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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Estonian recipe

Stereotypes about NATO can be smashed with facts
3 June, 2008 - 00:00

The entry of any country into NATO is a kind of litmus test of its statehood, and one can convince the population of the necessity to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization only with the help of facts. This opinion was expressed last week by Estonian experts taking part in a roundtable entitled “Estonia in NATO: Experience, Lessons, and the Future,” which was organized with the assistance of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation. Madis Mikko, an adviser to Estonia’s Ministry of Defense, together with Colonel German Kesa of the Baltic Defence College and Victoria Punga, the head of the NATO Transatlantic Commonwealth in Estonia (founded in 2001), were in Ukraine to share their experience of Euro-Atlantic integration and talk about their lessons and mistakes.

After Kyiv the Estonian experts will travel to Cherkasy and Chernihiv. According to public opinion surveys, Estonians’ support for NATO has always been high and stands at 80 percent. Over 53 percent of Estonians believe that the level of the country’s security increased after Estonia joined NATO. Like earlier, most of the population (67 percent) considers NATO membership to be the main guarantee of the country’s security.

Estonia’s course towards NATO and EU membership was launched in 1993 and it has never changed, regardless of the different governments that have come to power. Since Estonia’s political elite was unanimous on this issue, public’s stance on this issue consolidated very quickly.

As Col. Kesa admitted, the process of Euro-Atlantic integration was based on two points: the security and welfare of the population. But security was a top- priority matter, although the balance concerning welfare was maintained. According to Kesa, the yearly per capita defense expenditures in Estonia are 101 dollars. Neighboring Sweden spends 800.

What role is played by the NATO Transatlantic Commonwealth in Estonia in informing the Russian-speaking population about the Alliance? Based on Estonia’s experience, how can one shatter the old stereotypes about NATO in Ukraine? These and other questions are raised in The Day ’ s interview with Victoria Punga.

“At first the role of the NATO Transatlantic Commonwealth was to inform the population about what the Alliance is, the way it exists, and what it does. Since 2004, when we became a full-fledged member of NATO, our work has continued. We work with schools because the new generation needs information all the time. We work with teachers, academics, and the rest of the Estonian population. At first we were the one who kept going to the public with information. Now the public comes to us. People who are interested in how NATO functions and in defense questions in general are calling us more frequently or visiting us to request information.”

How is the work going with the Russian-speaking population? Does this layer of Estonian society still have a negative attitude to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?

“The situation has somewhat changed. General support for NATO in Estonia, including the Russian-speaking population, stands at 80 percent. I would say that Russians, especially young people, are quite interested in the issues of defense and NATO. If you compare Estonians and the members of the Russian-speaking population, only 15 percent of Russian speakers supported the country’s accession to NATO when we began our work. Today we can say that this support has reached 55 percent, and it is tangible.”

What arguments have had an impact on changing the opinion of this segment of Estonian society?

“Everybody asks us this question. Honesty is our only response. We should not convey what we think about NATO, but only what we know exactly: facts. For example, many people in Ukraine have an opinion about NATO without knowing what it is. The population here has been given fewer facts than during our Euro-Atlantic integration. We presented all the facts — both positive and negative ones -and discussed them. I think this was what had a 100- percent impact on the population.”

The Ukrainian situation is more complicated. There are still a lot of Soviet-era stereotypes that say: NATO is an aggressive bloc. How can one shatter these old stereotypes?

“One should tell the truth. Although this may sound too pompous, one thing that should be done is to tell only the truth and inform as many people as possible about NATO. But you need resources for this. Christianity cannot be spread without churches and priests. We have been working with the population since our Transatlantic Commonwealth was established. At the same time, the state provided a lot of help, above all the foreign and defense ministries. We did not have any problems with resources.

“The Ukrainian elite — government officials and MPs — has declared that it wants to join NATO in the future. So the government should be engaged in this. It should allot resources because the government has undertaken certain obligations.”

Are we talking about financial resources?

“Not just financial. In our country, experts visited schools and held various seminars and roundtables. In other words, the question is also about human resources, which are important in conducting a Euro- Atlantic campaign. If a lot of people know hardly anything about this topic, this is a problem. I think that in Ukraine part of the population that is keen on this topic has already been formed. The problem is probably the way the NATO issue is being presented. What was good in Estonia is that there was coordination, and that was very good. There was cooperation among different institutions, not just ministers, and between departments and associations. So the work proceeded smoothly.”

Is there a need for the continued existence of your NATO Transatlantic Commonwealth?

“I think it will become a permanent institution. These kinds of associations exist even in countries like Denmark, Norway, and Germany, which have been NATO members for over half a century. These associations are still operating and informing the population about the Alliance’s activity. So I think that this kind of activity will go on in Estonia. I have no doubt that NATO will continue to exist. Next year this organization will turn 60. There is no question of whether NATO should exist or not.”

What would you like to say to Ukrainian associations that are informing the population about NATO?

“Work, work, and work!”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day