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Toomas Hendrik Ilves: The complaining has gone too far

Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who recently turned 70, told ERR in an interview that Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is the most influential leader in Central and Eastern Europe when it comes to foreign policy and the intellectual superior of the leaders of larger Western powers. Ilves considers criticism of Kallas to be blown out of proportion.

Unfortunately, the outgoing year has not brought peace and stability to the world. On the contrary – the war in Ukraine continues with great losses, with neither side making much progress. The Western powers are arguing over the size and details of military aid for Ukraine. The attention of the media, at least in the West, has turned to the conflict of Israel and Hamas, with Ukraine forced to take the backseat, despite nearly two years of daily horrors committed by the Russian army. President Ilves, why has the West failed to put Russia in its place? Or have we been too optimistic because a lot of the world's countries are not condemning Putin's conduct?

It is true that a considerable part of the world is not, while that part which we might classify as liberal-democratic, or the Western countries, have condemned it. Though it has largely not gone beyond condemnation.

My gut feeling tells me it is just as when during the liberation of Eastern Europe in 1988-1991 the collapse of the Soviet Union was feared. There is the same fear today, that Russia might lose and what will we do then. And this likely outweighs that other feeling of we must help them.

How else to explain that Scholz, Biden and Macron all know very well what Russia is doing in Ukraine, in the territory they have conquered, the horrors that keep happening. I saw another picture of Ukrainian prisoners of war being shot. They know precisely what is happening there, but the fear that Russia might lose and what shall we do then wins out.

And as I said, we have seen and experienced it ourselves first-hand. How frustrated we were when there was reluctance to recognize the Baltics. Or when the U.S. president was in Ukraine immediately before the August Coup and warned the Ukrainians against engaging in suicidal nationalism, which was a codeword for Ukraine wishing to be an independent country. How long has it been since? 25 or 23 years.

The war has also raised the question of how to change the mentality of people in Russia, the Russian nation? While there is a considerable number of dissenters, they are brutally kept down.

I wouldn't call that number all that considerable. But yes...

But the lion's share of people absolutely adore Putin. After all these years. Let us think back to the Chechen wars, all manner of hostage dramas. The Kursk submarine disaster right at the beginning of his term, Navalny team's revelations of widespread corruption. None of it matters to a lot of Russians because the derzhava is more important.

What do you expect without free media? If there is only one message, if the ball is always sent into the same goal, [overcoming] it requires advanced independent thought. When I look at how the media in Estonia kicking that ball at the government has made the latter very unpopular. If this continues long enough, the people, even though we have media freedom, will come to believe the government is terrible. When you see people discussing in all seriousness why the prime minister takes a private plane, I don't know whether we are mature enough to be a country.

Have we gotten used to and stopped fearing the war, which is not far from us at all?

It seems to me that people do not put the two together – car tax and the fact that next to us is a country where you can regularly listen to, look at or read interviews where it is said that we will bomb Warsaw, we will take over the Baltic countries, we will destroy Berlin etc. I don't know... apparently it's not having an effect.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

You have said in your lengthy end-of-year interviews that Joe Biden could be the last transatlantic president. What will happen should he be replaced by a man or a woman who thinks along entirely different lines? What might be in store for the future should we see negative developments in the USA?

I'm not saying negative. I just think that Europe will be seen, for example, like Australia. That it's there and it's a good thing. That they're democratic like us, while Australia is still very far away viewed from the United States.

Europe has been very close to the U.S. thanks to the 80 years of experience of the political leadership. Before World War Two – and this is where it pays to read Robert Kagan's latest book on U.S. foreign policy up until WWII – the U.S. was quite isolationist and wanted little to do with Europe's problems. Now, after 80 years of harmonized policy, the pendulum has likely moved in the other direction again. What is Europe? It's a place somewhere over there.

So, it is not negative, it is simply... I believe the U.S. public will become increasingly indifferent toward Europe. It will no longer be a place of burning and passionate interest. We will rather work with them, while we also might not. That is the prevailing attitude among the coming generation or generations, that they lack a personal connection to Europe.

But what should we do here in Europe? Constantly remind the U.S. of our existence? Or should we place our hopes elsewhere?

My so-called third path would be to rely on ourselves and contribute to our own security. I don't believe we need to worry about wishing to become Russia's ally. With the exception of a few radical parties on both the left and right fringes in Europe, and in Estonia for that matter, I don't believe that to be a threat. But there is this general approach following 30 years of peace dividend where governments have, over those 30 years, spent something like 1 percent of GDP on defense. Whereas it is believed in many places that it is already too much, even as there is a brutal and genocidal war raging in our very back yard. Still there is reluctance to do much.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The VAT rate will grow by 10 percent (2 percentage points – ed.) from the new year, while income tax will follow in 2025. But critics say that people are finding it difficult to cope. Entrepreneurs say that it is hard enough to do business on the Russian border, while the government adding fuel to the fire makes remaining competitive impossible. Will we have to give up some of our prosperity in the name of security?

What is the alternative? To escape to Sweden?

We have already been through thinking that what is happening around us does not concern us. And we know the result. Therefore, I believe that we need to understand that the cozy situation where we could do business with Russia and invest next to a relatively unaggressive Russia...

What to do in a situation where our neighbor puts up a poster on the other side of our border depicting a bear and the words that Russia has no borders? Is it then the fault of the government that we are raising our defense spending, or that foreign investors lose interest? Sorry, but I say that the complaining has gone too far, in places.

You are among only a few voices recently who dare say that Kaja Kallas has been one of the best prime minister's Estonia has ever had.

In foreign policy. I will not be discussing her domestic performance as that is not my place. But looking at foreign policy, there is no one as influential in Central and Eastern Europe. Intellectually, she has no equal in Europe. They may be larger countries, but looking at the statements of the leaders of much bigger states, she is intellectually beyond them. Her knowledge of history and influential statements.

She is among the best foreign politicians in Estonia, but also among the most influential in Central and Eastern Europe. There will be new ones. Personally, I place great hopes on Radek Sikorski's return as foreign minister bringing certain change.

Let us recall how France and Germany in the persons of Merkel and Macron said in 2020-2021 that they will organize a meeting between the EU and Putin. And what was said, frankly, through a Financial Times leak was that it was Kallas who torpedoed it as other Eastern European states did not dare do it.

Therefore, one does not have to be a Reform Party backer or voter to admit that we have a very talented prime minister in terms of foreign and security policy. And when I see people commenting on BSH (socialite Brigitte Susanne Hunt – ed.) one day and then criticizing Kallas for taking the same stage, along with 50 other heads of state, with Lukashenko the next, allow me to doubt their foreign and security policy credentials.

Finally, let us also look ahead. 2024 will still be difficult. Western aid for Ukraine remains crucial. Elections in the U.S. What other key developments do you recommend keeping an eye on?

There is another election in a neighboring country. Not that I have much doubt as to what the result will be, but there might be all manner of developments in connection with the election.

But the main question will be the U.S. presidential election. There are two clearly discernible directions, to put it politely. Should Joe Biden win, we can be sure that the recently mild but still favorable policy will continue. Should the win go to Donald Trump, we may see massive changes in the very nature of the U.S. Both domestically and in terms of foreign policy.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR


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Editor: Urmet Kook, Marcus Turovski

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