In the 1990s The Economist, an influential British periodical, called Toomas Hendrik Ilves “Europe’s most successful minister of foreign affairs.” The Swedish-born Estonian-American, a former journalist for Radio Free Europe, took helm of Estonia’s department of foreign affairs when the country gained independence and convinced the European Union and NATO to accept the former Soviet republic into the prestigious Western clubs. In October 2006 Ilves was elected Estonia’s president. Why is historical memory so important for this small Baltic country? How did Estonia managed to convince the EU to grant it membership, despite its reluctance to do so? How has Estonia managed to place 26th in the Corruption Perception Index, ahead of its neighbors? What are Estonians’ attitudes toward our country? How do they assess the steps taken by our current government on our way to European integration? These and other questions are raised in The Day’s exclusive interview with Mr. ILVES, which took place on May 13.
Mr. Ilves, we noted your appeal on March 2 this year regarding the publication of a book series entitled Estonian Memory to “people who still remember the Soviet era to write their memories down so that we can understand how things operated back then. This is also important for young people who do not remember those bygone days themselves, so that they may understand what happened to our country and our people in occupied Estonia before our independence was restored. Books of memories must be read to get a sense of history.” You also stated that a common historical commission should not be established with Russia until Russian archives are opened, what made us ask you for an interview. We sincerely thank you for such an opportunity.
Why is it important now, with the ongoing globalization and the growing pragmatism of both politicians and the people, to maintain good historical memory, which, according to you, your country, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have?
“Because if you don’t know where you’re from, you become a Soviet mankurt, to use the terminology of Chingiz Aitmatov. Just a sort of wandering, languageless mass that knows nothing. Civilization is based on knowing who you are, where you are from, and I prefer to be more civilized.”
We are grateful for your support to Ukraine as both foreign minister and the head of the Estonian state, and for your support for a legal investigation of Soviet crimes, including the organization of the artificial famine in Ukraine. How can this be achieved on both European and international levels?
“What I mean by recognition is not simply official statements that are useful — we need to know the facts. I think that Robert Conquest did a good job; the Harvard Ukrainian Center has been doing excellent work. We need to know the facts, as I said in the first question. If we don’t know what happened, then we don’t understand where we are, where we came from, why we are like this, so that’s what I mean by recognition.
“Otherwise all kinds of silly myths can be propagated about why things are the way they are. And therefore I always strongly supported getting the truth out about the famine, the truth on the deportation of Estonians. My question is ‘Why are people afraid of the facts?’ People say, ‘We don’t want to know, let’s not talk about it. Let history be something that historians deal with, let’s keep the politicians out.’ I mean that’s like saying, ‘Let’s have nuclear arms negotiations carried out by nuclear physicists. Because nuclear physicists know everything about nuclear arms.’ But those aren’t the people who do the negotiations.”
We often hear from Moscow that history cannot be rewritten. Did Moscow stop teaching Estonians how to write your own history?
“The point is that if you have lies, that’s not history. I agree, you can’t rewrite history, because that’s crap that has come out of the official lying about Estonians voluntarily joining the Soviet Union, that mass deportations took place in my country when the Soviet Union was the ally of Nazi Germany. I mean you’re not rewriting history by saying that World War II started in 1939. WWII did not start on June 21, 1941. Ask the Poles, where the Soviet Army was between September 17, 1939 and June 21, 1941. Was it having a party? I mean Katyn. Give me a break! That’s not rewriting history, that other stuff is not history, lies, lies and more lies. We’re not rewriting history. We may bust some myths on the liberation of Poland on September 17, on the fraternal army. Go look at the pictures where the Soviet Army [officers] are shaking hands and embracing Nazi officers in 1939.”
So this is why you do not agree to create this common commission, as Lithuania did, to write history?
“If we can’t open their archives, and our archives are open… If you only have one-sided archives, there is no point. I mean that’s like playing cards, and you’ve got to hold your cards and look at them, and I have to show you my cards, and you won’t show me your cards.”
At the beginning of this year your country became the only post-Soviet state to join the Eurozone. Could you tell our readers how you were approaching this step and how the Estonian economy and society has reacted to this measure?
“Right now we have eight percent growth and that’s a fairly good answer. Does it help our economy? Well, it clearly has helped our economy, [which is exhibiting] spectacular growth at a time when other countries are still contracting. I’m quite happy about joining the euro and clearly this was the last step of our long journey to be fully integrated into all possible western structures: NATO, the EU, Schengen… All those things are fundamental goals for this country regardless of the government: whoever is in power, [those goals] remain.
“But lots of governments have set such goals: we are Europe, we are Europe! That’s wonderful. But the issue is that you have to do what needs to be done to get into Europe. Europe is not a matter of waving a European flag and saying ‘I’m European.’ Europe is not only having the fundamentals of rule of law and free and fair elections, but actually how the courts work, how your business laws work. That’s a long step, it doesn’t happen overnight, you can’t declare yourself to be European. You can, but it doesn’t make you a member of the EU. The EU is not a political declaration, it’s actually a long process. If you want visa free travel, it took us from 1991 to 1999 to get visa free travel, and we had to do so much work with our borders, which were constantly inspected by the EU. It’s not a simple matter of saying: Europe. This was especially true of the euro more than anything else. Because with other things up to the euro, it meant that the government had to take difficult decisions, but in joining the euro everybody lost their salaries and money for a while, the people went along with it because they generally believed it was a good idea: suffering a little bit now and then getting a little bit better in the future. So everyone was in that project. And it showed in the elections, because even though people lost salaries, and the economy was in bad shape, they voted the same people back in. And it was clear they thought it was a worthwhile investment on their part. Everyone of us here took the ten percent pay cut.”
We’d like to hear your comment on the following article: “Estonia’s successful recovery from the crisis is a myth” (Delfi.ee, Estonia) by Aleksandr Chaplygin.
“Delfi publishes anything, I’m not really too concerned. I’m talking about serious economists, people who have an international reputation — the guy who is coming here this weekend, Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist who writes about post-communist economy reform. Of course, some people are bitter about it, what could be more annoying to certain people [than the fact] that we are so successful.”
“We may be small but… we punch way above our weight.” This is how Kurt Volker, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, quoted your words during the conference in Monterrey on May 2, 2008 “From London to Moscow: New Faces, Old Alliances.” How did your country, which spent over 40 years under Soviet occupation, manage to recover so quickly from this horrible system?
“We worked hard. Estonians realized very quickly, maybe thanks to Finnish television even before everyone else, that there was a long way to go. That it would be a long-term process and it would be a difficult process. It wouldn’t be easy. We didn’t give up. Some people have given up. Especially those who said this is a post-Soviet reality and we have to accept a different kind of life, that we can’t have Western liberal democracy, that rule of law is not a part of our cultural tradition. We don’t agree. I think that any country can become a fully European country, as a member or not. I’m going to give a talk on Sunday. It’s called ‘Getting to Turkey.’ There was once a discussion ‘Getting to Denmark,’ on how to make your country like Denmark. There were talks about the Arab re-volutions. I think they can all become Turkey. Turkey is a very good example. It is a fundamentally European country, I believe, with the rule of law and democracy. They have pro-blems, but so does everybody. My point is: I don’t believe that any post-communist country has to sit there and say, ‘Oh no, we can’t have democracy as it is understood in the west because we had the Soviet Union.’ I just don’t agree. And I think one of the reasons why there are many people living in the post-Soviet world who don’t like Estonia, is that we disprove their ideology, which is the fundamental ideology of staying in power, namely ‘I’m not going to have free press, free and fair elections, because we are post-Soviet.’ Then you have Estonia.”
Your country ranks 26th in the Corruption Perceptions Index, leaving your neighbors somewhat behind. How is cooperation between state officials and the populace organized, since corruption schemes tend to become more sophisticated, possibly making the struggle against corruption more complicated?
“Some other countries have complexes about the low level of corruption in Estonia. I think a number of issues are involved. First of all, corruption is really very low in Estonia at the state level. At the level of municipalities it’s still noticeably there. And the reason for the lower level of corruption in Estonia, as well as the differences between the state and city levels, is due to laws, and laws at the national level mean you have to be transparent. You have to show what your income is if you’re working in the government. You have to show what you own, your houses, your car, your salary, your stocks, your bank numbers, all that. And that’s very effective. Secondly, what’s been very effective in Estonia is that we have digitalized very many things in terms of dealing with the government. Thus, so many things that in other countries are dealt with by officials are done automatically here by computers, and you can’t bribe a computer. It means there are all kinds of low-level simple decisions that are made automatically, not by officials.
“And, of course, the other thing that has been very effective is that we’ve caught people. So people who might think about engaging in corruption think twice. It doesn’t mean we don’t have corruption, every society has corruption, even the least corrupt countries have corruption, but we’ve done very well. The difference really comes up to public attitude: in Estonia corruption gets people really angry. In some other countries corruption is considered a fact of life, ‘Oh they are all doing it and that’s the way it works.’ Estonian people don’t believe this. That’s the fundamental difference, and if you had that difference and attitude, then that would make corruption more difficult, and I know our businessmen complain about other countries in the post-Soviet space they go to because they can’t get what they want to do done because they won’t pay, then, of course, the people on the other side who want money say ‘You’re from the Soviet Union, why [don’t you give money]?’ And our people don’t do it. You see this cultural schism developing between us and the countries of the so-called former Soviet Union on fundamental issues such as corruption, and maybe sometimes the cultural schism that is developing even within the European Union in terms of attitudes towards corruption.
“The other thing that Estonia did right to make things very different here was that we had a very transparent privatization process. We did not have voucher privatization for large enterprises; we had voucher privatization for one’s apartment. The problem is that when you give everyone a voucher, its value goes way down very fast. And then some people with money can buy all the vouchers, and that’s how you have oligarchs. We don’t have oligarchs in this country. Estonia, I think, is the only country in the post-Soviet area that does not have oligarchs. We continue with tenders: when we build something or when we buy something there always has to be open bidding. That’s the main area of corruption. You want to get a good contract, you give money to the guy who decides; but since everything is in the open, it makes it much more difficult. It makes things slower, because it’s much more effective to use the system ‘I give you ten percent, you give me the deal, let’s start building tomorrow.’ Here when we have a road building project, we have a tender, everyone submits, and one of them gets it. Then the other one takes it to court because they say that some part in their tender was not right. We had a big road project waiting for four years, but it’s open, it’s clean. Transparency takes time.”
Recently you announced a third essay contest “In and Out – Through Estonia’s Doors.” The two previous ones were called “What Can I do for Estonia?” and “In What Estonia Do I Want to Live?” What is the benefit from these contests?
“People are thinking about the issue. People with free movement are going elsewhere. I just want people to think more seriously about what it means to leave. And, of course, many people come back. And I want them to write as well, why they came back. Because there is a very simple, primitive idea that people are going away because they are making more money abroad. You do make more money abroad, but it’s very funny — that’s not the only issue in life. People, in fact, say ‘I make more money there, but I’d rather be here.’ And I’d like to get a discussion going in the society.”
How do you assess you first five-year term as the head of the state, which expires in October this year? Are you ready to compete for one more term of presidency?
“I said I’d run once again. We’ll see what happens. I don’t know what’s going on there. I think Estonia has changed quite a bit in the past five years, and those things which I can influence are largely for the better. One of my clear goals was to increase the role of civil society here. So it isn’t the state and then everyone listening to what the state says, but rather people doing things on their own through their own organizations. I think that’s one of the big changes over the past five years — that people have realized that they can do things on their own, and do big things on their own. ”
During the presentation-discussion on “new and old Europe in 2011,” on April 29 at the Ludwig-Maximilian University, you said that the division of the EU into East and West should be over and it should be replaced by the division according to responsible fiscal policy. What is your vision for the future of Europe? Do you see any of the current politicians as being able to finally conclude the mission of uniting Europe and acting in accordance with European values?
“My vision of Europe is a big discussion. I’ve been writing about it for 20 years. But basically it comes down to the area of democracy, rule of law, fundamental freedoms being respected, private property being respected, low corruption, tolerance of minorities, ethnic, sexual or whatever. I think that’s what Europe is about. In many ways I would say that the European Union is a legal, political, physical manifestation of the platonic idea of Europe. And I think Europe is open, free, and tolerant. That’s why I think the legal membership in the European Union is less important, though there are clearly certain economic benefits to it.
“I think terms such as ‘east’ and ‘west’ are very new and artificial, especially today. Maybe there were some reasons for them 15 years ago, but today there are none. Especially if you look at how different countries inside the European Union have behaved. And we’ve behaved very responsibly, with considerable political risk, but on the other hand, that’s the way the future begins. ‘I take European money and then just spend it and not pay it back’ is not what Europe is about.”
In recent years such phenomena as Schroederism and Berlusconism have spread and very often, as with Georgia in 2008, the talks about values became secondary, while Russian gas, yachts, etc. became primary.
“This is a big problem. That’s a fundamental issue we’re going to be discussing at this conference here this weekend. And I don’t know what the answer is. I think the moral, as well as legal corruption, that we’ve seen in Europe is something which we didn’t have during the Cold War because if you did that you’d go to jail. Whereas now it’s kind of tolerated. It’s not the matter of just those two, it’s the widespread problem, and we see that in every country. And that’s why the moral views of the population are important.”
Several years ago you said that Ukraine would become a member of the EU and NATO. The current Ukrainian government removed the issue of membership in the North Atlantic Alliance from the agenda. Do you see any positive features in the steps taken by the Ukrainian government on its path to European integration?
“I think we are waiting to see some positive steps, notably in terms of the ongoing negotiations on the free trade agreement, which are not proceeding very well. And in that regard, [basically the same thing] I told the previous president five years ago still holds: the window of opportunities is closing, there is enlargement fatigue, Estonia is part of a minority of countries that wants to bring Ukraine in. That minority is getting ever smaller. We’re part of that minority and we remain committed to Ukraine’s eventual and ultimate membership in the European Union. Right now that’s not politically doable, and when I said five years ago that the window is getting smaller, that was before the Arab revolutions. I’m not saying North Africa is going to join the European Union, but up till now the Eastern Partnership countries got 27 times more money than those in Northern Africa. That is no longer true. There are fewer and fewer resources for the Eastern Partnership countries because so much money is going to go to help Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. That has made things much more difficult.
“There are two things which I would say. Why did Estonia get into the European Union? They didn’t want us either. But we did a lot of very hard work. They said to do many things, thinking we wouldn’t be able to do it, but we did it. And when the European Union says to do something, they are just waiting for you not to do it. The key is that if you want to get into the European Union, then you have to recognize that there’s going to be a long process, a hard process, a very difficult process. They don’t say what to do, they say ‘if you want to come in, you have to meet these requirements.’ There are some people saying ‘They are not going to infringe upon my sovereignty, I’m not going to do this.’ When you say such things, you make a lot of people very happy. Because that means they even don’t have to say ‘no,’ they just say ‘sorry.’ So, getting into the European Union is becoming more difficult. And Estonia is in an ever smaller minority right now, among the countries that support Ukraine.”
What could the EU do on its part to draw Ukraine’s integration in European structures closer? The Eastern Partnership program is good. Obviously, Ukraine needs more stimulation, as in the case of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which had membership prospects and are now members of the EU. In your opinion, what stimulation can there be on the part of the EU in addition to the membership prospects?
“It’s not going to stimulate anything, it’s up to Ukraine. I think that it is one thing if you get your readers to understand: the European Union is not going to try to convince you to do anything. The EU has to be convinced to take you. So, the EU is going to do nothing. Estonia can say yes, we support. Let’s imagine someone wants to move to Ukraine, you don’t want them to move to Ukraine very much, but they want to come, and then they say ‘What is Ukraine going to give me so I move to Ukraine?’ That means it won’t work. So there is nothing the EU is going to do other than insist on doing the things needed to be done for the free trade agreement.”
Our readers would be interested to hear from you whether Estonians are interested in Ukraine, whether Ukrainian studies are organized? On our part, our newspaper makes many efforts to rethink history and processes happening in the world.
“As I’ve said: we’re extremely interested in Ukraine and follow it regularly, and we have 30,000 Ukrainians living here, and that brings us closer. And we even support our Ukrainian culture very strongly, and I think if you have time to visit the Uniate church here, it’s a really wonderful church, it’s in a building that is some 500 years old. Go talk to them. We support our Ukrainian community financially; we bring Ukrainians to visit us. So Estonia is a very big fan of Ukraine.”
When do you plan to visit our country? As it is known, on February 24, having congratulated you on the Estonian Independence Day, the president of Ukraine invited you to Kyiv.
“Either as a private citizen after October or as a president after October, but I can’t visit Ukraine right now, I’m too busy before the elections.”