The proud Estonian

An interview with Toomas Hendrik Ilvess

A psychology degree from Columbia, a career at Radio Liberty and a penchant for “alternative rock”, Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves is the image of the modern statesman. In interview with Ieva Lesinska, he enthuses about progressive online healthcare systems, citizens data rights and NATO military bases.

Ieva Lesinska: Mr President, even though you have repeatedly stated that you don’t particularly care to discuss Russia, some questions may be in Russian, if not necessarily Russia-related.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves: But I can always be silent, right?

IL: Yes, you definitely have that privilege.

THI: In the last line of Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein states: “what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence”.

IL: I was considerately advised to not ask you whether or not Estonia is a Baltic State…

Adviser: Not true. My recommendation was not to ask this question first.

THI: One misinterpreted essay I wrote about Estonian cultural roots made me the bte noire of Latvian journalists for the next fifteen years. A couple of years ago, Latvian television came here and I said: “Ask anything but if you ask me whether Estonia is a Nordic or a Baltic country I am going to get up and leave. So they did the whole interview and then they say: one last question…”

IL: But my first question will be a bit different. At the end of our interview about ten years ago you said that you would like Estonia to become a “boring Nordic country”.

THI: I said that in front of a group of Swedes in 1993, and you know what it was like on the news then: cars being blown up, mafia shootouts. Sweden and Finland did not have cars blowing up, they did not have machine gun attacks, they did not have mafia gangs, they did not have stores burned down that did not pay protection money – here we had all that and it was just too interesting.

IL: Would you say that Estonia has now achieved that goal of becoming a “boring Nordic country”?

THI: No, I think it is more interesting than it was even a couple of years ago, though not as a destination for extreme tourism. This is also what I said when I opened an alternative music festival here in Tallinn, featuring bands from all over northern Europe, including Latvia.

IL: In 2001, you said that one of the things you missed in Estonia was alternative rock stations, which meant that you couldn’t follow the music scene like you used to do in the United States. Has that changed too?

THI: We still don’t have an alternative rock station, but there are enough alternative music people around, so it’s okay. So I manage to follow these things in other ways.

IL: What music do you listen to now?

THI: I listen to everything – this (throughout the interview, music plays in the background) is an old P.J. Harvey thing – ten years old. But I also listen to Bach. And I listen to weird things. I always have music playing because that helps me stay sane.

IL: At the time of our last meeting, you said that you have no intention of becoming president and that you are tired of people asking you about it. Now you are probably tired of being asked why you changed your mind.

THI: There were so many people who asked me to run and I had such broad support that I finally said okay. But I didn’t expect to win.

IL: You have said that being president is an intellectual responsibility. Could you elaborate on that?

THI: To quote Vladimir Nabokov, I only have words to play with. We have a very, very parliamentary system here in Estonia: the president has no executive authority. So if you want to do more than cut ribbons, you really have to think hard about what you say to people. You know two magazines – two! – in Latvia republished my speech on our Independence Day. So I guess they found something worthwhile there. I do work long and hard on my speeches and I spend a lot of time writing for publications outside Estonia, because I want Estonia to be on the map. For instance, I recently published an essay in Policy Review. To get it published is already a big thing, and then the reader of this fairly influential journal says – oh, it’s from Estonia, that must be an intellectually serious place. For a year, I headed the European Task Force on e-health, and that essay was published only yesterday – I presented the Task Force’s report on how to use IT in healthcare, which is going to be a must in Europe given our demographics.

IL: I guess that many of my countrymen have never heard of e-health. Would you care to say a few words about that?

THI: The birth rate is going down and we are living longer and longer, so we have this upside down pyramid of demographic development. In 20 to 30 years we will have many, many more people who are retired and fewer and fewer people who are paying for it. In Europe, we spend between seven and nine per cent of the GDP on healthcare, but soon we will be spending 20 per cent or more and that’s not sustainable. So there are many things to do, one of which is to make healthcare more rational. One example, which already works in Estonia, is the digital prescription. This means that you go to see a doctor, he or she says you need this, this, and this, and you then take your ID card to the pharmacy and they know what you need. First of all, you decrease the number of mistakes by a factor of three. Also, if you have a permanent prescription, instead of having to go to the doctor each time, you just go to your pharmacy and get what you need.

IL: So if I am in Tallinn and I need a prescription, I just call my doctor in Riga and I can get my medicine here?

THI: Right. When all the countries that have this system – right now it’s also Sweden, Denmark, Finland – start signing agreements, you then get to the point where you call your doctor in Riga and it goes into the system. To take it further, we have a low level system that’s adopted by only five countries so far – epSOS – where the doctors feed all the data on the patient into the system, to which the patient has access – also dental stuff, X-rays, MRIs. Let’s say the doctor says okay, you need this operation. In the past, you’d take your papers and maybe go to another doctor. Now you own these data and you can send them to another doctor and then another and so on, so you can get twenty opinions if you want. It’s all based on the premise that you own your data, anything about you is yours – it’s not the property of hospitals or doctors. This right theoretically exists in Europe but legally it is something that is hard to enforce. Another thing we recommend is the standardized European health form – say box 37B shows your allergies – and what we already have with Google Translate. So when you get sick in Greece, the Greek doctor can look at what you have and it’s already translated and he says, well, I can’t give you this because you are allergic to that.

IL: God forbid that he should use Google Translate!

THI: No, no, no – the idea is that all the standard medical terminology is already there. You can take it one step further: for example slot 22B says that your triglycerides are 5.6-7.1. What does it mean to you? Unless you are a doctor, nothing. But you click on triglycerides and it tells you it’s either good or bad. It’s all do-able today, it all can make life easier, and people will live longer and die healthy.

IL: Given Estonia’s sophistication in the field of IT, is there not a disparity between generations? Does the older generation have the same computer savvy? Are they happy to be part of the computerization of Estonia?

THI: Sometimes it is a problem. But we had this big computer education program back in the early 2000s, it was a private undertaking run by the banks. The banks had branches in every little village but they wanted to close them down and have people do more electronic banking. So they had a program where they taught older people how to use computers. It has to be user friendly, it can’t be something overly complicated. An important part of IT is to simplify things, not simply taking old forms that you filled out by hand and putting them online. We learned this with our tax return – at first it was the paper world transported onto the computer but then it was realized that it’s not all necessary. Now, if there’s some income that’s not already reported, you enter it but if there isn’t, you just press the button that says “done” and that’s it.

IL: Speaking of demographics – it seems that Estonia too is losing its population, albeit to a lesser degree than Latvia. In addition to the declining birth rates, people are emigrating – right?

THI: To a much lesser degree.

IL: So it’s not a factor?

THI: Well, it is a factor psychologically and emotionally, but we have actually lost about 75 thousand maximum in the past twenty years.

IL: So no real need for measures to lure people back?

THI: Sure. I undertook one, but… There’s this general idea that we have in all three Baltic countries that nothing good can be done by our country – everything is a priori bad. So you run an initiative, you try to do something good, but it gets disparaged.

IL: But what was your initiative?

THI: It can be roughly translated as “Talents, Come Home!” The idea was to hook up people with employers in Estonia who need people. For example, your company is exporting to the Netherlands and we need a Dutch speaker – so before you go and try to find a Dutch speaker who is Dutch, maybe we can find an Estonian student in The Hague who wants a job. But of course, everyone was annoyed that I put “talents” in – you know, “I don’t have a talent, so you don’t want me”. It’s that typical eastern European thing that it’s not possible to do anything positive, it immediately has to be trashed. It’s no different than Latvia. We have a relatively high level of unemployment, slightly under ten per cent, but the real problem is that, as a result of a huge restructuring of our economies, beginning in 1991 but even more so as of 2007, we are faced with a lack of qualified labour. So, on the one hand, we have a problem of relatively high unemployment among people with few skills, while our employers are complaining about a lack of skilled labour – people who can program computers. When unemployment was at it worst, at 17 to 18 per cent, the IT people told me they still needed about another 500 people a year – there was no unemployment in the IT sector, none. That’s going to be a problem we all face. If people keep going to school to learn public administration, business administration – I won’t even mention public relations or journalism – basically, if people avoid science and maths, the problem will not go away. If there is anything I can say to young people in Estonia or anywhere: you want a job when you are old? Learn maths! You need skills in various quantitative fields. Look at the experience of Estonians and Latvians after World War II when they went to the West – who had jobs? The engineers! In fact, growing up in Sweden, I know practically no Estonians who weren’t engineers. I knew a guy, my father’s friend, who had gotten a law degree from Tartu, and he ended up in Sweden and then went to the United States. But what are you going to do with an Estonian law degree? So he went back to college and became an engineer. And then he had a great job, a beautiful summer house – that’s what all the exiled Balts wanted, right? First you buy a car and then you buy a plot of land so you can fry up a herring on Ligo (midsummer’s day) undisturbed.

IL: While we’re on the topic of quantification, I’d like to ask you what you think Estonia has gained by introducing the euro and whether people perceive any losses?

THI: I have just had a long meeting with two of our best financial analysts and I asked them the same question. Basically, as to the gains, the answer is what it was a year ago: increased investment. Most importantly, however, it took off the devaluation pressure that we faced. The investments returned – not because the euro is so wonderful but because the investors’ biggest fear was the devaluation of the kroona: they had pulled out because they were afraid to lose their money. When there is the euro, there is no devaluation. So that was all positive. The inflation that we had over the past year, which is admittedly high, is not due to being in the eurozone, it’s due to energy costs, which are particularly high in the Baltic region. There is really no problem with the euro, there is a problem in the eurozone. But what is important is that you are not going to be less affected by the crisis in the eurozone if you are out of it; in fact, you are probably going to be affected more. That’s what Christine Lagarde said a year ago: the first victims of the Greek crisis are going to be the countries of eastern Europe not in the eurozone. Most of the countries in eastern Europe are eurozone banks – Austrian banks, Finnish banks – they still trust the eurozone, they don’t trust the other areas. That means that loans are going to dry up faster in the countries outside the eurozone. This is euro propaganda, you understand! But I believe it. I think it’s absolutely vital that Latvia gets into the eurozone, I mean it is the one thing you need to do in order to be fully integrated into Europe.

IL: In light of the election results in Greece and France, how do you assess the future of the euro area?

THI: It’s too early to tell. Clearly, if the Greeks don’t meet the commitments they have made, the IMF is not going to release the next tranche of money and that could lead to a catastrophe. My article in Policy Review was about this: do you meet your agreements or not? We northern Europeans, peasants as we are, have this belief that if you agree to something, you have to fulfil your obligations. In our culture, not living up to an agreement is a really bad thing. In other cultures it’s not. For us, we have to do it, so we grit our teeth and meet our commitments. If the Greeks don’t then they will default because they won’t be able to pay their bills. We assume they understand this, so we believe they will keep the commitments they’ve made and cut back on expenditure. But if they say, no, to hell with them, then the consequence will be that they won’t get the money. If they don’t have the money to pay their bills, then they will default and will have to leave the eurozone.

IL: But that’s not the end of the story.

THI: Right, then we will all suffer. But that’s all I can say, I have no additional intelligence on this. All I can do is read the Financial Times at half past midnight to see what’s happening.

IL: In your Policy Review article you seem to warn that the voters in the well-behaved “peasant North” are not going to stand for this very much longer.

THI: Exactly. It’s a serious problem. Seventy-five per cent of the parliament, the government parties and one of the opposition parties, voted in favour of bailing out Greece. The next day there was an opinion poll and 75 per cent of Estonians were against the bailout. The government, the parliament and the opposition took a morally very laudable position. But of course, no parliamentarian is going to vote against the wishes of the public for very long. After all, we are not a totalitarian country, we are not an authoritarian country the likes of which lie very close to us, where public opinion does not matter and people vote the way they are told to vote. If you have a democracy, you have to do what the electorate wants, and it is going to be very difficult for responsible countries that have been playing by the rules to put up with bailouts if the electorate is not willing to go along with it. You can understand why the Finns are annoyed, why the Germans are annoyed, but they are richer than Greece. You can imagine what we feel here, bailing out the Greeks, when we are poorer than them! We don’t have thirteenth and fourteenth month’s salaries; the average salary in Estonia is 10 per cent lower than the minimum salary in Greece. And our retirement age is ten years higher or more. So obviously, people are annoyed. And I don’t know where it’s going to go. I don’t think anyone does. On the other hand, whatever happens, it’s important to be in the eurozone, because there at least you are not stranded. Our allies in this area are Germany, Finland, the Netherlands… I’d rather be in the same boat as them than be stranded alone.

IL: Estonia’s defence budget, as you have proudly stated on many occasions, is two per cent of the GDP.

THI: Why proudly? It’s the NATO requirement!

IL: Yes, but Latvia’s is only half that and hopes to achieve 2 per cent by 2020 at the earliest.

THI: That’s eight years away! That’s longer than we’ve been in NATO! I’ll be honest with you: when I hear Latvian politicians say: “We’re the fastest growing economy in Europe!” Yeah? Who cares? The point is that it’s not just about your economic growth, it’s also about meeting your obligations. And it costs money. It costs money to be in NATO.

IL: In your estimation, what are the main threats to Estonian security?

THI: If you look at our investments, we invest heavily in cyber security.

IL: What fraction of the defence budget is that?

THI: That’s a secret. But we clearly see cyber attacks as a threat, and the prevention of those is something we do well. Defence spending is not simply a response to threat. We are investing heavily in the air base here – it’s a good thing to have a genuine NATO infrastructure in your country, not just using old Soviet bases but having a real state-of-the-art modern air base. Other threats – well, look at what’s going on around you, where money is being spent, and then you draw your own conclusions. Who’s firing missiles and where they are putting them…

IL: There are all these reports of Russia amassing troops around the Baltic borders but I also read that Estonia is holding major manoeuvres on the 8 and the 9 May. Is that true?

THI: No, these are our annual three-week long graduation exercises. As you may know, we still have a conscript army. We like the idea, by the way. I will tell you why in a minute. But do you want to see a conscript? There is a picture of the best conscript in his base – his unit was the best and he was the head of the unit – and the prize they got for being the best unit in anti-aircraft missile firing was a trip to Latvia. There you have a testing ground where you get to shoot real missiles, and he went there. I’ll show you (goes to the wall behind his desk). That’s a graduate of Stanford University 2009, he returned to Estonia and went directly into the army – seven days after graduating. It’s my son, Luukas Ilves. Actually, you can look on YouTube and see a lecture he gave in Latvia on cyber defence. Anyway, we love our conscript army, we think it’s a great idea. Ninety four per cent of people believe we should have a conscript army.

IL: Really?

THI: Yes. Our idea of defence is based on reserves. One thing you don’t have when you have a volunteer army, you don’t have reserves. You go, you work there for two years or three years or whatever, but it means that your standing army is all you have. Our army is reserve based, so we can have thirty thousand troops that can be mobilized in three days. If you have a volunteer army, you don’t have that resource. If you are a small country, it’s a problem. If you are the United States, the world’s richest country, you have 300 million people, and then you can have a volunteer army. Of course, 800 thousand men is a small army compared to the size of the country, but they are well paid and in absolute numbers it’s not so small. But in a small country, if you have a volunteer army, you can only have as many as you can afford to pay for.

IL: So young men are not trying to shirk this duty?

THI: Every year we have more and more positive responses. Some will always try to get out of it. But we also have volunteers. They aren’t going there for the money, they are simply volunteering. In the last ten years, since the improvement in the quality of life in the army, many of the old objections have gone. There is a real sense that the army is something you have to do. Anyway, to get back to your original question – every year we have this thing called “Spring Storm” – three-week long exercises where they have a kind of graduation exam. We always have Latvians there – they come to play the attacker, the enemy.

IL: Today, in downtown Tallinn, there were a few people in old Soviet uniforms sporting Soviet military insignia and medals – not only old but actually mostly young people. In Riga, there is a kind nervousness about this date. How is it in Tallinn? Is there a special place where those celebrating the Soviet Victory Day gather?

THI: They gather where the statue of the bronze soldier used to be. And if people want to wear something – why not?

IL: This brings us to that dreaded set of questions…

THI: No question is dreaded.

IL: It is no secret that the integration policies of both Latvia and Estonia have been criticized by the outside world.

THI: Only by the East. No one else is criticizing us.

IL: I don’t think that’s quite accurate but okay. Estonian and Latvian officials have always dismissed this criticism as ungrounded. However, at least in Latvia, the issue has been forced to the forefront.

THI: I would say that Latvia simply has a very unfortunate referendum law. If you need only ten thousand signatures, you can basically wear out the entire Latvian population by having a referendum every ten days. So I would amend your constitution. Not that I want to interfere in the internal affairs of Latvia! But basically that’s what I think.

IL: Leaving the referendum issue aside, I think quite a few people in Latvia see the integration problem as a genuine one. At least in Latvia, you can’t dismiss it simply as political manoeuvring. How about in Estonia?

THI: Well, first off, when you look at that criticism, you have to realize who is criticizing whom and then you draw your conclusions. I am pretty proud of the fact that Estonia has a high rating in the Freedom House rating of individual freedoms. As a liberal democracy, we are doing rather well. Clearly, integration is an issue that has to be dealt with; on the other hand, Estonia as a previously occupied country is not going to give automatic citizenship. It was an occupied country and everything else follows from that. Now there is this talk in some quarters: well, you have this category of non-citizens. In fact, this category was suggested to us by the OSCE and Max Van der Stoel in 1992: “You need a category where you have more rights than citizens of foreign countries.” Now we are being blamed for what the OSCE recommended! And the OSCE is not saying anything about it. Do we have to take seriously what people supported by the Foreign Ministry of a certain foreign country are saying? Clearly not. And in fact, the rate of integration is actually fairly good. Sure, we’d love it to be faster, but we’re not going to go around forcing people to learn Estonian. If you don’t want to learn Estonian – then don’t. There is the requirement that, starting in Grade 10, part of your education is in the Estonian language. It amazes me that there are people who are against this. I mean, what? Do you want your kids to have fewer opportunities?

IL: But you still have Russian schools, right?

THI: Sure. I mean, I really see this as a forced issue. Just think this through: Do you want your child to grow up monolingual in a country where everyone speaks a different language? Do you want your child not to learn an official language of the European Union?

IL: In Latvia, after the last election, the divide between the two communities seems to have become wider and more obvious than ever before.

THI: Let’s not fall into the terminology that is forced upon us! Estonians are not a community, Estonia is a nation state and so is Latvia. I would never call Latvians a community!

IL: Okay, let’s avoid that terminology. There are Latvians and Russians and the twain don’t meet.

THI: Well, I don’t know. I guess it’s a matter of self-definition. There are many people who are considered ethnically Russian but speak Estonian. They simply have Russian names, but they are a part of the Estonian scene. I talk to someone and then I find out later on that they are Russian. I don’t think in these categories, about what one’s ethnicity is. There are those who like living in a European country that is a liberal democracy and I guess there are those who don’t. For them, the very existence of a small, puny, insignificant little country is insulting. Well, what can I do about that mentality? I’m certainly not going to accommodate it. I mean, I am a democratically elected president of a democratic country and if someone thinks they’d rather live under an authoritarian regime, then that’s too bad. But I am not going to go along and accommodate them by saying, yes, you are right, we really should have an authoritarian regime!

IL: Speaking of outside opinions, I recently read Alexander Theroux’s book Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery…

THI: Yes, I read it too, but then I am probably the only person in Estonia who also read his Darconville’s Cat in 1981, and Three Wogs as well. I’d say it’s typical Alexander Theroux, one of the most misanthropic writers there are. I mean, if you remember, in Darconville’s Cat he has a thirty page chapter called “Magnificarum”, which is just a collection of curses in Latin, most of them obscene, and then the English translation. So this guy comes to Estonia, he is here for the dreariest months, he hates everything he sees – but okay, it’s just one view and it’s fine. You know, there used to be this joke about the Finns – and now it applies to Estonians, with our obsession with tables and rankings. It goes like this: A German, a Frenchman and a Finn discover an elephant. The German writes a three volume “Prolegomena to the Elephant”; the Frenchman writes, “L’ElŽphant: Fifteen Ways to Cook It”; and the Finn writes a book, “The Elephant: What It Thinks about Us”. That joke is twenty years old, now it’s not so much the case in Finland, whereas in Estonia every opinion counts. At least opinions from the West.

IL: Contrary to what you are saying about how every opinion seems to count in Estonia, I was trying to get some reactions to the book and found it didn’t make much of a splash here. Whereas if something remotely like that were written about Latvia…

THI: And even more so, if someone has written something bad about Estonia, then all the Latvians have read it!

IL: Not this book, I assure you.

THI: Well, what can you say. All you can do is just shrug your shoulders. Basically the book struck me as the kind of book someone would write if he’d only been in one other country his entire life. I have found that when people move out of their native country for the first time, all they do is look at the differences and complain. When you go to your second foreign country, then things are different, and it becomes easier with each next one to develop a perspective. It’s a classic thing I have seen with diplomats. In their first country they only notice the differences, but then they go to their second country and after a while they actually develop a perspective. You have to go and live in different places to start having a serious opinion. Before that you are just looking at what’s different – either good or bad.

IL: I heard that you’re coming on the state visit by train. Is there any special reason for that?

THI: There are several. One is that when I make state visits to our neighbours I try to go the traditional way. For instance, Estonians traditionally went to Finland by boat. So I took our largest military ship to Finland and entered the bay with a 21 cannon salute. When I went to Sweden, it was too cold to take the military ship, they said you’ll never survive, so I took the ferry. But when going to Latvia, Estonians have traditionally gone by train. Especially in 1919 when we had our armoured trains going there. Also, here in Estonia – and Lithuania and Poland and Finland and the European Commission – we think that Rail Baltica is a good idea. Because that is the traditional way of travelling between our countries and if there is anything that gives real physical, infrastructural meaning to the term Baltic unity, Baltic cooperation, then it is the rail link. It would be the one thing that could tie us to Europe physically; otherwise, we are much more of an island. It’s a big project, it will mean a complete change of the way things are in this part of the world, and it will make travelling to continental Europe much faster, much easier and more European. The Finns are hugely interested in this in terms of Finnish trade: it would cut down the time it takes Finnish goods to reach central Europe by 24 hours. But the main thing for me is really the tradition. In fact, in my preparations for the state visit – and it’s very important to me and I am preparing harder than ever… (Gets up, goes to his computer) I even found a Latvian newspaper from 10 October 1919, Briva Zeme. And there is an editorial, in the form of a greeting, on the occasion of the arrival of the Estonian armoured train to Riga on 10 October, 1919. Half of it is printed in Estonian and the other half in Latvian. The train arrives, the Latvians are on the platform – “Greetings to our Estonian comrades!”

IL: And further down it reads: “We called you and you came!”

THI: And we came by train!

Published 18 June 2012
Original in English
First published by Rigas Laiks 6/2012 (Latvian version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Rigas Laiks © Tomass Hendriks Ilvess / Ieva Lesinska / Eurozine



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