Maryland Estonia Exchange Council, Inc.
News and Blog
News and Blog
|Posted by [email protected] on September 28, 2022 at 10:20 PM|
By Karl Altau (published in Vaba Eesti Sõna/Estonian Free Word on September 15, 2022)
In August, a delegation of 15 representatives from Pärnu County in Estonia visited St. Mary’s County in Maryland, about an hour’s drive southeast of Washington, DC. They were there to promote a budding relationship, which had officially gotten its start in December 2019, but was slowed down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Finally, a reciprocal agreement was signed during the visit on August 8, 2022, thus cementing Estonia’s latest ties with its Sister State Maryland.
During their three-day visit to its new partner county, the Pärnu delegation traveled to Naval Air Station Patuxent River and the naval air museum located nearby, St. Mary’s City, which is the oldest European settlement in Maryland, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and other destinations around the area. Meetings were held with officials representing local municipal government, economic development, emergency management, education, and so on.
If you are wondering how this all got started, we need to go back three decades to look forward. Next year, in 2023, Estonia and Maryland will be celebrating 30 years of a very successful partnership.
According to the United States Embassy in Tallinn’s website: “The partnership between Maryland and Estonia, which began in 1993, was originally designed to strengthen military-to-military ties between the United States and newly independent Estonia as it transitioned from Soviet to democratic rule. The ties established then remain strong today, signified by the continued cooperation between the Maryland National Guard and Estonian Defense League [Kaitseliit] and Defense Forces.”
This special relationship between Estonia and Maryland was and is part of the NATO Partnership for Peace Program and its State Partnership Program. The Maryland–Estonia National Guard Partnership is one of 22 European partnerships that make up the U.S. European Command State Partnership Program and is one of 65 worldwide partnerships included in the National Guard State Partnership Program.
Within that same framework, Latvia shares a State Partnership program with Michigan, and Lithuania with Pennsylvania. Maryland’s ties to Estonia have been so successful, that a second relationship, with Bosnia and Herzegovina, was started in 2003.
While military-to-military ties are very lively, including joint exercises and training, especially important today considering Russia’s war against Ukraine, we will look at the partnership’s other aspects.
Although the beginnings of the people-to-people component go back to the early days of the partnership in the 1990s, as formal exchanges between Maryland and Estonia were already taking place, it was not until 2003 that the Maryland Estonia Exchange Council (MEEC) began officially coordinating the non-military links between Maryland and Estonia.
In 2006, 2009, and 2019, official agreements were signed formalizing civilian and governmental links between Maryland and Estonia, which also enhanced people-to-people relationships. In 2009 the officers of MEEC became members of the Maryland Secretary of State's Sister State Advisory Board.
On August 5, 2019, in Maryland’s state capital, Annapolis, Governor Larry Hogan signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Estonian Ambassador Jonatan Vseviov to reaffirm Maryland and Estonia’s robust partnership. Besides military-to-military cooperation, the ties have also included a handful of official Sister City relationships, and other partnerships. This official relationship was initially between the State of Maryland and Harju County in Estonia (from 2009) but from 2019 was broadened to include the whole of Estonia. MEEC was highly engaged in the process – helping to facilitate many of these contacts.
Sister City and other partnerships include Annapolis-Tallinn, Salisbury-Tartu, Cumberland-Viljandi, Bel Air-Narva (established in 2014 via a Skype signing ceremony!), and the newest ties between Pärnu County-St. Mary’s County. Other partnerships which have or are still operating: Charles County-Jõgeva County, Oakland-Valga, Westminster-Paide, Grantsville- Tõrva, etc.
Maryland might indeed share more city and county relationships with a single country than any one state partner in the United States does. Perhaps the closeness is toponymic and has to do with Estonia’s over 800-year-old designation as “Maarjamaa” (Terra Mariae/Terra Mariana/”Mary’s Land”;).
The Maryland-Estonia partnership has taken on a variety of projects and initiatives, from hosting visiting choirs, facilitating educational exchanges, and other affiliations, including ties between yacht clubs, as with Annapolis and Tallinn, and to organizing a visit by Narva’s mayor to speak at a May 2017 conference in Washington, DC held by the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC).
A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Tartu Pedestrian Bridge was held in Salisbury on October 1, 2021. Salisbury mayor Jake Day dedicated the bridge, together with Estonian Ambassador Kristjan Prikk, Maryland Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, and Maryland Secretary of State John Wobensmith. Salisbury’s relationship with Tartu was established in 2009.
If you’re ever at the Penn Alps restaurant in Grantsville, in western Maryland, you will find a corner of the gift shop dedicated to hand-crafted souvenirs from Estonia, and a sign proclaiming the Tõrva ties.
MEEC is a member of Sister States of Maryland, Inc., which describes itself as “a private, not-for-profit corporation organized under the laws of Maryland, partners with the Maryland Sister States Program, a program in the International Division of Maryland’s Office of the Secretary of State. The Maryland Sister States Program was established to provide a government-to-government forum for the promotion of international cooperation and understanding.” This program was established in 1980 and currently includes over 20 Maryland relationships in 17 countries.
As a volunteer committee, MEEC works with the Maryland Sister States Program to help develop its relationships with Estonia. By “giving access to policy makers,” as during annual Sister State legislative receptions in Annapolis, “the people-to-people contacts of the Maryland Sister States Program add a human dimension to governmental interaction.”
The mission of MEEC is to advance the friendship of Maryland and Estonia by providing opportunities that enhance cultural exchanges and strengthen economic, educational, medical, and political/security links. The organization has worked to establish and coordinate agreements of international cooperation between the towns, cities, counties and governments of Estonia and Maryland that implement and enhance the above-mentioned links.
It is a successful program which both Marylanders and Estonians can be proud of.
The Maryland Estonia Exchange Council, Inc., a charitable 501(c)(3) tax-exempt corporation gratefully accepts donations from anyone who wishes to support this mission. To donate, and for more information, please visit the MEEC website: https://marylandestoniaexchangecouncil.org/.