Estonian Riina Kionka becomes EU Ambassador to Pakistan


Estonian diplomat Riina Kionka, former European Union Ambassador to South Africa, has taken up her new role as EU Ambassador to Pakistan.

Kionka presented his credentials to Pakistani President Arif Alvi on July 1. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, appointed her to this post on 8th June.

Ambassador Kionka said Pakistan was her first choice. “I had never been to Pakistan before my arrival two weeks ago. But I spent quite a bit of time on work trips to Central Asian countries north of Pakistan. Of course, like anyone who follows international news, I’ve heard a lot – and unfortunately a lot of negative stories – about the country. But I wanted to see for myself, go beyond the cliché and discover Pakistan in all its complexity,” she told Estonian World.

“Pakistan is the second largest Muslim country in the world, with 220 million people and a nuclear program. It is an infinitely complex, politically fascinating country with a rich and varied culture and a complicated birth history. And its neighborhood means that issues of regional stability and security are high on the agenda. It was therefore my first choice because it is a country of strategic importance for the European Union, and it is also a new challenge for me.

She admits that Pakistan is a country of contrasts and has a complex history when it comes to the Taliban, the ultra-Islamist regime that took over neighboring Afghanistan last year.

“This story is the subject of dozens of academic books and the same amount of historical fiction, the two genres that I currently read. All of this suggests that this is not quite a black and white story and in this story the protagonists and antagonists sometimes switch roles.

Estonian diplomat Riina Kionka presents her credentials as European Union Ambassador to Pakistan to the country’s President, Arif Alvi. Photo from Kionka’s Facebook.

Pakistan makes progress on human rights

During various conflicts in the past, Pakistan has officially allied itself with the United States and the West. Meanwhile, the United States State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation List describes Pakistan as a “terrorist haven” where individual terrorists and terrorist groups can organize, plan, fundraise, communicate, recruit , form, transit and operate in relative security due to inadequate or supportive governance. What to do with it in 2022?

“That’s what I mean when the protagonists and antagonists switch roles. This applies both to the internal situation and to external actors. What I can say is that when the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year, there was tremendous pressure on Pakistan to use its influence and close connections to help moderate the trajectory Taliban in Afghanistan. In addition, they have been asked to help with evacuations and bring humanitarian aid across the border to that country. And that is what Pakistan has done, and the EU is grateful for this help.”

Kionka stressed that Pakistan must confront its own Taliban, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban or TTP. The group “is among many other attacks responsible for a massacre at a school in Peshawar in December 2014 with 149 victims – surely a wake-up call for the country. Then there are other groups that pose a terrorist threat here as well.

According to the newly appointed ambassador, in the field of human rights, Pakistan is making progress in some areas – such as women’s and children’s rights as well as the death penalty.

“In other areas, the country is downright progressive, like policies around trans people. Yet in many areas, such as freedom of expression, media, freedom of association, enforced disappearances, freedom of religion and belief, things are not rosy,” Kionka noted.

“This is a major concern, as Pakistan is part of a special EU trade program, called GSP+, which gives the country significant trade benefits for good performance in the areas of human rights and labor. labor, environmental protection and good governance. And this special program is about to be renewed. Pakistan will therefore have to demonstrate tangible progress in the area of ​​human rights and labor rights in order to to prove that it should continue to benefit from the GSP+ programme.Each year, duty savings for Pakistan amount to nearly half a billion euros, so it is no small feat.

Estonian diplomat Riina Kionka and her husband, Lauri Lepik, talk to Pakistani President Arif Alvi after she presented her credentials as the new EU ambassador to the country.  Photo from Kionka's Facebook.
Estonian diplomat Riina Kionka and her husband, Lauri Lepik, talk to Pakistani President Arif Alvi after she presented her credentials as the new EU ambassador to the country. Photo from Kionka’s Facebook.

People tend to gain weight in Pakistan – because the food is fantastic

She said she had been following Pakistani politics daily for six months – when she started getting positive signals about her posting there. “And I can tell you that the last six months have been quite tumultuous, with the country on the brink of a constitutional crisis, the government toppled and people struggling with high inflation.”

As for the challenges of working in Pakistan, Kionka said she’s only been in the country for two weeks, so it’s hard to generalise. “But I can already see that the highly decentralized nature of the governance structure here will pose logistical challenges – there are four provinces and other entities and much of our cooperative work is done directly with them, not with the federal government. And it’s a big country and its most populous province is bigger than any European country.

“Also, what is a change for me is that everyone seems quite interested in engaging with the EU, so it’s more about choice than chasing contacts. Finally, a number of colleagues have commented that they have put on weight serving here, as the food is fantastic and the Pakistani hospitality is legendary.

According to Kionka, Pakistan is a country of strategic importance for the European Union. “In fact, we have something called the Strategic Engagement Plan, agreed in 2019, which serves as a blueprint for moving the relationship forward.”

“Pakistan is important for the EU for a number of reasons: the geopolitical context, the trade relationship, human rights, the migration file (Pakistan is a country of origin, transit and destination) , counter-terrorism, climate, to name a few.”

His main responsibilities in Pakistan are to lead the delegation “in seeking closer political ties, in initiating and implementing the myriad of programs that cover the areas I have mentioned. Keep EU interests at the forefront of everything we do. And to coordinate the action of the EU with the sixteen, soon to be seventeen, embassies of the Member States present. In short, I must be the face, the head and the heart of the EU in this country.”

Most recently, Kionka served as EU Ambassador to South Africa, a position to which she was appointed in October 2019. Prior to that, she was the principal foreign policy adviser to European Council President Donald Tusk, making her the most influential leader. of Estonian nationality in the European Union.

Riina Kionka in South Africa where she was an EU ambassador.  Photo from Kionka's Facebook.
Riina Kionka in South Africa where she was an EU ambassador. Photo from Kionka’s Facebook.

An accidental diplomat

Kionka was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1960 to an Estonian mother and a German-American father. She is a diplomat by accident, as she told Estonian World in a 2017 interview. As a child, she wanted to be a musician and a conductor. However, fate had other plans for her.

“At some point in high school, I decided I didn’t want to spend the hours in dingy, windowless basement rehearsal 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 idea of ​​studying law. It went on until I found out what kind of work lawyers actually do.

So, instead of pursuing a career in music – or law, for that matter – she began to move towards international relations, which she told Estonian World had always been one of her favorites. his interests – “for genetic reasons, from an early age. The refugee experience of my mother and my grandparents was formative for me.

Kionka also worked as an analyst at Radio Free Europe, before joining the Estonian Foreign Ministry in 1993. She served as Estonian Ambassador to Germany from 2000 to 2004; in 2005, she joined the Council of the European Union where she headed a unit responsible for transatlantic relations and the United Nations. In 2007 she became Javier Solana’s special representative for human rights and in 2014 she joined Donald Tusk’s cabinet as a senior foreign policy adviser.

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