After his mission to Moscow a privileged posting in Riga

  • 2018-12-19
  • Linas Jegelevicius, The Baltic Times editor-in-chief

For Arti Hilpus, the new Estonian ambassador to Latvia, the job in Riga is a kind of a relief after his diplomatic mission to Moscow, but what he calls a “privileged” relationship between Latvia and Estonia, two neighbours, obligates the need to strive to take full advantage of these close-knit ties. Mr. Hilpus kindly agreed to answer The Baltic Times questions.

Your Latvia stint must be a big relief after your diplomatic mission to Moscow. Do you agree? What impression has Russian President Vladimir Putin left on you since the presentation of your credentials at the Kremlin in 2015?

In a way, it could really be called a relief because it is always pleasant to work in a place where you face a positive and friendly attitude at every step. Latvia is one of the key partners for Estonia. Regular bilateral visits take place at all levels, working contacts between our ministries are very active. We are also connected through the regional Baltic co-operation formats. A privileged relationship between Estonia and Latvia was manifested by the joint meeting of our governments at Riga in August 2018. The 100th anniversary of our statehood in 2018 added further emotional moments and gave reason to new high-level visits.

Previous working experience in Moscow can be useful in Riga as well. Both Estonia and Latvia have a vital interest to observe and understand the processes that evolve in the Russian Federation. Regrettably, our present day relations with the big eastern neighbour are in a rather strange and complicated situation, just a few official contacts are left. Level of trust is rather low and Russia’s aggressive behaviour in Ukraine has not made the situation any easier. As a contrast, our relations with Russia in the area of culture and people-to-people contacts, even in business, are still functioning and have maintained their significance.

President Putin’s message at the presentation ceremony of the letters of credence three years ago was that Russia is interested in maintaining a mutually respectful dialogue and good-neighbourly relations. He noted that greater trust between our nations could be built if we succeed in ratifying the Estonian-Russian border agreement. Not surprisingly, the president also reiterated Moscow’s position regarding the Russian compatriots living abroad. Later he added that we, Estonians, are too pre-occupied with history, and that we have to move ahead.

At this point we would only welcome it if Russia would develop, from its part, a more constructive and forward-looking policy vis-à-vis the Baltic countries, instead of repeating the same old grievances every year. I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Putin concerning the importance of the border treaty, but unfortunately it was Russia that has, in the meantime, refrained from the ratification, referring to the negative atmosphere in our relations. We still believe that moving forward with small progressive steps, such as the ratification of the border treaty, could bring some positive dynamics into our relationship.

How was the takeover of responsibilities as Ambassador to Latvia? Did the Foreign Ministry of Estonia formulate any new tasks for you to take on in Riga? What are they?

It is always a somewhat special case to work in a neighbouring country, with whom your own nation is connected by numerous historical, cultural and economic ties. This explains why Latvia, in spite of its size, has a solid place in the Estonian Foreign Ministry’s agenda. The new ambassador has to start building up a professional contacts network right away – upon arrival. The processes in the Latvian community really matter for the Estonian public and I am very pleased to have the correspondent from Estonian TV present.

Our priorities in Latvia could largely be divided into three parts: co-operation in the areas of foreign policy, security and defence; economic ties and business promotion; and public diplomacy and cultural relations. We are close partners in the EU and NATO, share common interests and are generally seen as like-minded countries. We have a similar perception concerning the security environment and challenges in the Baltic region. Therefore it is inevitable to co-ordinate our positions on a regular basis.

Estonian-Latvian security and defence co-operation has always been active, our armed forces conduct joint exercises. The participation of NATO allied units in the framework of Enhanced Forward Presence has added a new dimension and quality to defence co-operation. We offer some added value to our allies, for example, through the NATO Centres of Excellence in the field of cyber security and strategic communication.

In economic relations, the priority for the coming years is the integration of the Baltic countries’ transport and energy infrastructure with the rest of the EU. I would name only the keywords: construction of the Rail Baltica high-speed railway, creation of the joint Baltic gas market and synchronisation of our electricity grids with continental Europe. Functioning interconnections are only feasible, if all three Baltic countries plus our direct neighbours co-operate. We also have to ensure financing from the EU funds, which is essential for the implementation of such immense projects.

Bilateral business and trade promotion remains high on our agenda. Our enterprises consider the Baltic region as a common economic space, as an extension of one’s domestic market. It is hard to assess how many Estonian companies are active in Latvia, but we at least try to stay in close contact with some key actors, in order to exchange ideas about future business interests and new market opportunities. Our business environments are similar, but each country still has its national regulations with their peculiarities, where the embassy sometimes has to consult and assist our entrepreneurs.

Another important direction is public and cultural diplomacy. Literally every week we have some events related to aspects of the Estonian culture in Latvia. Those events mostly take place without the embassy’s direct participation. In some cases we support them logistically or organisationally. Last but not least, Latvia has historically been home for a quite large Estonian community. It is estimated that near 2000 Estonians live here today. In Riga we have the Estonian Society and the Estonian School, the Estonian language is taught at the University of Latvia. Rendering assistance to the cultural and education aspirations of the Estonian diaspora is honouring the duty of each embassy.

Where do you see room for growth and expansion of relations between Estonia and Latvia?

Even if relations are already in a good shape, there is always some further potential. We could deepen the knowledge about each other, increase our visibility in the neighbouring country. It’s also possible to do more in the business realm, to seek opportunities for our companies to expand. There are some promising areas, such as co-operation in the digital economy and between start-ups. The governments could co-operate more in terms of e-governance and data exchange, if we just manage to develop a common vision and generate the necessary political will.

Although Estonia and Latvia have many ties in culture and history, the language barrier is still separating us in a sense. I would be glad if much more people on both sides would study their neighbour’s language. Regarding our common history, the jubilee year 2018 was already a good chance to recall much about some crucial events that led to our independence 100 years ago. It is certain that the celebrations will continue in 2019, as we commemorate some decisive victories in the Estonian and Latvian Wars of Independence – most importantly, the anniversary of the Battle of Cesis in June 1919.

Can you speak about trade volumes between the two countries? What trends can be observed?

Latvia remains among Estonia’s main economic partners and is one of the top export markets for our products, as well as services. In recent years, Latvia was our third most important trade partner after Finland and Sweden. In 2017, Latvia’s share in our foreign trade was 8,8%, or 2.42 billion euros in absolute terms. The exports and imports have largely been balanced, though Latvians have had a slight trade surplus in recent years. In 2017, the import of Latvian products to Estonia amounted to 8,4%, which made them our fifth import partner.

Latvia is also an important destination for Estonia’s foreign direct investments. By June 2018, Estonian companies had invested 1.2 billion euros in Latvia, which makes up 16% of all our direct investments abroad. Again, Latvia ranks in third place for us with those figures.

The interest of Latvian tourists towards Estonia is increasing. In 2017, 161 250 Latvians were accommodated in Estonia. Popular travel destinations in Estonia include (beside Tallinn) Pärnu with its spa hotels and Tartu with its shopping facilities, the Ahhaa Science Centre and the new Estonian National Museum. Visits to Latvia by Estonian residents have also grown, amounting to 351 436 last year. Riga airport is a main transportation hub in the region. As everywhere, certain differences in prices and national taxation would result in rather busy cross-border shopping activities in the regions near the border.

As the Baltic countries are wrapping up their centenary celebrations, do you believe such a small country like Estonia stand a chance of lasting another century, let alone, another millennium? What needs to be done to ensure the perpetuity of the Baltic statehoods?

Estonia, as well as the other Baltic countries, has proven in the last thirty years that small nations can  be very capable in building up their statehood and national institutions, an advanced economy and society. We have successfully demonstrated our ability to engage as equal and full-fledged partners in the EU and in the world community, and one could often say that these small nations are punching above their weight. In some areas, we have even acted as frontrunners – Estonia, for instance, in the field of digital economy, e-governance and cyber security. There are plenty of reasons for being proud of our achivements.

At the same time I musr admit that keeping a small state is a luxury in modern times and, in terms of competitiveness, small countries are always in a less advantageous situation than big ones. 

There are simply some attributes and institutions that every sovereign country has to maintain, like central state apparatus, natio-nal defense and a foreign service, which is comparatively easier and cheaper to hold and maintain for big nations. Nevertheless, for us, the purpose of statehood is not to save costs, it’s a project about the safeguarding of our identity and uniqueness.

The preamble of the Estonian Constitution stipulates that the state’s objective is to guarantee the preservation of the Estonian people, our language and culture through the ages. This means that we have to invest large resources in support to our national culture and Estonian-language education.

During the famous “Singing revolution” period my generation had no doubt that we, Estonians, want to live independently, in spite of all future challenges and hardships involved. Nowadays, in a globalizing world, it is crucial to follow how our new generations understand and interpret the same values and principles. Will they sound as close and self-evident to them, as they once were for us? I have to say that for me today’s Estonia is the most pleasant and coziest place to live. The size of the population is not big, but we have an abundance of untouched nature, enough free space for living and good chances for realizing everybody’s dreams. In order to stay competitive, it is of paramount importance to be innovative and open for unconventional solutions. It’s natural that young Estonians learn and work a lot abroad, but the government’s task is to create necessary conditions that all our talents would like to return one day. The key issue is to shape an attractive business and social environment, so that each entrepreneurial spirit would wish to work and live just here. I am confident that, in the case of smart policies and solutions, the efforts would give results and it answers your question on the perspectives of longevity for our statehood.

How do you see the possibility to expand cross-border co-operation between both countries’ border municipalities?

Cross-border co-operation indeed has an outstanding role to play in our bilateral and people-to-people contacts. Especially the relations between the twin towns Valga and Valka are a distinct example in this regard. It is possible to further enhance various cross-border services, that would be beneficial for citizens of both countries. For instance, cross-border use of some public health services. There is a regional hospital in Estonian Valga, while the nearest hospital on the Latvian side is located in Valmiera. If a resident of Valka falls seriously ill, it would make sense to take the patient right across the border to the Valga hospital for treatment, instead of transporting him to Valmiera some 50 kilometers away. In that case, of course, we have to agree between the national health insurance institutions who is supposed to pay for the hospital services.

As long as Rail Baltica does not yet exist, another actual topic is the restoration of passenger traffic on the Riga-Valga-Tartu railway line. The idea is rather old and no one really doubts that a sufficient number of passengers would be available in the case of a high-quality service on this route. The question is rather the absence of any political guidance that would declare the Tartu-Riga line a priority. There are some practical challenges that need to be overcome by the railway operators, like acquisition of new trains in Estonia, subsidies from the state budget to cover the operating costs etc. The people in the border regions, however, believe that once a political task has been given, technical solutions would be found by the railway companies. In the long run the connection would be beneficial to both sides – it would enhance the popularity of Tartu as a touristic destination and facilitate Estonia’s connections with the Riga airport.

There is also the idea to re-establish the passenger ferry connection between Ventspils and Saaremaa island. Such a service used to exist in the past, but was discontinued in 2008 due to the Europe-wide economic crisis. Consultations over the restoration of the ferry line have recently been resumed by the local governments and authorities. The benefits of such a connection should be examined not only at  the municipality level, but in a broader regional and national context as well, with a view to possible new tourist flows. The municipalities in Kurzeme and Saaremaa are interested in the project and consider it relevant, but some support from the European funds or other sources is regarded as being indispensable, in order to develop a viable partnership model between stakeholders and for the acquisition of a suitable vessel.

What do you do during your leisure time in Riga?

During my first three months in Riga I haven’t had sufficiently free time, I have to say with regret. I try to combine work-related functions with pleasure and use them also for relaxation, whenever possible, for example enjoying maximally a nice concert or book presentation where I have been invited as embassy representative. I would like to travel more in Latvia and see the different corners of the country – being a historian by education, it is also my great personal interest. Let us not forget that for a long period Riga was the centre of the Governorate of Livonia, which meant that the metropolis for Southern Estonia was located here as well. And luckily, Estonia is rather close and our family cottage in Voru county is less than three hours away. If we have enough snow in the winter, I would enjoy skiing in Haanja, not far from the Suur Munamagi hill, where we can often see cars with Latvian number plates, and where the menus in the village cafeteria have appeared in Latvian as well.