One cyber war, hold the hipsters at Australia's first pop-up embassy

Tallinn: It turns out Australia’s first pop-up embassy is not in a shipping container and none of its diplomats are hipsters on fold-up bicycles.

Pop-up ambassador Kerin Ayyalaraju has heard the jokes. But she says there’s a serious side to the idea of pop-up diplomacy: doing more with less, boosting Australia’s global presence without the need for a major real estate play.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop beamed in to Australia’s pop-up embassy in Estonia.

As of this month Ayyalaraju is officially Australia’s ambassador to Estonia, the small Baltic country that’s emerged from the Soviet shadow to become a nimble and notable player in the cyber world.

It has for several years hosted Locked Shields, the world’s biggest ‘live fire’ cyber war exercise – which this week Australia is joining as an official observer, and as of next year intends to have a full team in the thick of it.

The country’s long border and fraught history with Russian puts it on the frontline of the new Cold War, giving it strategic importance for NATO and its allies.

But Estonians are also quick to remind you they invented Skype (which Foreign Minister Julie Bishop used to remotely launch the embassy on Monday, from Perth to a function in Tallinn).

Nice – if a bit fresh – in northern spring, Tallinn, Estonia.

And they are pioneers in e-government: the use of the internet to grease the wheels of bureaucracy and make the workings of government more transparent. One of the embassy’s first tasks will be to set up a joint e-government project.

Estonia is also seen as a like-minded ally in the push for an Australia-EU free trade deal, currently under negotiation in Brussels.

All this said, there are few Aussies in Estonia, despite Tallinn’s trendy street cafe culture and decent coffee. And while late spring in Tallinn is lovely (if a bit fresh), there would be precious few diplomatic cables to write in the ice-bound, dark winters.

Hence the pop-up, which will run for two months of the year. The rest of the time Ayyalaraju will work from London, with assistance from the embassy in Stockholm (where the non-resident ambassador used to be).

Kerin Ayyalaraju Australia’s pop-up ambassador to Estonia

While this is Australia’s first pop-up embassy, the idea is not entirely original on the world stage. Last year the Netherlands did it in Nicaragua, and the year before that the Swiss claimed to have pioneered the idea in Denmark.

“DFAT’s been looking for innovative new ways to expand our diplomatic presence,” Ayyalaraju said. “But as you can imagine it’s quite expensive to set up a bricks and mortar embassy overseas.”

With a pop-up embassy you rent a local commercial office, come in for an intense couple of months to “pump up the engagement”, then operate as a “virtual” embassy for the rest of the year.

“One of my objectives here is really like speed dating – I feel I’ve got to establish relationships very quickly so I can contact them from afar,” Ayyalaraju said.

If it goes well it could be copied elsewhere.

“We’re testing this model as an experiment to see what works, what doesn’t work, what we can do differently and how effective it can be in two months, what we can do in two months,” Ayyalaraju.

Ayyalaraju says she will also be reporting back on the Estonians’ next step in 21st century diplomacy – a so-called “data embassy” in Luxembourg, a world-first project in which the country essentially backed up its essential government and public data to another country, just in case there’s a crisis like an invasion.

Scene from Tallinn, Estonia, where a massive cyber defence exercise was held.

In launching the embassy, Julie Bishop said Australia and Estonia were natural partners with a similar world view – “firmly committed to the international rules-based order and prepared to defend it against efforts to undermine it”.

Estonia’s minister for foreign affairs Sven Mikser said both Australians and Estonians were culturally open to new ideas.

But one new idea is an old one: on Wednesday morning, Tallinn will host an Anzac Day ceremony in Freedom Square, which commemorates the country’s war of independence in the wake of World War I.

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