Ambassador Riina KALJURAND: "Estonians want to see the result, so we just do it"

18.05.2021 (Caucasian Journal). Today Caucasian Journal is honored to greet Her Excellency Riina KALJURAND, the Ambassador of Estonia to Georgia and Armenia. The interview is available in video format with Georgian subtitles, and as text - both in English and Georgian. Below we present the full English text version of interview. 

ქართულად: The Georgian text version is here.
▶ For the video version, click here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ:  Hello and welcome to Caucasian Journal video interviews.  You are comparatively new head of the embassy in Tbilisi. How can you summarize your impressions so far?

Riina KALJURAND: Thank you very much for inviting me to this interview. Indeed I’m relatively new although I cannot say that that I arrived recently - it was already nine months ago, and I arrived in a quite unfortunate time - in the sense that it is or it was in the middle of pandemic. So the normal social life and communication with other diplomats has been very limited and restricted, and the traveling within the country has been very limited. Maybe I haven't done as much as I would have liked to have done by this time, and I haven't traveled as much as I would have liked to have traveled, but I still hope that the society and the country will open up, and I can catch up with this a little bit later. 

AK:  But on the other hand it's a very unusual time.  We all have to face this new challenge and be creative.

RK: Absolutely, I agree that the times have been challenging in all the way, and of course it has made us a little bit more creative as well.  I see how used to Zoom meetings we have all become, I think it's independent of the generations that the  people learn new things every day, and it's not altogether such a bad thing. But still you sometimes miss this human communication, because when before I came to Georgia, I was told that there would be so lively social life in Georgia - you will have supras once a week at least, so you will gain at least three to five kilos in the first month! And as a result I have had five dinners during the whole period, and I have lost a couple of kilos because of the stress… 

But it has also been exciting. Just because it's pandemic the life hasn't stopped, and Georgia had parliamentary elections in October, which of course is still keeping us all busy, and unfortunately not all in positive ways. Yes, it hasn't been a boring time.

AK:  Well, I’m sure our Georgian readers will note, that the European ambassadors… need more supras! 
You represent Estonia in Georgia as well as Armenia, which are very different states, unlike the Baltic countries, which traditionally have shared a lot of common values. What is the most relevant Estonian or Baltic experience, most useful for our region?

RK: Yes, indeed, always these two regions are compared because we are three neighbors, we are all small – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – and you are not big countries either, I mean Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia. Although I’m not covering Azerbaijan I’m covering Armenia and Georgia, and at first look they might seem quite similar as well, but of course they are not similar at all. They might seem similar maybe by culture, or food tradition, or music, or landscapes especially  to  somebody who is not that familiar with history or geopolitics in this region, but indeed I wouldn't make a direct comparison.  

Although what has been very useful for us as Baltic states, is that we have discovered that there are areas where cooperation pays off, and one of these areas is, for example, connectivity. This is relatively harmless, and I think that even if you have many differences in the Caucasian region, and different geopolitical outlooks, all of you seek security from different sources. I think that there are still areas where you can cooperate, and connectivity is one of them. It's everything starting from digitalization to transport logistics, and I think this helps quite a lot – it gives you access to Europe, to the world. And I think it also facilitates the communication between peoples.  We in Estonia have never experienced difficulties in communicating with Latvians and Lithuanians; we belong to the same side of history. While when we take Armenia and Azerbaijan, there are huge difficulties, because it's just such a heavy burden of history on both sides, which doesn't necessarily help the younger generations. So, I think, by starting step by step in less sensitive areas you can finally start talking to each other again.

AK: Estonia as well as our region's countries have a common Soviet past, and my question is whether this helps you in some way, or does it complicate things? Or perhaps this factor has lost all significance?

RK: I think at this moment it still helps. It is relatively easy to be an Estonian ambassador, or an Estonian in general, in Georgia or Armenia, because there is a lot of this warm nostalgia over the Soviet past and how people traveled from Caucasus to the Baltic states, and from Estonia to Georgia and Armenia. People remember, people have friends.  

In Estonia it is kind of funny in that sense: every Estonian knows at least one Finn and has at least one Georgian friend.  So whoever you talk to, they all know Georgians and they all know Finnish people. Many of them of course have got their friend from Soviet times, so there is still this nice sort of this mutual sympathy of nations.

AK: But that's for the older generation? 

RK: Exactly. I just wanted to come to this. For younger generation, I am afraid, this Soviet past will not make that much sense in the future.  For them Estonia will be another foreign country, and it's the same in Estonia. Now when the world is open people have so many other opportunities and other destinations to travel, maybe Georgia and Armenia will not be the most exotic places to go.  So we need to find other ways to attract these young people, and actually to carry on this legacy of our old friendship.

We have implemented the Estonian educational curriculum in 15 Georgian schools. And now these 15 pilot schools in turn are training teachers of 100 schools.

AK: Are there any concrete cooperation projects - current or future projects – which you would like to touch?

RK: We do quite a lot in the area of education here. We are cooperating with the Ministry of education and science, and we have implemented since 2014 the Estonian educational curriculum in 15 Georgian schools. And now these 15 pilot schools in turn are training teachers of 100 schools on a preliminary level, and the Estonian school curriculum will be implemented altogether in 100 Georgian schools. This is a quite a big thing, as Estonian educational system is of very good quality [Read more on Estonian school education here – CJ]. 

We are front runners when it comes to results, and we think that there is something to offer. There are many other areas as well. For example, with the help of Norwegian government and Estonian implementers we are now assisting the local governments in different regions, so we help them to become more independent, to manage their resources better, to actually empower these local governments, so that it's not the central government that decides everything on local level, but just to decentralize it, and to give substance to this decentralization.   Also there are smaller projects that many other embassies are also doing - how to empower women, and how to encourage them to start their own businesses, and how to encourage girls to follow their dreams and maybe become pilots or anybody that they want to become.  So all these things where we have experience ourselves, we can of course give to our Georgian friends.

AK: My next question was what is most attractive about Georgia and Armenia for Estonians?

RK: The first thing that comes to my mind and, I think, to mind of every Estonian is the nature – mountains, of course Batumi and the Black Sea, the culture of supras, the culture of your music and theater..  The Georgian jazz was very popular in Estonia during the Soviet times – you were one of front runners of jazz music at that time – and, of course, the very famous Georgian ballet.  I think every Estonian knows about it, every Estonian loves it.  Nice food, nice people…  It is easy to attract Estonians to Georgia, to come here, even if they are the younger people who don't have their personal friends still. The Estonian tourist agencies are organizing hiking tours in the mountains – horse riding, camping, and cycling in the mountains. It's all very exciting. And Armenia as well – I mean the Armenian culture.  We have a small Armenian community in Estonia which does its best to promote its country.  Armenia has a very strong IT sector, so we have several professional relationships already between our IT sectors. 

I think there is a lot that attracts Estonians here because you have everything that we don't have. Maybe we are a little bit better organized, maybe we have gone further in development of our governmental structures and the state of democracy, but there are things that we don't have, and you do.

AK: My last question is pretty useless when asking a diplomat, but since you are coming from a different professional background – from think-tanks – I would try: If there is anything that you would like to change in our countries, or in our bilateral relations, what that would be?

RK: Yes in a way it’s a difficult question because as a diplomat you are not here to change anything, you're here to gather information and also inspiration. And also maybe vice versa I’m here to give some ideas, or inspire, or give our examples, our best experiences to Georgians, how things can be done. 

But sometimes it's up to the mentality very much, because Estonians are more like quiet doers. We want to see the result, so we just do it, and then we are there. I think Georgians more enjoy the process. They enjoy the playfulness of this process. So I can come here and I can ask them to do something and I can show them: “This is a very good idea” – but they will just laugh at me and say: “Yes of course, it's a great idea, but we just do it in such a different way that the results will be different as well”. 

But  I still think that you can do so much more yourself as an individual, and what I would like to see in Georgia is a much more civic activism. You can achieve a lot as a citizen by expressing your views, by asking your government to be accountable to you, because you elect them, you give them your vote, so you have a right to demand and require a lot more from them.  But don't forget, as a citizen that you are also responsible for your own happiness, for your own success. And we can do much more; we don't have to wait for the government to do everything for us. 

AK: My questions are over, but if you feel like adding something else the floor is yours.

RK: I can just add maybe a story. It's not even a funny story, it's just like a like a story that came to my mind when I was appointed as an ambassador to Georgia. The story began in 2008, just in the aftermath of the Georgian- Russian war, when Estonians were also very much engaged in this directly and indirectly. At that time I was working in Estonia in International Centre for Defence and Security, and we discussed the situation in Georgia very often, and people were traveling back and forth. I remember that somebody brought us a Georgian flag – not a big one but not a small one either – and this flag was in my room. I was sharing a room with a colleague of mine, and this flag stayed there for years. When we had to move to new premises I carried this flag with me all the time, because I thought that how can I leave this behind? I'm not going to throw this flag away, it's a nice flag, so I cared for this flag for 11 years and here I am.  Maybe this was a reward?

AK: Very symbolic indeed. Thank you very much.

RK: Thank you.

Read the Georgian language version hereView the video here

Caucasian Journal
 appreciates kind support of Royal Norwegian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

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