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Speeches and articles

Michael Polt wanted to find himself in Estonia

February 22 - 28, 2012

МК-Estonia

American Ambassador - on ethnic problems, elections in Russia and why he isn’t afraid of China

US Ambassador to Estonia - Michael Polt - arrived in Tallinn in November 2009. He is quite an open person; he keeps a blog and has accounts in social networks, which, notably, are not confined from prying eyes. Michael Polt is merely first-generation American, and his life fully proves the reality of the American dream.

Liana Tourpakova

- How did you choose the path of diplomacy?

- I was born in Austria, but in the age of 14 I became an American citizen. My Austrian parents divorced, my mother married an American diplomat and with our new family we moved to America. When I was in the process of completing my Master’s studies at the Department of Public Administration at the University of Tennessee, then, of course, I began to think about my future career. Since my stepfather was a U.S. diplomat and I grew up in this environment, I thought that the diplomatic service is an interesting career. In my last year of study I passed the exam at the State Department -contrary to my expectations. I’ve already accepted another job offer, but when it came to my knowledge that I got in the diplomatic service, I refused the other job. It happened in 1977.

- In which countries did you manage to work?

- The first was Mexico, then - Denmark, twice - Germany, also Panama, Serbia and Montenegro, and for three and a half years I worked in Switzerland, several times in Washington. Swiss mission wasn’t very complicated, but there we had to deal with a difficult question of the Fascist regime’s gold, or rather – with the question of assets of the Jewish community, situated in Switzerland and which became a victim of the regime. But, in general, it was a fantastic assignment, because Switzerland is a very beautiful country

- Which country of your stay has left the most powerful emotional experiences?

- Panama left the strongest emotional experience in both personal and professional way. I worked there before, during and after the regime of General Noriega; during the American intervention, which led to the removal of the General from the post, to his arrest and imprisonment. For me, it was also hard to work because during half of the assignment my family - my wife and two children - were not with me, they were evacuated from Panama.

Estonians are rather closed off

- What surprised you most in Estonia when you came here?

- I really wanted to come here for many reasons, including because I’ve never been here before. I will speak for myself and for my colleagues - the American diplomats - that it is precisely the possibility of continuous missions to different countries that attracts us in our work. What struck me then and still strikes me so far, is the fact how people living in Estonia are closed off, as compared to Americans.

- What do you know about the problems between Estonians and Russians? Do they really exist?

- I have heard not a single specific story, which would indicate the existence of the problems. But I know that there is a number of concerns between the two communities. I understand that many problems arise because people are not feeling at home in the language. When I talk with Russians or Estonians and ask them the question, "Do you experience problems with the other ethnic group?", they respond negatively. It was interesting for me, and I was pleased to know, that Estonians are again discovering the Russian language for themselves; it also appeals to me that young Russians living here are quite fluent in both languages.

- When you moved to the U.S.A., how much time it took you to learn the language?

- I have already spoken English. I went immediately to the American high school, and it took me a couple of months to learn the language more comprehensively. Nobody talked to me in German, so that the process of language learning was painless and easy. It seems to me that a language must be learned from an early age. If you're immersed in it, if you have no way to get out of it, and your environment is positive, then such way of learning will be the best.

- Is food in America different from food here?

- American food is the food pieced together from everywhere. There exist various cuisines in America - Chinese, French, Italian, and Estonian, too, can be found. In Estonia, they are experimenting a lot with national cuisines, and it’s interesting for me to watch and try.

- Do you visit "McDonalds"?

- Oh, yes, I have to confess. My wife is trying to strictly regulate my consumption of such food, but it is not always possible for her to control me as much as she wants.

- What do your spouse and children do now?

- My wife also works for the U.S. State Department, though not in the diplomatic service, but in the civil one. She is here, working through the computer. If one spouse is an Ambassador, the other can not work at the Embassy. This is the practice of the U.S. State Department, and it applies to all countries. And my children are already grown-ups. The son is 30 years old, the daughter is 25. The son works for a computer company not far from Washington, DC. The daughter is now staying here; she’ll stay in Estonia until the end of the summer, and then she will go to Washington to continue her studies at the University.

- How do you spend your leisure time?

- Our favorite activity – mine and my wife’s - is to sail. In winter we like to ski. It is much easier to ski in the Alps, because there gravity works, and you are just sliding down. But there’re no mountains in Estonia.

- How do you like our weather?

- I do not really like the rain, but snow is very good. Summer is a delight, which is short, but very pleasant. And when everyone comes out on the streets in the summer, the Americans understand that there are much more Estonians around than they can be seen in the other seasons.

- Are you walking around on an even keel or are you skiing under convoy of guards?

- It appeals to us that it is safe in Estonia. People take us very cordially. No need to have a large force of bodyguards. In Serbia, it was the other way around, an extensive number of people there was engaged in my safety.

- And it is possible to find you strolling around the city

- Of course. Rarely, but people come up to me outside the Embassy walls as well. I like this very much.

I am not an expert on Russia

- The new U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, became famous the very next day after his arrival – he met with representatives of the Russian opposition. In your opinion, has this step been previously agreed with Washington?

- My colleague in Moscow did nothing that is different from the actions of his colleagues in other countries. He does not require special permission from Washington to meet or not to meet someone, because meetings are part of the job of every American ambassador in the world. Similarly, he does not need to be told that he should eat every day, because otherwise he would die of starvation.

- McFaul keeps his own blog and is very active on the Internet. Do you have a blog of your own or any social networking accounts?

- Yes, I have a blog and accounts in Facebook and Twitter.

- How do such busy people like you find time to write to social networks?

- It's part of our work - to communicate with people. Social media are just a new way of dialogue. Diplomats were involved in such things for hundreds of years, the only difference is that now there are new modern technologies and social networks that allow us to do our job more efficiently.

First of all, the question of who will become Russia's president, will be solved by Russian people, not American people

- What do you think about the elections in Russia and of Putin as the next president?         

- First of all, the question of who will become Russia's president, will be solved by Russian people, not American people. If we talk about the election process, I am not an expert on Russia. But it is clear that everyone is a supporter of democracy and freedom of choice. What concerns us, we want the elections to be an open and fair process that reflects the will of the people, we want people to have a real choice to elect one or another or third candidate.

America is ready for a woman president 

There is a saying: If America sneezes, the rest of the world is sick. Is this true?

- I do not agree with this statement any more. Today it does not work. I'll try to explain why they were saying it before. At the end of World War II, the political and economic influence of the U.S. in the world had greatly increased. Then this expression was true. In the XXI century we live in a much more versatile world. Yes, America still remains very strong, important and influential country, but today we are a part of a larger community of influential countries of the world.

- What do you think about the future of the Eurozone? Do you have any pessimistic thoughts?

- I am not a pessimist in what concerns the future of Europe. I believe that the Eurozone will continue its development as it is following a very consistent way; in the short term it will face many challenges, but on a medium- and long-range horizons - everything will be all right.

- Which currency will be stronger: the US Dollar or the Euro?

- Neither one nor the other. And it's not a diplomatic answer. Both currencies are based on strong economies that are experiencing difficult times. But, ultimately, 500 million Europeans have built a strong economic area, and the Euro is confirming it, even in this difficult times. The same can be said about the dollar. There are no contradictions between the Dollar and the Euro, though, there is a certain rivalry, but not at the level of currencies. This is a normal competition, which lies at the heart of the liberal economic system.

- How do you like the ever-increasing power of China?

- I am very glad that this is so. Just think about it yourself, how beneficial it is to the capitalist society – in which I firmly believe - that new actors are arriving and new customers are becoming a part of the system. I want China to be a country with a strong, successful and prosperous economy, which will buy from us and sell to us on equal terms.

- There is an opinion that China lends to many branches of American economy, and one day it could trigger a default, in a word - to swallow the United States. What do you think?

- No one in China wants the American economy to be unsuccessful. The economic crisis in the U.S. will be much more devastating for the Chinese than for the Americans. Since you were previously talking about Russia, it is worthy of note that the USA is very similar to Russia. This is a very big country to be swallowed by someone. Partnership and strong competition between the two countries is very important for America, as we become much better when we can compete with someone, and we become lazy and unsuccessful when we cannot compete with anyone.

- In America, the presidential race is picking up steam too. I’ve watched a program where they were telling about all the candidates. And there was quoted a newspaper article, where the author was just horrified with the fact that Americans would have a chance to see a Mormon on a presidential seat. Whats so terrible about this?

- There is nothing terrible in the fact that someone is a Mormon, or adheres to another religion. As the final result, people will elect a president not basing on his religious principles or preferences. On the eve of John Kennedy’s election to the White House there was a big fuss in American media, because he was known to be a Catholic. The newspapers wrote that if Kennedy becomes President, will the Vatican rule America? It was stupid then and today, too, one doesn’t need to worry about the religious affiliation of the candidate.

- Today there is a black president at the White House. Could you imagine this 40 years ago?

- In the 60s I was sure that we shall have an African-American as a president. When would this happen - I had not known then. And I am very happy that this day came much sooner than I, and everyone else, could have imagined. Today, I have no doubt that we will have a woman president. America is ready for her appearance. It all depends on: when a woman will decide to run for presidency. Just look at great triumphs achieved by Hillary Clinton at the political arena.