The Estonian Embassy in London is a stone’s throw from Hyde Park. The five-storey house is in classic style, white and strict, and the flag of Ukraine is flying in front of it together with the Estonian one. The inside of the building is even more colorful.
On the wall of Ambassador Viljar Lubi’s office, there is Marko Mäetamm’s artwork “Everyone has fun” with small naked figures of different sexes, races and even species.
“How should I say – this is a gift from the team to me; when I arrived from vacation, it was already hanging here,” one of Estonia’s top diplomats remains reserved. “Let it be – art is art.
As the Ambassador of the Republic of Estonia, you presented your credentials on February 15 this year. Have you met the Queen more than once?
I am the first Estonian ambassador to the United Kingdom who has served here before: I was also on a mission to the United Kingdom as a young diplomat in 2002–2006. I was then lucky to meet the Queen twice: at the traditional Christmas reception at Buckingham Palace and when the then Estonian Ambassador presented his credentials.
This time we met in modern style because the Queen is already old and there is also the Covid-19 situation: I drove to Buckingham Palace, but the Queen herself was in Windsor Castle. We met over the video link but that didn’t change the atmosphere. The discussion was immediate nevertheless. A very pleasant experience.
Millions of people like the Queen, but – this is now an undiplomatic question – how can one justify that power and essentially the whole state can be inherited in the modern world?
It must be remembered that the Estonian and British systems are similar in the sense that the executive power is in the hands of the Prime Minister. Both the President and the Queen perform only the representative role. When – this year over many years – Prince Charles made the program speech, it was in fact drafted by the government.
The Queen does not interfere in politics every day; actually she abstains from it completely. In this respect, heredity is simply a tradition, part of the national identity.
If you say that Estonia and Great Britain are similar, then yes, we also have certain manifestations of aristocracy: Prime Minister Kallas comes from a governing family, Minister of the Environment Savisaar as well, the Helme family is also in power. But what has contributed to this? Do certain people simply have a genetic aptitude to work on high public positions?
I do not actually believe it, but the environment probably has an effect – if you participate in certain discussions from your early days and you can understand whether you like it or, vice versa, do not like it at all. And similar examples can be found in many walks of life: athletes, actors, musicians! Bringing up helps, so I don’t think we can talk about aristocracy. These people have had contact with politics throughout their lives, and something will inevitably leave a mark.
Speaking of acquired customs, how easy is it in London to understand what social class someone belongs to?
Courtesy is very important here. Rudeness is not appreciated in London, it is disapproved of. And the culture here presents difference of opinion in an extremely polite way.
A person who knew the present Prime Minister Boris Johnson since the times he was still the mayor has hinted that he is a great actor: very concentrated and businesslike at meetings, but when he meets with the voters, he “plays a simple guy”: unbuttons his shirt collar and messes up his hairdo with fingers. Which Boris Johnson have you seen?
My contacts with Prime Minister Johnson are practical. We talk about specific topics where Estonia and the UK are looking for a common ground and generally find it. Prime Minister Johnson is clearly results-oriented and familiar with Estonia’s affairs and is extremely positive about us. Therefore the meetings with him are workmanlike and pleasant.
Kaja Kallas’s quick visit on June 6, which the embassy intensely prepared, is now over: the speeches made, the awards received, cooperation reassured. Yet what attracted attention in Estonia is that Johnson did not receive Kallas at his door. Why?
It must have been influenced by daily politics of the UK. In general, the visit of Prime Minister Kallas went like planned and without hitches. All the meetings took place, all the planned issues were discussed and the prime ministers also made a joint statement on closer relations in the future. Johnson also personally presented the Grotius Prize to Prime Minister Kallas.
The relationship between Kallas and Johnson is very good, just as between Estonia and the United Kingdom. Why do the British care so much for our security?
I think that history plays a role here, as well as geography. Historically, the role of the British in the Estonian War of Independence is known and if we fast-forward, then the British never recognized the Soviet occupation of Estonia.
My predecessor here worked in London until 1971, when he left this world due to his old age (he is referring to August Torma, who represented the Republic of Estonia in London 1940–1971, maintaining as the only Estonian diplomat the diplomatic status in the host country and control of the embassy building).
And we have been together with the British in the hottest sports – Helmand, Afghanistan, which was described as hell. Perhaps it is thanks to this experience that the British know that the Estonians can be trusted, and vice versa.
The United Kingdom is located in northern Europe, we have a common geography and the JEF (Joint Expeditionary Force) concerns the Baltic Sea, the Arctic Ocean, the Northern Atlantic, since the British probably feel that if they work closely with Northern European countries, this is the extension of their own defense.
The British are in Estonia not only to protect us, but also to protect themselves. Everyone understands what the main risk is and Russia is it for both Estonia and the United Kingdom. Defense cooperation agreements with Finland and Sweden also fit exactly in this pattern.
Some Democrats in the United States – for example, the loud filmmaker Michael Moore – are very much concerned with the United States being too closely linked to the war. How strong is criticism in the United Kingdom regarding the expenses and risks Boris Johnson creates by donating weapons to Ukraine?
In the United Kingdom, there is very strong support for government’s active politics, both in the condemnation of the Russian aggression, punishing it with sanctions and for Russia’s isolation from international affairs, as well as for the comprehensive support to Ukraine. This concerns the whole political spectrum, where the opposition is strongly behind the government and often even want the United Kingdom to do more.
There is also strong public support. Anyone who visits London and, in fact, any city or village in the UK, can see that the number of Ukrainian flags is quite impressive. The United Kingdom has always positioned itself as a strong protector of democratic and human rights values and this has not remained mere political rhetoric. In other words, the United Kingdom is an extremely important major partner and friend got Estonia in this largest security crisis in Europe since World War II.
As you recalled at the beginning of the conversation, the British decided to increase their military presence in Estonia even before February 24, when they doubled their military contingent here. Was it a British decision or a response to Estonia’s request?
This decision was our cooperation. We said that the risks were there and the British shared our view, the British intelligence information confirmed it. It was a great success that we currently have over 2,000 British soldiers in Tapa – and 300 French and Danish soldiers, of course.
By the way, how was the critical issue of pubs solved for them?
Yes, I went to Tapa before coming to London and met both British and French soldiers. The pub issue was really a problem. I suggested to them that since Estonian laws do not allow alcohol to be sold in the territory of military bases, but they have a large parking lot next to the unit, they could bring food trucks and sell beer there. Then they need not have to go to the town of Tapa.
It was recently announced that Spain will deploy a medium-range anti-aircraft battery to the NATO battle group in Latvia. Would the British send something similar to Estonia?
Further reinforcement of the Estonian borders and the eastern flank of NATO has been the subject of a very serious discussion in recent months. With the British, understandably, we have been somewhat more detailed in out discussions than with NATO, but NATO’s collective defense is primary; therefore we are seeking for a satisfactory solution for the eastern flank in cooperation with all partners.
The role of us and the British is to contribute with proposals and analysis to the issues concerning Estonia’s geography and capabilities. I can say that there will certainly be a significant addition from the Allies, including the British. Estonia will be well protected and our British friends will help us a lot.
Do you think that nuclear weapons should be stationed in Estonia?
This is a political issue and concerns purely military defense. The NATO Commander-in-Chief SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) has been tasked with developing the necessary defense plans to keep the NATO borders protected.
Nuclear deterrence is extremely important in political terms and it also extends to Estonia thanks to the British forces presence in Estonia –despite the fact that there are no nuclear weapons in Estonia. Ant there is France which also plays a role in nuclear deterrence. But the answer to the question is probably not that straightforward.
Of course, we cannot know where the British nuclear submarines are operating. Maybe one of them is in the Baltic Sea all the time.
I am not saying anything.
Does Estonia have a plan B for the situation when we are again occupied?
There is always a Plan B. The plan includes an agreement with Luxembourg that if something happens in Estonia, all Estonian databases will be copied to an undisclosed location in the Luxembourg servers.
But where would our government in exile be located?
This plan B must also always exist but we need not talk about it because we hope it never has to be implemented. My daily work currently covers a lot of defense cooperation. Russia has shown itself for what it is: an aggressor. Fortunately, no one has to prove to anyone in this country that Russia is an aggressor.
Have you talked about the war with any of your Russian colleagues?
I have not! I considered meeting with the Russian ambassador when I arrived here, but I gave up this idea. However, I went to the European Union ambassadors as well as the Indian ambassador, for example: such visits are a diplomatic tradition.
One could assume that the Russian ambassador does not get many invitations currently…
I have not seen my Russian colleague at any event I have attended, and when viewing his statements or the Russian embassy’s statements on Twitter, for example, it is apparent that they repeat their narrative. There seems to be no point in talking to him.
How many have the sanctions imposed on Russia affected the London real estate market?
I think less than Covid-19. Covid had an impact: the prices of small city center apartments last year, for example, fell, but the prices of slightly larger suburban apartments increased. Russia’s sanctions mainly concern very expensive real estate – there is more luxury real estate available in the market.
The Estonian Embassy is located in Kensington, an exclusive area. Since it is our common property … how much does it cost?
Since there have been no plans of selling, we have not researched the market, but it must be millions. When compared with the purchase price in 2007 – it took years to repair the building – Estonia still got a very good deal.
Interestingly, all three embassy buildings Estonia had in London are all very close to each other. The historic building that Estonia had first – there is now the Embassy of Oman – was sold because the government in exile could not maintain it and the pre-war diplomats were no longer alive.
Does the embassy building have any flaws?
Every house has some flaws. This one creaks a lot and (probably points at some defect discovered over time) there are some cracks.
And the elevator (there is one but only to the second floor)! This house is a typical London townhouse, narrow and high. My office is on the third floor, but Kadri-Liis (the embassy’s press representative) has to walk to the fifth floor every day.
But how do you go to work? With an official car or on foot, maybe even with Bolt?
I can walk to work, four minutes along nice cobblestones on quiet side streets. Bolt is available in London and it can sometimes be used. If not for the ride, then certainly to promote the success of Estonian technology companies, almost all the time.
Before London, you were ambassador to Delhi. Do you sometimes miss India?
India is an extremely interesting country in this sense or I would say a subcontinent: if one country could equal to a separate civilization, then India meets many criteria. There are also many things that are perhaps difficult to get used to and even disagreeable, but this cultural depth is what attracts at the same time. I cannot say that I feel at home in India – there were many disturbing aspects – but there were also a lot of elements that keep you awake. This attraction factor is undoubtedly there for me.
Your term as ambassador to India was almost completely influenced by the crisis of the ship protection team.
Unfortunately, yes. It was a very unfortunate case really.
Has Estonia helped these men in any way in receiving damages, because they were held for years effectively for no reason – as it finally came out?
To my knowledge, they have not even appealed to the Estonian state as citizens with such request.
But what if they did approach? What could Estonia do?
Not much in legal terms. To my knowledge, they have waived all the opportunities so far. I remind that the Estonian state was not really a part of the case in the affair; our main task was to ensure that their civic and human rights were guaranteed. The Estonian state will always continue to stand for this.
If I would like to live in London as an Estonian citizen, how difficult would it be after Brexit?
It is clear that Brexit has taken place and living and working in the United Kingdom has become more difficult. Additional paperwork must be done, but it is not impossible.
How large is the Estonian community in the UK?
The process of registration of all Estonians living here was completed by the embassy and now we know the magnitude: about 15,000 people with an Estonian passport.
How much larger was that number before Brexit?
I have no idea. It is clear that Covid-19 also took many jobs, for example in the tourism sector. However, I cannot say whether these people found other jobs or returned to Estonia.
In our conversation, we have alternatively used the terms UK and Great Britain. What is the difference – and what is the difference from England?
Formally speaking it is the United Kingdom because the official name of the country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We generally use the abbreviation UK in writing. Great Britain is the island consisting of Scotland, Wales and England. And as for the British Isles, it includes the smaller islands, such as Jersey.
Very complicated! If you travel between Estonia and England as the ambassador, you probably do not use Ryanair?
I have flown with Ryanair many times, especially now when only two airlines offer direct flights: airBaltic and Ryanair. I hope that there will be more direct flights.
How much can the embassy influence such business decisions?
Well, we can. Usually they want to know what the advantages of Estonia are – good business environment, tax system, policy regarding talents – and secondly they wish an assurance whether some element or another in this picture would change. Relaying this message is one of the most important business diplomatic tasks of every embassy.