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Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1991-2010

30. June 2014 - 10:40

Edict no. 219 30.12.1991

The end of 1991 represents the opening of a new chapter in the life of the restored, independent and democratic Republic of Estonia. Most of the country’s sovereign attributes have been restored or have been substantially strengthened. /---/

The personnel of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have given their own part to the history of the restoration of Estonian independence, irrespective of difficulties and lack of workroom, personnel and experience. The first Estonian embassies and systematic relations with foreign countries and international organisations have been built, in spite of financial difficulties, without the support of government funds. Our Ambassadors abroad have worked selflessly and have defied occasional humiliating financial difficulties. The majority of Estonia’s embassy workers in New York work without any kind of wage under the hand of Ambassador Ernst Jaakson, who symbolises the Republic of Estonia’s historical diplomatic continuity with an uncommon vitality and dignity. /---/

Hold and safeguard the fire burning in your hearts this coming year. Let it rage as a powerful flame. Let its warm glow light our frozen and suffering homeland, our only Estonia!

Minister of Foreign Affairs Lennart Meri turned towards his employees with this address on New Years Eve 1991, emphasising the fact that the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the only state institution that did not cease to exist during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Estonia. Thus, being the carrier of Estonia’s legal continuity, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has operated without cessation since 1918.

However, it is clear that the critical, although not the nascent, moment in the history of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is 12 April 1990. On this date, the government ratified the statutes of the Republic of Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Lennart Meri became the Minister of Foreign Affairs. It must be noted that Meri originally became the Minister of Foreign Affairs  of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, taking over the position from the last foreign minister of ESSR, Arnold Green.

The change from the ESSR’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Republic of Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not happen overnight nor did it happen easily. At the beginning of 1990, 12 people worked in the ESSR’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In an edict released by Meri on St. John’s Day of 1990 it is stated that by the end of the year the ministry should have 50 employees (41 positions were filled) who were to be divided between the Minister’s Chancellery, the Legal department, the Foreign Economic Policy department, the International Agreements and Protocol department, the Political department, the Information bureau and the Consular department. (In the beginning of  90s a single person would usually be responsible for what is today an entire bureau). Next to positions such as the Head of the Department, Chief Inspector and Chief Specialist there was even the exotic-sounding position of the Chief Inspector Teletypist whose assignment was to send telephonic signals (the position was eliminated in  April  1992).

Lennart Meri’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs began its work on Toompea, taking up a single corridor with a dozen  larger and smaller rooms. There was a shortage of everything except for enthusiasm and initiative. The first problem at hand was the question of supplies. This was to be solved by the first Permanent Under-Secretary Viljar Meister who, according to his colleagues at the time, was a true supply genius. In the year 1990 and 1991, Meister was sent to Sweden at least once a month to solve the Ministry’s question of supplies (this could mean anything from the procurement of plastic document sleeves to pens or old electric typewriters). There were problems with both A4 format paper and as well as bathroom soap. Management meetings discussing how to improve Ministry’s supply of bathroom soap are still remembered. The problem was that, lacking any better alternative, halved pieces of household soap were put in the bathroom, which was a source of embarrassment with foreign guests.

20 August 1991 and the following period was cataclysmic for the entire nation, and no less so for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Minister Meri’s edict of August 25 cancelled all employee vacations and initiated a 7-day workweek. The edict also ordered a search for spaces for five foreign embassies in Tallinn and called for the establishment of a protocol for re-establishing diplomatic relations. This edict was composed onboard MS Nord Estonia (Meri was on his way to Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Germany and Finland to re-establish diplomatic relations) and was dictated to the secretary on duty by phone. This was followed by a period of feverish work and already on  17 September 1991 (less than a month after the restoration of independence), Estonia was accepted as a member of the United Nations.

A 7-day  workweek meant the creation of schedules – attendance on Saturdays and Sundays was not mandatory, like on regular workdays, but the small staff and the large number of employees travelling abroad meant that working on off-days was normal (especially those close to Minister Meri). This regime remained until Meri cancelled his previous edict in the end of January 1992 and noted, among other things:

"I know that the ministry staff have worked 24 hours a day at critical times, without any written order. I would like to thank and congratulate you all for the completion of this great which has resulted in the recognition of the restored Republic of Estonia by over a hundred nations and Estonia’s acceptance as a member of most leading international organisations. This break-through is owedto all of you for the self-sacrificing work you have done ."

The edict also compensated the employees with 500 roubles for their overtime. The constant presence of workers in the ministry was important, because  there was no modern mobile network and the possibility of reaching people at all times. At the time, the ministry only had two mobile phones which were each the size of a suitcase  and were connected to the Finnish network. One of the large box-like Ericsson phones was placed on a windowsill at Toompea with the antenna facing the sea, and the other was at the disposal of the ministry’s press representative. Only the minister’s secretary and the head of the Protocol department could place direct long-distance phone calls. Any other international calls had to be put through with the help of the central phone exchange.

The return of the Estonian Republic to the international arena marked the arrival of foreign diplomats and the appointment of Estonian diplomats to foreign embassies. The first to arrive was the Swedish Ambassador Lars Arne Grundberg on 29 August, who was followed by the German Ambassador Henning von Wistinghausen on 2 September, the Icelandic Ambassador Sigridur Snaevarr on 24 September and the Finnish Ambassador Jaakko Erik Kaurinkoski on 1 October. Most of the first ambassadors initially resided at the Palace Hotel. They normally resided in two room hotel suites, where one room was used for sleeping and the other was the office. The ambassadors brought everything that they could possibly need with them, from pen and paper to food and cash. Later these first arrivals named themselves the Palace Club and held closely together.

The predecessors of the first Estonian embassies were information points built in Helsinki and Stockholm in 1990. The first Estonian consul in Finland became Kulle-Küllike Raig in October 1991 who was the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Finland and the director of Estonia’s cultural information point in Helsinki. By 31 December 1991, representations existed in New York, Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Bonn, Paris and Moscow.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs remained in Toompea until the beginning of 1992. The decision to move to a new building was made on the governmental level. In the beginning, it was planned to move the ministry back into the pre-war building on Toompea (the current National Art Gallery). After visiting the building, it was decided that the layout of the rooms, the probable lack of space and potential problems arising with the conservation authorities during the renovation of the building  rendered the old ministry building unsuitable.

The decision to expropriate and nationalise the property of the Estonian Communist Party (EKP), including its headquarters, was made by the Supreme Council in September 1991. The building became a part of the State Chancellery’s balance sheet and, for several years, the rooms were rented out to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The building, with its former address on Rävala Puiestee 9, was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs balance sheet in January 1994.

The move to the new building occurred gradually. The first to move were the Foreign Economic Policy and Legal departments, who made their home on the seventh floor in October-November. The move was made using two Volgas, which were filled up with all the existing property. At the same time, the Communist Party moved out (Vaino Väljas was on the ninth floor until the New Year) and disorder ruled. The New Year’s party of 1991/1992 was still held at Toompea. The main moving took place in February 1992, and the Protocol department was the last to leave Toompea. Jaan Manitski, Meri’s successor, came to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in April 1992 and worked as minister until October. By that time, the ministry had 100 employees (out of 145 positions) being divided between the Political department, the Euro Information Centre, the Protocol department, the Legal department, the Foreign Trade department, the Foreign Economic Policy department, the Consular department, the Administrative department, the Translation bureau, and the Information and Press department. In February, a new department entitled Foreign Representations was added to the Ministry’s structure along with the naming of four plenipotentiary ambassadors (Ambassadors with special missions) Clyde Kull, Arvo-Jürgen Alas, Tiit Matsulevitš and Margus Laidre. Ambassador Jüri Kahn, residing in Moscow, presented his credentials to President Boris Yeltsin on 4 February 1992.

The system worked and it can be said that the arrival of Manitski as minister marked the end of the ministry’s creation period and indicated the beginning of a “period of positive routine”. The 24-25 July Conference of Estonian Foreign Representations and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ management was the beginning of a tradition that still exists today. The most important discussion topics in summer 1992  were the negotiations with Russia.

From October 1992 until January 1994, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was Trivimi Velliste. This period marked the continuation of Lennart Meri’s foreign policy, which concentrated on strengthening relations with Western countries. On 14 May 1993, the Council of Europe became the first European political organisation to accept Estonia as a member. Russia continued to be a focus of foreign policy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs grew both in size and capacity, trying to define itself, its goals and the feasibility of achieving these goals.

Jüri Luik was Minister of Foreign Affairs from January 1994 until April 1995. During his period in office, the ministry had 198 workers in Estonia and 76 employees in 18 foreign representations, reaching a total of  274 employees, one third of whom were under 30 years old and another third 30 to 40 years old. In July 1994, an agreement on the withdrawal of Russian soldiers from Estonia was signed. Even though opinions regarding the agreement may have differed inside the ministry, the departure of the Russian armed forces on 31 August was celebrated with a spirited eating of pea soup. A picture of ministry employees equipped with ladles and pots appeared on the front page of Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s leading daily newspaper, on the following day.

From April to November 1995, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was Riivo Sinijärv. 1995 marked the completion of the Foreign Service Act (effective 1 January 1996), which had been in the making for several years. This act, along with the Government of the Republic Act (defining the role of  the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a government agency) and the Public Service Act, became the guiding principles for the work of the ministry. The existing ministry’s temporary rules of procedure were replaced with the enactment of the Foreign Service Act. The transition was not drastic, because the rules of procedure had essentially followed the principles of the new act. In the beginning of 1995, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs became one of the first governmental institutions to implement an electronic pay system. Another notable event was the transfer of the Paldiski nuclear reactor to Estonian officials on 26 September. The reactor’s closing ceremony was attended by foreign ambassadors accredited to Estonia.

In November 1995, Siim Kallas became Minister of Foreign Affairs. He held this position for a year. At that time, the ministry had 339 employees, some of them working in one of the 23 foreign embassies. The building had approximately 170 telephones and a dozen fax machines.  In the ministry’s first yearbook, published in 1995, the existence of 276 computers, 45 of which had Internet access, was proudly noted. The yearbook was not the only sign that interaction with the public was growing since, as of 1995,  the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has had its own website.

From November 1996 until October 1998, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was Toomas Hendrik Ilves; from October 1998 until March 1999, Raul Mälk, and from beginning of March 1999, once again Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The priority of the ministry became Estonia’s accession to the European Union. To fulfil this goal, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received a special mandate: On 1 August 1995, the Riigikogu unanimously passed the Ratification of the European Agreement Act. Intense work was rewarded by the European Union Summit in Luxembourg, held on 12-13 December 1997, where Estonia was invited to start its negotiations with the EU. In 1998, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs celebrated its 80th anniversary, where ex-ministers and workers were commemorated and official celebrations were held in the pre-war ministry building at Toompea. In 2001, a commemorative plaque was inaugurated in the lobby of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in memory of repressed colleagues.

From January 2002 to February 2005, the Foreign Minister was Kristiina Ojuland, succeeded by Rein Lang (February-April 2005).As of April 2005, the Foreign Minister is Urmas Paet. By 2010, there are more than 600 employees in the Foreign Ministry, distributed across 18 departments of the main building and 47 embassies. Estonia has been a member state of the European Union and NATO since the spring of 2004. This was an achievement that the majority of the Estonian population did not believe to be possible in such a short time. Time has shown that Estonia can  be an active and energetic member state  in both organizations. Today, 1990 has a mystic feel to it, a time of heroes and giants. Yet, the major changes have been in size and external in nature: the technology has changed, the staff has grown, embassies have been built, training has improved and resources have increased. At the same time,  the core principles set in place in 1990 and 1991 exist unchanged today. This can be called political will, a common mentality, common aims in foreign policy,  a general sense of collegial belonging and perhaps something else, but every Foreign Ministry employee senses the existence of that feeling..

Eeva Eek-Pajuste
diplomat

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