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Estonia: Foreign Minister Says His Country In Frontline Of EU Candidates

Prague, 5 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves says he is confident his country remains at the forefront of European Union applicant countries.

In an interview on Thursday at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, Ilves said Estonia has already closed 12 of the chapters it needs to negotiate with the EU for entry. That, he says, puts it in second place after Cyprus among the 12 active EU candidate-states:

"The enlargement process is an individualized process and each country performs on its own, and we certainly have had no indications that Estonia somehow is falling behind. If anything, much to the surprise of people several years ago, today Estonia is really in the frontline of countries negotiating."

Ilves noted that EU enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen recently said Estonia and Slovenia could easily be absorbed in the 15-nation group:

"Commissioner Verheugen said at his press conference two weeks ago that Estonia and Slovenia could be taken very easily. So that's what the commissioner's position is. In that regard, we're not concerned [that is, have no worries]"

Ilves said he saw the recent fall of the euro -- the single EU currency to which Estonia's currency is tied through the German mark -- as a further boon to the country because it lowered the cost of Tallinn's exports:

"So far, aside from the foreign ministry's increased expenses in maintaining its embassies in the United States at the UN and in Washington, it's actually been a boon to our economy because we're more competitive when it comes to exports."

Ilves did criticize the EU's policy of subsidizing its exports to non-member states. He called the policy shortsighted and morally flawed:

"Many candidate countries have experienced that the continued use of export subsidies to countries such as Estonia undermines the local agriculture and causes some fairly dire social consequences. I personally believe that the use of export subsidies on the part of rich countries to sell products in poor countries that will sooner or later become members of the European Union is probably not the best idea -- morally."

Ilves distanced himself from comments by Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who this week accused Russia of trying to extend its influence in the Baltic states. Ilves said Estonia's relations with Russia are good, although he added that Tallinn hopes Moscow will make more progress towards democratization and fighting against corruption in the economy:

"We're not really concerned about Russia. We don't see Russia as a threat. Rather, we are hopeful that Russia continues to work on becoming democratic and a country with a free-market economy. It has a long way to go -- be it on the issues of democratization, the kind of economy it has -- corruption issues are extremely important there. But I say that Estonia is crossing its fingers that all goes well there."

Ilves is in Prague this week to attend a conference of European Socialists and Social Democrats that will address the practical effects of EU enlargement.