City Papers Interview with Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves

CITY PAPERS interview with the architect of Estonia’s foreign policy at the turn of the millennium, Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves

The Economist earlier this year pegged Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves as one of the most effective foreign ministers in Europe. It singled out his role in helping to land Estonia an invitation to start talks on full European Union membership. His quick mind and sharp tongue have thrilled and sometimes angered his fellow Estonians. But he is widely regarded, even by those whose feathers he ruffles, as Estonia’s best foreign minister since the Soviet collapse.

Ilves, 46, grew up and spent much of his adult life in the United States. He studied psychology at Columbia University and then later headed Radio Free Europe’s Estonian service from Munich. He renounced his U.S. citizenship soon after Estonia regained independence.

CITY PAPER: The 20th century has been a kind of roller coaster ride for the Baltic states: in it, they gained independence, lost it, then regained it again. But looking back from where we are now, is it possible to say whether, on balance, this century has been a good or bad one for this region, for Estonia?

Let’s take the most negative scenario: What would have happened had Estonia not won its independence in 1918. We can look at the plight of non-Russians in the Soviet Union from 1920 to 1940; there were 200,000 native Ingrians around the Petersburg area in 1920, and there are just 20,000 today. We can be fairly certain that without independence there would be no Estonians or no Estonian culture in Estonia today. We would be more or less the Germans of Königsberg: non-existent.

Therefore, the creation of the Estonian nation-state is the sine qua non of the existence of Estonians. As for Estonia, the question is of course a tautology. Had no state been born, there would be no talk of Estonia in the 20th century.

CITY PAPER: In the latter half of the century, so much of how Estonians have looked at the world has been framed in terms of the Soviet occupation and its consequences. But will there be a major psychology shift with the changeover to 2000, with the whole Soviet thing, for instance, suddenly becoming less relevant? How do you expect mind-frames to start changing?

Minds have already begun to change. Young people today don’t even remember what the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic “flag” looked like, for instance. A Tartu University professor I know explained that he had told an anti-Soviet joke in his class, and then added that had he told that joke a few years earlier he would have been hauled in front of the party. A student raised her hand and asked, “Mr. Professor, which party?”

Habits, however, die harder. The idea that the state is bad, that stealing from it or from others is sanctioned or almost a dissident act—that is slow to disappear.

CITY PAPER: Perhaps the turn of the millennium will also mean that the outside world will be less inclined to look at Estonia in the context of the ex-Soviet Union, and judge Estonia on her own merits, right?

The change since our invitation to begin negotiations with the European Union has already been fairly astounding. Estonia genuinely ceased to be a “former Soviet republic.” While we appreciate the help that the West has given us, I believe that it’s difficult for some to shake the idea that one has to help those poor ignorant Eastern Europeans whose existence is a form of psychotherapy for many in the West. They seem to need someone toward whom it is politically correct to be patronizing. In short, many have failed to grasp that we have grown much quicker than is realized.

CITY PAPER: People are now busy trying to pick persons of the century. What Estonians would you single out?

Lennart Meri and Mart Laar, first and foremost. I don’t think, however, that this should be a popularity contest.

CITY PAPER: Your role in Estonia regaining and then consolidating its independence has hardly been a small one. Perhaps partly as a result of this, you are invariably mentioned as a frontrunner in the upcoming Estonian presidential contest. Can you say whether you’re interested in the job?

I definitely am not interested! And I hope that all speculation on this topic will cease.

CITY PAPER: Many point to current President Lennart Meri as having set a very high standard. Because of him, many say bare minimum requirements are that an Estonian president has to be extremely bright, speak three or four foreign languages fluently and be highly adept at dealing with
the West. Would you agree?

There are foreign-affairs oriented presidents such as Bush, Meri and Kwazniewski, and then there are domestically oriented presidents, such as Clinton, Havel and Walensa. Each has a role to play and if Estonia chose a more domestically oriented president the need for foreign language and diplomatic skills would be smaller. The role Lennart Meri has played convincing the West that Estonians are not some kind of strange tribe but true Europeans is immeasurable. But as time moves on and Estonia’s membership in Europe is no longer in question, we can perhaps better afford a less foreign-oriented president. Right now, though, we need Lennart Meri.

CITY PAPER: You have scrutinized Estonia for much of your adult life from the United States and later Germany. How have your perceptions of or feelings for Estonia changed as you have become more and more an integral part of the establishment here?

Certainly everything is less idealized, but probably no less idealized than the idea of an independent Estonia for people living under Soviet domination. I am still criticized for being too idealistic. So called realists thought an invitation to begin negotiations with the EU was impossible. Idealism helps.

CITY PAPER: Are there things that bother you about everyday life in Estonia? Are there things that you see when you’re walking down a Tallinn street that make you say, “Boy, I wish that would change in this country!”?

Like people throwing trash on the ground instead of the wastebin, and cars speeding through marked crosswalks; traffic culture, and etiquette in general.

CITY PAPER: After Estonia regained independence, you renounced the citizenship of your adopted homeland, the United States, and kept your Estonian citizenship only. Have you ever regretted having done that?

Not yet.

CITY PAPER: Is there still a part of you, about your perspective or values, that from time to time makes you identify more closely with your American past than with being Estonian?

Alternative rock and roll.

CITY PAPER: Are there ever moments when you feel like an outsider here?

Only when rudeness is considered a part of normal behavior.

CITY PAPER: Some have said that you yourself aren’t as adept at dealing with the East, particularly with Russians, as you are in dealing with the West. Would you accept that criticism?

If you mean that I don’t feel comfortable loading up with bottles of Vana Tallinn liqueur to slog off to Moscow to make a deal, yes. But look at it analytically: who in the Baltic states in the past eight years has been adept at dealing with the East? The personalities of foreign ministers matter fairly little in diplomacy. Their policies matter a lot.

CITY PAPER: In your view, what has been the secret to Estonia’s diplomatic victories?

A very dedicated and smart ministry. The staff is extremely talented and hard-working, among the hardest working I have seen anywhere in the public or private sector. But much more important have been Estonia’s reforms: if you don’t have a product to sell, then you can’t sell it. On the other hand, even the best product without marketing will remain unsold, and you go bankrupt.

CITY PAPER: On the other hand, what do you see as the main failings of Estonian foreign policy?

I think we could have abandoned our “we really belong in the West, yes, we really, really do” rhetoric earlier. But that is a matter of taste. Frankly, I think that thanks to the high quality of the ministry staff, Estonia has had one of the most successful foreign policies of any country in the post-communist world, especially given the prejudices Estonia has been up against. Talk of so called failures or breakthroughs in foreign policy is a journalistic device. Policies evolve as one or another option becomes viable. Even the greatest breakthroughs in foreign policy, such as Nixon’s opening up to China or Estonia’s invitation to begin EU negotiations, was the product of long, difficult and exhausting negotiations and diplomatic leg-work.

CITY PAPER: As foreign minister, have there been some hard-and-fast principles you have come to live by in lobbying on Estonia’s behalf internationally?

Yes. Among them: be concrete, don’t speak in vague generalities, abandon the silly idea that the West owes your country anything. Think, don’t feel. If you make a commitment, live up to it. The last principle is grudgingly acknowledged and respected even by Estonia’s greatest opponents: we don’t make promises lightly, but when we do, we keep them. This brings Estonia a credibility that many countries lack.

CITY PAPER: On a scale of 1 to 10, what are the chances of the Baltics one day getting into the EU? A 10?

All associated countries are 10s. The question isn’t if but when—but when is a very big question, indeed.

CITY PAPER: What is the Estonian strategy in avoiding some of the bad things that could come with EU membership? Will Estonia have to swallow some of the stupidities associated with EU policy? Or is Estonia capable of putting its foot down and saying, “No, that we will not do!”?

This will become clear only when negotiations have reached an end. Now, all chapters remain open—on both sides. I think the term “EU stupidies” is a journalistic cliché. Some things may not be to our liking, but they are to someone else’s. For a genuine Union of sovereign nations—unlike the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—to function requires compromises to meet everyone’s interests.

CITY PAPER: And as far as the chances of eventually getting full membership in NATO: on a scale of 1 to 10, it’d be more like a 4 or 5, wouldn’t it?

I’d say 9.8. The question, again, is when, and what kind of NATO.

CITY PAPER: Early this year, at a forum sponsored by CITY PAPER and the American Chamber of Commerce, you made what were seen by many as controversial statements that Estonia’s image as a nation should be more closely tied to the Nordic countries and much less so to the other Baltic states. Some took this to mean that you wanted to de-emphasize Baltic cooperation and that you put little value on the prospect of a pan-Baltic economic market.

I have nothing against Baltic markets or co-operation. I’d only ask just what is “a Baltic identity?” Lithuania has for years maintained it’s not really Baltic but rather Central European. To underscore this, it even went over to Central European Time. Do you question Lithuania’s commitment to the Baltic Market because it rightfully feels a strong historical, cultural and religious affinity for Central Europe? I think this is ultimately a fake issue, drummed up for a slow newsday. Most Estonians feel, think and build Nordic. An American is not anti-NAFTA because he feels more European than Latin American.

CITY PAPER: What do you think will be some of the distinguishing characteristics of Estonian society in ten years time?

English is and will be for some time the language of international commerce and relations. Perhaps it will someday be replaced by Mandarin.

At the same time, fears of loss of Estonian—or Finnish, Swedish, German—are misplaced. Native speakers impart their native tongue to their children and unless Estonians begin growing up in the U.S. or UK, they won’t have the skills to pass those languages on to their children.

That an Italian or a Finn speaks English in brokering a deal doesn’t imply their children will be less Italian or Finnish. The issue of language is tertiary. Estonians will, like the Finns, be exceptionally good Europeans.

Estonia will be a very open, very computerized country. Estonians, like others who have overcome tremendous difficulties to succeed, will be over imbued with the arrogance of self-made men. Estonians will be known in Europe as rational and pragmatic, but more emotional than the rational and pragmatic Finns.

CITY PAPER: There seems to be a kind of underlying tension in Estonian society about Estonians’ identity as a people. Some argue that Estonia needs to open up as much as possible to the rest of the world. Others seem to perceive this whole process of opening up as impinging on the national identity.

A return to the autarchic culture and state that was pre-war independence would lead to stagnation and ultimately a demise. An Estonia closed to the world will find that not only its best and brightest but even its average people will begin to leave for greater opportunities elsewhere. I do not see national culture as suffering from openness. If we want to make a dent on the world, we have to understand that the world will dent us as well. The only way to be closed and still affect the world is to tour as an ethnographic exposition. This is the way of Belarus, a country I don’t think we should emulate.

From CITY PAPER-The Baltic States

No. 44 November/December, 1999

Copyright CITY PAPER-The Baltic States