In Estonia, Caution but Surprising Cheers for Trump’s Victory


Such views, widespread in Russian-speaking communities in the Baltics and beyond, contrast starkly with the alarm, even panic, at Mr. Trump’s triumph among an Estonian-speaking political and foreign policy elite in the country’s capital, Tallinn, where Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, is viewed as a threat that must be resisted, not appeased.

During the campaign, Mr. Trump raised alarms in Baltic capitals by calling NATO “obsolete” and questioning why the United States should defend alliance members who fail to shoulder their share of the costs. He has since toned down such remarks, and he told President Obama at the White House last week that he would not upend the security guarantees that have underpinned NATO’s system of collective defense and peace in Europe since 1949.

But the Baltic States remain edgy: Mr. Trump demonstrated a mercurial streak during the campaign, and they are the most at risk if he should change his mind again and decide to back away from NATO. Adding to their worries, pro-Kremlin politicians just scored gains in elections in Bulgaria and Moldova.

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An armored vehicle with an American flag rolled through town during a military parade in Narva to celebrate Estonia’s independence day in 2015.

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Raigo Pajula/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Yet the reaction to Mr. Trump’s victory in Estonia and neighboring Latvia, which also has a large Russian population, is complex, a reflection of their tangled ethnic, cultural and political situation. Even as political leaders in Tallinn and the Latvian capital of Riga are in shock, many ethnic Russians see a silver lining, hoping that a Trump presidency can improve relations with Russia.

Tanel Mazur, the teacher of the social studies class in Narva, said that around a third of his students were of Russian descent, a third Estonian and a third from mixed families, but they defy easy tribal labels. All speak Estonian, which is used in class, and Russian, the dominant language in Narva, and also English.

Not all of his students cheered Mr. Trump, and several, including one with a Russian background, said they worried he might encourage trouble by trying to appease Mr. Putin.

Asked what they wanted from Mr. Trump now that he has been elected leader of the free world, one student said the president-elect must “keep his emotions back.” Another said he “should make America great again,” while the class joker advised that Mr. Trump “change his hair” if he wants to be taken seriously.

Mr. Mazur, who teaches in Estonian and stayed up late on election night to follow the results, said he never liked Mrs. Clinton much but added that she at least “had a much clearer message” and you “knew what to expect, more or less.” Mr. Trump, by contrast, “has said so many different things, nobody knows what he really wants to do.”

Adding to the uncertainty and alarm are statements by some of Mr. Trump’s supporters, like Newt Gingrich, who described Estonia as “the suburbs of St. Petersburg” and not worth a confrontation with Russia that could risk nuclear war. Mr. Gingrich is now a long-shot candidate for the post of secretary of state.

“The idea that our country is just a suburb of St. Petersburg is a nightmare for every Estonian,” said Eerik-Niiles Kross, a member of Estonia’s Parliament and the country’s former intelligence coordinator. Mr. Trump’s election, he added, “has sent a shiver through the whole region” because it reopened security questions that “were thought to have been closed with the expansion of NATO more than 10 years ago.”

Ojars Kalnins, the chairman of the foreign relations committee in the Parliament of neighboring Latvia, said Mr. Gingrich’s comments about Estonia “were unfortunate, to put it mildly.”

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A Latvian infantry unit in 2015, during the annual Saber Strike exercise. To head off any weakening of American support for the Baltic states, a group of legislators from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania will travel to Washington early next month to press their case.

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Bryan Denton for The New York Times

“It is one thing to talk about having a dialogue with Russia, but to question the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a country is outrageous,” Mr. Kalnins said.

Yet he added that profound worry over Mr. Trump’s intentions has calmed somewhat because the president-elect has pulled back from statements he made on the campaign trail.

In an effort to head off any weakening of American support for the Baltic States, Mr. Kalnins and a group of fellow legislators from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania will travel to Washington early next month to press their case to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and others who might help influence Mr. Trump.

“We abhor unpredictability and confusion,” said Juri Luik, a former Estonian defense minister and foreign minister. “We are a small country and like a lot of predictability.” Adding conditions to NATO support, as Mr. Trump has proposed doing, “would mean a total and profound change in the alliance.” He added that he doubted this would happen, as “it is quite likely that a number of foreign policy proposals will significantly change once he takes office.”

The Baltic States, which are among the most outspoken critics of Mr. Putin and are dogged advocates within the European Union of sanctions against Russia, also worry that Mr. Trump’s admiring remarks about the Russian president, and a web of personal connections between members of his camp and Russia, may lead him to cut the Kremlin slack. This risks muddling a previously united front between Europe and the United States in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Yet Mr. Trump’s desire to make a deal with Mr. Putin, who has long demanded that NATO get out of Russia’s neighborhood, will be crimped not only by strong bipartisan support for the military alliance in Washington but also by the fact that his negotiating hand has been weakened by a string of political developments in Eastern Europe that work to the Kremlin’s advantage.

Even in Estonia, a country that has always counted itself as a particularly robust friend of the United States, domestic political quarrels recently led to the collapse — just a few hours after Mr. Trump’s election — of a solidly pro-Western government. This opened the way for negotiations over a new government with the Center Party, a center-left group popular with Russian-speaking voters.

The Center Party had been kept at arm’s length because of its alleged links to Moscow, but has recently sought to recast itself as a mainstream force that supports NATO and recent decisions by the alliance to establish battalions of 800 to 1,200 troops in each of the three Baltic States and in Poland.

The stationing of these NATO troops in their country had been strongly opposed by many Russian-speaking Estonians, who, echoing a view promoted by state-controlled Russian news media, see it as a needless provocation of Russia.

Vladimir Petrov, the chairman of the Union of Russian Citizens, a group in Narva that lobbies on behalf of Russians living in Estonia, said it was “laughable” to think that Moscow has any interest in attacking Estonia, so there is “absolutely no need” for NATO troops.

Moreover, he added, a few hundred British and other NATO soldiers will hardly stop Russia’s military. “It would all be over in a couple of hours,” he said.

Mr. Petrov said he welcomed Mr. Trump’s victory because the businessman wanted to cooperate with, rather than confront, Moscow. But he worries that the president-elect may “end up like Kennedy” because, he said, the military-industrial complex in the United States does not want a president interested in lowering tensions. Assassination, he added, “may seem unlikely, but we have seen so many times recently that the unlikely keeps on happening.”

While residents of Narva are mostly ethnic Russians or at least Russian speaking, nobody here wants to see a repeat of the scenario in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-speaking residents, backed by Moscow, seized power and broke away from the rest of Ukraine. Students in Mr. Mazur’s class laughed uproariously when asked whether they would ever want to live in a place like Ivangorod, the adjacent and decrepit Russian town on the other side of the Narva River.

“I am Russian, but I don’t feel safe in Russia,” said Jevgeni Timostsuk, an events manager who frequently travels across the border. He said that, unlike many of his fellow Russians in Estonia, he was “alarmed” by Mr. Trump’s victory because he “did not expect such an unserious person ruling a serious country.”

Artyom Troitsky, a Russian critic of the Kremlin who lives in self-imposed exile in Estonia, said Russian speakers in Narva, while heavily influenced by Russian propaganda, have “a much more objective view of Russia” than Russians in Tallinn “for the simple reason that they live on the border and go to Russia often, so they know what life is really like over there.”

All the same, many feel strong emotional ties to Russia and have absorbed a message spread by Russian television that the political establishment in Washington, including Mrs. Clinton, wants to provoke armed conflict. Before Mr. Trump’s victory, said Aleksandr Moissejenko, an ethnic Russian office manager in Narva, “it seemed we were just a step away from World War III” because of all the Russian and American warplanes flying over Syria in support of rival sides.

Mr. Trump, he said, “never said Russia is good, just that it is not an enemy. This is a big improvement.” If war did break out, he added, “I would fight for Estonia, not Russia.”

Correction: November 17, 2016

An earlier version of a picture caption accompanying this article referred incorrectly to a vehicle in a military parade in Narva. It was an armored vehicle, but not a tank.

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