Estonia in the Arctic: Interview with Ambassador Märt Volmer

By Alisa Musanovic

Alisa Musanovic 

Today, I’m with Märt Volmer, who is the Undersecretary for European Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Estonia. He is in charge of the interinstitutional working group working on the Arctic Council Observer application for Estonia. Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

It’s a pleasure to be here and speak on this topic.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your career in government so far, particularly how you’ve ended up specialising in Arctic affairs?

Well, my career in government started a long time ago; I think it was the year 1992. That was a totally different time. In the government service and Foreign Ministry, the topics are usually coming to you, even though one would wish that you could choose your favourite topics. Since I ended up working with European issues in the Estonian Foreign Service, Arctic topics became as an integral part of the file that I have. And that made me very happy because that’s one of the more creative, nice and positive issues that I am dealing with.

The geopolitical landscape has obviously changed a lot since you started, which obviously affects Arctic affairs. How would you say things have changed while you worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

Yes, as I mentioned, 1992 was a very different time – the fax machine was a thing, and we didn’t really have emails and computers or anything. But I guess life in the Arctic was much more stable those years. And we all talked about the end of history; there was the rebirth of the world order; the future looked bright. If we look at the situation today, then there is violence, threats, even war in the middle of Europe. And it all also reflects on the Arctic and other issues. One could say that the developments in the last 30 years have not exactly been better all the time – it has been a rocky road, and there seems to be more work and more challenges today than 20 or 30 years ago.

Regarding Estonia’s connections with the Arctic, can you tell us anything about past or present interests and specialisms that Estonia presents?

Yes, with pleasure. In short, I would highlight three issues about past and present connections. First, Estonians really care a lot about climate change and the green transition. We want our children to also be able to live on a healthy planet. That’s very important for Estonians. This worry and high priority is common with other Nordic countries and countries in our region. So, that is one of the connections and reasons why we are interested and active in the Arctic. Secondly, we have a long history with Arctic affairs, and there is a lot we can offer today in Estonia. The third element is that the Arctic supports our foreign policy interests, which is positive in many ways. We will talk more about all those reasons, but I’ll just give a few words about our long history with Arctic affairs. 

It might be a surprise for many, but our story of expeditions in the Arctic begins well before the establishment of our independence in the early-twentieth century, when Estonia was part of the Russian Tsarist empire. The Russians were very active in polar expeditions. The fact that is not very well known though is that many Russian polar explorers actually came from Estonia, having their roots in contemporary Estonian territory. They were usually Baltic Germans, but they grew up and had their first sailing experiences and experience of how the world works in Estonia. To name a few: Adam Johann von Krusenstern was from Estonia; Fabian von Bellingshausen was born in Estonia; Ferdinand von Wrangel lived in Estonia; as did Otto von Kotzebue and Eduard Gustav von Toll. So, it’s fascinating that a lot of those very famous Arctic explorers have actually grown up in Estonia. 

Also, our University in Tartu was already established and very active during those times. They have studied those expeditions and work, so it’s all well documented. So, there were very early experiences; then, when Estonia became independent, we acceded to the Svalbard Treaty in 1930. Then, of course, history makes its turns, and we fell under Soviet occupation. However, the Soviets were very active in the Arctic, and Estonian scientists collaborated a lot and very closely with their Russian counterparts. There are dozens of Estonian scientists who worked, both in the Arctic and Antarctica, in Soviet stations and expeditions. We still have all those connections with the Russian scientists, and our own experience is still there. Nowadays, there is a new wave of Arctic and polar research and scientists – consisting of several EU programmes like EU-PolarNet – and we are mostly working with our Scandinavian partners in the Arctic. It is a long history which we continue to build on, and it all coincides very well with our foreign policy interests. 

Yes, I’m sure a lot of that history is unknown to many people. On a governmental level, how much do you think has changed over the last decade or few decades in terms of foreign policy towards the Arctic?

I think that the Arctic has emerged in our foreign policy most actively somewhere between 2013 and 2014. Since then, it has been a sort of reemerging theme in our work in the Foreign Ministry. In those years – 2013 to 2014 – we were quite active in Arctic discussions in the EU and NATO, and we started to prepare our work to submit the application to become an Observer of the Arctic Council. But the work didn’t proceed very well, and I think that the prospects then were not very clear. So, at some point in 2016, the priority level was temporarily lowered. Then, in 2019, it emerged once again as a high-level priority, and we decided that we will go for it; we will go ahead and apply for Observer status, and gear up all the necessary work. This is where we are now. As you mentioned, an internal working group was created. We drafted our application; we raised the profile of the Arctic in Estonia to help our scientific community to work and connect with others. Therefore, we are in a very active phase today.

What were the priorities in the Arctic Council Observer application that Estonia presented in 2020?

The priority throughout our application process has been to showcase the expertise existing in Estonia today that can be used for the sustainable development of the Arctic. That has been the main focus, basically showing what we can bring to the Arctic Council. The main interest has been and will be enhancing cooperation, especially in research, climate change and sustainable development of the region – of course creating new opportunities for our scientists, the expert community. It is a science-centred approach that we have. There is a wide range of scientists who have been active, but I would mention in particular that we have good levels of using isotope geochemical analysis of drilled ice core samples to research how the environment has changed in the Arctic. 

Then, of course, Estonia is also a Nordic country climate-wise – it’s cold, there’s a lot of snow out there – so we know how to construct energy-saving houses in very cold climates. We have good experience in creating self-propelled and autonomous underwater robots that can be used in research in Arctic waters. The Baltic Sea itself is a very good test base for climate research. What is probably also not that known is that there are very extensive studies of the Indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic in Estonia. The largest genetic database of Siberian Indigenous peoples in the world is located in Estonia in Tartu University. All in all, there are several reasons behind our application, but mostly science.

Are there any activities that Estonia has taken part in to support its application over the last couple of years?

Yes, we have geared up almost all possible fields that there are. We could use the phrase ‘track two’, as researchers call it: organising our own Arctic events, participating in other events, raising some money in the budget to support activities towards the Arctic. We are actively present in different conferences: Arctic Circle, Arctic Frontiers. So, we are raising the Estonian profile outside the country and of course raising the Arctic profile inside Estonia.

You just touched on this – are there any bodies or organisations that you work with in the Arctic and Nordic?

The main goal is to be an Observer in the Arctic Council – that would give us good networking possibilities. But so far, we are a member of the Council of the Baltic Sea States, which has already existed for thirty years between Nordic and Baltic countries (plus Russia, Germany and Poland). Of course, the European Union has the Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region, where we are actively participating. Then, we have the regional Nordic-Baltic 8 grouping of our countries that has a long tradition, and where the Arctic is one of the topics we regularly discuss. Our focus is on cooperation with our Nordic friends and the countries within the region.

Do you have any Arctic strategies currently being implemented or made in Estonia?

This is an area where progress is happening just now, but there has already been a framework document for our polar scientists outlining their expertise and projects for some years. But now, since we have geared up all of our activities, we are drafting a concrete Arctic action plan, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is in the lead. Of course, we do it together with other ministries, the scientific community and think-tanks. So, it should be sometime later this year that we will have an Estonian action plan for the Arctic up and running. We expect that will bring meaningful results.  

I’m sure this is part of the current discussions around the plan, but are there key sectors that you view Estonia as specialising in, where you could cooperate with the Arctic and Nordic?

Yes, exactly. I would highlight the countries in the region and the scientific connections. Finland and Sweden are our biggest trading partners by far, and other Nordic countries are very close and among the first 10 of our trading partners. There is a lot of trade and volume with our Nordic friends, so trade and widening it towards the Arctic is a no-brainer in this sense. And of course, the cultural ties are very strong, especially with Finland, because the Estonian and Finnish languages are very close, so while we cannot automatically speak each other’s languages, they are very close. This makes the socioeconomic connections and cooperation much more natural. So, the geographical closeness, cultural closeness, the many similar subjects that we study – those are the connections and cooperation avenues that are active.

You’ve mentioned the Nordic countries a lot; in terms of bilateral relationships that Estonia has with Arctic states, would you say that that’s the region you are closest to? Are there any particular relationships of note?

Yes, I guess there are many, but let me start with Finland. There are so many unofficial and official ties and grassroot-level activities between Estonia and Finland that it is very difficult to even follow what’s going on. We are also drafting a future-oriented report between Estonia and Finland about future cooperation on a governmental level: long-term planning, what we should do to be better off and more successful together in 10 years’ time. Basically, what we should do today to be successful and active in the future. We do the same with Sweden, for example. So, we have several special relationships, and if we come to Arctic issues, then Norway is our very close collaborating partner largely due to Svalbard. Svalbard has really been a research hub for Estonian polar scientists for the last 10-15 years. So, this cooperation with our Norwegian friends is very special. And, of course, Iceland was the country that first re-recognised Estonia when we regained our independence  in 1991, so Iceland holds a special place in Estonian hearts and diplomatic history. There are actually a lot of special stories.

Looking at the bigger powers on the world stage that influence Arctic affairs, and with Russia being an Arctic state itself, what is Estonia’s current relationship with countries like Russia and China?

As we started off with in our discussion, the world has been changing, and the high hopes and wishes have unfortunately not become true over the years, both in the direction of Russia and China. But Russia is our long-term and historic neighbour. We’ve been living next to each other for thousands of years as peoples, and we’ll keep doing that for hopefully the next few thousands of years to come. There are different layers and levels of cooperation we have with Russia, especially on the practical level with our scientists, in the cultural sphere and between people, so there’s a lot that’s going on with Russia. People know each other. 

Of course, it’s different on a political level, and the relations are quite difficult, especially now with the situation in Ukraine. But we try not to mix the political challenges and non-political cooperation formats – for example, between scientists and people working in the sector of culture – and the Arctic belongs to this category. Therefore, scientific cooperation and the work towards tackling global issues like the sustainability of climate change have to happen on non-political grounds. I’m sure there will be a shared interest of mankind to successfully address those issues. So the work in those spheres is going on, and we try to keep it as non-political as possible. The same is true for our relations with China; there are good relationships. Of course, some of the developments are making it a bit more challenging over the last years, but there is practical cooperation and we try to keep it going.

How about Estonia’s relationship with wider intergovernmental organisations like NATO? What is Estonia’s place in them?

Well, NATO is our number one security pillar, and the Alliance that is most important to our defence and security. While we have strong, independent self-defence capabilities, it is NATO that provides the security together with our allies. Moreover, we take part in NATO missions in different parts of the world. It’s hard to find words for how important and how close our work inside NATO is – we are NATO.

To end on looking towards the future, what do you see as the greatest challenges to the Arctic?

I think I’m not very original if I say that it is the environment and climate change, and how we actually manage to address those issues together, which are all global and where one country cannot do much, but together, we can do something. That’s the challenge. Are we able to stick together to do the things that need to be done so that our children will have the same world to live in as us? Also, what is challenging is all the effects of climate change on socio-economic factors for the local communities living there. This is also a big challenge, and it is difficult to predict the upcoming changes for the local communities. And because of climate change already happening, there are shipping routes opening up, resource exploration possibilities, and that might also bring new challenges and tensions. Therefore, a further challenge is to keep the Arctic as a low-tension area, a place where we can actually do something together to deal with the challenges. These are the things that keep us worried and keep us working on Arctic topics.

(This interview took place on Friday, 11 February 2022)

Amb. Märt Volmer is an Estonian diplomat, with extensive experience from a number of positions in Estonia and elsewhere. He is currently the Undersecretary for European Affairs at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the head of the domestic interinstitutional working group for the Arctic Council observer application of Estonia. He served as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Estonia to the Kingdom of Denmark between 2015 and 2019. Prior to the posting in Denmark, he served as the foreign policy adviser to the Estonian Prime Minister, coordinating foreign and security policy activities, advising and supporting the PM in external relations. Before that, he was the Director-General for Political Affairs and the Director of EU Foreign Policy in the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has been the Estonian Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan, as well as represented Estonia at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as the Deputy Permanent Representative. He served as Estonia’s Consul General in St. Petersburg between 1993 and 1996. Märt Volmer graduated from the University of Tallinn in physical education in 1990 and the Estonian School of Diplomacy in 1992. He also gained a master’s degree from the Estonian Business School in 1996.
Alisa Musanovic is a Global Leadership Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. She is a graduate of a History BA at the University of Oxford and a recent graduate of an International Double Master’s Degree jointly studied at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL and University of Helsinki. 
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