estonia amongst the ethnic Russian minority, asking how many people wanted to move back to Russia. Only 2 respondents applied in the affirmative.
“In Estonia, they have better opportunities, a fair court system, and [the Russian minority] can rely upon justice,” he explained. “Estonia is a forward-looking country and we are ahead of the US in many ways. We are often called E*stonia because all government services are online. Actually, there is one service not online — you cannot marry over the internet, but we are working on it.” Sepp had hoped to be able to demonstrate the efficiency of the Estonian electoral system by voting for Parliament in front of the audience, but he was unable to bring his secure device to the event.
In light of the recent net neutrality vote in the US, it is interesting to compare the US to the pioneering advances of the Estonians. “Putting things on the Internet makes it easier for poor people to access them. In a minute, even less, I can declare my taxes.” Since implementing a simple online tax system, Sepp claims that tax revenue has increased. “Simpler makes it better, easier, and more people are willing to pay.”
Sepp insists the secret to Estonia’s success began in 1991. “We were really poor, we had to start from scratch, but we kicked out all the old communists. That was the best thing. We hired young people who were open-minded.” He later added that it is a pleasure to promote his country. “We are lean, efficient, and transparent. It is good to be a diplomat of a country that is really trying to do things right.” Sepp also shared a promotional video for Tallinn tourism featuring indie rock band Ewert and the Two Dragons, which will actually be performing in Seattle on March 9th at the Sunset Tavern (21 and up).
Sepp insisted that the biggest challenge in the current European crisis is to maintain unity between Europe and the US. He described the overwhelming support of Estonians for the presence of American troops. He maintained that the number of troops was not important, but that the presence of troops proves that NATO works. “For Estonia’s survival, we need to keep the policies we have now, and the US is the most important alliance.”