Estonia assumed its first two-year term on the United Nations Security Council in January, and it will hold the presidency in May. It’s a tough time for international diplomacy, in light of the pandemic.
“I don’t know exactly what’s waiting for us,” Estonian Ambassador Sven Jurgenson told PassBlue over Zoom from New York, where he is working remotely. “I have seen others do it, but it’s a bit intimidating.”
Since becoming independent from the Soviet Union, in 1991, Estonia, with a population of only 1.3 million, has seen its tech industry flourish — Skype was developed there, and the country virtually invented digital democracy. Voting online is common, and Estonians have secure digital identities. Not surprisingly, improved cybersecurity — key during a pandemic — will be among the top issues it brings before the Security Council, along with the need to address future pandemics, transparency, a rules-based world order and climate change. (Estonia also inherits the Council draft resolution focusing on a global cease-fire in the pandemic, a text that has been negotiated for many weeks, with no final results yet.)
Estonia plans a full schedule of open meetings by videoconferencing in May, and a signature event on cybersecurity is in the works. “Estonia became so famous in the world of cybersecurity because we are very developed in e-governance and everything digital,” Jurgenson said. “That actually gives you a lot of possibilities and opens doors, but at the same time it also makes you vulnerable.”
Transparency is another priority as the country is vice-chair of the Council’s working group on documentation and procedure, and the Council will hold a meeting on this topic on May 15. A week earlier, it is planning a ministerial-level Arria-style meeting on May 8, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. It marks the first time that an Arria-formula session — an unofficial meeting open to nonmembers of the Council — will be held with many prominent government authorities, according to Security Council Procedure, an independent research organization. (The organization also reports that since there have been some failures to mute during previous Council videoconferences, Estonia has decided that microphones of anyone other than the speaker will be automatically muted.)
Estonia is the first European member of the Council presiding over the body since the UN started meeting digitally in mid-March, holding open and closed sessions by videoconferencing. (China held the presidency that month, followed by the Dominican Republic.) A member of the European Union since 2003, Estonia intends to bring European priorities forward, and plans a May 28 discussion on cooperation between the UN and the European Union.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they assume the Council presidency. To hear more details on Estonia’s goals during May, download the latest episode of PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, from SoundCloud or Patreon. (Excerpts of the episode, produced by Stéphanie Fillion and Kacie Candela, with research by Léontine Gallois, are also below.)
Estonia’s ambassador to the UN: Sven Jurgenson, 58
Ambassador to the UN since: 2015
Languages: English, German, French, Finnish and Russian
Education: M.A. in data processing, Tal Tech (University of Technology), Tallinn, Estonia; further studies at the Engineering College, Dresden, Germany, and the International Institute of Public Administration, Paris, France.
His story, briefly: Ambassador Jurgenson was born in Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city. His family moved to the capital, Tallinn, when he was 7. After graduating from Tal Tech, he worked in the industry for a few years but quickly got bored. That’s when he got involved in politics and diplomacy, which he then studied in Paris.
“In the ’80s, when things started changing,” he said, “I was working at [Tal Tech] and a friend of mine [Juri Luik] was working at a place called the Estonian Institute, which was created by an intellectual, writer and filmmaker, Lennart Meri, who later became a foreign minister and then president. He started using the institute and information centers it opened in different places [to lobby abroad for Estonia’s independence].”
Ambassador Jurgenson moved to Helsinki, Finland, one of Estonia’s neighboring countries, in April 1991, a few months before Estonia became independent. “While it was already obvious that Estonia was rapidly becoming independent, nobody expected this to happen so fast,” he said. “In August, suddenly there was freedom and I had to start building up an embassy. I was the first chargé d’affaires in Helsinki, a very important place for Estonia because there’s a number of neighboring countries, but [Finland] is the closest to Estonia.”
After that, he officially became a diplomat and was posted in such places as Sweden, Austria, Tunisia, Monaco and France. He was involved in Estonia’s admission to NATO, the eurozone and now, of course, the Security Council. Jurgenson was also ambassador to the UN in New York City from 1998 to 2000 and to Washington from 2000 to 2003. From 2006 to 2010, he worked as the foreign policy adviser to the Chancellery of the President of Estonia. He returned to New York City in 2015, and his four-year-term was renewed last year. He is married and has three children.
Jurgenson talked to PassBlue on April 27. His remarks have been edited for space and clarity.
Can you tell me your priorities for the Council presidency and how they may have changed with the pandemic? I would say the priorities have not changed, with one exception: A pandemic like Covid-19 is the biggest challenge that we have at the moment. The rest of it is having transparency, having the emphasis on international law and rules-based world order, climate change, all these things are still there.
On transparency, we plan to have two high-level open debates. We have been thinking about formulas for the meetings. For example, on May 8, the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe, we were planning a high-level open debate, commemorating the end of the war and lessons learned from that, looking into the future. Now, of course, this will be difficult, but to be as close as possible to a normal debate in the Council chambers, we decided to make this an Arria-formula meeting. It will be very high level. Many ministers will speak, the chair will be our foreign minister [Urmas Reinsalu], and everybody can be in their own country and still participate. I think the participation will be even bigger because nobody has to travel to New York.
The second thing that we’re going to have is on the 15th of May a debate and discussion with the wider UN membership on the Council’s working methods. It’s going to be hard for the others to participate vocally, so they will send in their views on working methods in written statements — another adjustment.
On the 27th, we have an open, high-level debate on the protection of civilians, related to a report from the secretary-general. This is also something where we will try to find a platform as close as possible to a normal, high-level debate.
How has your expertise in cybersecurity helped you and your country adapt to the UN’s new way of working online in the pandemic, and how can Estonia contribute to the UN’s broader discussions on cybersecurity? Estonia became so famous in the world for cybersecurity [because] we are very developed in e-governance and everything digital. That gives you a lot of possibilities and opens doors, but at the same time it also makes you vulnerable. So the other side of the coin is, when you have a very digital society, you also need to have very strong cybersecurity. In 2007, the country as a whole came under a very severe cyberattack for the first time. [Editor’s note: Russia was a suspected player but denied interfering.] This was a wake-up call, and although we had been talking about it for years, there were few who took it very seriously, but it was a true, real threat. Now we have a Center of Excellence for Cybersecurity in Estonia.
With this crisis now, when everybody’s online, we have the same [concerns]. When I read, for example, that some places, even South Korea, are having elections — how can they carry them out through this really [challenging] time? Estonia has found a solution: secure digital ID cards and a voting station. It is still the only country in the world with [the option of voting in] parliamentary and local elections online; more than 30 percent of people are using it. The first time was in 2005 and since then, the number of people choosing the online option has grown fast, especially among young people. They take advantage of the fact that you don’t have to stand and queue in the rain or the snow and can just do it at home.
[Doing more things] online, such as video meetings, come with [the threat] of all kinds of trolling and hacking, and this is what we have to bear in mind. The audience for this subject has grown quite dramatically. Of course, it’s still a sensitive issue at the United Nations because countries have different views on solutions to cyberthreats.
Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid was the first Baltic head of state to meet with Vladimir Putin since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. Can you describe Estonia’s relationship with Russia and how it translates in the Security Council? I couldn’t say that we are as friendly as neighbors should be. When I look at Estonia’s relations with Finland, Sweden or Latvia, our other neighbors, they are much warmer. There are still challenges [even if, when it comes to practical things like border-crossing cooperation], things are going O.K. Issues like Crimea, the invasion of parts of Georgia, these are really worrying situations. Not only for us, but I think for the whole of Europe.
At the Security Council, when I look at our relationship with my Russian colleague or between the country missions, so far I think it has been very constructive. We have been working together and trying to support each other wherever we can. Of course, there are differences of opinion, like about the situation of human rights in Crimea, the occupations of Crimea and Syria, etc. But at the same time, when there are times we don’t have an issue, we can work together.
Head of State: President Kersti Kaljulaid
Foreign Affairs Minister: Urmas Reinsalu
Type of Government: Parliamentary Republic
Year Estonia Joined the UN: 1991
Years in the Security Council: 2020-2021
Population: 1.3 million
Memberships in Regional Groups: European Union, NATO, Baltic Euroregional Network (BEN), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.