Experts: President Ilves put Estonia on the map
With president-elect Kersti Kaljulaid’s oath of office at 3:00 p.m. today Monday, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ remarkable decade as Estonia’s head of state will end. ETV’s “Aktuaalne Kaamera Nädal” weekly review asked social scientists and policy experts what would remain of Ilves’ presidency.
Social policy professor Anu Toots: Ilves has been a colorful president
“I think he’ll be remembered as rather extraordinary and unconventional president,” Toots said, adding that the president’s great service to the country was to bring the state and politics closer to the younger generations.
Toots recalled a day when she entered the university lobby, where a ballot box had been set up, and saw students queuing to vote. Such was the effect Ilves had as a role model and a positive influence on young people, Toots said.
It had been the president’s choice of up-to-date and relatable issues, ranging from elections to cyber security, that had worked well with a new generation, she added.
Toots also mentioned Ilves’ initiatives, for example a competition to find new words for the Estonian language. Terms like taristu (infrastructure), kärgpere (blended family), and vabakond (civil society, voluntary sector) that came out of this competition are now widely used in Estonian.
Perhaps the most important of Ilves’ initiatives domestically was bringing together representatives of political parties as well as different parts of Estonian society in 2012 to discuss necessary change. This meeting paved the way for Rahvakogu (People’s Assemly), where proposals for legislative change were put together and then forwarded to the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament.
This step legitimized street protests and elevated the people’s concerns to a level where the political establishment had to recognize and deal with them. It increased the number of people and organizations participating in society and political life, and perhaps most importantly gave independent lists and smaller parties a boost.
Criticism of Ilves ranged from lingering resentment of the fact that he is a foreign Estonian to his being seen as too intellectual and high-brow to be understood by all of the people. Toots pointed out that Ilves hadn’t been popular with all Estonians, but that he could not have been expected to be, either. To the political establishment, Ilves had been a comfortable president, as despite frequent sideswipes at politicians, parties, the government, and parliament, nothing much had ever come of his criticism.
Journalist and lecturer Priit Hõbemägi: Ilves has brought the presidency into the media
Journalist and Tallinn University lecturer Priit Hõbemägi pointed out that Ilves had been an intellectual president, though not the president of all intellectuals.
Ilves had a circle of his own that heard him, and that he heard. “But the people that didn’t belong to this circle couldn’t get close to the president even if they were actively taking part in society,” Hõbemägi added.
Ilves had stood out for the way he was covered by the press as well. According to Hõbemägi, the coverage of the president’s private life was extraordinary for Estonian conditions, though the local media in his opinion had still shown restraint.
There had been a clear difference between how Ilves treated the media abroad, and the media at home, Hõbemägi pointed out. The relations between the president and the domestic media hadn’t been very good, at times they had been resentful of each other.
Also, the president had appeared tired of his job during his second term, Hõbemägi added.
Editor-in-Chief of Diplomaatia Erkki Bahovski: Ilves has stood up for countries that otherwise would be easy to forget
The president quickly gained a reputation for calling things by their names, a quality that helped keep issues on the international agenda that otherwise would have disappeared for the convenience of those in power.
For instance, Ilves never avoided the issue of the Russian annexation of Crimea, or the Russian involvement in the eastern Ukraine and the Donbass. He brought up these issues on occasions like U.S. president Barack Obama’s visit in 2014, and has repeatedly compared Russia’s current behavior to that of Germany in the 1930s.
Ilves had stood up and spoken for countries like Georgia and Ukraine, editor-in-chief of Diplomaatia magazine Erkki Bahovski said, countries that otherwise did not get the attention they were due. The president had made sure that international organizations did not forget them.
The president’s first term had seen events like the Bronze Soldier Riot in Tallinn, where protests against the relocation of a World War II monument were surrounded by unrest instigated by organizations supported by Russia.
It had also seen the cyber attacks on the Estonian state’s digital infrastructure. The following developments, and Ilves’ educating foreign counterparts and authorities about the threats to their own systems, had brought up a whole new subject and led to NATO building up its Cyber Defense center in Estonia, Bahovski pointed out.
The Lennart Meri Conference, one of Ilves’ initiatives, had by now gained the status of a trademark event of its own, attracting top-level analysts and political figures from around the world every year, Bahovski said. Thanks to President Ilves, people now knew where Estonia was, he added.
Kaljulaid to be sworn in at 3:00 p.m. today Monday
According to the Office of the President, the two presidential couples will meet in Tallinn’s Kadriorg residence on Monday before driving to the Riigikogu together.
Outside Toompea Castle, the seat of the Estonian parliament, a festive handover ceremony will take place from 2:45 to 3:00 p.m., after which Kaljulaid will swear her oath of office before the Riigikogu.
The presidents will then hold a reception at the Kadriorg Art Museum in Kadriorg Palace together, beginning 5:00 p.m.