Ilves: Estonia’s good reputation now dull

Aimar Altosaar
, toimetaja
Former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves at his Ärma Farm in Viljandi County.
Former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves at his Ärma Farm in Viljandi County. Photo: Elmo Riig / Sakala

Estonia will celebrate the 29th anniversary of restoration of independence on August 20 – the tradition was created by Estonia’s previous president Toomas Hendrik Ilves during his first term. Today, Ilves would lead a quiet life surrounded by his family if only he was not constantly invited to speak about Estonia’s success at various international forums. The former foreign minister and MEP whom the author met in early August also had a part in that success. We met at Ilves’ summer home in Mulgimaa to talk about how Estonia has fared since restoring its independence.

Celebrating the Day of Restoration of Independence on August 20 in the Kadriorg Palace Rose Garden is your initiative. Creating traditions is part of building a country and while not all traditions take root, this one did.


The idea to celebrate this day a little more boldly came from the conviction that it should be the most important day of the year for Estonians in spiritual and personal terms. February 24 will always be there, with its 20th century traditions, such as the military parade and the president’s reception. But the feeling of having been there – or that your parents were there – when independent Estonia once again manifested in reality, that feeling will never disappear from the consciousness of people who survived the occupation.

Estonian refugees and diplomats who remained in the West after the occupation actively made efforts to make sure the West would not recognize the occupation regime and succeeded. The Singing Revolution and the freedom movement in Estonia laid the foundation of Estonia establishing itself among other countries. You kept up the mission of refugees to create for Estonia the best possible place in the world. How did it begin?

I was working as ambassador to the United States at the time. Towards the end of Germany’s EU Council presidency in December of 1994, Financial Times published an article that included as a caption the words of chancellor Helmut Kohl according to which the Baltics mustn’t become EU members. We were not wanted. The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize we were also not wanted in NATO.

Then (in the fall of 1996 – ed.) the government fell apart, president Lennart Meri recalled me and I became the independent foreign minister in the governments of Tiit Vähi and later Mart Siimann.

In order to get into the EU, we needed to meet the so-called objective criteria. While in the case of NATO, what you need is a purely political decision: they either accept you or they don’t. I was convinced that Estonia needed to do all it takes to get into the EU – because once you’re in, the other member states cannot veto your NATO application. The consideration at the time was that being part of the European Union is beneficial anyway, while without it, we cannot deal with opposition from Russophile countries or those that fear Russia that at the time included Germany, France, Italy and the UK. Once we’re in, those countries can no longer veto our NATO accession. After that, it was a matter of convincing Norway, Turkey, USA and Canada.

At the time, an unknown Eastern European country was generally treated as a backwards state as a result of communism.

And it really was the case in some other places, such as Poland. We dispatched envoys and I began giving speeches everywhere I went. I gave the same speech everywhere – about how we’re really doing based on objective criteria.

In December of 1996, Tiit Vähi and I were on our way back from an EU summit in Ireland when the PM asked me: “Listen, Ilves, do you really believe we will be accepted into the EU?” I said: “I believe we will!” And then he told me that as long as I stayed out of his domestic policy, I could do whatever I wanted. And that is pretty much the sum of it.

Our EU aspirations didn’t exactly go over well with our Baltic neighbors.

Latvia and Lithuania were sure we had lost the plot.

The decision to invite Estonia for accession talks came in late June 1997. The chairman of the Latvian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, who became the country’s foreign minister soon after, allegedly reacted by saying that Estonia was like a jazzed up aging prostitute, only he did not put it quite so politely. A nice way to put it.

Rather harsh. I suppose the neighbors were hurt.

I was very glad to hear it. Postimees published a caricature of an Estonia, Latvian and Lithuanian queuing. The Latvian and Lithuanian, standing behind the Estonian, ask the latter: “Are you the last one?” And the Estonian says, “no, we’re the first.”

Estonia also has politicians who believe that while NATO is absolutely vital, the European Union is not. Could it be possible for us to stay in NATO but leave the EU?

We would have the same kind of trade relations with European countries as Algeria. We could not live or work in the EU, we would be poorer and would not have access to EU infrastructure, agricultural etc. support.

What should be the qualities of someone parties want to be in charge of foreign policy?

A person without the necessary training and sufficient erudition might not have an adequate understanding of the nature of the country’s foreign policy. Foreign policy is not complicated in itself, but it is skilled work. If you’ve done it and kept yourself up to speed over the years, you understand what is possible and proper and what is not.

If you haven’t, you lack both the knowledge and the skills required. That is when things get out of hand and the country’s positions are no longer taken seriously until a more professional minister comes along. If the portfolio is given to someone who has never been involved in the field, the result is often simplified positions: Russia is bad and the U.S. good. Or reversely that I am the one who will quickly repair relations with Russia.

Foreign policy management requires knowledge, erudition and a way to express oneself. A good foreign minister worries about how to secure more flights to Tallinn, instead of prioritizing making sure that “Tallinn” is written without spelling errors on the notice boards of the few airports that offer flights to Estonia.

It will soon be four years since the end of your time as president. A lot has changed in the world and in Estonia. Donald Trump became president when you were no longer one. What is your opinion of political processes in the States today?

Provided there is no foul play, America will very likely get a new president after the elections. It is quite rare for an incumbent president not to get a second term.

America has not had such an unpopular and controversial president, at least in the 20th and 21st centuries. What sets Americans apart from, let’s say, the Germans is their very simple constitution. The U.S. Constitution is not that comprehensive, while Trump is changing traditions that have taken shape over 240 years. Well-established traditions of how to act, what to do and where agreement happens.

The Democratic Party's presidential candidate Joe Biden is 10 points ahead of Trump in the polls – a considerable lead.

Even that is not a sure thing because the U.S. does not have direct elections, instead, the decision is made by electors. The latter represent states and an advantage of just a single vote can give you all the electors.

However, things could still change after elections in America. What effect could it have on the EU and Estonia?

The effects could be great. Everyone is holding their breath and nothing with far-reaching effects will be decided before it becomes clear who will be the next president. Should it turn out Trump will stick around for a second term, countries will meet in December at the latest to try and find solutions. It is clear that another four years of what we’ve seen would be intolerable and that something would need to be done.

It is rather extraordinary for an ambassador to resign because he cannot represent a government the convictions of which clash with his own. The Estonian ambassador to Finland Harri Tiido recently resigned. Before that, the American ambassador to Estonia left for the same reason.

The American ambassador who resigned said that he cannot represent an administration that rails against NATO while serving in a friendly NATO country. It is a matter of honor.

Back when I served as ambassador, my colleagues and I discussed the line that would have to be crossed for a diplomat to be unable to continue serving their country. State officials must follow the government’s directives after it has been appointed by a democratically elected parliament. As ambassador, I serve my country, not a specific head of state or minister.

Harri Tiido, by leaving the post of ambassador to Finland, is really building a bridge between Estonia and Finland by letting the Finns know that not everyone here shares the government’s views.

How would you describe Estonia’s condition today?

Estonia looks beautiful, even in winter. But I’m afraid we have come to a standstill.

When Ireland became independent roughly 100 years ago, it was full of young and energetic men. They had a dream of building their own country after 800 years under British rule. When the Republic of Ireland turned 30, the young men who had led it got old and the country entered a period of stagnation. What followed was cheap nationalism that led nowhere. There were no new ideas or impulses for moving forward.

Ireland didn’t find new momentum until 1973 when it joined the European Union. The country still looked rather bleak 13 years after that step, compared to what it is now.

What makes Estonia strong?

Innovative spirit first and foremost. Just three or four years ago, Estonia was the only post-communist state with a truly positive global reputation. If there was one so-called Eastern European country that was known everywhere from Japan to Uruguay and known for good things, it was Estonia.

Having a good reputation brings investments, opens doors for Estonians all over the world. From there, it is up to each and every one of us to decide whether to use that reputation to make it, attract necessary capital to grow and become international, go global, as our unicorns have.

Therefore, reputation is the foundation and something that a lot of other, especially post-communist states still grapple with 30 years on. But what makes us strong is Estonians’ enterprising spirit and hard work.