Ilves: As president, you need something to bite on to keep quiet

Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: Kairit Leibold / ERR

It is impossible to be everyone's president. It simply cannot be done, unless one is content to be a mere figurehead kissing babies and petting sheep, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (2006-2016) tells ERR's Margus Saar in an end-of-year interview.

As president, you ended your speeches with the words, "Long live Estonia!" They could also serve as the first sentence of a speech, the main reason we live here. Do you agree?

Absolutely. It is just that the words are fitting at the end of a speech to remind people that it is a matter of our being. That Estonia would live. After virtually rising from the ashes, and with incredible success.

You first visited Estonia as a tourist in 1984. You were 30 years old and had lived abroad your whole life. As a boy and a young man, did you believe that Estonian freedom would be restored?

I felt like that all the time when I was a child. When I was ten, this was in 1963 or 1964, our scout leader had us practice shooting. "You need to know how when we land in Saaremaa!" they said. I was a pretty good shot. My approach to Estonia was less social later in life and more steeped in thought. The social side of it fell away. I read a lot and pondered things.

Later, two years after I took a job at [Radio] Free Europe, the president there summoned me. He said: "Listen, Ilves. Your write well, but you know Estonia will never be free and we would rather reprofile you. You could become an expert on terrorism." I told him that while I understand you believe Estonia will never be free, I am not ready to accept that yet. This was in 1986. Things started moving soon after.

I've spoken to Estonians in Canada and the U.S. who have themselves or whose families sought refuge. Based on what they told me, I take it that starting anew is not easy. They are countryless.

Like in that poem by Ristikivi.

And then we get a president from the USA. And the locals ask what does he know about life in Estonia – that he has not suffered what we have suffered through in Estonia.

Absolutely right! But does that mean one has nothing to say? I dare say that many of the things I tried to do in Estonia probably took off because my point of view was slightly different.

Your service before becoming president, as ambassador, foreign minister in several governments and MEP... Did these things prepare you for presidential office? Were you ready to serve as president of Estonia in 2006?

I was not. People from the Reform Party, Isamaa and the Social Democrats approached me and asked me to run. I said I did not want to! That I was too young!

At 52!

Yes! That there was more I needed to do. Because I know how the Estonian Constitution works, that the president's chances of getting things done are quite limited. There are things you can do, but there is not much action. And then there's what they told me (the politicians who asked me to run) – don't worry, you won't win anyway.

They did not say that!

That is precisely what they said.

Because what mattered at the time – their polls suggested I was the only person popular enough to give the incumbent a run for their money.

When you became president in 2006, were you prepared to accept that the best moments of your life might be behind you?

I put them on hold for a while, let us say. You need to reorient. That I will now be doing things within the confines of the presidential office that are very different from, if only, serving in the European Parliament. I was in the middle of negotiating an academic position for myself at the time, and all of it was left at that.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves interviewed by Margus Saar. Source: Kairit Leibold / ERR

What had you accomplished by then?

I deem two things more important than others. One was promoting what we would today call the Estonian digital state. What had happened? Reading the Oxford or Cambridge history of the European economy, Estonia had a bigger GDP per capita than Finland in 1938 – the final full year before World War II.

Looking at 1992, the first full year after the restoration of independence, the Finnish GDP was $24,000 a year. Estonia's was $2,800 or eight times less. Now, how do you escape that situation? There were all kinds of ideas. Some wanted to maintain collective farms, like Lukashenko, while others suggested we should become like Hong Kong. I said we need to plot a modern course and that the only way to be ahead of the pack is to go digital.

The background was that I had learned how to code by accident. When I was 15, I had a teacher whose Ph.D. thesis was on mathematical education. They carried out an experiment over six months, which is how I learned to code at 15. I was never afraid of technology, digital technology after that.

The other was the nightmare of development being like the paradox of Achilles never catching up to the tortoise.

It is a matter of development that we may leap and become much wealthier, while still not reaching Finland's level. Because Finland also keeps moving. Perhaps not as quickly, but it will clock its 2 percent of annual growth. And Finland's 2 percent is still so much more than our 8 percent if we start so far behind. That was the nightmarish aspect.

And then, in 1993, Mosaic was released as the world's first internet browser. Sir Tim Berners-Lee had invented the HTTP protocol used to switch between web pages four years earlier, in 1989. But there had not been a web browser until then. I bought it and installed it. And I looked at usage statistics in different countries and realized that here was a field where Estonia could make it independently, compete as an equal with the world's mighty and powerful.

Thirdly, I read Jeremy Rifkin's rather Marxist and Luddite book "The End of Work" that I asked Aavo Kokk to translate, which he did. The entire book is about how computerization and automation will do away with jobs in the future. It was a brilliant example of me thinking this was Estonia's ticket. It included an example where 12,000 workers manufactured x million tons or a hundred thousand tons of steel a year in Kentucky. Next, the plant was bought by the Japanese, computerized and had 120 people manufacture the same quantity of steel as those 12,000 had previously.

I thought that this was our chance. That we need to computerize to rise above our tiny size and answer the question of how to cope when everyone else is so big! The idea to plot a course for digitization followed. And how to do it best, the idea came from Estonia.


I had a new idea when I visited [Estonian] startups in 2016. I asked them how they did it and why. Roughly 80 percent of them said they participated in my "Tiger thing" (the Tiger Leap program – ed.) when they were 15 or even just 10 years old. Well, I suppose it worked!

But the idea was not limited to having computers in schools. The idea was for Estonia to plot a course for digitization. I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about it, and it wasn't very popular. I used to take flak in [teachers' newspaper] Õpetajate Leht almost every week.

The other thing I am proud of is Lennart (Meri – ed.) inviting me back to serve as foreign minister.

The problem was that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were all about NATO, NATO, NATO – that security is what matters – and asked "what's all this about the EU?" I had reached the conclusion that being in the EU was the only way we were going to get into NATO. The countries that did not want to see us join NATO – let's say Germany, UK, France and Italy – how could they veto our membership if we were already in the EU?

While we formally joined NATO, three weeks before we joined the EU, it was clear we needed to have the votes long before that as you cannot very well veto your colleagues from the EU. Those two things, looking at major league politics, far outweigh anything I did in 2006-2016.

You managed to surprise the world or at least the Baltic region when you said Estonia was not a Baltic country but rather it belongs with the Nordics. That it was part of Yule Land! (The Estonian word for Christmas is "jõulud" – ed.)

Yes, our southern neighbors keep asking me whether I still think Estonia is a Nordic country. I had given it a lot of thought and have always been a fan of cultural, historical and philosophical storytelling. Because I had time, I wrote it up and it was published on December 24, 1998.

Estonia is Yule Land, the North where we belong and that lives in our minds?

Historically, Yule Land is the metaphor there, because the term "jõul" (Yule) is used in Iceland, Britain and Scandinavia. It disappears further south. But it was more of a metaphor of our traditions and understanding of things. A kind of basis for Estonian society. And I thought I might throw it out there and see what will happen. People were bothered. It happens.

A debate ensued. It was not meant as a political statement. But it is based on an essay by Milan Kundera that I read and that roughly translates as "Mental geography." He asked how is it that Prague, located 300 kilometers west of Vienna, is lodged in the East, while the latter is seen as part of the West? That something is off here. Historically speaking, Prague, as the city of Mozart, was far more Western than Vienna.

The communist occupation caused us to be nudged out, if we recall that Finland was considered a Baltic state up until WWII. Also, Sweden's foreign policy where they calculated that the Soviet Union was becoming increasingly dangerous and that Sweden could defend Finland for its own needs but not the Baltics. This was followed by Sweden's Nordics policy toward Finland.

However, no reason has been given for why Estonia is less of a Nordic country! We largely share Finland's culture, our islands were home to Swedes. Estonianized Swedes but Swedes nonetheless, coastal Swedes etc. If the Finns made it happen, why can't we?

Do I understand you correctly in that proposing joining EU before NATO, talking about the Nordics and not Baltic unity are things held unsuitable for the president to suggest. That you managed to say some things before becoming president and would have been tongue-tied in presidential capacity?

Yes, I could not have done it as president of the republic who is also responsible for foreign policy. Rather, it was the European Union's business to convince our government to concentrate on this. And the foreign ministry that was also against it at first and lamented a new minister stepping in and swimming against the current! And then there were a few people who supported my point of view.

Generally speaking, it took off when I accompanied Tiit Vähi at the Dublin summit in 1996 that hosted all manner of candidate and associate states. On the flight back, Vähi ordered a gin and tonic and I did the same. And then he asked me, "Ilves, do you really believe in this European Union stuff?" I said that I did. That I believe we are in with a chance as long as we perform at least on par with Poland. The political decision to accept Poland had been made – that much was clear. And that our challenge was to always be at least as good as Poland so we could not be regarded as subpar and ineligible. He looked at me and said, "Do what you want, just steer clear of my domestic policy."

I started by opening five new embassies, dispatching ambassadors in late December, early January because we lacked envoys in many key countries. For example, we did not have one in Italy or Spain. Major countries decide major things, [but] we did not have ambassadors there and you need to be there. Before we opened our embassy, people in Spain thought Estonia was a country where 30 percent of GDP came from agriculture. It was no more than 3 percent already at the time, but they were clueless.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: Kairit Leibold / ERR

There were two camps in 2006 – the People's Union behind Arnold Rüütel and a part of the people behind Ilves. Is it possible to be the entire nation's president?

I don't think so. Not based on what I have seen… I have never seen a democratic president be everyone's head of state. Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer happened. But I do not understand it.

We are looking for a president to build bridges and bring the people together again. What is that?

Building bridges is one thing, while being the entire nation's president is another. There will always be those who are disgruntled – some want to return to the Soviet Union, others want to leave the European Union, and others want something else.

Let us look at vaccination. The president, acting within their role, urges people to get vaccinated. A considerable part of the latter says, "No, we don't want to." How can you be everyone's president without taking a stand for the benefit of the country and the people, but that a notable part of the population dislikes?

Therefore, I treat this matter the same way I treat the question of whether this is the Estonia we wanted. It sounds good rhetorically and from a populist viewpoint, while everyone had their own idea of what they wanted way back in 1991. It was a mistake already back then because Estonia consisted of a plethora of different views.

It is impossible to be the entire nation's president. Unless, as we used to joke, one is content to be a mere figurehead kissing babies and petting sheep.

You are a free intellectual, spontaneous and comfortably arrogant. You say what you want.

Not as president.

How did you suppress yourself or draw the line as president? Were there setbacks, officials coming up to you and suggesting the president should not be as outspoken?

Not really. Rather, they tried to smooth things over.

But there were other problems, people taking things I had said out of context. Or attributing to me things I never said. As I said, it is not something you need to be worried about if you're not president, while you need to bite on something to keep quiet as one.

You took office 15 years after the restoration of independence. You said in your speech: "Dare I phrase a task: five years from now, we will have to hand over to the first generation to have grown up in re-independent Estonia a country that looks and behaves as though the occupation never happened." Did you succeed?

You know, looking at children or speaking to 20-, 25-, 30-year-olds today, they are free citizens who do not regard it as strange to be normal Europeans. Who have studied and lived there. Who leave and come back and have a rather open understanding of the world. A large part of Estonia's success is owed to people who have in their consciousness become part of the European world. Our Bolts and Wises, startups that have experienced explosive growth and morphed into unicorns are among the brightest examples.

I am rather more worried that we have arrived in a similar situation to 1939 – Betti Alver and Heiti Talvik sitting in Werner's Cafe and cursing [President] Päts, without realizing what's about to come. The naivety we sported in 1938 – that we are neutral and this storm will pass us by – naivete pure and simple.

Looking at the world today, it seems to me that younger people do not see the danger the older generation still perceives. But this feeling of what we have achieved over the last 30 years is perpetual and completely safe from harm. That, I believe, is tied to a bunch of people suggesting we should leave the EU… Estonia will last for a year after leaving the European Union. At least as a free country where we do what we want.

Another appeal you have repeatedly made is, "Let us make Estonia bigger!" What does it mean today, when the world has been closed for almost two years?

If we cannot travel, we should concentrate on making life better at home. I believe that of all the countries that became independent in 1989-1991, Estonia is perhaps the only one with a positive image beyond the region. To look at all of those countries and how they are perceived, you will see me fly into a rage on Twitter if I see us lumped in with Eastern Europe or referred to as a former Soviet republic. I often say to people, especially Germans, that when I was in my third year of college in 1975, 30 years after the end of World War II, nowhere could I read about former Nazi Germany. There was nothing of the sort. So why are we still the former Soviet Union?

Coming back to how we can make Estonia bigger, we can be more tolerant, we can be better. I was greatly disappointed with our handling of the vaccination effort.

We knew last summer that there would be vaccines. We did not know when, while we could have pondered how to organize it. Instead, we started thinking about how to handle it once vaccines arrived. Examples of when we have failed make Estonia smaller. How we failed to capitalize on our excellent capacity to organize vaccination better.

We have one of Europe's best logistics companies, Sixfold, in Tartu. They work for the European Commission, they won the competition and handle all of the Commission's European logistics. We had two vans and a spreadsheet document (referring to early vaccination logistics – ed.) – that is Estonia. Eventually, startups and other people made it work voluntarily, without a contract. Please use what we have. Let us put an end to the situation where doctors do not know how many vaccines they will get and when. Let us make it possible to see on a virtual map where the truck is and how many doses it is transporting. So the local physician in Abja would not have to say that they do not know how many doses they will get but they will quite probably arrive tomorrow.

When you became president, you made Estonia bigger not only in the eyes of the rest of the world but through personal growth; people also realized that there is an Estonia outside of Tallinn and national holiday celebrations moved from the capital to Narva, Pärnu, Tartu and Jõhvi. This came as a great joy to cities and a great challenge to the organizers, including the media.

I remember that a lot of guests were worried about how their wife's dress would survive the drive to Tartu. I asked them how they thought people from Tartu used to attend parties in Tallinn? A symmetrical ratio I would say.

It is the same distance from Tartu to Tallinn as it is from Tallinn to Tartu.

So, the dress wrinkles go both ways. I felt we were being too Tallinn-centered. It is the entire country's holiday, the most important day in our history, and we only celebrate it in the capital. That we should do it elsewhere while respecting the people working in different parts of the country. And if you have a party in Tartu County, you can host local people who would not come to Tallinn.

It was difficult at times. Venues tend to be small in Estonia and can hardly fit 1,100 guests. That is when we came up with tents etc. I'm glad President Kersti Kaljulaid upheld the tradition of celebrating national holidays outside Tallinn. People must feel it's their country, that they are being considered and that it's not an exclusively Tallinn affair.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: Kairit Leibold / ERR

I found the parties outside Tallinn much more spirited.

I can second that. As can anyone who has served as president. Firstly, your hand aches for the next three or fours days. Some people even thought I had injured my shoulder. It is a high-spirited affair for a lot of people, which is just what it should be. But it is not all that brilliant if you are the president. And I imagine it can be more difficult for ERR.

One thing that you did already back in 2007 was bringing people together on August 20.

Yes, very much on purpose.

You hijacked Edgar's day. (Edgar Savisaar – ed.)

I had made the proposal to Lennart Meri in 1995-1996. For most people, it was still the most important day in their lives. I knew a lot of people who had spontaneously admitted to me that while February 24 (Estonian Independence Day – ed.) matters to the state, the feeling they have on August 20 is what they hold most significant. And I thought why play games, let us have it on August 20 (Day of Restoration of Independence – ed.). There was another reason in that why do these "stupid countries," Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, always celebrate national holidays in…

… November, December or February! You can't have a garden party.

Looking at France, the States, even the Queen's birthday, which is not actually in June. It is deliberate so the festivities can take place outdoors. August 20 is perfect, besides, it is not a single party's celebration. Looking at how people voted, that three women wrote our independence declaration: Sirje Endre, Liia Hänni and Marju Lauristin. It does not belong to a single party, and I said we should go ahead and do it. I received many angry phone calls from people that I will not name the first time we did it. What is this about Edgar's day and what do you think you are doing. It happened the first year and those people failed to show up. But they were all there the year after that.

Another thing I changed. Independence Day (concert – ed.) always kicks off with the national anthem, while I asked the final song to be "Mu isamaa on minu arm" ("My Fatherland is My Love"). I feel it touches people much more deeply than our national anthem. I think I pulled it off every time except once when the artistic director told me it would not fly. I also hope this tradition will continue. It is much more emotional.

Your first year included the April unrest in 2007 (the Bronze Soldier riots – ed.). You went to see the city after it was looted, all the shops and kiosks, and people close to you have said that you were shocked. Did something give inside you? The national romantic Estonian meeting Estonian reality.

Considering that nothing like that had ever happened in Estonia, one did not have to be a national romantic to be shocked. I returned from Yeltsin's funeral at around 6 or 7 p.m. It was an exhausting trip as the Nashists had raised a ruckus at the Estonian embassy, there were "SS" slogans and the full shebang. And then I received a phone call and was told to turn on the TV. Jesus Christ, what is all this now?!

Were you disappointed with that part of Estonian residents?

Let us say I was disappointed by the behavior of some Estonian residents. That is not how we are accustomed to doing things and, after having adopted some rather supportive and pro-integration stances, that I wanted to side with you and now you're looting the place.

But I gather it was not quite as spontaneous as it seemed at first glance. There was coordinated activity the likes of which we have since seen in Macedonia and Ukraine. In truth, it was an own goal as it was followed by the cyberattacks.

Which Estonia managed to turn to its advantage.

Absolutely, not least because we had by then been telling NATO that we are a digital state and should be in charge of cybersecurity for two years…

As a target of cyberwarfare, we suddenly became an expert and spokesperson.

The NATO cyber defense center (NATO CCDCOE) was established in Estonia because of those cyberattacks, and people realized how a country could be paralyzed through cyberattacks. Until those attacks, we were not taken seriously or were labeled Russophobic. It has nothing to do with Russophobia and is very real indeed. Some countries realized it sooner than others. The Americans, Brits and French quickly got the drift and looked into the matter quite thoroughly.

Every book on cyberwarfare today starts with Tallinn. A long time after the shop windows have been replaced, there is not a single treatment of cyberattacks where Estonia is not mentioned as the place where it all began. Therefore, it was shocking and depressing. But now, 15 or rather 14 years later… It happened, but we managed to capitalize on it.

Estonian Defense Forces members spent a long time in Afghanistan. We lost nine men, 102 were injured and 30 of them severely. The question today is whether these men died in vain?

We were there with our allies and out for the right thing. We left in 2014. There was no way for us to influence how it ended, we were no longer there.

We were not consulted, which is a lesson for the future. But allied forces did a lot of good in Afghanistan, gave an entire generation of Afghans access to decent education.

We have always believed the Americans will see things through and always be there for us. Has the role of the United States as a guarantor of Estonia changed?

I would like to think not. We need to do a lot more for our security than we have so far. We should not undermine transatlantic relations. We need to learn that when push comes to shove in the States, which the current administration felt happened, we cannot always count on them. There is a great difference between Afghanistan and NATO. We have a treaty-based relationship, and it is not generally in U.S. interests to abandon NATO or a NATO member. It is also yet another reason why we needed to get into NATO, to avoid such developments.

I would stop short of blurting it out, but being a European country while not being in the EU and NATO is hardly any fun these days. The security situation has changed considerably in the last 20 years, and especially in the past 10. We saw the war in Georgia in 2008 that we can describe as another so-called highlight during my term. Next came events in Ukraine where Russia took Crimea by force and created pseudo-states in Donbas in eastern Ukraine. These threats are very real indeed and it makes a great deal of difference whether one is this or that side of the NATO border.

Talking about the president's work in Kadriorg Palace, they have a team. Is that team big enough and how smart should the president be themselves?

I am very proud of my team and must say the job would be impossible without a clever group to help you out. You need a team that knows what it's doing and dares tell you if it thinks you should avoid doing certain things.

Have they saved your skin?

No, but they have kept me from doing certain things I would have done otherwise. The intellectual level was very high there, also looking at where these people have ended up since then.

Acting as my legal adviser was [Chancellor of Justice] Ülle Madise, the author of the annotated edition of the Estonian Constitution even before she joined the team. Merle Maigre, one of Estonia's leading foreign and security policy experts went on to head the NATO CCDCOE, Kyllike Sillaste-Elling went to NATO, Liis Lipre-Järma went on to handle foreign policy for the PM.

My recommendation is to go with the people who dare to argue with you. The people who advised me in domestic matters fit the bill, and not just advisors, also people who helped me with "sõnaus" (an initiative for coming up with new digital words – ed.) and were very sensitive to language. I am extremely proud of my team and glad they have all done so well.

Margus Saar. Source: Kairit Leibold / ERR

We are sitting here in the Office of the President that is sometimes also referred to as a palace, where you used to work, where ambassadors and heads of state are received but also where a small child is perhaps doing their homework somewhere and the president sleeps. Is that normal?

Not really, unless it's the White House.

The White House is very imposing.

It is a very large house. I had at my disposal the apartment of the adjutant of President Konstantin Päts. And I think it is not the best place. I told ambassadors not to live in embassy buildings when I served as foreign minister. People go crazy when their workday never ends. And then what happened – I came to live here for ten years, longer than any ambassador.

I believe the president should be able to live somewhere else. A place that's safe but where they can escape the office air. Otherwise, the day never ends.

You made renovating Ärma Farm a matter of the heart upon your return to Estonia. Many heads of state and Estonians have visited you there. These foreign men and women saw our peasant culture's reflections in the modern world there. A calling card for Estonia?

Inviting someone to your home is among the grandest gestures one can make!

We've had some wonderful times there. We have hosted Polish presidents and German president (Joachim Gauck – ed.) who even shed a tear. The president was an elderly gentleman and a former Eastern German dissident. We were shifting some soil around, symbolically participating in planting trees and he asked me whether I knew a song people sang in the DDR when times were tough: "Die Gedanken sind frei" ("Thoughts are free"). I told him, do we ever and proceeded to line up all the Estonians present that included Ando Kiviberg, as we were in Viljandi County. We started singing "Me mõtted on priid" (Estonian version of the song – ed.) that prompted Gauck to look up amazed – a German song! We told him it was also one of the anthems of the Estonian national awakening. And tears started rolling down Gauck's face… An incredible moment.

Another time, we hosted [Polish] President Bronislaw Komorowski and I also invited Viljandi resident, Ukrainian trombone player Ruslan Trochynskyi, and he played and sang a song titled along the lines of, "We will conquer Kyiv with the machine guns on our tram" or something to that effect. All the Poles were singing along, including the bodyguards. Such things leave a lasting impression. I organized a lot of events there.

The invites to national holiday parties in different parts of Estonia read, "Hosted by Toomas Hendrik Ilves and wife." Can you say in hindsight what could be the public's justified expectation for the president's spouse, their role, or indeed whether there should be such an expectation in the first place?

That is entirely up to the spouse. There is no prescribed role, nowhere is it written down. I think every first spouse shapes their own role. And I had two wives shape very different roles for themselves.

That there are some places where the spouse needs to stand next to the president, while the rest is optional?

Yes, a person has free will. Some people dive deeper into that role than others. But nothing is prescribed. Which is the way it should be as people elect the president and not the president's spouse.

It is just so interesting to see what the president's spouse is doing.

Especially for the tabloids. But I suppose it's one side of it you cannot escape.

You have been rather mean to the press on a few occasions. For example, you've suggested that "the 'hacks' can go now." Do you remember?

Well, yes. I do.

Is it hesitation, inability to speak to journalists or have you certain professional expectations for reporters, having worked as a journalist yourself?

I do, indeed. The expectation to be quoted correctly and for your words not to be twisted, ripped out of context. Generally, I have resorted to such outbursts after extraordinarily foolish incidents.


One problem journalism has in a small country is the desire or tendency to stick it to someone. You do it and move on – tomorrow is another day. As a journalist, you forget that you did it, while the person you nailed to the wall does not. And as Mr. Toomas Sildam (the current president's media adviser – ed.) can tell you, Ilves has a very good memory for what someone said somewhere. Malicious jabs stay with you and those people… Well, I do not speak to them, that is all.

That is your right. One of the more memorable metaphors from your term was comparing Estonia to a glade of wild strawberries that is half-hidden but tastes excellent once you find it. Do we readily allow others to taste it?

If they can appreciate it. I know so many people who have come here temporarily or permanently and who simply wonder at what an amazing place Estonia is. At what has happened here. That it is so far ahead of other countries. That it is almost like a different country altogether, while people here do not understand it and take it for granted. That we look on in amazement at what you have achieved. Let's say culturally, in terms of infrastructure, restaurants museums… We look around and ask ourselves whether it is even possible. And this brings us back to your first question of whether it is possible this is a former Soviet republic. It is not possible. And that gives me immense pride.

You have never been fond of the question: "Is this the kind of Estonia we wanted?" Saying instead, people should ask: "What kind of Estonia would we like to build?" You have a five-year-old son, your younger daughter just turned 18. What kind of a world should we leave them?

One should always be looking for creative solutions instead of getting bogged down in standards. We need to think outside the box, try new things and resist the urge to say "no" as soon as something sounds unfamiliar.

I remember a politician suggesting, after Estonia regained its independence, that we need to buy or build armored trains because that is how we won the War of Independence. We absolutely must avoid this kind of thinking. We will never arrive in the future if we look for it in the rear-view mirror.

We must value the past, while we need to always be open to new ideas. Estonia's success is owed to doing things differently, whether concerning the digital state or in the private sector. We have been creative, and my greatest expectation for the young generation is that they have the courage and enlightened mindset to try new things. If you can see that what has brought us this far cannot take us forward. And there are myriad places where tried and tested solutions might more or less work, while we also might do things differently. Perhaps we can do better.

Is there an idea from the political elite you support in terms of where Estonia should be heading? Have you seen such an idea?

You know, it is a time when grand ideas are in short supply among the political elite.

You could say 25 or 30 years ago that okay, Savisaar has read Paul Samuelson and [Mart] Laar has read Milton Friedman, and it was clear that people had ideas, irrespective of where you stood on the matter.

It does not feel like an era of reading when it comes to many European countries today, rather, it is the era of sticking it to one another. That is why I expect to see more debate on potential ideas. Several parties are brandishing fun slogans. And yet, we have people who write well, who are not affiliated with any party and who publish excellent articles on where we should be headed with our economy and climate both in Estonia and abroad.

But it seems to me that these articles are not read, not to mention books. Let us say that Estonia has a lot of ideas but few good ones. I would like to see the latter make their way into party programs to replace promises of a hundred euros in exchange for voting for someone.

President Ilves, I would like to thank you for this interview and end using your words: "Long live Estonia!"

Vivat, vivat, vivat!

Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: Kairit Leibold / ERR


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