Lessons from Estonia

| September 2, 2010 | 0 Comments
Nazi soldiers in Estonia.

Nazi soldiers in Estonia.

‘The home I grew up in was Estonian,‘ says Trade Minister Peter Van Loan…
’At nine years old, the wisdom of age was upon me’

Sitting on a sofa in his simply-furnished office in Centre Block, Canada’s International Trade Minister, Peter Van Loan explains how a first-generation Canadian of Estonian heritage wound up with a Dutch name. “On my father’s side, there is a Dutch heritage — Van Loon — which one of my ancestors changed to Van Loan to reflect the real pronunciation. But the home I grew up in was Estonian. “
His views of trade and politics meet and blend into a philosophy of freedom — non-protectionist movement of goods and services, and the ultimate freedom of democracy.
The 47-year-old lawyer and former University of Toronto professor with the speak-easy style has packed a lot into his brief political career as Conservative MP for Ontario’s York-Simcoe riding.
Since entering politics in 2004, Peter Van Loan has served in a number of cabinet-level positions — among them, parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, minister of intergovernmental affairs, and House leader and minister of democratic reform, and minister of public safety. Early this year, he was appointed minister of international trade.
Mr. Van Loan credits his family’s Estonian heritage for his political beliefs. In conversations with Diplomat publisher Donna Jacobs, Mr. Van Loan described the important influences in his life:
“I grew up in a home where I was essentially raised by my mother, my grandmother, Juta Valjaots Rentik, and my grandfather, Leho Rentic, who were Estonians.
“They had fled Estonia during the Second World War first as refugees to Sweden and ultimately to Canada.
“Across Europe, my grandfather had seen Finlandization.* He’d seen the Chinese Revolution. He’d seen the Korean War. And the fear of many people in Europe was that Sweden was next. He chose Canada as the country he thought was the best destination for freedom and democracy, and also a country that was far, far away from the threats he had faced.
“It sounds a little bit crazy from where we sit today but if you put yourself in the context of that time, that era, it was not that wild. He saw Canada not only as a safe place but also as a place of opportunity.
“They came to Canada around 1950, after the successive waves of Nazi and Soviet occupation, because they believed there was no other choice, really. If they had stayed, they would have faced the same fate that many others in the family faced.

Mr. Van Loan says you often hear that Hitler’s mass murders were methodical and orderly and Stalin’s were brutal and erratic. But, he says, that's not entirely true. “There always was, undoubtedly, a focus on the elites, the leadership in society, anybody who was educated,” he says.

Mr. Van Loan says you often hear that Hitler’s mass murders were methodical and orderly and Stalin’s were brutal and erratic. But, he says, that's not entirely true. “There always was, undoubtedly, a focus on the elites, the leadership in society, anybody who was educated,” he says.

“My grandmother had been a lawyer in Estonia back in the 1920s, an unusual career at that time. And my grandfather had been an agronomist which, in a largely agricultural society, was a fairly significant responsibility. It made him into a bit of a community leader.
“In the case of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters, some were simply executed and shot. “There was a particularly vicious attack — by some Communists with axes — in their homes while they were sleeping. They were bludgeoned to death in their beds. My grandfather’s parents were among those who went to the gulag in Siberia and who ultimately died there.
“One can debate what the gulag was about. I’m firmly of the view that these were essentially concentration camps designed to depopulate, in the case of the Baltics, the ethnic Estonians and Latvians — particularly the leadership. Those who hadn’t been dealt with one way had to be dealt with another way. Using the gulags also allowed the Russian occupation to take hold, to take root. Soviet efforts towards Russification, especially in Estonia and Latvia where they had small enough populations, was a viable proposition.
“In Stalin’s time, there was an era of brutality. Anyone who represented any kind of leadership was a threat and particularly if you represented any kind of leadership in an occupied country, you were a particular threat.
“The Poles suffered greatly, too, and lost an entire generation of leadership. The loss was repeated in the tragedy we just witnessed in the deaths of Polish leaders who were en route to observe the memory of the Katyn Massacre.** The April plane crash in fog near Smolensk Airport killed Polish president Lech Kaczynski, his wife, Maria and 94 others, including senior politicians and the heads of the Polish military.
“People argued, and you often hear that unlike Hitler’s mass murders that were methodical and orderly, Stalin’s were brutal and erratic. That is not entirely true. There always was, undoubtedly, a focus on the elites, the leadership in society, anybody who was educated.
“Once they were safely in Canada, my grandmother, the lawyer, went to work on the order desk at Sears. And my agronomist grandfather went to work in a paper factory in Riverdale, (a Toronto neighbourhood). I think they embraced their new home, were pleased to be in Canada and certainly encouraged me to think in those terms. But they also graced me continually with the stories of what they had endured.
“I’m told that there are two strains in the Estonian personality. One is the survivors, the other is the warriors. On my grandfather’s side were more warriors. And my grandmother’s side were more survivors.
“They told so many stories — of hiding in the woods, of running away from the Communists.
“They were lucky sometimes to get a heads up, to hear what was happening and to be able to stay on the run and sleep. One memorable story, not actually told to me until I was in politics, was the story of grandfather’s candidacy in an election the Communists had held.
“The non-Communist parties got together and fielded a single candidate. They tried to be non-partisan. My grandfather was tagged to be the candidate for them. And the day of these rigged elections, about three hours before the polls closed, a contingent of about 25 or 30 Red Army soldiers came up my grandfather’s farm lane and showed up at his door.
“They said: ‘We’re here to accept your concession of defeat.’
“My grandfather, with his warrior personality, said: ‘You won’t decide that. The people will decide.’
“And they said: ‘We’ll give you 45 minutes to think about it. We’ll be back.’
“And they marched down to the end of the farm lane and my grandmother, the survivor, said: ‘Are you nuts? They’re going to kill you.’
“And at that point, aided by the family’s hired help, they were spirited off into the woods and once again were on the run.
“My grandfather’s parents — I saw the photo of them in Siberia where they died. And I saw a photo of one of my grandfather’s siblings standing beside old wooden crosses on the rocky graves. Those photos kind of seared in my memory.
“It wasn’t until I had been an MP for about five or six years, my grandmother and mother — my grandfather had died by then — got a little more explicit (about their initial lack of enthusiasm for a political career).
“They said that when the Russians came to send the people to Siberia, one of the first things they did was go down the Party membership lists. So they had this fear— notwithstanding being very, very strong in their views — of getting involved and exposing oneself to that kind of risk.
“One of my favourite stories was about the time when my grandfather and a friend were on the run. In those days, hay was stacked up in an old-fashioned haystack — just a big pile of hay. And to hide from the Red Army soldiers, they dug out a little cave for themselves within one of these haystacks to sleep. They were adults — my grandfather had a six -year-old daughter.
“So they’re sleeping in there. And along come a couple of Red Army soldiers who decide they’re going to sleep on top of this haystack for the next while.
“’O, my God,’ they said, ‘we’re doomed for sure.’
“And then one of the legs — the boot of the soldier — drops into the cave they made for themselves. They carefully try to gently push it back out so that the soldier won’t notice. After several tries, it works.
“It’s just a litany of stories of these close calls. Another time, they were shot at and a bullet just grazes by and hits the tree behind them.
“They were targeted because they were Estonian nationalists, strong Estonian nationalists, and because they were leaders in the community, and therefore obvious targets. But it wasn’t just the Communists.
“German was the mother tongue in the family because in Estonia, in the Czar’s time before they gained independence — before the First World War — the Hansiatic League State (Estonia), had a German landed-class aristocracy. The language of government was German. My grandmother’s father was township administrator. He spoke German.
“When my mother was about five years old, the Nazis had already arrived. She and my grandmother and grandfather encountered a couple of German soldiers on the street. It was obvious that the soldiers were ready to shoot them.
“Who knows what happens in war? They were a threat. That’s what you do if you’re a soldier. My mother starts pleading for her life in German. And the soldiers go from being angry and ready to shoot to laughing.

The Estonian Cyber War of 2007, which shut down websites of the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters, came amid Estonia’s dispute with Russia over the relocation of this monument, known as the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, an important symbol of the Soviet era.

The Estonian Cyber War of 2007, which shut down websites of the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters, came amid Estonia’s dispute with Russia over the relocation of this monument, known as the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, an important symbol of the Soviet era.

“There is this very funny little girl—she speaks German.” (Mr. Van Loan is speaking German mimicking the soldiers.) So the soldiers thought that was funny and they let them go.
“It’s on those little moments that life and death can turn.
“This was enough to make me committed to learning a second language. I just speak English and French and some German which I’ve largely forgotten, and about 30 or 40 words or phrases in Estonian. It was in hearing those stories of my family that I became very highly politicized.
“When I was five, I was a big fan of Pierre Trudeau. He was very committed to freedom and human rights, so we were told. But then in the years that followed, I saw him cozying up with Castro and Kosygin and Brezhnev and these are the people who are imprisoning what was left of my family still in the Soviet Union, in occupied Estonia.
“So that’s when I realized they (Trudeau and his Liberal Party) were not really committed to freedom and democracy. And that’s when I became a Conservative. At nine years old (he chuckles) the wisdom of age — as they say — was upon me.
“From 1972 on, I was a Conservative. So this is really what has always driven my involvement in politics. It was a very strong concern that we have to do what we can — at that time when I was growing up — to work to restore freedom to these occupied countries that lost their freedom and to the millions of people all across the Baltics and Eastern Europe who lived involuntarily under Communism, effectively as prisoners in their own society.
“When independence and freedom were restored in 1991, with the fall of Communism, I almost had a bit of an identity crisis, a crisis of purpose. Then I realized: Those threats will remain and will continue. Optimistic as some may be, it quickly became apparent that we do have to work hard to ensure that the gains aren’t rolled back, as they were in the past — that those countries that gained their independence and restored their freedom continue to be able to retain their sovereignty and freedom now.
“We’ve seen threats to them. We saw the cyber attack which took place on Estonia. We saw the conflict that took place in Georgia. We know (what can happen) if we don’t remain committed and vigilant towards protecting these countries, like the Baltics, that are our NATO partners.
“I don’t think we can be complacent.”

(The Estonian Cyber War has been described as the world’s most sophisticated cyber attack. It began in April, 2007, and proceeded to close down the websites of the important Estonian institutions, including the Estonian parliament, banks, government ministries, newspapers and broadcasters. The attack came amid Estonia’s dispute with Russia over the relocation of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, an important symbol of the Soviet era. The Russian government denied that it was responsible for the cyber attack; one Russian national was eventually convicted.)
Diplomat magazine: What about the controversy between the U.S. and Russia over a Poland-based missile defence of Europe?
Peter Van Loan: All the countries of Europe have the right to make their own choices about the alliances to which they belong, their own choices about how they want to participate in those alliances militarily, what commitment they want to make. But no country should have a veto over those choices. No country should be able to intimidate these countries. They’re sovereign free countries.

DM: What regions of the world does the state of democracy cause you concern?
PVL: As a government, we have great concerns about democracy in many places. We want to see human rights advanced and there’s no secret our government has made that a cornerstone of our agenda. It’s not something that we’re going to compromise for the sake of trade — which has happened in the past.
We continue to raise these issues, whether it be countries in the Middle East that could treat women better and have better human rights, or countries like Myanmar. We’re on the record with our concerns about the quality of democracy in Russia. We have concerns about human rights in China — all of these we have spoken about clearly in the past and will continue to.

DM: Does this make it difficult to trade with these nations?
PVL: There is a lot of talk, but the reality is that every year since we’ve become the government, our trade with China has increased. So I would suggest we’ve succeeded in trading at the same time staying true to our Canadian values and our commitment to those fundamental core values: freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
That’s why Canada is such an attractive place to invest, because people know we represent a stable democracy with the rule of law. The rule of law is a concern to Canadians who want to invest abroad. It comes up repeatedly. In countries without the rule of law, people feel they’ve lost their investments, feel they aren’t treated fairly. They can’t rely on the courts. A contract doesn’t mean a contract.
In Canada, no matter where you come from, you can count on the rule of law. You can count on your property rights. You can count on a contract. And if somebody defaults, you have remedies. And, of course, we’ll take the side of right.
We will continue to advance our human rights agenda all around the world where we can. And we’ve been doing that in Afghanistan at the cost of significant blood, lives and treasure. This is consistent with Canada’s history for as long as we’ve been a country.
In Central America and Latin America, I think we’ve seen tremendous progress in the last two or three decades. There are always hiccups and we always have our countries of concern. But I should say that there is probably more good news today than bad.
Africa is a little more mixed in outcomes. Zimbabwe remains an area of tremendous concern to us. We watch Zimbabwe with interest and hope we’ll see progress there. There are some good news stories, like Ghana. Kenya was very good news story until the violence after the last round of elections; we’re working very closely with Kenya. They’re going through a constitutional process right now hopefully that will resolve some of the tensions that existed.
One of the most important (pro-democracy) initiatives is our proposal in our platform last election to establish a Democracy Promotion Institute.
When we were preparing our platform last year, it was something I strongly advocated. It builds on work I began when I was parliamentary secretary for Foreign Affairs and we had the Foreign Affairs committee doing the work on democracy promotion. There’s a study looking at what other countries have done in that area — the British with the Westminster Institute, some of the Scandinavian countries — what they have done. So that work is continuing and (Minister of State for Democratic Reform) Stephen Fletcher will bring forward some very good proposals in that area.
Each country has its own story. We have a lot to offer and a lot to provide in the way of help — but at the end of the day, the solution is always with the people of those countries.

*The policy of neutrality of a country under the influence of another more powerful one, without being formally allied to it, similar to the neutralization of Finland with respect to the Soviet Union after 1944.

**In 1940, Stalin ordered his NKVD security police to execute by gunshot 25,700 Poles. The NKVD took more than 4,000 Polish officers from the Kozelsk Prison Camp to the Katyn Forest, shot them and mass buried them.

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Donna Jacobs is Diplomat's publisher

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