The greatest accomplishment of President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is that he branded Estonia as a modern and innovative 21st century country, and brought it out of post-Soviet obscurity, writes Tallinn University’s Matthew Crandall.
After ten years in office, it is appropriate to look back at the accomplishments and impact of what President Toomas Hendrik Ilves was able to achieve. Ilves was tenacious in the pursuit of his goals and accomplishments. He had two significant limitations against him from the day he took office: The first is the fact that the President of Estonia is a ceremonious position without power.
Estonian employees in the European Union doubted if he would even accept the position because it was seen as a retirement post at the time. The second is that he was from a small post-Soviet Eastern European country. Perhaps President Ilves’ greatest achievement was overcoming these limitations and indeed capitalizing on them to accomplish his goals in a significant manner.
Without significant executive power, President Ilves used creative measures to increase his influence and emphasize his message. His use of twitter made headlines, none greater than his “Twitter war” with Paul Krugman. Having been raised in the United States (in New Jersey nonetheless), Ilves was well-acquainted with the arrogance of Americans and the accompanied U.S. exceptionalism that came with it, a character trait he is often himself accused of.
Nothing perhaps bothered Ilves more than having Estonia or himself branded as Eastern European or post-Soviet with the accompanied inferiority that the context often implied. With Krugman, it was an almost violent response to stick up for Estonia’s choice of macro-economic policy and its ability to pursue correct policies.
In what can be seen as a counter to Western superiority perceptions, President Ilves stayed on a message of technology, innovation, and freedom throughout both terms of his presidency. By focusing on a certain subject, he was able to not only gain respect for himself, but to play a significant role in branding Estonia as an innovative e-country. He did this by relentlessly focusing on the three pillars of Estonia’s cyber message: cyber security, e-governance, and Internet freedom.
Ilves’ greatest accomplishment was rebranding Estonia from a place no one had heard of into an innovative and modern European country. Another accomplishment that takes a close second is his work strengthening transatlantic relations. Ilves had a trump card that he played to perfection, he was an American. Ilves is a former U.S. citizen who was raised in the United States, educated at Columbia, and he worked for Radio Free Europe for a decade.
His world view as president was decidedly American. It should be no surprise that his greatest foreign audience was the United States. In engaging with the U.S., he was able to speak the same language, in every sense of the word. Ilves was effective in bilateral settings as well as institutional settings in NATO. He also made a habit of speaking at prestigious universities, again often talking on messages of cyber security, e-governance, and Internet freedom. These visits garnered much media attention that made it far beyond the classroom walls.
The same strategy that made Ilves wildly successful in U.S. relations and in branding Estonia did not bring success with every audience. For example, Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat claimed that Ilves had worsened relations between Estonia and Finland. Ilves did not meet Finland’s expectations as a ceremonial head of a small post-Soviet country.
As a strong supporter of NATO, Ilves did not hold back with his opinions relating to Finland’s potential membership in NATO. Ilves didn’t shy away from confronting Russia over issues where others would have turned a blind eye. His quick response to internal events such as the jailing of members of the band Pussy Riot is one prominent example, his relentless condemnation of Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea another.
Ilves strengthened relations with the United States and NATO and helped brand Estonia as an innovative modern 21st century European state. For a president of a small country, he proved that it pays to dream big.
Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn