Riina Kionka – the most influential Estonian official in the EU, and a diplomat by accident

Riina Kionka is the chief foreign policy advisor to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, making her the most influential official of Estonian nationality in the European Union – somewhat ironically, as she became a diplomat by an accident and actually didn’t believe almost until the last minute Estonia would join the EU.

Riina Ruth Kionka was born in Detroit, Michigan, the one-time capital of the American auto industry, in 1960 to an Estonian mother and an American father of German descent. Detroit, you might ask? There are Estonians in Detroit? Well, if history has taught us anything, it’s that there are Estonians everywhere. And the Detroit Estonian community is 90 years old – the Estonian Educational Society of Detroit, “Kodu” (“Home”), was founded in 1926 – years before the exodus of Estonian refugees arrived in the United States, escaping from the atrocities of the Second World War and the subsequent Soviet occupation of Estonia.

It’s true that most Estonian refugees who arrived in the States settled in the East Coast, namely in the state of New Jersey. But there’s a simple explanation to that. “Most Estonian refugees who came to the US ended up near where their first sponsors under the Displaced Persons Act of 1949 were,” Kionka explains. “That’s why there are so many Estonians in New Jersey, because of Seabrook Farms” – a community that sponsored large numbers of refugees, in addition to Estonians also Latvians, Lithuanians and others. The farms’ owner, C.F. Seabrook, seeing an opportunity to gain additional labour force, sponsored more than 600 Estonians who went to work at the farms.

Starting over together with other Estonians

However, when the displaced people had fulfilled their obligations to the sponsor, they were free to go wherever they pleased – often to where there were other countrymen ahead, who could help them find jobs and housing and who had formed a community. “You can imagine that this community aspect was a pretty important element for people who lost everything, who had to flee from their homeland because of the communist invasion and then spent several years living in limbo in refugee camps. It was important to try to start over together with other Estonians,” Kionka explains.

“That’s how my mother came to Detroit. Her family’s sponsors were cotton farmers in Tennessee, my mother lasted three days picking cotton, after which she wired her best friend Juta Paulson (who later became my godmother), who was working in Detroit, to please wire her money for a bus ticket. And off she went to Detroit. She found a job and saved up to bring her parents and younger brother to Detroit, where there were more opportunities.”

From music to law to international relations

As a kid, Kionka wanted to become a musician and a conductor. However, fate had other plans for her. “At some point during high school I decided I didn’t want to spend the hours in dingy, windowless basement practice rooms that it would take to be good enough to become a professional performer, which is always the path to becoming a conductor. So, when I entered university, it was with the thought of studying law. That lasted until I found out what kind of work lawyers actually do.”

Riina Kionka. © European UnionSo, instead of pursuing a career in music – or law, for that matter – she began moving towards international relations, which, she says, had always been an interest of her’s – “for genetic reasons, from a very early age”, as she puts it. “My mother’s and grandparents’ refugee experience was formative for me,” she recalls.

“My mother maintains that I got the bug from her having taken part in anti-Khrushchev demonstrations while she was pregnant with me. There may be some truth in it, as I recall explaining to my fellow kindergarten pupils what communists were. And, of course, with an odd name, I always had to explain to people where Estonia was and what had happened to it by whom. That leaves a mark.”

In high school, Kionka’s favourite subject was European history. “I remember an episode in which I nearly lost my copy of the Communist Manifesto, which I had to read for school, at the Estonian church. I had brought it along to church so I could get in some homework time during coffee hour, but couldn’t find it on the way back home in the car. My mother was mortified; the community was very anti-communist, of course, and anything like that could set people off.”

“The last thing I wanted to do was become a diplomat”

“So, it seemed obvious to me that when I started studying international relations at university, besides German, which was my first foreign language, I also began studying Russian. And one thing led to another. It was all pretty clear from the start.”

She had the thought of becoming a diplomat already then, but interestingly, that changed pretty quickly. “During my third summer of university I did an internship with the US State Department in the western sector of Berlin,” Kionka recalls. “After that internship, I decided the last thing I wanted to do was become a diplomat, because I saw how unhappy my female temporary colleagues around me were. There weren’t that many at the time – this was in 1982 – and the ones I was working with were all unhappily single, for one or another reason. They were living with their cats. I didn’t want that.”

“The history came in while I was doing my doctoral research, thinking I would become an academic. I was studying the Soviet Union. And then it began falling apart, piece by piece. I had the enormous privilege of watching it happen from the front row seats at Radio Free Europe, where I worked from 1989 to 1993.” She had been an intern at Radio Free Europe in 1986, when the later president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, was working as an analyst. After Ilves had become the editor-in-chief of the Estonian section, Kionka was hired as an analyst, taking over from Ilves.

The accidental diplomat

From left: Donald Tusk, Riina Kionka and the former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. © European Union

“So, at one point I decided it was one thing to write analysis about what was happening in Estonia from my comfortable perch in Munich, but quite another to actually do the things I was writing about. To write or to do, that was the question,” she states. “And I decided it was more interesting to be present at the creation, to borrow a phrase from Dean Acheson. So, on Estonian Independence Day in 1993, I tendered my resignation and flew off to Tallinn to join the fledgling Estonian Foreign Ministry. That’s how I became a diplomat.”

Interestingly, even though she joined the Estonian foreign service at its rebirth after the Soviet occupation, most of Riina Kionka’s career has been dedicated to the European Union. Was that a conscious choice or yet another accident, an act of fate?

“Things always look deterministic in hindsight,” she says. “When I joined the Estonian Foreign Ministry, only a handful of people thought we’d ever have a fighting chance to join the EU – anytime soon. I was not one of them. I was much more interested in security policy, taking part in the negotiations on Russian troop withdrawals, focusing on NATO and the OSCE and such. I was a sceptic to the end and, in essence, was forced to learn about the EU only once it became clear that’s where Estonia was really going. I headed for the EU after some differences of opinion with the then-foreign minister and Estonia’s foreign ministry began to seem confining.”

Chinese checkers and three-dimensional chess

“The appeal of the EU for a small country like Estonia, and for me personally, is that there is strength in numbers, there are so many more possibilities to influence the course of world events when you are part of a larger organisation. And with the EU, the range of policies and interests and reach is much broader than for a small country,” she explains her interest in and dedication to the European Union.

Naturally, it has to be quite different to work for a huge apparatus such as the EU, compared with being a diplomat for a small country as Estonia is. Kionka herself explains the difference being like that of “between Chinese checkers and three-dimensional chess”.

“In the huge machine of the EU, a person has to be far more conscious of the tactics, the different national preferences, the national political frameworks and the bureaucratic politics,” she describes. “You need all of that, not just the substance, to turn an idea into a policy. In Estonia, it’s usually enough to have a good idea, prepare well, know who went to school with whom and have a modicum of decency. It is a lot easier to make things happen in Estonia for sure.”

The only woman in the room

Donald Tusk meeting with the then-US president, Barack Obama. Riina Kionka on the left side couch. © European Union

The European Union has traditionally been a male-dominated institution – even today. It’s probably safe to assume being a woman in a men’s playground can be quite challenging – and Kionka somewhat agrees.

“Being a woman hasn’t helped, other than the fact that during breaks in meetings, I almost never encounter queues for the women’s restrooms,” she says. “At the lower levels, there are probably more women in the apparatus than men. But in management, there are fewer and fewer women the higher one goes. There are exceptions and one encounters them more often these days. But I am still usually the only woman in the room.”

Seeing the European Union closer than almost anybody else, she has quite an insight into the EU’s present and future. The union is facing its challenges, starting from Brexit – the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU – to the eurosceptic voices that raise their heads from time to time all over the union. The last challenge the EU faced was the election in France where the eurosceptic, right-wing populist candidate, Marine Le Pen, reached the second round of the presidential election earlier in May. Fortunately (for the EU and for France), the centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron, won the presidency. But that doesn’t mean the eurosceptic feelings have gone anywhere. Does Kionka see a flourishing future for the EU?

“After the French and Dutch elections, I feel much more hopeful for the EU,” she says. “With president Macron, there’s finally a chance to reinvigorate the French-German tandem, which has always been and will always be the driving force of the EU. All the more so now that the UK has, unfortunately, decided to part ways with us. So, in fact, I am much more upbeat than I was a couple of months ago. And sad as it seems, one of the silver linings of the political change in the US is that Europe has finally realised it has to get its act together on security policy. Even if we see a stronger transatlantic pillar in the future, and I hope we do, it will be better off with a stronger and more confident EU as a partner.”

Sympathy for the frustration

As to the eurosceptics, Kionka points out that most of them are not aware what the EU is and what it isn’t. “Often the failings of national policies and choices are ascribed to ‘the fatcat bureaucrats in Brussels’ when, in fact, the offending decisions come from the national capitals, who find it politically convenient to blame Brussels for all that is uncomfortable,” she asserts.

The start of the second mandate of the cabinet of Donald Tusk. Riina Kionka is eighth from the right. © European Union

“That said, the EU has become so complicated and all-encompassing that very few people understand how it works,” she also admits. “There is a problem of regulating things at EU level that probably could be better conducted at home. So, I have great sympathy for the frustration. But one thing that Brexit has led to is a re-thinking of the whole project. But the core of that re-think has got to be that it is better to do some key things together than apart. This is especially vital for a country like Estonia. Because were the EU to unravel, you can guess who the first victims would be.”

So, what does she think the EU will be like in, say, 25 years’ time?

“Personally, I think the EU will change to become more flexible, with some states taking part in some but not other policies and with greater say in how policies are implemented,” she points out. “I also think it will be bigger in 25 years’ time, but the kinds of relationships to and with the EU will have become modified. So, I could realistically see a kind of new relationship with the UK that also extends, for instance, to Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, maybe Turkey, the Western Balkan states. But this is only my personal opinion, which doesn’t count for much in the grand scheme of things.”

The lack of generosity in Estonia toward refugees inexplicable

However, working in Brussels for the European Union does not mean Kionka doesn’t follow the life and developments in Estonia. Her husband, Lauri Lepik, is an Estonian diplomat, and she also has friends in Estonia. “And also because within the Tusk cabinet, responsibility for the various member states is divided among the various cabinet members, and I am responsible for Estonia, of course. Because of my position, I am not at liberty to comment on the internal workings of any EU member states, including Estonia. But I do miss the days of ideas and invigorating action.”

One of the things, though, that Kionka takes personally about Estonia is the country’s and its peoples reluctance in helping today’s refugees.

“Given Estonia’s history, with so many of its compatriots having been welcomed by other countries as refugees after the Second World War and during the Soviet occupation, I find the lack of generosity toward refugees simply inexplicable,” she notes. “I think of my mother, my grandparents. What if they had been from Syria instead of Estonia and had sought refuge in Estonia instead of the United States?  What is the difference? In fact, there is none, if you look from a humanitarian perspective.”

“There’s an economic argument to be made as well, one that Spain, for instance, makes. Or Canada. Notably that in-migration is good for the economy, especially in countries with small populations. So yes, more acceptances of people from elsewhere are a win-win, from my point of view.”

No political aspirations

Riina Kionka. © European Union

Kionka has had a magnificent career – but it can’t be that she has yet done everything and worked everywhere she would want to. What are her plans for the future – can we one day hear the words, “President of the European Council, Riina Kionka”? Or would she rather see herself returning to Estonia and become, say, a politician?

“The president of the European Council is chosen from amongst the EU prime ministers, which is to say from amongst the top politicians of each of the EU member states,” she explains. “I am not a politician nor do I aspire to be one. Some of my best friends are politicians but I have seen how high a price one pays for that sort of trajectory. And besides, judging by how much I learn every day about that business from my boss, Donald Tusk, someone with spot-on political instincts, I’m not even convinced I would be good at it.”

“I’m interested in foreign policy, not necessarily in political choices ranging from health care to environmental issues to pension policy, unless of course they become questions of international concern. That’s when they pique my interest.”

But what about returning to Estonia – “Never say never.”


Cover: Riina Kionka at her desk in her office in Brussels (© European Union.) Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

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