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Archive for the ‘Land of the Baltic States’ Category

High-tech Estonia votes online for European Parliament

May 20, 2019

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Estonia was crippled by cyberattacks on government networks during a dispute with Russia in 2007. Today the tiny tech-savvy nation is so certain of its cyber defenses that it is the only country in the world to allow internet voting for the entire electorate, in every election, and thousands have already done so in the European Parliament elections.

Internet voting — or i-voting —has been available since 2005 in the nation that gave the world Skype, and the percentage of voters using the internet to cast ballots has increased with each election, reaching 44% of voters in national election in March.

Linda Lainvoo was one of the first Estonians to vote in the European Parliament election, which she did from a cafe before heading to work Thursday morning. The 32-year-old civil servant has voted online since she was first eligible to vote.

“I couldn’t imagine my life any different,” Lainvoo said after logging into a secure online portal with her ID card and a PIN code. “I do everything online so I don’t have to stand in queues and do things on paper.”

After downloading an app and identifying herself, she viewed the electoral lists inside a virtual “voting booth” and selected her candidate. The elections are taking place from May 23-26 across the 28-member bloc to fill 751-seat European Parliament, where Estonia, a nation of just 1.3 million, has six representatives.

It took Lainvoo about 30 seconds to vote and by the time she had finished, around 2,000 others in Estonia had also voted. Estonia’s i-voting system runs from the 10th until the fourth day before the election and allows people to cast multiple ballots, with only the last vote counting. This aims to prevent voter coercion.

Young, tech-savvy males made up the bulk of i-voters in the first few elections, according to the head of Estonia’s Electoral Office, Priit Vinkel. But after four elections it “diffused in the electorate and we can’t say who the i-voter is. Any eligible voter can be an i-voter.”

The electoral commission’s research shows internet voting significantly increases turnout for Estonians abroad and for people living more than 30 minutes away from a polling station. While it’s hard to quantify the impact of i-voting on the overall turnout numbers, Vinkel says it’s a “sticky voting method” that has “stopped alienation,” meaning a majority of people who have voted online at least once keep voting electronically and are more likely than average voters to keep voting at all.

When Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union and declared its independence nearly three decades ago it embarked on a modernization program that including going digital early on. The country has introduced a high-tech national ID system in which physical ID cards are linked to digital signatures that citizens use not only to vote, but to pay taxes and access health and school records.

But there have been vulnerabilities. In 2007, a massive cyberattack crippled the country’s networks following a dispute with Russia over Estonia’s removal of a Soviet-era war memorial in Tallinn. The unprecedented scale of the attack forced governments worldwide to reconsider the importance of network security and defense.

Estonia, which borders Russia, took time to build security and privacy into its model. It created a platform that supports electronic authentication and digital signatures to enable paperless communications, in contrast with failed efforts by private companies to provide secure online voting systems in the United States, for example.

The architect of Estonia’s i-voting system, Arne Ansper, compares it to postal voting. An external envelope verifies the identity of the voter — a digital signature for internet voting — which is then stripped from the ballot, leaving an anonymous internal envelope guaranteeing the secrecy of the vote. This envelope is then decrypted at the end of the election.

Transparency and security have been built into the system by allowing people to verify that their vote has been tallied correctly, while a third-party system creates logs that are compared to the results of the ballot boxes and which would reveal any discrepancies.

The role played by social media and fake accounts used to spread fake news in the 2016 U.S. election has also forced governments to reassess electoral interference. “Trust is the paramount factor in making sure that Internet-based voting actually takes place,” said Tonu Tammer from the government agency in charge of the security of Estonia’s computer networks.

Tammer says his organization is continuously monitoring and adapting to possible threats to the system, but says there are greater risks than an internet attack. “The biggest concern when it comes to trust is the dissemination of false news,” he said, explaining that it’s easier to erode trust by claiming electoral fraud than actually carrying out a successful attack.

On Friday, the European Commission criticized social media giants Facebook, Google and Twitter for not doing enough to fight disinformation ahead of the EU elections. But with more than 82,500 people having already voted online by Monday, it seems trust is still strong.

Back in the Tallinn cafe, Lainvoo closes her laptop and prepares to leave for the office. “I’m not an IT person, but I trust their expertise, and I also trust my state,” she said.


Swedish bid hopes Latvia link key to 2026 Olympics host vote

June 23, 2019

LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — The head of Sweden’s 2026 Winter Olympics bid believes having Latvia on the hosting ticket can sway Monday’s vote for the perceived underdog against Milan-Cortina. The Stockholm-Are plan to stage ice sliding sports across the Baltic Sea at a venue in Latvia avoids building a white elephant venue in Sweden — a key demand of IOC reforms to cut Olympic hosting costs.

Using the sliding track at Sigulda “adds enormous value” to the two-nation bid, Stockholm-Are chief executive Richard Brisius told The Associated Press on Sunday. “It will be very important for delivering the new transformative games that we want to do,” Brisius said.

The International Olympic Committee wants the 2026 Winter Games to help end skepticism about the cost of bidding and hosting the games, after potential bids in Canada, Switzerland and Austria dropped out due to local opposition.

Brisius argued the Latvian element in Sweden’s bid is the best example of living up to the IOC’s promise to be flexible with candidates aiming to be cost-efficient. “Are the IOC members ready for that? We are offering that,” the Stockholm-Are official said in a challenge to around 85 IOC voters.

“If we can do this, and we show that this is the way to do it, it will open up for more bid cities in the future,” Brisius said. “I would not say we are the underdog — I think we are the future.” One member of Sweden’s delegation who is more than happy with the underdog label is retired high jumper Stefan Holm, who has been an IOC member since 2013.

The 43-year-old Holm, who won Olympic gold in 2004, even drew comparisons with Sweden’s victory over Italy in the qualifying playoff for the 2018 World Cup. “Sweden is always the best when we’re the underdog,” Holm said after a bilateral meeting at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. “In the team sports we could beat Italy in football and we’re always the underdog against Italy, the same against Canada in ice hockey or whatever.

“So I think we’re in a good place.” Sweden has never hosted the Winter Games. It made numerous bids between 1984 and 2004, while it was also briefly in the race for 2022. “We are a stable country politically speaking, economically speaking,” said Holm, who has been an IOC member since 2013. “We have never held the games before and we really, really want it. We are a sports loving people especially when it comes to winter sport so hopefully it’s our turn this time.”

IOC members are famously discreet about their voting intentions ahead of a hosting vote, and more than one-third of this electorate is voting for the first time. A total of 35 members have joined since the last contested vote in July 2015 when Beijing edged Almaty to get the 2022 Winter Games.

“I meet people who are very keen to find out what is best for the (Olympic) movement,” Brisius said of the newer recruits. Two of those 35 are Italian — bobsled federation president Ivo Ferriani and Italian Olympic committee head Giovanni Malago — and so cannot vote Monday.

Malago is confident that the support for the Italian bid, from the government and the general population, will see it edge out Sweden. That support is a contrast to recent Italian bids — three years ago, Italy was forced to end Rome’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics because of staunch opposition from the city’s mayor. And in 2012, then-premier Mario Monti scrapped the city’s candidacy for the 2020 Olympics because of financial concerns.

“We have never received a critic. From any parties,” Malago said of the current bid. “The government and the opposition support this bid. I think it is a unique case not only in Italy but also in the world.”

The IOC president traditionally does not vote, though in an expected close race the winner is likely to be the candidate most favored by Thomas Bach’s office.

Presidents of Russia, Estonia meet after nearly a decade

April 18, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — The presidents of Russia and Estonia held talks at the Kremlin for the first time in nearly a decade Thursday, a step toward reversing an absence of high-level contacts that Russian President Vladimir Putin described as “not a normal situation.”

In his opening remarks, Putin told Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid their neighboring countries have a lot of concerns in common, including environmental issues surrounding the Baltic Sea and security.

Kaljulaid said after the meeting that despite Estonia observing European Union sanctions on Russia, the two countries could make progress on bilateral issues such as developing transportation infrastructure and taxation.

Estonia, which borders Russia’s northwest and is home to a large Russian-speaking minority population, was spooked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 in a move that Ukraine and almost all of the world views as illegal.

Estonia has since hosted scores of NATO military drills that were aimed at deterring potential Russian aggression.

Animal saved from icy Estonian river turns out to be a wolf

February 24, 2019

HELSINKI (AP) — Estonian construction workers got the shock of their lives when they found out the animal they saved from an icy river was not a dog but a wolf. Rando Kartsepp, Robin Sillamae and Erki Vali told the Postimees newspaper they were working at the Sindi dam on the frozen Parnu River in southwestern Estonia when they saw an animal frantically swimming in a maze of ice.

They rescued the ice-coated animal and took it to a shelter. A hunter told them it was about a one-year old male wolf suffering from shock and hypothermia. The young wolf recovered after a day and was released back into the wild with a GPS collar.

Estonia has an estimated 200 wolves. The grey wolf was voted Estonia’s national animal by nature organizations in 2018.

Party catering to Russian minority comes 1st in Latvian vote

October 07, 2018

HELSINKI (AP) — An opposition party catering to the Latvia’s large ethnic Russian minority is poised to win the Baltic nation’s parliamentary election but it’s expected to face difficulties in forming a coalition government.

Voters in Latvia, which is a member of the European Union and NATO, chose Saturday from more than 1,400 candidates and 16 parties to fill the country’s 100-seat parliament. With over 95 percent of votes counted, preliminary results Sunday from Latvia’s electoral committee showed the left-wing Harmony party was leading with 20 percent support.

The populist KPV party and the anti-corruption New Conservative Party were in second and third place with 14.1 percent and 13.6 percent of the votes respectively. Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis’ centrist Union of Greens and Farmers was in the sixth place with 10 percent support.

Israeli PM wants Baltics to help change view of Israel

August 24, 2018

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is meeting Friday with three Baltic prime ministers in his quest to counterbalance European criticism of Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territories and to increase pressure on Iran.

Netanyahu will hold talks with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, Estonia’s Juri Ratas and Maris Kucinskis of Latvia. He started the day by meeting Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. A day earlier, he said that Israel was “often mistreated by the EU,” adding there were “many distortions.” Netanyahu, however, welcomed the decision by major international airlines to end their direct flights to Iran’s capital, Tehran, in September after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran and began restoring U.S. sanctions.

Skvernelis said in an interview with the Baltic News Service that after a meeting Thursday with Netanyahu, “I believe Lithuania really has a better understanding of Israel and that understanding could be spread among other EU countries. ”

“We need to better listen, hear them out and understand their position. We definitely lack a direct dialogue,” he said. “But we have to admit that today Israel is not only waging war and defending its independence, the lives of its people, but is also fighting in a wider context, if we speak about terrorism and potential expansion of IS fighters to Europe,” Skvernelis said.

Netanyahu arrived Thursday in Vilnius is on a four-day visit, the first to Lithuania by an Israeli prime minister.

Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

US ambassador to Estonia resigns over Trump comments

June 30, 2018

HELSINKI (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to Estonia has resigned over frustrations with President Donald Trump’s comments about the European Union and his treatment of Washington’s European allies. In a private Facebook message posted Friday, James D. Melville wrote: “For the President to say EU was ‘set up to take advantage of the United States, to attack our piggy bank,’ or that ‘NATO is as bad as NAFTA’ is not only factually wrong, but proves to me that it’s time to go.”

Melville was referring to Trump’s recent comments at news conferences and on social media. Melville stressed that a U.S. foreign service officer’s “DNA is programmed to support policy and we’re schooled right from the start, that if there ever comes a point where one can no longer do so, particularly if one is in a position of leadership, the honorable course is to resign.”

Melville is a senior U.S. career diplomat who has served as the American ambassador in the Baltic nation and NATO member of Estonia since 2015. He has served at U.S. Embassies in Berlin, London and Moscow, among other postings.

“Having served under six presidents and 11 secretaries of state, I never really thought it would reach that point for me,” he wrote, referring to a career with the State Department that started in the mid-1980s.

The U.S. Embassy in Tallinn confirmed to The Associated Press on Saturday that Melville “announced his intent to retire from the Foreign Service effective July 29 after 33 years of public service.” It did not elaborate.

Foreign Policy magazine said Melville is one of the many senior U.S. diplomats who have resigned because of Trump’s policies.

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