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Estonia’s ambassador went from drama to diplomacy

By Kristen Shane      

Gita Kalmet is still fascinated with the theatre, although she switched careers 20 years ago.

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lot of career diplomats’ resumes read the same way: schooling in international relations, economics or law, often with a graduate degree, entry-level foreign service jobs and then increasingly higher-level postings at home and abroad.

Not Gita Kalmet’s resume.

“Everybody notices it immediately,” says the soft-spoken new Estonian ambassador in an interview last month. 

Although she’s been in the foreign service since the early 1990s, everyone’s eyes jump to the line in her curriculum vitae listing her 1984 studies at the Tallinn State Conservatory’s drama department.

Ms. Kalmet went on to act in the theatre and films including, according to the movie database website IMDb, a 1993 United States TV movie featuring American actress Alyssa Milano

Ms. Kalmet married theatre director/actor Madis Kalmet, with whom she now has two sons in their 20s, Henrik and Karl-Andreas, who also work in theatre.


Times change

When she finished high school, Ms. Kalmet was living in Soviet-occupied Estonia. 

“Had I decided to go and study history, for example, what kind of history would that be? [A] kind of Soviet propaganda. Or political science, the same,” she says. “But of course I didn’t choose theatre as a second or third option. I wanted to go there.”

She was fascinated by it, and still very much loves drama, she says. 

“And then the tide turned and Estonia became free.”

The country opened a foreign service school to develop its own diplomats. Ms. Kalmet thought she’d try it out, but assumed she’d circle back to acting. She finished her last film in 1993 at the same time she was taking final exams in the Estonian School of Diplomacy. 

She landed a job in the Estonian foreign ministry and started as a desk officer working on the Council of Europe. It was engaging, but at the same time she was receiving more acting offers than before. 

She had to make a choice. 

While acting is her first love, she says diplomacy was just so interesting that she didn’t want to let it go. 

“Because in this business you have to learn everyday,” she says.

Still, there are parallels with theatre. Ms. Kalmet scoffs at the idea she usually hears that the two connect because diplomats are superficial and are acting in their working life. For her, diplomacy and drama are linked because both rely on the practitioner’s ability to be sensitive. A good actor has to be in tune with their director and other actors’ behaviours. 

“And also in diplomacy, you need to detect things to hear what is important,” she says. 

She certainly exhibits the trait. Upon shaking hands with a visitor, she remarks on their cold hands on a chilly fall day. And after a 45-minute conversation, tea and another handshake goodbye, she’s pleased her interlocutor’s hands have warmed up. 

‘We think you’re trustworthy’

Actors and diplomats must also understand psychology; it’s just that in diplomacy it’s the psychology of nations. It’s not all about love and hatred, but decisions today are influenced by wars fought yesterday, says Ms. Kalmet. 

“On trust, you build trust again,” she says, clapping her hands together.

“We in Estonia, we feel that Canada has not betrayed us—that they never, never acknowledged the [Soviet] occupation. And that’s very important. And it’s still important,” she says. “We think you’re trustworthy.”

Canada is home to the second-largest Estonian diaspora. Upwards of 24,000 Estonians live in the country. The ties run so deep that even the country’s bowtie-sporting president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, as a teenager attended an Estonian summer camp near Uxbridge, Ont. 

On the heels of Mr. Ilves’ state visit to Canada earlier this year, Ms. Kalmet became Estonia’s first resident ambassador since it opened an embassy in Ottawa 13 years ago. In the past, a chargé d’affaires covered the daily grind in Ottawa, while the ambassador was based elsewhere. 

While relations appear to be growing, Ms. Kalmet and her hardworking assistant Madli Uustalu are the only two holding down the Estonian Embassy in Ottawa, although they have the help of a network of honorary consuls.

That means Ms. Kalmet has to strategically focus her efforts. 

One of her priorities is to boost e-governance links. Estonia is proud of its technological know-how, such as adopting Internet voting in 2005. Ms. Kalmet’s business card even has a QR code on the back, a kind of bar code that can be scanned by smart phones or other devices and is often used in advertising. 

Quebec, she says, has expressed interest in Estonia’s e-government practices. She’s keen to work with interested parties on such issues. 

She’s also continuing her predecessor’s push to entice Canada to sign on to a NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn. After meeting with Canada’s foreign ministry in October, she seemed optimistic that while Canada has other more pressing priorities, it may be interested to work with the centre on a project-by-project basis.

Because her sons and husband work at the Tallinn City Theatre, they couldn’t easily pick up and move with her to Canada. They will come visit, she says, and she is planning to go home to see them for Christmas. 

In the meantime, she’s got her hands full with all manner of dull and dramatic diplomatic duties in Canada. 




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