While most of the attention at the Estonian Song Celebration 2019 was naturally drawn to the performers, Estonian World walked among the 100,000-strong audience at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds and took snapshots of the diverse public at the joyful event. Estonia’s cherished Song Celebration that, in 2019, celebrated its …
Cosmopolitan Estonian of the Week
The European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) selected Estonian Juhan Lepassaar to be its new executive director. Lepassaar, currently in charge of the cabinet for the outgoing Estonian EU commissioner, Andrus Ansip, was selected on 16 July by the ENISA management board. Prior to being formally appointed, Lepassaar shall be …
Mart Nutt, the legendary Estonian politician who on 2 June died at the early age of 57, was known for his straight talk and steadfast stance for human rights and freedoms. “Only recently we sat behind the same table with you and had a discussion. As usual, the subjects were …
Sir Arvi Parbo, one of Australia’s most well-known and recognised mining entrepreneurs, and probably the only knighted Estonian, died on 1 May at the age of 93 in Melbourne, Australia.
The Australian newspaper, Financial Review, calls Parbo “one of corporate Australia’s most significant figures”.
“Sir Arvi Parbo will be fondly remembered as the most influential 20th century figure of the Australian resources industry,” Steve Knott, the chief executive of Australian Resources and Energy Group AMMA, told the news.com.au website.
“Arvi’s well-regarded leadership and vision has made Australia a stronger and wealthier nation and helped improved the lives of thousands,” the Australian federal resources minister, Matt Canavan, added. “The resources industry will sadly miss the remarkable life and contribution of Sir Arvi Parbo.”
Australia was where he was most well-known, even though he was born in Tallinn, Estonia, on 10 February 1926. He escaped the Soviet occupation of his homeland in 1944 and ended up in a refugee camp in Germany.
After attending a mining academy in Germany from 1946-1948, he left the country for Australia in 1949. Before emigrating, he was choosing between Canada or Australia – Parbo chose the latter because it was the furthest from Europe.
Once in Australia, he went to study at the University of Adelaide, graduating in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering.
Probably the only Estonian knight
Parbo joined Western Mining Corporation (WMC) in 1956 and, over the next 12 years, held the positions of underground surveyor, underground manager, technical assistant to the managing director, and deputy general superintendent.
In 1968, he was appointed general manager and in 1970, became a director. He was appointed deputy managing director in 1971 and became managing director in the same year. In 1974, Parbo was appointed chairman and managing director of WMC.
Under Parbo’s leadership, WMC became the world’s fourth-largest miner of nickel in the late 1960s. In 1975, as a chairman of WMC, he backed the exploration of what would become Olympic Dam mine – now the largest mine in Australia and the fourth largest copper deposit and the largest known single deposit of uranium in the world.
In 1978, Parbo was appointed a Knight Bachelor for his service to industry. The dignity of Knight Bachelor is the basic and lowest rank of a man who has been knighted by the monarch but not as a member of one of the organised orders of chivalry; it is a part of the British honours system. Knights Bachelor are the most ancient sort of British knight (the rank existed during the 13th century reign of King Henry III), but Knights Bachelor rank below knights of chivalric orders.
By having been knighted by the monarch of Australia, Queen Elizabeth II, Parbo likely was the only Estonian knight.
Simultaneous chairman of the three largest Australian companies
In 1986, Parbo relinquished his managing director position at WMC and became the company’s executive chairman. In 1990, he retired as an executive but was appointed non-executive chairman and retired from this position in 1999.
Parbo was simultaneously chairman of the tree largest companies in Australia. He was chairman of Alcoa of Australia from 1978 to 1996, chairman of Munich Reinsurance Company of Australia from 1984 to 1998 and chairman of Zurich Australian Insurance group from 1985 to 1998.
In 1987, Parbo was appointed a director of the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (that in 2001 merged with Billiton plc to become one of the largest mining companies in the world) and was appointed chairman in 1989 until retirement in 1992. “Our industry has lost one of its greatest and Australia has lost a man who worked hard to better himself, the companies he worked for and the people who relied on them,” Andrew Mackenzie, the CEO of BHP, said in a statement. “He is credited with the discovery and backing of Olympic Dam, one of the highest quality ore bodies in the world. He is remembered for his integrity and humility.”
In June 1993, Parbo was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia and had his portrait painted by the artist, William Dargie. The work is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. The Order of Australia is an order of chivalry to recognise Australian citizens and other people for achievement or meritorious service.
“Sir Arvi was, above all, the exemplary migrant who made good. By diligence, study and hard work he made his way through an illustrious mining career and finished at the top of Australia’s biggest company. Australia was indeed fortunate that the young Estonian chose to migrate here rather than Canada,” Financial Review said of Parbo.
Parbo died at his home in Melbourne. Parbo is survived by his wife Saima, who he met at a refugee camp in Germany. They have three children: Ellen, Peter and Martin, and six grandchildren.
Cover: Sir Arvi Parbo,1992 by Brian Dunlop (by the permission of the Australia’s National Portrait Gallery).
The Politico magazine has picked the chair of the Estonian Reform Party, Kaja Kallas, as one of the 40 members of the European Parliament “who mattered in 2014-2019”, the current term of the legislative body of the European Union.
“As MEPs’ terms come to an end this month ahead of the European Parliament election in May, we’re looking back at the 40 lawmakers who have had the greatest impact on the most high-profile debates of the past five years: on the rule of law across the bloc; on transparency; on regulating markets; and tackling climate change, to name a few,” Politico said.
“Kallas left the European Parliament in 2018 to lead her liberal Reform party to victory in Estonia’s national election last month,” the magazine noted. “She is now attempting to find coalition partners to enable her to follow in her father’s footsteps (he was prime minister in 2002 before becoming a European commissioner) and become Estonia’s first female prime minister.”
“She has just under two weeks to put forward her plan for forming a Cabinet. A competition lawyer, Kallas shone brightly in her time as an MEP, developing a high profile on the tech brawls that came to dominate the Parliament’s agenda,” according to Politico.
MEPs who wielded tangible political influence
The magazine says its list of 40 MEPs “who mattered” isn’t a round-up of pro-European legislators. “In fact, many MEPs chosen here have injected a heavy dose of Euroskepticism into the political discussion. Our goal is to pick out those who have wielded tangible political influence, set the agenda and stood out from their peers, driving trends both within the legislative arena and in the wider EU political debate.”
The next election to the European Parliament is to be held between 23 and 26 May 2019.
The current European Parliament has 751 members representing over 512 million people from 28 member states.
Cover: Kaja Kallas at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2015. Photo by the European Parliament.
Today, the former president and foreign minister, Lennart Meri, would’ve celebrated his 90th birthday; a Statesman with a capital S, he’s one of the founding fathers of the Estonian post-occupation success story, and one of the politicians in Estonia that everybody truly respected.
My best friend celebrates his birthday on 29 March, the same day Lennart Meri was born. And on many occasions, when I call him on his birthday, I don’t say “happy birthday”. I say, “Happy Lennart Meri’s birthday”. That is the degree of respect we, the people whose formative years were during Meri’s presidency, have for him. One can’t have that degree of respect unless one’s a true mensch (Yiddish for “a person of integrity and honour”).
In 1996, I sent the newly re-elected president Meri a congratulatory email. I sent it to the official email address of the president, truly expecting him never to see it. A day later, a reply came from email@example.com – the personal email address of the president. “Thank you so much for your good wishes,” it read. The man must’ve got thousands of emails every hour. And he took the time out of his schedule to actually write back to a young fan he didn’t know, because he cared enough.
Yes, I am biased. I honestly admit I loved and admired the man. But so did hundreds of thousands of people in Estonia – and abroad. Perhaps to this day, Lennart Meri remains the most liked, the most respected politicians that post-occupation Estonia (and maybe the pre-occupation one, too) has ever had.
The former Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, tells me that Meri often criticised the sitting government, even though constitutionally he shouldn’t have, and Ilves believes that’s why Meri was so popular among the Estonian people. “Who doesn’t like the government to be criticised?”
A traveller, writer and a filmmaker
Another aspect to Meri’s popularity was that he wasn’t a typical politician. He wasn’t constrained by party lines because he didn’t belong to one. He served as foreign minister in the government of Edgar Savisaar, the now-former leader of the centre-left Centre Party. But when he was elected president, he was the favoured candidate of the centre-right Pro Patria Alliance. He had broad support from both left and right-leaning people because he wasn’t a traditional politician.
Most of his life, Lennart Meri was a writer and a filmmaker. He travelled extensively, and during the Soviet occupation, also beyond the Iron Curtain, and thanks to his diplomat father (Georg Meri was a diplomat in Estonia before the Soviet occupation), he had been educated abroad. He had studied in nine different schools in four different languages, and he was fluent in Estonian, English, German, Finnish and Russian. Already during the Soviet occupation, Meri attended the University of Tartu and got a degree in history. Unfortunately, due to the Soviet politics, he was unable to work as a historian, so he turned to arts to earn his living.
In 1958, Meri published his first book, titled “Tracing Cobras and Karakurts”. It was a travel book about his trip to Central Asia. But he’s probably most famous for “Silver White”, in which Meri contemplated, using both science and fantasy, over the past of Estonians and other Baltic Sea nations. Many think that “Silver White” is one of the most masterful disquisitions about the past of Estonians.
Lennart Meri, the politician, started to develop after he was finally allowed to travel beyond the Iron Curtain in the late 1970s. He started to establish close relations with politicians, journalists and Estonian expats and worked tirelessly to remind the free world of the existence of Estonia, and the fact that it was occupied by the Soviet Union.
“I knew Lennart Meri from 1985. The beginning was very typical Lennart Meri-like, because I was in Finland, in Turku, and then someone set up a meeting between us in July of 1985. I drove from Turku to Helsinki or Espoo, where he was, and it was the worst rain storm ever, and he said, come at 11 or 12, so I got up in the morning. And, of course, Lennart Meri was not there. This was before mobile phones. So, I stood there at the front door of this house for an hour. Then he came an hour, hour-and-a-half later, laughing. And then he proceeded to smoke my Marlboros,” president Ilves remembers.
Rebuilding Estonia’s foreign service
“From that time on, every time he would come to the West, he would call me up and he would say, call me back, which also meant I had huge phone bills.”
“I would help him, he would send me texts and I would send them back. I went with him, I think in 1989, to Vienna. In 1990, when the three Baltic foreign ministers went to what was then called the CSCE, now the OSCE, summit in Paris where they welcomed (the then-president of Czechoslovakia – editor) Vaclav Havel, and Havel asked that the three Baltic foreign ministers be let in, and (the Soviet leader – editor) Mikhail Gorbachev vetoed that. So, they stomped off, and since he (Meri – editor) was the one who spoke decent English, he was the one to give a press conference. I wrote the statement for him.”
In 1990, almost two years before the Soviet Union officially collapsed – but a few years after it already started to crumble from every corner – the then-leader of the Estonian government, Edgar Savisaar, invited Meri to become foreign minister. And thus, the former writer and filmmaker officially entered politics and was handed the enormous task of rebuilding Estonia’s foreign service, Estonia’s diplomacy.
The last time Estonia had its own government and its own foreign service was in 1940. Fifty years of Soviet occupation had done its job and government-wise, there was almost nothing to rebuild on. The work had to start from the scratch.
“When he became foreign minister, the most important thing he did, which was something that other countries didn’t do, was get rid of all the commies,” Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who himself was foreign minister when Lennart Meri was president, explains. “Because the so-called ESSR (the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic – editor), the ministry of foreign affairs was just a KGB outfit. That was a policy later followed by other Estonian ministries. Not all of them, but the ones who were successful, did a clean house.”
The foreign service, to this day, looks like Lennart Meri
“The other thing that was important was that he attracted to the foreign ministry so many bright young people, many of whom actually left university to go work for the foreign ministry. There were so many of them who all came out of the sense of patriotism, and many of whom have remained there and in public service.”
One of these bright young people who at the time went to work for the foreign ministry and has stayed there for the past 30 years is the current deputy chief of the Permanent Representation of Estonia to the EU, ambassador Clyde Kull.
“The entire foreign ministry and the foreign service, to this day, looks like him,” Kull says when I ask him, what was the most important thing Lennart Meri did when he became foreign minister. “He created this ministry from the ground up, he created the principles of foreign service that we still adhere to. His approach was pragmatic, creative, constantly searching. He had this idea that things cannot flow on their own, they have to be developed, pointed to, one oneself had to be active. That sense of mission, the fact that nine-to-five isn’t important, the important thing is to get things done. This work culture, it’s all from Lennart and it still exists.”
Kull was one of the first five or six people who started in the foreign ministry. “One of the problems was that we were involved in the ministry already before the Soviet Union had collapsed. And Lennart didn’t want to deal with the old, Soviet structure. But at the same time, he didn’t have role models or examples to build up a western ministry. The ministry he took over was practically the protocol department of the Soviet foreign ministry. He started from scratch.”
According to Kull, many people working at the foreign ministry at the time didn’t actually work for the ministry but were employed elsewhere – because of the lack of structure. They were technically employed elsewhere and got paid from elsewhere, even though they worked for the ministry. The foreign ministry employed its first advisors – Kull among them – only in March 1991, which was still half a year before the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
One of the best foreign services of a small country
“The creation of the departments at the ministry and the building of the structure really started around the summer of 1991,” Kull remembers. “We created the department for foreign economic relations, the press department, the policy department and so on. It was a very creative process.”
Foreign minister Meri mostly relied on contacts. “He was constantly networking. I was sent to the Danish foreign ministry for a week, I had to sit in the minister’s office and watch how they work there, what is being done. He was eager to seek experiences and didn’t want to get that from some kind of a written material, he wanted live experiences.”
President Ilves says he considers the Estonian foreign service one of the best foreign services – if not the best – of a small country that he has ever seen. “Clearly you can’t compare it to the British Foreign Office, or the French, let alone the State Department in the US,” he explains.
“But for a small country, it has an amazing number of highly talented people who have been working there now for almost 30 years, some of them, that have a level of quality that is rarely seen in many other countries, small countries especially. That was a major step by Lennart Meri to actually start from scratch, invite the best and the brightest, and they came, and it has had a lasting impact on the Estonian foreign policy.”
Meri left the position of the foreign minister in 1992, and he was appointed the country’s ambassador to Finland. But that was a position he didn’t hold very long, because the same year, the ruling Pro Patria Alliance asked him to run for presidency. The country’s then-head of state was Arnold Rüütel, who had been the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, was also running for presidency, and the centre-right ruling party didn’t want to let that happen. (Although, Rüütel did become president in 2001, after Meri had served his two terms.)
Even though in the first round of the presidential election, Rüütel had got 45% of the popular vote, the second round of the election was held in the parliament. On 5 October 1992, 59 of the 101 members of the Riigikogu supported Meri as president. He was sworn in the next day.
A number of disagreements
To this day, the post-occupation Estonia has had four presidents, two of them former foreign ministers – the other one being Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Thus, I have to ask, is having been a foreign minister somewhat a perquisite for a successful presidency?
“It helps,” Ilves says. “According to the Estonian constitution, one area where you have genuine competence, is in foreign policy. It’s not necessarily the case that a foreign policy background gives you something as president, but certainly, in the Estonian context, it has been useful so far as foreign policy is constitutionally mandated competence of the president. Whereas many other things are not. It was certainly the case with Lennart Meri that you had someone who was taken more seriously as president than some other presidents of small countries.”
In 1996, during the second term of Lennart Meri’s presidency, Ilves accepted the position of foreign minister in the Estonian government.
“I became foreign minister because he called me up and demanded that I move to Tallinn and become foreign minister. And then he called prime minister Tiit Vähi and said, make him foreign minister,” Ilves recalls.
“We actually had a number of disagreements on a number of issues because we just saw certain things differently. But he was important for my foreign policy goal, which was that until I came, Estonia, like the other two Baltic states, thought of the European Union as a secondary matter. And my argumentation based on my experience in diplomacy, foreign policy and also in Washington was that we would never get into NATO if we were not a member of the EU. Because the EU members could veto someone from outside the EU from NATO membership. If we were members of the EU, they could not say no. You don’t veto an EU member. That was something where much of the foreign ministry didn’t agree with me, but Lennart did, so that was quite helpful for pushing that through.”
How about the disagreements? “We had disagreements over ambassadorial appointments, how long people should stay as ambassadors, because I was afraid of something called clientitis, which is that if you’re too long in one place, you begin to represent more the country you’re in rather than the country you’re from, so we had a big disagreement about that,” Ilves remembers.
“But in general, we saw things very much the same way.”
Meri steered the system, the system didn’t steer him
According to Clyde Kull, Lennart Meri was beyond patterns, standards and models. “He rather used them for a creative approach, not vice versa. Because bureaucracy and accepted models oftentimes start governing ideas and directions. He regarded ideas, directions and principles more important and he used them as instruments in bureaucracy. He was the one who steered the system, the system didn’t steer him.”
President Meri was the type of person who tended to call people one or two o’clock in the morning. “He had an interesting work style. He had a thirst for thoughts, ideas; he always had a starting point, he vaguely knew what he wanted to ask or get, but he needed input from others, and then he gathered these inputs during the night from everywhere, and by the morning, he was holding a pen, putting all that down on the paper along with his own thoughts,” Kull recalls.
“The best example of this was when we were together on his first work visit as president, to Brussels. We had a meeting at NATO. It was the first time when a Central or Eastern European president came to give a speech in front of the NATO ambassadors. And we already were in the cabinet of Manfred Wörner, the then-secretary-general of NATO, with whom we had a small meeting before going to the hall.
“The meeting was coming to an end and then Manfred Wörner suddenly felt that something was up. So he asks Lennart, is everything all right, can we go to the hall? Lennart replies, yes, principally we can go, but I don’t yet have my speech. The speech was in the hands of Alar Oljum, at the time the speechwriter, who was finalising it. The hotel was near the king’s residence in Brussels, and the driver who was supposed to pick it up had got lost on his way there. So then, Wörner sent his car to fetch the speech. We waited for a long time and talked some more until the car came back. It was the same speech that Lennart had finished writing in the early hours, and Oljum’s job was to type it up.”
A genius at learning at a very late age
“This calm quality was very intrinsic for him, but it also characterises his work style,” Kull adds.
“Lennart Meri was kind of brand new to foreign policy,” Toomas Hendrik Ilves points out. “He knew more than most people, but it was based on listening to Svoboda and the BBC. That was it, really.”
“Occasionally, I would send him books, and other people sent him books as well. He was better read on foreign policy than many other people who became foreign ministers. But it was kind of a late thing for him. He was a genius at learning at a very late age a lot about foreign policy.”
When Meri died in March 2006, I had been working as a journalist for eight years – five of them as a jack of all trades – an online journalist. Every emotion in my body had died by that time. Bad things happened all the time and when the said bad things happened, I usually sighed, worried about the fact that I had more work to do, that my weekend was ruined, that I couldn’t go out to drink that night because I had to work until 2AM.
But the day Lennart Meri died, I cried. The TV was on in the office and they showed old videos of president Meri, and I was just standing there next to my desk, watching it, and I couldn’t help but well up. The emotions that I had suppressed all these years, they weren’t dead. I just needed a personal loss, a personal affection, to release them. Yes, the day Lennart Meri died, I cried. And so did many others.
Cover: Lennart Meri at his cabinet (images courtesy of the Estonian Foreign Ministry and © Peeter Langovits, author of the exhibition, “Thinking of Lennart Meri”).
For International Women’s Day, Estonian World has compiled a list of the most outstanding Estonian women on the global stage.
It is important to emphasise that this is not the ultimate list of the most important Estonian women in the world. There are many others who work hard and stand out. Merely, we have brought out the names of Estonian women who have a larger-than-usual clout and impact outside Estonian borders and help to put the name “Estonia” on the lips of more people around the world.
Anett Kontaveit, sportswoman
Anett Kontaveit is an Estonian professional tennis player. She started training when she was six years old and three years later won her first title. In 2009, Kontaveit won the Estonian women’s championship – at 13, she was the youngest ever to win the adult championship in singles.
Her international breakthrough came in 2011 when she started to play in the ITF women’s tournaments. At her first grass tournament of 2017, the Ricoh Open, Kontaveit reached her second final of the year. In that final, she clinched her maiden WTA title and ensured a top 40 debut. On 1 October 2018, she reached her best singles ranking of No 21 after finishing runner-up at the 2018 Wuhan Open.
Anu Tali, conductor
Anu Tali is an Estonian conductor, currently working as the music director of the Sarasota Orchestra in the US (she is to stand down from her music directorship of the orchestra this year), and she’s also a co-founder of the Nordic Symphony Orchestra.
She has appeared with the Japan and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestras, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Mozarteumorchester Salzburg at the Salzburger Festspiele, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, among others. In November 2017, the Washington Post named Tali as one of the “female conductors to watch”.
Karoli Hindriks, entrepreneur
Karoli Hindriks is an Estonian entrepreneur and the founder of Jobbatical, a company that blends the concept of a job and a sabbatical, matching employers and talent for short-term jobs worldwide.
At 16, she became the youngest inventor in Estonia with a registered patent after transforming a school fashion project – a pedestrian reflector – into a successful business. When she was 24, she spearheaded MTV’s expansion into Estonia, becoming the network’s youngest national CEO. She tripled the network’s sales in the country within two years. By 26, she founded a media sales agency, working with Fox International, helping launch six Fox channels in the region. In 2014, when she was just 31 years old, she founded Jobbatical.
“I discovered that for a person like me, having worked for more than 10 years, there was an option to go and pick melons in Australia or take up an internship. I started to wonder that there must be a multitude of people like me who could add more value than that,” she told Estonian World in an interview on how Jobbatical was born. The company now has 300,000 members around the world – people who are ready to relocate anywhere in the world for the perfect opportunity.
Kelly Sildaru, sportswoman
Kelly Sildaru is a freestyle skier. She started to ski when she was two years old and at the age of 13, became the youngest gold medallist to date at a Winter X Games event, having won the slopestyle event in 2016. In 2017, she won the slopestyle competition at her first World Cup event in New Zealand. She was the gold medal favourite for the women’s slopestyle event in the 2018 winter Olympics, but she missed competing in the games because of a knee injury.
At the X Games Aspen 2019, she won her third gold medal in women’s ski slopestyle, setting a new games record with a score of 99.00.
Kristel Kruustük, entrepreneur
Having worked as a tester herself, and become disillusioned by how testers were treated by big app-building companies, in 2012, Kristel Kruustük came up with the idea of building a platform that would actually appreciate the work of a tester − if you find a critical mistake and draw attention to it, you are also likely to be motivated to fix it − thereby providing development teams with quality-assurance testers.
That was the start of Testlio – a company with a goal to become a world leader in mobile apps testing. With offices in Tallinn, Estonia, and San Francisco, CA, the startup has so far raised USD7.5 million in funding and its clients include Microsoft and Lyft. Many Estonian startup entrepreneurs point out that Kruustük has become one of the inspiring role models for other women who are now willing to try their hand in IT and even dream about becoming entrepreneurs and leaders.
But it’s not all work and no fun for Kruustük – whenever she feels in low spirits or simply needs time to muse over, she likes to play the piano. “Playing the piano is like being an entrepreneur,” Kruustük said in an interview in 2016. “You will not be very good at it as you start, and it will take a while to excel. You need to practice a lot and learn it by doing, sometimes going slower and then adding speed if needed.”
Kristiina Poska, conductor
In 2011, Kristiina Poska’s career led to engagements at the Komische Oper Berlin for the opera, La Traviata. Poska was enthusiastically received there by both the orchestra and the audience and she was then appointed as First Kapellmeister of the Komische Oper Berlin.
It has been said that “wherever young Kristiina Poska appears on the podium, she thrills and convinces with her exceptional musicality and her impressive, highly distinguished conducting”.
Poska is internationally much in demand as a conductor – in 2015, she was the busiest female conductor in the world, based on performances in all genres. In October 2018, Theater Basel in Switzerland announced the appointment of Poska as its next general music director, effective in the 2019-2020 season.
Lili Milani, scientist
Lili Milani was born in Sweden to Iranian parents, but her family moved to Estonia when she was 13, due to her dad’s work at the Tallinn University of Technology. Milani went to the Tallinn English College and picked up both the Estonian and English language pretty fast.
She became interested about genetics and acquired a master’s degree in genome technology at the University of Tartu and then defended her doctoral degree in 2009 at Uppsala University in the speciality of molecular medicine. After defending her PhD degree, she returned to Estonia and started a career at Estonian Genome Centre of the University of Tartu, where today she is a head researcher.
Since then, Milani has implemented new methods in the core facility of the Estonian Genome Centre that are not only used for research purposes but also to diagnose serious genetic diseases. In 2018, the centre ran the Estonian government-backed project to collect the DNA samples of 100,000 Estonians – with the aim of collecting genetic data and integrating it into every-day medical practice by giving people feedback of their personal genetic risks.
Milani has also published research papers in magazines such as Genome Research, Nature, Science, Nature Genetics and BMC Genomics – and is among the most cited female Estonian scientists in the world. Despite her Iranian roots, Milani has publicly said that she feels Estonian and likes that feeling.
Maarja Nuut, music artist
While combining vocal work with violin, Maarja Nuut’s music is a blend of Estonian folk traditions with contemporary experimental sounds. Since 2016, she has toured in over 50 countries around the world and found many culturally influential fans along the way. “That’s what it sounds like when the snow sings,” Simon Le Bon, the lead singer and lyricist of the band, Duran Duran, once remarked on Twitter about Nuut.
Le Bon is just one of many culturally influential fans of Nuut. “It would be churlish to miss out on reporting, or raving about, what a phenomenal artist Maarja Nuut is. /–/ There’s a touristy pub in Tallinn centre called Hell Hunt that boasts a painting above the door showing a naked girl, eyes shut and smiling, riding on the back of a grinning wolf. That’s what her music sounds like,” said the Quietus, a British online music and pop culture magazine, in a review of her sound.
Currently, Nuut is touring Australia and New Zealand.
Mari Kalkun, music artist
Singer-songwriter Mari Kalkun relies in her work on her southern Estonian roots, singing in the Võro dialect. Her songs are inspired by nature, Estonian poetry and folk music. For making music and accompanying herself, she uses the kannel, the piano, the accordion and the guitar, but sometimes also pipes, whistles and various experimental instruments.
While most of the Estonian pop and rock artists have struggled to attract even the tiniest of attention abroad, Kalkun has been on a radar of the international music press for some time.
In December, the Guardian included Kalkun’s third album “Ilmamõtsan” among the 2018’s 10 best world albums – a list otherwise dominated by African, Middle Eastern and Caribbean artists. Back in June 2018, the Guardian wrote in its review of the “Ilmamõtsan” – which Kalkun recorded almost entirely solo at her studio in her Võru county farmhouse – that “the result is a mesmerising record steeped in a sylvan atmosphere” and called the album “a magical creation”.
Separately, another British media outlet, the Arts Desk, also included Kalkuns’ “Ilmamõtsan” among the Albums of the Year 2018.
Marika Mikelsaar, scientist
Unlike most other women in this list, Marika Mikelsaar has not stood out in any single year – rather, the scientific work she started back in 1995, has produced successful results as years go by. Mikelsaar, together with Mihkel Zilmer, led the University of Tartu research teams that discovered the ME-3 probiotic bacteria. The ME-3 protects the human health by attacking harmful microbes and contributing to physical well-being.
Subsequently, the ME-3 bacteria caught the interest of manufacturers of leaven, food and food supplements in Estonia, Finland, Denmark, France, Italy, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, India, Taiwan, China and other countries. It can be added to yoghurts or sold as capsules in pharmacies.
“At every conference, the most fascinating presenters are asked about their dreams. A scientist always spontaneously answers that their dream is to have their discovery put into use,” Mikelsaar, now a professor emeritus, said in 2018.
Moonika Siimets, film director
Moonika Siimets is a film director whose 2018 debut full-length feature film, “The Little Comrade”, wowed the audiences at home and caught attention also abroad. She studied her trade at Tallinn University and in addition, participated in Judith Weston’s screenwriting and directing master classes in the US.
She started her directing career with several documentaries, but it was her debut feature film, “The Little Comrade”, that brought her a wider attention and praise. The film about Stalinist tyranny is based on the autobiographical novel written by the renowned Estonian writer, Leelo Tungal, and tells the story of the six-year-old Leelo, whose mother was sent to a Soviet prison camp.
The Variety magazine said that “Moonika Siimets successfully captures the perplexed perspective of a traumatized 6-year-old who sees her mother, a school principal, arrested and taken away at gunpoint. … Siimets’ screenplay makes it possible for those unfamiliar with Baltic history to comprehend what is going on from Leelo’s point of view, as even the everyday language around her changes,” the magazine added. It also noted that “Siimets and her adorable lead actress create numerous instances of plaintive humour”.
In 2018, Siimets’ movie was crowned best debut film at Nordic Film Days Lübeck in Germany, won the grand prize at the Waterloo Historical Film Festival in Belgium and the Public Choice Award at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea.
Riina Kionka, EU official
Riina Kionka is the chief foreign policy advisor to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, making her the most influential official of Estonian nationality in the European Union. She has held that position since December 2014 when the former Polish prime minister took over the presidency from Herman van Rompuy.
Detroit, Michigan-born Kionka is a lifelong diplomat. Like the former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Kionka has also worked at Radio Free Europe, as an analyst.
She has a bachelor’s degree in international relations and German literature from Michigan State University, and a doctorate in international relations from Columbia University in New York. In an interview with Estonian World, she said she never even wanted to be a diplomat and had rather been a conductor, but fate had other plans for her.
Cover: Mari Kalkun (photo by Matti Komulainen). Facebook cover: Anu Tali (Kabir Cardenas/Sarasota Orchestra). Special thanks to Kaupo Kikkas!
The Estonian freestyle skier, Kelly Sildaru, has won her third gold medal in women’s ski slopestyle – at the X Games Aspen 2019, setting a new games record in the process.
In 2016, Sildaru made free-skiing history, becoming the youngest athlete ever to win a gold medal at the Winter X Games, world’s leading extreme sports competition that take place annually in Aspen, Colorado, the United States. She was also the shortest and the lightest winner of all times.
In 2017, she defended her title from 2016 and at 14, became the youngest to win two gold medals in the X Games.
She missed the slopestyle competition at the 2018 Winter Olympics because of injury, but was back in shape in Aspen 2019, setting a new X Games women’s slopestyle record with a score of 99.00 and winning her third gold medal of the competition.
Sildaru started skiing when she was two and got into freestyle-skiing at the age of five. According to her dad and manager, Tõnis Sildaru, she started to attend training camps when she was nine.
By the time Sildaru was 11, she had been noticed by the international sports press and videos of her brave style started circling the YouTube. Euronews called her “the future star of freestyle skiing” back in 2014, when Sildaru was just 11 years old.
Cover: Kelly Sildaru at the X Games in Aspen, 2019 (images courtesy of Kelly Sildaru).
Heli Tiirmaa-Klaar, Estonia’s first ambassador at large for cybersecurity, has been nominated by the Politico magazine as one of the 28 people shaping, shaking and stirring Europe – placing her at number four among the “doers”.
“Heli Tiirmaa-Klaar wants to write the rules of cyber conflict,” the magazine says. “As Estonia’s first ambassador-at-large for cybersecurity, she’s at the forefront of a battle over what countries can and can’t do in cyberspace. Her ambition: to stop repressive governments from committing acts of war and aggression online, while ensuring they can’t use international law to suppress the free flow of information.”
The magazine notes that on one side of the cybersecurity debate are Tiirmaa-Klaar and her allies in the West, notably the US and large EU countries, who are advocating for rules of non-proliferation in cyberspace, proposing to set strict limits on how states use botnets, malware and software vulnerabilities to attack other states and domestic political opposition.
The author of measures to allow sanctions against cyberattackers
“On the other are members of the so-called Shanghai Cooperation Organization led by Moscow and Beijing, who advocate a different approach to regulating cyber conflict that Tiirmaa-Klaar says will make it harder for countries to crack down on state-sponsored hacking activities and cybercrime, while undermining protections for human rights online. Both sides have submitted competing strategies at the United Nations, where diplomats like Tiirmaa-Klaar will be lobbying undecided countries for support.”
Tiirmaa-Klaar was part of NATO’s first cyber policy team, and later, as the EU’s first cybersecurity diplomat, she put in place measures that would allow the bloc to impose sanctions in response to a cyberattack. The measure has yet to be used, but it’s not a secret who Tiirmaa-Klaar believes should be in its sights. “We have to keep in mind that armament and readiness in Russia is increasing,” she says, according to Politico.
Every year, Politico compiles a list of 28 people who will shape Europe in the year ahead. This time, in addition to picking an overall number one – Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini – the magazine ranked the remaining 27 people in three categories: doers, dreamers and disruptors. Tiirmaa-Klaar is ranked fourth in the “doers” category.
Cover: Heli Tiirmaa-Klaar (courtesy of Politico).
Lembit Öpik told the BBC that he is considering contesting the Estonian presidency when it next comes up for election.
Öpik, who served as a Liberal Democrat member of the UK parliament representing the constituency of Montgomeryshire in Wales from 1997 until he lost his seat in the 2010 general election, told the BBC that “he is constantly asked to consider running to become the president of Estonia.”
Öpik had been asked to consider being either a member of the Estonian parliament, or to consider running as president. “One position is just to be a member of parliament, which I would not mind doing. The other position is president of Estonia. It is more than just a non-executive role – I could make quite a big splash,” Öpik said to the British public service broadcaster.
According to the former MP, he does not have a campaign plan but if he has support in Estonia, he would consider running. “I am seriously interested in doing it, if it looks like Estonia feels like I have got something to contribute,” Öpik said.
A controversial life and career in the UK
Öpik’s parents fled Estonia in 1944, in fear of the advancing Soviet troops that occupied the country again. They settled in Northern Ireland, part of the UK, where Lembit was born in 1965. He graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in philosophy.
Before entering politics, Öpik worked for Procter & Gamble. Starting his political career in Newcastle, he was elected as a councillor to the city council there in 1992. In the 1997 general election, the previous Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire retired and Öpik successfully ran as the Lib Dem candidate. He retained his seat in the 2001 general election and in the 2005 general election, but lost his seat to the Conservative candidate in the 2010 general election.
Following his defeat in 2010, Öpik’s political career stalled. He put himself forward to be the Liberal Democrats’ nominee for mayor of London in the 2012 mayoral election, but in the first round of the party’s selection ballot, he came in fourth with 252 votes and was eliminated from the process.
In the British public life, however, Öpik is still very much a visible and well-known figure. He has appeared in several popular TV programmes – including BBC’s “Have I Got News for You” and “Question Time” – and has participated in comedy shows and written columns. He also presents regular programmes on the BBC’s Radio Kent.
In the UK, Öpik is considered a fairly controversial persona. As an MP, Öpik drew attention by warning that an asteroid may wipe out life on Earth (his Estonian grandfather, Ernst Öpik, was an astronomer and astrophysicist who also fled Estonia in 1944 and spent the second half of his career at the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland). He even called on the government to invest ₤1 million a year in tracking asteroids to avert catastrophe.
The British public opinion turned somewhat negative about Öpik in 2006, when he dumped his fiancée, the Welsh television presenter, Siân Lloyd, in favour of the then-24-year-old Romanian pop singer Gabriela Irimia – known in the UK as one half of The Cheeky Girls. His subsequent active participation in TV programmes and comedy shows, however –coupled by a self-deprecating humour – has made him more likable among the public again.
The next Estonian presidential election is due to take place in 2021. Kersti Kaljulaid, the first female president of Estonia, was elected to the post in 2016. In order to enter into the presidential election race, Öpik would have to be an Estonian citizen – and according to the Estonian laws, renounce his British citizenship.
Cover: Lembit Öpik.