Viljandi High School students interview presidents of Estonia and Finland

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves visited Viljandi High School, where they spent one lesson answering questions that had been submitted by the students. May 18, 2016. (Office of the Republic of Estonia)
5/18/2016 11:40 AM
Category: News

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö visited Viljandi High School today, where they spent one lesson answering questions submitted by the school's students on topics ranging from their own favorite subjects in school to the future of the EU. ERR streamed the session, which was conducted in English, live.

Viljandi High School Director Ülle Luisk said that it was the Office of the President of the Republic who first suggested the visit, but the school who suggested that the guests of honor take part in a lesson and be prepared to answer some questions from the students.

All students were given the opportunity to submit questions, from which the session's moderators chose a selection to present to the heads of state.

On favorite subjects, being the president and education

The question-and-answer session began with a couple of basic warmup questions meant to help students get to know the heads of state better as regular people. Asked about what their favorite subjects were in school, President Niinistö admitted that while he had been interested in civics and history, he most enjoyed physical education and sports. President Ilves, on the other hand, stated that it was difficult to pick a favorite because he liked everything in school — except phys. ed.

Asked what the most positive surprise during their respective presidencies has been, Ilves said that it was how quickly Estonia has developed, especially with regards to civil society, which he found had really “taken off” and gotten a lot accomplished over the past ten years, including people doing things for themselves that they previously expected the state to do for them.

Niinistö noted that he had seen a lot of positive things during his presidency, but said that he most valued simply meeting people, including the audience of Viljandi students before them. He told the students that he gets enthusiastic anytime he sees anyone doing anything difficult, even just a young man picking berries by the hundreds of liters. He also related a story about Finnish Independence Day, during which the President and his wife customarily host many veterans for dinner. “It so happened when my wife and I sat down at a table with five veterans that two of them knew each other,” said Niinistö. “They were both 101 years old, and they had met most recently in 1936 — 70 years ago — and one said to the other, ‘You didn’t make your bed properly while we were serving our conscription!’ Those are very happy moments.”

Asked about when they had begun thinking about running for president, Niinistö, who has been in office since 2012, noted that it was only suggested to him before the 2000 Finnish presidential elections; he ran for president for the first time in 2006. Ilves joked that the first time he really thought about being president was on September 23, 2006 — when he was elected by electoral college to be the next president of Estonia.

Speaking about education in the two neighboring countries, the Finnish president highlighted the strength of the Finnish education system, which consistently ranks highly in international studies, crediting it to the fact that education was highly valued and teachers well-respected there. Pointing out that Estonia immediately followed Finland in PISA rankings — referring to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, which tests and compares the skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds from dozens of countries across the globe — and that the two were the only two European countries in the top 10, Ilves pointed to the Baltic state’s comparatively “traditional approach” in terms of student responsibility as a possible contributing factor to the country’s educational success. He did, however, cite that he would like to see more opportunities to think independently in Estonian secondary schools, as this was a critical skill both in university and later in life.

On security, NATO and the EU

President Ilves pointed out that Estonia was facing a very different, more difficult external environment than when he first took office in 2006, when there was no conflict in Georgia or Ukraine, the Greek financial crisis had yet to begin, there was no war in Syria, and no massive flow of refugees into Europe. Considering the current global situation, he found that the EU needed to step up and play a stronger role in the collective security of its member states than it had thus far, pointing out that the European Constitution includes a clause about solidarity and defense within the union. He noted NATO’s increased efforts in the region, but pointed out that the EU had to follow suit. The Estonian president stated that one of the main things he learned from studying Estonian history and why things went badly in the 1930s was because Estonia had adopted an isolationist stance, hoping that “by being alone, we would be left alone.”

The Finnish president stressed the continuing need to promote international dialogue in lieu of conflict, stating that “The reality in this world is that if we can’t solve these problems by discussing and agreeing, the other alternative is terrible.” Niinistö went on to explain that beginning with WWII already, his country’s stance was that they needed to be able to protect themselves in case armed conflict was unavoidable. “Finland relied and still relies on keeping its own army strong. It’s not to win wars, it’s to prevent wars,” stated the Finnish president, asserting that “If Finland calls for its trained reserve to arms, we have more men in arms than Germany.” He remained staunch in his conviction, however, that Europe will not enter into war. “I wouldn’t worry if I were you,” said Niinistö. “We are safe, and we will keep ourselves safe in Europe, I have no doubt about that.”

On tolerance and the refugee crisis

The Finnish president noted that despite the arrival of 35,000 asylum seekers in the country last year, which was over ten times Finland’s quota of 3,000, the country was able to keep the situation under control and even provide places for arrivals to stay as their applications for asylum were processed, but found that the most demanding part of the job, the integration of those staying in the country into Finnish society, still lay ahead, and that this would be a very long process. Acknowledging the fact that the refugee crisis was much worse in parts of Southern and Central Europe, Niinistö was nonetheless troubled to see many EU member states try to back out of doing their part to help by attempting to paint as unattractive a picture as possible of their country in order to discourage refugees. He did, however, find it encouraging that the EU was at least attempting to handle the issue as humanely and following as many international agreements as possible, even if the current agreement with Turkey did not meet all of them.

President Ilves expressed concern over attitudes in Estonia toward people who looked different, including those of a different skin color. He cited Dr. Lili Milani, a Swedish-born daughter of Iranian immigrants, who was Senior Research Fellow of the Estonian Genome Center of the University of Tartu as well as the head of the world-renowned Genotyping and Sequencing Core Facility, as an example, stating that in the past year she had been subject to more comments by people than ever before, despite being able to answer them in fluent, accentless Estonian. “I don’t know what to do with this kind of attitude in this country, which even some politicians promote,” stated Ilves. “And I think that is very dangerous to this country, if you become a country with a reputation of being racist and picking on people because of the way they look.”

Addressing the refugee crisis, Ilves referred to an article he had recently read citing the number of refugees who refused to come to Estonia because they considered it “too poor.” In the Estonian head of state’s opinion, as this clearly was not the case, he could only conclude that anyone refusing to relocate to Estonia for that reason was simply an economic migrant. “If you are a refugee, you don’t look at the GDP of the country you’re fleeing to,” stated Ilves, adding that this needed to be taken into account more.

On the future of the EU

In President Niinistö’s opinion, many member states benefited a great deal from joining the EU, and he strongly supported returning to the union’s basic values, which included peace, security, and solidarity, and EU and Brussels promoting to its citizens that the union would help guarantee them and their families a peaceful life.

President Ilves found the juxtaposition between opinions that the EU must be done away with and the desire of people and countries on the outside to be able to join or move to the EU. He pointed out that the rights to work abroad and travel without visas throughout Europe were the direct result of the EU, and that if those things would start to be considered bad, he wouldn’t know what else would be left. “I’m not sure I would want to live outside of the EU given the situation today,” stated the Estonian president.

As time ran out, the two heads of state were asked one last question — what were their favorite books and favorite bands? Ilves replied that he currently had no one favorite of either, as he liked too many of each to choose.

The President of Finland added that he didn’t have favorites either. “One reason I surely have to confess,” added Niinistö, “I don’t understand a thing about music.”

Editor: Aili Sarapik

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