Cosmopolitan Estonian of the Week

Eerik-Niiles Kross. Photo: Facebook

Estonian politician Kross among Politico’s most influential Europeans

The international political magazine, Politico, has named the Estonian MP, Eerik-Niiles Kross, as one of the 28 “people who are shaping, shaking and stirring Europe”.

The “Estonian James Bond”, as the magazine puts it, is standing ready to fight if Russia should invade the country. “He’s been warning of the Russians’ potential return since they left the last time,” the magazine says.

“By day, Kross is a member of the Estonian parliament. But that’s like saying Bruce Wayne is a billionaire playboy or Bruce Banner is an atomic physicist. Kross, 50, is Estonia’s version of James Bond, with two differences: Kross drives a black two-seater Mercedes, not an Aston Martin; and 007 is a movie character while Kross is real. At times, that can be hard to believe.”

The West has underestimated Putin

According to the magazine, Russia wants Kross arrested and has accused him of masterminding the 2009 hijacking of a cargo ship carrying timber. “The U.S. has barred him from traveling there, except on official diplomatic business, for reasons that have never been explained. Kross and his friends in DC security circles say the ban is mystifying and unjustified.”

Politico says Kross believes the West has underestimated Putin and had no plan to deal with his revanchist aggression, as became clear following the seizure of Crimea in 2014. “There was not even a good set of threats,” Kross says. “There was nothing there. Obama, of course, always said the military option is off the table.”

The magazine notes that, according to Kross, there should’ve been a better, blunter approach. “A strong Western response would have been this: The moment the first little Green Men arrived, the phone call to Putin, ‘Ok, Volodya, you have 24 hours to get the fuck out of there, my Sixth Fleet is on the way. You take your fleet, and you take your Sevastopol base, and you fuck off. That’s it. Otherwise, they’re coming. By the way, we’ll kick your ass.’”

Larger than life

“The silver lining in Putin’s aggression was the wake-up call that the West couldn’t ignore,” the magazine writes. “Now we have German tanks training in the Baltics. If you look at where they were before, that’s a dramatic change. It’s not that visible — they do not talk about it — but it’s really, really important,” Kross told Politico.

The magazine also points out that Estonians generally regard Kross as a patriot, “if a bit too larger than life”.

Kross himself commented his selection by Politico on Facebook, saying, “There are exceptions to the fact that you shouldn’t believe what the media says.”


Cover: Eerik-Niiles Kross. Photo: Facebook

Washington Post names Anu Tali as one of the female conductors to watch

The Washington Post has named Estonian Anu Tali as one of the “female conductors to watch”.

The DC-based newspaper compiled a list of eleven female conductors around the world, saying these women “are following in the footsteps of Marin Alsop, JoAnn Faletta, Simone Young, Jane Glover and others, to establish significant international conducting careers”.

“The Estonian conductor, 45, is music director of the Sarasota Orchestra,” the newspaper said of Tali. “In 1997, she and her twin sister, Kadri, founded the group that eventually became known as the Nordic Symphony Orchestra, with whom she made a couple of notable recordings.”

The list was compiled by the Washington Post’s chief classical music critic, Anne Midgette.

International career

Tali started her musical training as a pianist, and graduated from the Tallinn Music High School in 1991. She continued her studies in the Estonian Music Academy as a conductor. From 1998 to 2000, she studied at the St Petersburg State Conservatory. In 1995, she began conducting studies at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.

In 1997, Tali and her twin sister Kadri founded the Estonian-Finnish Symphony Orchestra, with Anu Tali as the orchestra’s conductor and Kadri Tali as its manager. The orchestra later took on the name of the Nordic Symphony Orchestra.

Tali 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. She made her conducting debut in the US in 2005 with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, but it was the Sarasota Orchestra, the oldest continuing orchestra in the state of Florida, that named Tali as its next music director in 2013 and elevated her international career further still.

Her awards and honours include the Cultural Award of Estonia 2003 and the Presidential Award of Estonia in 2004.


Cover: Anu Tali (photo by Kaupo Kikkas).

Estonian MEP Kaja Kallas named as one of the most powerful women in Brussels

The international political magazine, Politico, has named the Estonian member of the European Parliament, Kaja Kallas, as one of the most powerful women in Brussels.

Politico compiled a list of the most powerful women in Brussels, saying that “[n]ow more than ever, women in Brussels are driving Europe’s major political and policy debates”.

“As victims of sexual harassment and violence – overwhelmingly women – make their voices heard in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, a spotlight has fallen on gender power imbalances in and around European Union institutions,” the magazine said.

Kaja Kallas is named as one of the most powerful women in Brussels in a group called the “Tech Titans”, consisting, in addition, of Pilar del Castillo, Marietje Schaake, Dita Charanzová, Birgit Sippel and Julia Reda.

“I am glad that we are moving away from a time when women in politics could only have a say on so-called women’s topics – equal treatment, family policy,” Kallas said in a statement. “And sadly, this is often presumed. I have probably stood out as I actively deal with technological and digital topics and energy policy, which have traditionally been considered so-called manly fields.”

No shortage of women in the Brussels tech scene

Politico also pointed out there was no shortage of women in the top echelons of the Brussels tech scene. “The top five industry bodies are run by women: Lise Fuhr (ETNO), Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl (DigitalEurope), Afke Schaart (GSMA) Siada el-Ramly (EDIMA) and Angela Mills Wade (European Publishers Council),” the magazine said.

“The Brussels offices of Google (Lie Junius), Apple (Claire Thwaites), Amazon (Eirini Zafeiratou), and Intel (Kirsty Macdonald) are female fiefdoms. Three of the four European commissioners handling sensitive digital files are women: Mariya Gabriel, Věra Jourová and Margrethe Vestager.”

“The journalists covering tech in Brussels are mostly female, led by specialist tech writer Jennifer Baker, who also fronts the Brussels institution ‘EU tweets of the week’, as are the public relations specialists who deal with them, including Victoria Main at Cambre Associates.”

The magazine picked 20 individual women or groups of women as the most powerful ones in Brussels.


Cover: Kaja Kallas (image by Stina Kase).

President Kaljulaid among Forbes’ 100 most powerful women

The Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, has become the first Estonian to be featured in the Forbes magazine’s list, the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.

Kaljulaid comes in the list at number 78, just a spot ahead of Arianna Huffington, an American entrepreneur.

“Kaljulaid is leading a quiet digital revolution in tiny Estonia (population 1.2 million), where she is the country’s first female president,” Forbes said. “Estonia was the first country to digitize its public services – including elections, health care and school systems.”

“Robot delivery vehicles are a common site in the country’s capital (actually not that common yet – editor) and every citizen is given a digital number at birth which they can use to do everything from filing taxes to voting,” the magazine added. “Kaljulaid is currently spearheading a bid to launch Estonia’s own state-backed cryptocurrency, called estcoin – and is helping spread the digital revolution into Europe.”

The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women list is topped by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, followed by the British prime minister, Theresa May, and the American philanthropist, Melinda Gates.

Kaljulaid was elected Estonian president on 3 October 2016.


Cover: Kersti Kaljulaid.

Eva Truuverk – queen of the global clean-up

Eva Truuverk is an Estonian lady whose mission is to bring together people around the world to clean up their countries and thus the entire planet on the Lets Do It! World day, 15 September 2018.

Let’s Do It! World is a civic-led mass movement that began in Estonia in 2008 when 50,000 people came together to clean up the entire country in just five hours. Since then, the movement has spread its clean-up model – one country, one day – around the world. The wider aim of Let’s Do It! World is to clean up the whole world in one day, preserving a place to live for ourselves and future generations. We have to acknowledge that while nature can easily get along without us, we cannot get along without it, not at all.

This is something that one of the initiators and leaders of Let’s Do It!, an Estonian lady, Eva Truuverk, knows very well. For a long time, she has dedicated a huge amount of her time and energy to keep the world harmonic – a place abundant with life for all of us, and our surrounding environment.

The circumstances on how Eva got into leading the green and zero-waste lifestyle promoting the initiative originating from Estonia, but now resonating around the world, are actually ironic at least in two senses. First – Eva thought that Estonia was a clean country, but after having participated in a clean-up, had to acknowledge her disappointment. Secondly – she did not believe in the possibility of a world clean-up until she experienced how people around the world took up the idea.

The change has to happen between ones two ears

Eva ended up in the Let’s Do It! movement exactly at the precise moment when she was contemplating to take a break from work. She surprised her family by selling her successful businesses. “I believed that my life just had got so busy that I did not have time to think about what I did. Instead I just worked without a break. I needed time to reflect.” But things went totally in a different way.

She got the inclination to relinquish her advertising and multimedia businesses exactly a year before the first Let’s Do It! clean-up day in Estonia. When she was offered the “job” of cleaning up Estonia, she first rejected it as an absolutely silly idea. Finally, the curiosity got best of her – and after meeting with one of the authors of the idea, the visionary Rainer Nõlvak, the preliminary scepticism vanished. Now, after nine years of successful leadership of the movement, Eva, accenting each word says: “I could have never believed it.”

The initial plan was to clean up Estonia in one day and go back to our everyday life. In the end, it all turned out the other way around – the same team continued with several other civil society initiatives which at one point became the Let’s Do It! World idea. Eva compares it with a parachute jump: “When you jump the first time, it seems suicidal, because you lack any guarantee that the parachute will open, but you still do not lose the hope that you will survive by a miracle.” Even though in 2018 she has to “jump” from far higher, she now knows very well how to jump and survive. In other words – it is absolutely possible to clean up the world.

Eva is certain that the only way to evoke real change between people’s ears is to repeat the 2008’s Estonia’s clean up model, which brought together 50,000 volunteers who cleaned up 10,000 tonnes of illegal waste in five hours. “The change happens when the whole world cleans up at the same time. The number of people engaged has to be as high as possible. Ideally, 5% of the planet’s inhabitants, this means 380 million people. If we achieve this, the shift in minds will become a reality,” she believes.

Each and every one of us can be the change

Truuverk believes that after cleaning up someone else’s trash, people do not ever leave litter around again. Instead, the personal experience encourages people to intervene when they notice littering. “First you start to see the problem, and secondly you get the courage to act for solving it. That’s already a huge step. Of course, I am not dewy-eyed to assume that after 15 September 2018, the world is neat and tidy and there is no waste anywhere. People who litter do not disappear in one day either. What we are doing is launching a massive action that means something to the planet and the people living on it.”

She feels convinced that the majority of the world perceives the waste problem quite similarly, while at the same time there are a lot of geographically determined calamities in the world too, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. Due to the fact that waste is a common issue in countries all over the world, the global rally is doable. “Think about it – throwing a bottle in a bush in the Philippines is not just a problem for the Philippines. It becomes our common problem – waste is flushed into the rivers by rain and it ends up in the ocean where it causes patches of floating plastic debris.”

On 15 September 2018, on the world clean-up day, massive campaigns happen in 150 countries simultaneously. Nothing like that has ever taken place before. Is it possible? “People are the driving force in this network. People come to work with us, take responsibility, start managing and understand that they motivate others to follow. Collective action and gathering people together for a positive cause might sound a bit like voodoo, but in the age of an overwhelming amount of negative events happening in the world, there must be something to balance that. This is what motivates me. My mission is getting good people together.“

While in the case of a small country like Estonia, Rainer Nõlvak as a single visionary was enough to accomplish a clean-up campaign, big countries such as the USA, Brazil, Russia or Australia need many more.

“We now have teams and a network of 113 countries, made up of lovely sparkly-eyed, green-minded, people. Still, many of them lack the much needed experience for organising the country-wide clean-up. So, the key is to find the 150 ambitious leaders who would not baulk at the challenge,” Eva says. Those people will build up their local teams and campaign, making it the world’s biggest positive civic action. “It provides the chance of a lifetime, even for a top business leader,” she promises.

The world clean-up is going to be a race against time

A good example of serious effort and dedication is the team in Ukraine. Regardless of a complicated situation in the country, even war, Ukraine has repeatedly carried out clean-ups and has joined the global campaign as well. Ukraine wishes to engage 5% of its citizens – including students, families, NGOs, businesses, public authorities and media – during the global clean-up day in 2018.

With the action, Ukraine aims to boost the separate collection of waste and recycling all over the country. One of the leaders of Ukraine’s team, Roman Brytanchuk, believes clean-ups bring along positive changes in waste legislation and activate civil society as a whole. He hopes the Ukrainians participating on 15 September 2018 will inspire and become role models for many – and that many would have another view on waste from that day on.

Holland, as one of the countries with the world’s most organised waste management systems, has joined the world clean-up as a matter of conscience.

Maria Westerbos, the leader of the world clean-up in the Netherlands, and an experienced fighter against plastic waste, emphasises frequently that it would be irresponsible and strange if among so many other countries, hers did not participate. “We are living in a delta with a lot of water. Amsterdam itself has a quarter of the city as water. The North Sea [surrounding Holland] is one of the most polluted seas in the world, and there is a lot of waste in the streets in Holland. We put a lot of pressure on the environment, polluting our streets and waters. So, it is something we want to stop. It would be very strange if we didn’t join in and take responsibility. We need to stand up for a world clean-up,” she says.

Maria considers change in the thinking of producers, including industry, more important than the attitudes and behaviour of consumers, as to her mind this could help shape the prevention of waste as a norm. She expects at least 100,000 people to participate on 15 September 2018. “The more people will stand up, the cleaner Holland will become.”

Hence, the waste issue is everyone’s common problem around the world and worth dealing with together as a common team. It does not really make a difference whether you do it because you care about the health of our planet or to help your country catch up with those ahead of you. It’s important that you participate instead of being a bystander. That’s how you also get more entitled to express your dissatisfaction with waste management afterwards. Your action also contributes to the development of civic society as a tougher participant in decision-making processes worldwide.

Can we keep it clean after 15 September 2018?

After the world has been cleaned up, a proposal and plan will be designed together with large international environmental organisations on how to transfer to a more sustainable way of life. Cleaning up is just a first step in a long road – but keeping the world clean from there onwards is vital.

“We need a leap in development [of minds and technology] to get the world clean. It’s not enough to avoid littering. Waste has to become a resource; it has to obtain a worthy use. That would bring a change,“ Truuverk says convincingly. There are a lot of environmental problems that have reached the critical limits of our planet, waste contamination and soil weariness among them. “If one of the problems crosses the limit, the red tape, a domino effect will happen. All the problems would trigger each other, and the chance that human existence would end, seems quite probable to me. Although, the planet would live happily ever after,” she states.

Was there something she feared that could ruin the world clean-up day? No. She doesn’t even think about that option – and not because she ignores the risks, but she is just certain that if the planet Earth still exists on 15 September 2018, the clean-up day will surely happen. “Every one of us can make a small gift to the world, your country and yourself, by participating in the world clean-up. It takes just three to five hours, which means nothing compared with the lifetime of a human-being. You do not need more to make a huge global change. It is such a kind, warm-hearted, positive, small accomplishable thing – by you as a human-being on this planet,” she says.


Cover: Eva Truuverk (picture by Madli Kiri.) Images courtesy of Let’s Do It World! 

Top 12 most outstanding Estonian statespeople

On the occasion of the day celebrating the restoration of independence, Estonian World has chosen 12 of Estonia’s most outstanding statespeople in recent times.

In the evening of 20 August 1991, Estonian parliamentarians decided to take advantage of the chaos in Moscow – the conservative Soviet hardliners had gone on offensive against the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev and attempted a military coup – and declared the nation’s independence.

Luckily for Estonia, the attempted coup d’état in Moscow failed and the more liberal forces, led by the chairman of the Russian SFSR Supreme Soviet, Boris Yeltsin, prevailed – thus starting the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Estonia was free again. The first country to diplomatically recognise Estonia’s reclaimed independence was Iceland, on 22 August. The Soviet Union finally recognised the independence of Estonia on 6 September 1991.

A lot has happened since, both good and bad. All in all, Estonia has done well by most accounts, but not in everything.

The country stood out for brave economic reforms in the 1990s and has become one of the most advanced digital societies in the world today. Successive governments have followed strict budget discipline and Estonia is one of the few NATO members to fulfill an obligation to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. The number of startups and innovative companies – many of them started by high-school students on these days – is really impressive. In PISA tests, Estonian 15-year-olds – if not necessarily the happiest of chaps – are the best in Europe and third on the global scale.

On the other side of the coin, however, a whopping 21.3% of the Estonian population lives in relative poverty and 3.9% in absolute poverty. The country has also lost many of its bright minds and skilled workforce to Scandinavian countries, Germany, the UK and other countries. Salaries are still very low while the cost of life is rocketing. The gender pay gap is the largest in the European Union and the country has had only moderate success at best integrating its large Russian minority. Estonia has currently also the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Europe – and the issue is constantly brushed aside.

“Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation,” Henry Kissinger, the legendary former US secretary of state, once said. It’s an impossible task to figure out how many politicians in Estonia have had a genuine mission to make life better for everyone – and how many have acted merely for personal gain. It is fair to say that in a democratic society like Estonia, we – citizens, voters, members of parliament, state officials – are all responsible for Estonia’s wins and failures.

On the occasion of the day celebrating the restoration of independence, Estonian World highlights 12 of the country’s most outstanding statespeople of the last 26 years. Most of them have had their failures, too – but this publication believes they deserve a credit for various reasons: either for their hard work and resolve to make Estonia a better place during toughest of times, their grand vision, or for inspiring the nation.

Lennart Meri

Estonia’s second president – and the first after the restoration of independence – is arguably one of the greatest – if not the greatest – of statespeople Estonia has seen in the last 30 years. Intellectual, yet approachable, Lennart Meri had this marvellous ability that most contemporary politicians lack – he could relate as easily with an average Joe as he could with the world leaders in Washington, Paris or Berlin.

He was truly cosmopolitan from the start – born to the family of an Estonian diplomat, Meri had left Estonia at an early age and studied abroad in nine different schools and in four different languages – but he never forgot his roots and had a great knowledge of the country’s history. In fact, as a writer and a documentary film director, he found a way to contribute to the preservation of the Estonian national identity even during the darkest times of the Soviet occupation.

His work and achievements prior to the restoration of independence are so extensive that they deserve a separate article – hence we focus on his tenure as president and borrow the characterisation from another heavyweight who, as a prime minister at the time, worked very closely with president Meri in 1992-1994, Mart Laar. We couldn’t put it any better.

Laar wrote these lines about Meri in 2013: “He was born in independent Estonia, lived there until its destruction and then moved with his nation to the Golgotha Mountain. He worked hard for the restoration of Estonia’s independence.

“Meri was the president of Estonia in the most difficult years of our restored independence. The banks collapsed, criminality was very high and people earned 60 euros per month. The situation looked quite hopeless. Meri, nevertheless, kept the nation together and calmed the tensions. He gave to the Estonian people a vision that united us – Europe. This was not an easy task. He was very outspoken and for his prime ministers and governments he was not an easy person to deal with. Occasionally, he clearly crossed the borders of the Estonian constitution. But his way of doing things worked. The people lived miserably, but they liked the direction in which Estonia was heading. Meri also liked the truth and was very frank.”

Mart Laar

Probably one of the most important – if not the most important – statesmen in the history of the post-occupation Republic of Estonia, Mart Laar was the first prime minister of the country after it had restored its independence. Having held the post twice (1992-1994 and 1999-2002), he’s widely credited for the important economic reforms that Estonia undertook to shake off the remnants of the Soviet occupation and set the path to again becoming a full member of the Western world.

His government, from 1992-1994, introduced the flat tax system in Estonia, privatised most national industries in transparent public tenders, abolished tariffs and subsidies, stabilised the economy, balanced the budget, and, probably most importantly, restored the strength of the national currency – the kroon – pegging it to the stable Deutsche Mark. His reforms and politics set the country’s course to become a member of the European Union and NATO. Later in his life, he also served as minister of defence, a member of parliament, and the leader of the Pro Patria Union. Since 2013, he’s served as the chairman of the supervisory board of the Bank of Estonia.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Born in Sweden and grown up in the United States, Toomas Hendrik Ilves’s involvement with the Estonian independence movement started many years before the sovereignty was officially restored in 1991. Working at Radio Free Europe – a Munich-based, US-funded anti-communist news source – he became the head of the station’s Estonian desk in 1988, the year of the Singing Revolution.

He started to participate in the new democratic movements of the country of his parents and in 1993, Lennart Meri asked him to become Estonia’s ambassador to Washington. There, as well as an Estonian foreign minister later in the decade, he played a major role by convincing various Western movers and shakers that Estonia has reoriented decisively towards the West and is eager to join first the European Union and second, NATO (as it happened, Estonia managed to join the both in 2004.)

Foreign policy aside, it was another field that would years later also define his presidency: digitalisation. Inspired by his own experience as a young programmer, Ilves proposed the Tiger Leap project – which involved investing in the development of computer infrastructure in Estonia, with a particular emphasis on education. In 1996, the Tiger Leap project got the green light and soon snowballed: all Estonian schools gained internet connections and most had computer labs installed too.

Elected president in 2006, Ilves became one of the principal global spokespersons for this newly-confident, digital Estonia that also became a hotbed for startups. It is fair to say that internationally, no Estonian politician has stood out as brightly before or after Ilves – not yet, anyway.

Marju Lauristin

The Grand Old Lady of the Estonian politics, Marju Lauristin’s influence in the Estonian society is impossible to overestimate. Not only is she one of the heavyweights in the politics, but she is also a social scientist whose thoughts and lectures at the University of Tartu as a professor have helped shape generations of Estonian journalists and thinkers.

Her family history is controversial – her father Johannes Lauristin was a communist who was appointed in charge of Estonia by the Soviet Union shortly after occupation in 1940. But Marju Lauristin is not “like father, like daughter”. In 1988, she was forming a forceful duo with an Estonian politician Edgar Savisaar at the helm of the Popular Front, the first large-scale independent political movement in Estonia since the beginning of the Soviet occupation.

It was Lauristin who played a major part in formulating the goals and ideas of the movement and she was also very successful at being a calming and moderate voice between the radical Estonian ethnic Russians who were fiercely against an independent Estonia, and more extremist Estonian nationalists. Lauristin’s actions helped calm tensions.

Lauristin’s later career saw her working as the deputy speaker of the Estonian parliament and as the minister of social affairs, while throughout the decades she has been a thoughtful voice in the Estonian political arena. In 2014, at the age of 74, Lauristin stood as a candidate to the European Parliament. TV ads saw the agile and vigorous Lauristin jump on a motorbike and call everyone to “come along to the European Parliament”. Almost 20,000 votes took her there indeed.

Jüri Adams

It would be hard to overestimate Jüri Adams’ contribution to the Estonian statehood after the Soviet occupation. The politician played an active part in the underground movement and the secret free press, having in 1978 founded a censorship-free underground magazine, “Additions to the free distribution of thoughts and news in Estonia”. Notably, he translated into Estonian the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (the infamous pact that in 1939, carved Europe in half between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union).

He can also be called one of the founding fathers of the present Estonian constitution – between 1991-1992, Adams was a member of the Constitutional Assembly of the newly-restored Republic of Estonia and one of the main authors of the constitution that is still in effect in the country. He also served as a member of parliament (which he still is), as a minister of justice and in the Congress of Estonia. He left politics in 2003, only to return in 2015 as an MP.

Tunne Kelam

Now a member of the European Parliament for 12 consecutive years, Tunne Kelam played a crucial role in restoration of Estonia’s independence. Already in 1972, he prepared a memorandum to the United Nations, asking for assistance to remove Soviet forces from Estonia and organise free elections. He also organised underground opposition groups and passed information to the West about human rights violations in the Soviet-occupied Estonia.

By the end of the 1980ies, he had become one of the leading advocates for restoration of independence. In 1988, he was one of the founders of the Estonian National Independence Party, in 1989 he emerged as one of the leaders of the Estonian Citizens’ Movement, and in 1990, he was elected to the Congress of Estonia. In August 1991, he was instrumental in achieving a national understanding with the Soviet Estonia’s Supreme Council on the principles of restoring the country’s independence.

In later life, he always remained active in politics, serving in the parliament and holding the reigns of the Pro Patria Union, a centre-right political party, before being elected to the European Parliament.

Siim Kallas

In 1987, with the increasing political freedom in society, Estonians started demanding economic reforms and the right to make their own decisions. Kallas (who by that time was mainly known by leading the popular Sunday morning quiz show, called “Mnemoturniir”, on the Estonian radio) joined with three other masterminds – government official Edgar Savisaar, scientist Mikk Titma and journalist Tiit Made – and proposed self-managing Estonia (the Estonian acronym IME stands for “miracle”). The plan was to make Estonia economically independent from the Soviet Union – adopt a market economy, establish Estonia’s own currency and tax system. The idea met an enthusiastic discussion in the society and was the start of a long political career for the initiators (except Titma, who chose to stay away from politics.)

After Estonia restored its independence, the country’s economy was in tatters and the inflation was going through the roof, as the country was still dependent on the Soviet ruble. The advancement to reintroduce Estonia’s own currency, the kroon, was slow to come. Kallas, who had already made a name for himself as an efficient executive, was offered to take the helm at the Estonian central bank to kick-start the progress. Taking over the Bank of Estonia, which only employed 11 people at the time, he quickly established a coherent structure and less than a year later, in June 1992, Estonia brought back into existence the independent currency, after a break of over 50 years.

Always restless and looking for a new challenge, Kallas was eager to enter politics and in 1994, he and a group of well-known business and media figures, established a new entrepreneur-friendly political entity, the Reform Party. Starting in 1999, the party was in the Estonian coalition government for 17 years in a row. As prime minister in 2002-2003, his government finalised negotiations, which had been started under Mart Laar’s cabinet, to join the EU and NATO.

When Estonia joined the European Union in 2004, Kallas became the country’s first top European official, assuming an EU commissioner post in Brussels, where he remained for the next 10 years. In 2016, while indicating that he is the best leader to deal with the new challenges that the country faces in coming years, such as shrinking and ageing population and lack of economic growth, he announced his candidacy for the president of Estonia, but ultimately lost.

Liia Hänni

A former politician and an established astrophysicist, Liia Hänni was one of the most significant women in the independence movement of the newly-restored Republic of Estonia. In 1990, she joined the Estonian Rural Centre Party, a centre-right political movement that later merged into a centre-left party that by today has become the Social Democratic Party. She also participated in the activities of the Congress of Estonia and in 1992, she was elected to parliament. Hänni also took part in the Constitutional Assembly and later on was a member of the constitutional committee of the country’s parliament.

During Mart Laar’s first government, Hänni served as the reform minister – and Estonia badly needed reforms. Laar has later written in his memoirs that despite the immense pressure and occasional public backlash against the reforms, Hänni stood calm and resolute – and just got on with her job.

She has published numerous scientific articles and written extensively about the privatisation of industry and the early reforms that took place in the beginning of the 1990ies. Presently, she serves as the senior expert on e-democracy at the e-Governance Academy.

Andrus Ansip

Andrus Ansip’s meteoric rise to become prime minister in 2005 surprised many – after all, he had just left his job as a mayor of Tartu and had assumed his first ministerial post a year before. He eventually surprised even more people by becoming the longest-serving Estonian prime minister, governing for almost 10 years. Prior to that, the governments and prime ministers changed usually in every two years or so. Yet, Ansip somehow managed to keep it all together. His critics say that he lacked a grand vision while others compliment him for strong management skills.

He was also skilful at displaying confidence even during the crises – and the public bought it. So much so that even after Estonia’s economic output had fallen by 14 per cent in 2009 due to the global financial crisis and the collapse of a real estate price bubble fueled by cheap and easy credit from banks, the Reform Party – which Ansip led – still won the general election in 2011. As the American author, Justin Petrone, would later write, “we would all know that Ansip was the kind of man who would, say, amputate his own arm should it get stuck under a boulder, and not shed a tear about it, ‘because it made sense and it was the right thing to do’. Estonians have a word, kindel, which can mean “certain” and “secure”. Ansip seemed to embody both meanings.”

It is fair to say Ansip’s government demonstrated a sound management with state finances. Ironically, when the economic crisis of 2008 brought many countries, such as Ireland and Greece, to their knees, Estonia´s global image was strengthened further – here was a country that had been hit, too, but managed to keep its budget balanced. Few years later, Estonia even managed to join the eurozone, the first of the EU states formerly occupied by the Soviet Union to do so.

Siiri Oviir

For long, Siiri Oviir has been one of the most pre-eminent female politicians in Estonia. With a background in law, in 1989 she helped re-establish the Estonian Women’s Union, which she leads since 1996. She was the only female minister in the transformational government, led by Edgar Savisaar in 1990-1992. Oviir was the minister of social affairs and social issues have been closest to her heart throughout her political career. During the harshest times in Estonian society, Oviir was fighting for those who needed help, such as people with special needs, for example.

She assumed the same ministerial role twice later – in the cabinets of Tiit Vähi and Siim Kallas.

In 1991, she became a founding member of the Centre Party – the leading party in the current coalition government – and for many years was one of its leaders, alongside the domineering Savisaar (although like many, who eventually became disillusioned with the party’s leader, Oviir terminated her membership in 2012, after issuing a damning statement.)

During the 1996 presidential election, Oviir was the only female candidate (Lennart Meri won for the second term). She finished her political career as a member of the European Parliament, working in Brussels for 10 years.

Tiit Vähi

An interim leader of the Estonian government during the transitional period (and, later, the third prime minister after the Soviet occupation after Mart Laar and Andres Tarand), Tiit Vähi laid the groundwork for transforming Estonia into a free market economy, having introduced the Estonian Privatisation Agency and overseeing the currency reform that returned to the country its pre-occupation currency, the kroon.

Before assuming the post of the interim leader of the government, he served as the minister of transport and communication, where he forged close ties with the transport ministries of the Nordic countries and improved transport-related ties with Latvia and Lithuania. He’s also credited with transferring control of Estonia’s airports, sea ports and railways from Moscow to the Estonian authorities.

By now, he has left the political scene and works as the chief executive of Silmet, the largest employer in Ida-Viru County in eastern Estonia. He also oversees the construction of the easternmost sea port of the European Union – the Sillamäe Harbour.

Lagle Parek

The minister of the interior in the first post-occupation government (Mart Laar’s first cabinet), Lagle Parek is known more as a dissident during the Soviet occupation of Estonia. She was a political prisoner in a Russian prison camp from 1983-1987 for anti-Soviet activities, where she took part in a hunger strike and other protests, for which she was imprisoned in solitary confinement.

Having been pardoned in 1987, she returned to Estonia and was one of the main organisers of the Hirvepark meeting on 23 August 1987, the anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. By various estimates it was attended by 2,000 to 5,000 people and was one of the first organised public demonstrations against the Estonian Communist Party, effectively starting the political independence movement. In 1988, Parek became one of the founders of the Estonian National Independence Party, the first non-communist political party in the Soviet Union, also serving as its chairman. She also participated in the Congress of Estonia, and was elected to the first post-occupation parliament.

In 2010, she published her book, “I Do Not Know Where I Get Joy. Memories” where she vividly recalls her life as a dissident, imprisonment and life in the Soviet prison camp. In the 1990s, she converted to Catholicism, and now, she is head of the non-profit association, Caritas Eesti, part of the international Catholic charity confederation, Caritas. She lives in the Pirita Convent.


Cover: Lennart Meri in his presidential Mercedes.

Global Estonians podcast: Steve Jurvetson

The Silicon Valley-based technology entrepreneur, Rainer Sternfeld, interviews the Estonian-American polymath and venture capitalist, Steve Jurvetson.

Born to Estonian parents Tõnu and Tiiu in 1967, Jurvetson graduated at the top of his Stanford University class as a Henry Ford Scholar. After gaining work experience at Hewlett-Packard and Bain & Company, he returned to Stanford to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering, after which he joined a venture capital firm founded by Tim Draper and John Fisher. In his day job, Jurvetson invests in bold human endeavours in quantum computing, deep learning, electric cars, rockets, synthetic biology, genomics, robotics and other areas.

Although Jurvetson never learned Estonian – his parents used it between themselves – he has retained an interest in the country’s global affairs and in 2014, became the first non-European to receive an Estonian e-residency card.

In the podcast, Jurvetson talks about his technology-infused, Estonian-influenced upbringing in Arizona, fundamental shifts in computing and the future of humanity in the light of artificial intelligence.

He also shares his thoughts on why Estonia is competitive on the world stage. “I think increasingly small companies matter and small countries matter and small teams matter.” But Jurvetson recommends Estonia to stay clear of regulations, make it easier to form companies and make it easier to run experiments.

Sternfeld interviewed Jurvetson for his “Global Estonians” initiative – mostly an Estonian language podcast where globally active Estonians share their life and work experiences. Yet, every tenth episode features an English-language interview with someone who is of Estonian descent – or a good friend of the country.


Cover: Steve Jurvetson.

Riina Kionka at her desk in Brussels. © European Union

Riina Kionka – the most influential Estonian official in the EU, and a diplomat by accident

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 – somewhat ironically, as she became a diplomat by an accident and actually didn’t believe almost until the last minute Estonia would join the EU.

Riina Ruth Kionka was born in Detroit, Michigan, the one-time capital of the American auto industry, in 1960 to an Estonian mother and an American father of German descent. Detroit, you might ask? There are Estonians in Detroit? Well, if history has taught us anything, it’s that there are Estonians everywhere. And the Detroit Estonian community is 90 years old – the Estonian Educational Society of Detroit, “Kodu” (“Home”), was founded in 1926 – years before the exodus of Estonian refugees arrived in the United States, escaping from the atrocities of the Second World War and the subsequent Soviet occupation of Estonia.

It’s true that most Estonian refugees who arrived in the States settled in the East Coast, namely in the state of New Jersey. But there’s a simple explanation to that. “Most Estonian refugees who came to the US ended up near where their first sponsors under the Displaced Persons Act of 1949 were,” Kionka explains. “That’s why there are so many Estonians in New Jersey, because of Seabrook Farms” – a community that sponsored large numbers of refugees, in addition to Estonians also Latvians, Lithuanians and others. The farms’ owner, C.F. Seabrook, seeing an opportunity to gain additional labour force, sponsored more than 600 Estonians who went to work at the farms.

Starting over together with other Estonians

However, when the displaced people had fulfilled their obligations to the sponsor, they were free to go wherever they pleased – often to where there were other countrymen ahead, who could help them find jobs and housing and who had formed a community. “You can imagine that this community aspect was a pretty important element for people who lost everything, who had to flee from their homeland because of the communist invasion and then spent several years living in limbo in refugee camps. It was important to try to start over together with other Estonians,” Kionka explains.

“That’s how my mother came to Detroit. Her family’s sponsors were cotton farmers in Tennessee, my mother lasted three days picking cotton, after which she wired her best friend Juta Paulson (who later became my godmother), who was working in Detroit, to please wire her money for a bus ticket. And off she went to Detroit. She found a job and saved up to bring her parents and younger brother to Detroit, where there were more opportunities.”

From music to law to international relations

As a kid, Kionka wanted to become a musician and a conductor. However, fate had other plans for her. “At some point during high school I decided I didn’t want to spend the hours in dingy, windowless basement practice rooms that it would take to be good enough to become a professional performer, which is always the path to becoming a conductor. So, when I entered university, it was with the thought of studying law. That lasted until I found out what kind of work lawyers actually do.”

Riina Kionka. © European UnionSo, instead of pursuing a career in music – or law, for that matter – she began moving towards international relations, which, she says, had always been an interest of her’s – “for genetic reasons, from a very early age”, as she puts it. “My mother’s and grandparents’ refugee experience was formative for me,” she recalls.

“My mother maintains that I got the bug from her having taken part in anti-Khrushchev demonstrations while she was pregnant with me. There may be some truth in it, as I recall explaining to my fellow kindergarten pupils what communists were. And, of course, with an odd name, I always had to explain to people where Estonia was and what had happened to it by whom. That leaves a mark.”

In high school, Kionka’s favourite subject was European history. “I remember an episode in which I nearly lost my copy of the Communist Manifesto, which I had to read for school, at the Estonian church. I had brought it along to church so I could get in some homework time during coffee hour, but couldn’t find it on the way back home in the car. My mother was mortified; the community was very anti-communist, of course, and anything like that could set people off.”

“The last thing I wanted to do was become a diplomat”

“So, it seemed obvious to me that when I started studying international relations at university, besides German, which was my first foreign language, I also began studying Russian. And one thing led to another. It was all pretty clear from the start.”

She had the thought of becoming a diplomat already then, but interestingly, that changed pretty quickly. “During my third summer of university I did an internship with the US State Department in the western sector of Berlin,” Kionka recalls. “After that internship, I decided the last thing I wanted to do was become a diplomat, because I saw how unhappy my female temporary colleagues around me were. There weren’t that many at the time – this was in 1982 – and the ones I was working with were all unhappily single, for one or another reason. They were living with their cats. I didn’t want that.”

“The history came in while I was doing my doctoral research, thinking I would become an academic. I was studying the Soviet Union. And then it began falling apart, piece by piece. I had the enormous privilege of watching it happen from the front row seats at Radio Free Europe, where I worked from 1989 to 1993.” She had been an intern at Radio Free Europe in 1986, when the later president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, was working as an analyst. After Ilves had become the editor-in-chief of the Estonian section, Kionka was hired as an analyst, taking over from Ilves.

The accidental diplomat

From left: Donald Tusk, Riina Kionka and the former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. © European Union

“So, at one point I decided it was one thing to write analysis about what was happening in Estonia from my comfortable perch in Munich, but quite another to actually do the things I was writing about. To write or to do, that was the question,” she states. “And I decided it was more interesting to be present at the creation, to borrow a phrase from Dean Acheson. So, on Estonian Independence Day in 1993, I tendered my resignation and flew off to Tallinn to join the fledgling Estonian Foreign Ministry. That’s how I became a diplomat.”

Interestingly, even though she joined the Estonian foreign service at its rebirth after the Soviet occupation, most of Riina Kionka’s career has been dedicated to the European Union. Was that a conscious choice or yet another accident, an act of fate?

“Things always look deterministic in hindsight,” she says. “When I joined the Estonian Foreign Ministry, only a handful of people thought we’d ever have a fighting chance to join the EU – anytime soon. I was not one of them. I was much more interested in security policy, taking part in the negotiations on Russian troop withdrawals, focusing on NATO and the OSCE and such. I was a sceptic to the end and, in essence, was forced to learn about the EU only once it became clear that’s where Estonia was really going. I headed for the EU after some differences of opinion with the then-foreign minister and Estonia’s foreign ministry began to seem confining.”

Chinese checkers and three-dimensional chess

“The appeal of the EU for a small country like Estonia, and for me personally, is that there is strength in numbers, there are so many more possibilities to influence the course of world events when you are part of a larger organisation. And with the EU, the range of policies and interests and reach is much broader than for a small country,” she explains her interest in and dedication to the European Union.

Naturally, it has to be quite different to work for a huge apparatus such as the EU, compared with being a diplomat for a small country as Estonia is. Kionka herself explains the difference being like that of “between Chinese checkers and three-dimensional chess”.

“In the huge machine of the EU, a person has to be far more conscious of the tactics, the different national preferences, the national political frameworks and the bureaucratic politics,” she describes. “You need all of that, not just the substance, to turn an idea into a policy. In Estonia, it’s usually enough to have a good idea, prepare well, know who went to school with whom and have a modicum of decency. It is a lot easier to make things happen in Estonia for sure.”

The only woman in the room

Donald Tusk meeting with the then-US president, Barack Obama. Riina Kionka on the left side couch. © European Union

The European Union has traditionally been a male-dominated institution – even today. It’s probably safe to assume being a woman in a men’s playground can be quite challenging – and Kionka somewhat agrees.

“Being a woman hasn’t helped, other than the fact that during breaks in meetings, I almost never encounter queues for the women’s restrooms,” she says. “At the lower levels, there are probably more women in the apparatus than men. But in management, there are fewer and fewer women the higher one goes. There are exceptions and one encounters them more often these days. But I am still usually the only woman in the room.”

Seeing the European Union closer than almost anybody else, she has quite an insight into the EU’s present and future. The union is facing its challenges, starting from Brexit – the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU – to the eurosceptic voices that raise their heads from time to time all over the union. The last challenge the EU faced was the election in France where the eurosceptic, right-wing populist candidate, Marine Le Pen, reached the second round of the presidential election earlier in May. Fortunately (for the EU and for France), the centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron, won the presidency. But that doesn’t mean the eurosceptic feelings have gone anywhere. Does Kionka see a flourishing future for the EU?

“After the French and Dutch elections, I feel much more hopeful for the EU,” she says. “With president Macron, there’s finally a chance to reinvigorate the French-German tandem, which has always been and will always be the driving force of the EU. All the more so now that the UK has, unfortunately, decided to part ways with us. So, in fact, I am much more upbeat than I was a couple of months ago. And sad as it seems, one of the silver linings of the political change in the US is that Europe has finally realised it has to get its act together on security policy. Even if we see a stronger transatlantic pillar in the future, and I hope we do, it will be better off with a stronger and more confident EU as a partner.”

Sympathy for the frustration

As to the eurosceptics, Kionka points out that most of them are not aware what the EU is and what it isn’t. “Often the failings of national policies and choices are ascribed to ‘the fatcat bureaucrats in Brussels’ when, in fact, the offending decisions come from the national capitals, who find it politically convenient to blame Brussels for all that is uncomfortable,” she asserts.

The start of the second mandate of the cabinet of Donald Tusk. Riina Kionka is eighth from the right. © European Union

“That said, the EU has become so complicated and all-encompassing that very few people understand how it works,” she also admits. “There is a problem of regulating things at EU level that probably could be better conducted at home. So, I have great sympathy for the frustration. But one thing that Brexit has led to is a re-thinking of the whole project. But the core of that re-think has got to be that it is better to do some key things together than apart. This is especially vital for a country like Estonia. Because were the EU to unravel, you can guess who the first victims would be.”

So, what does she think the EU will be like in, say, 25 years’ time?

“Personally, I think the EU will change to become more flexible, with some states taking part in some but not other policies and with greater say in how policies are implemented,” she points out. “I also think it will be bigger in 25 years’ time, but the kinds of relationships to and with the EU will have become modified. So, I could realistically see a kind of new relationship with the UK that also extends, for instance, to Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, maybe Turkey, the Western Balkan states. But this is only my personal opinion, which doesn’t count for much in the grand scheme of things.”

The lack of generosity in Estonia toward refugees inexplicable

However, working in Brussels for the European Union does not mean Kionka doesn’t follow the life and developments in Estonia. Her husband, Lauri Lepik, is an Estonian diplomat, and she also has friends in Estonia. “And also because within the Tusk cabinet, responsibility for the various member states is divided among the various cabinet members, and I am responsible for Estonia, of course. Because of my position, I am not at liberty to comment on the internal workings of any EU member states, including Estonia. But I do miss the days of ideas and invigorating action.”

One of the things, though, that Kionka takes personally about Estonia is the country’s and its peoples reluctance in helping today’s refugees.

“Given Estonia’s history, with so many of its compatriots having been welcomed by other countries as refugees after the Second World War and during the Soviet occupation, I find the lack of generosity toward refugees simply inexplicable,” she notes. “I think of my mother, my grandparents. What if they had been from Syria instead of Estonia and had sought refuge in Estonia instead of the United States?  What is the difference? In fact, there is none, if you look from a humanitarian perspective.”

“There’s an economic argument to be made as well, one that Spain, for instance, makes. Or Canada. Notably that in-migration is good for the economy, especially in countries with small populations. So yes, more acceptances of people from elsewhere are a win-win, from my point of view.”

No political aspirations

Riina Kionka. © European Union

Kionka has had a magnificent career – but it can’t be that she has yet done everything and worked everywhere she would want to. What are her plans for the future – can we one day hear the words, “President of the European Council, Riina Kionka”? Or would she rather see herself returning to Estonia and become, say, a politician?

“The president of the European Council is chosen from amongst the EU prime ministers, which is to say from amongst the top politicians of each of the EU member states,” she explains. “I am not a politician nor do I aspire to be one. Some of my best friends are politicians but I have seen how high a price one pays for that sort of trajectory. And besides, judging by how much I learn every day about that business from my boss, Donald Tusk, someone with spot-on political instincts, I’m not even convinced I would be good at it.”

“I’m interested in foreign policy, not necessarily in political choices ranging from health care to environmental issues to pension policy, unless of course they become questions of international concern. That’s when they pique my interest.”

But what about returning to Estonia – “Never say never.”


Cover: Riina Kionka at her desk in her office in Brussels (© European Union.) Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

To the moon, indefinitely – the story of Erika Ilves

Erika Ilves is an entrepreneur who does not let herself be limited by the size of planet Earth while there is a whole universe out there. “For now, it’s easier and cheaper to try things on Earth than fly it out to space and bring it back,” she claims. “But in the future, we will need the resources on the moon as well as the asteroids to enlarge ‘our economic area’.”

“WALL-E”, a 2008 animation by Disney-Pixar, takes us to planet Earth in 2805, abandoned by people and covered in heaps of trash. There is only one cute robot left whose job is to clean up the planet. In real life, we do not have to wait another 800 years to see a robot like this – they already exist. And if we treat our resources more reasonably, the picture might not turn out be as gloomy as depicted in the movie.

“Personally, I do not believe we will be running out of resources any time soon. We have plenty of resources on Earth to last us a few centuries,” says Erika Ilves, a cofounder of OffWorld, a company that is developing a new robotic workforce to enable the settlement of the solar system. But Ilves would not want to be among the first humans to set foot on Mars. Before moving people to other planets, it might be wiser to send robots out there.

“Right now on Earth, we need about 10 tons of metals, biomass and fossil fuels per person per year. Even with our resource needs expected to double by 2050, we have plenty of elements, including seabed mineral and even fresh water deposits. We don’t always have the technology to access these resources economically, but I have no doubt the technology can be developed. Energy is a challenge. Going outside planetary boundaries is a challenge. But again, all of these are addressable. The only justifiable attitude here is that of rolling up your sleeves and solving very real problems that we face,” Ilves, who herself has done exactly that, says.

Think big!

The space industry currently amounts to €323 billion a year. In 2015, around one fourth of it was still government expenditure, but thanks to Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the likes, private companies are rapidly taking over. At present, the biggest chunk of it goes to communication satellites and the infrastructure on Earth that supports it, but that could likely be overshadowed by other opportunities like space resources, manufacturing and tourism.

“Being able to use lunar and asteroidal resources means we can dramatically lower the cost of in-space transport and make Earth orbit and even the moon more accessible to everyone, even high school projects,” Ilves claims. “Think of an Estonian school team being able to send their experiment to the moon. It also means it will be cheaper to build and supply structures in orbit and on the moon – think private orbital stations you can visit, micro-gravity labs you could work in, outposts on the moon you can visit. And perhaps, during our lifetime, we could have thousands of people living on Mars.”

OffWorld was founded in November 2015, but not much has been heard about the company. The same team of seven cofounders had been previously working on another space infrastructure project called the Shackleton Energy Company, announcing in 2007 that they would be building the equipment and technologies necessary for mining the moon and placing a team there within eight years. But they failed to do so. “This was an $18 billion infrastructure program, so a mission impossible in terms of raising the funds,” Ilves explains now. “And yet, we managed to put together a global consortium of top tier space contractors, secured interest from multiple governments and secured our sovereign partner in Dubai. So we did come shockingly close to pulling the thing off.” Yet, this time they want to be sure to show results first.

Before aiming at the moon, they are developing mining robots for a terrestrial mining client because “it is the best place to develop and mature our mining system”. It also happens to be a large market that can support investment into the development of such a system.

Just like in WALL-E, the robots look like boxes on wheels (or tracks or legs, if necessary) and have robotic arms with different tools for different tasks. They can be built up of 10x10x10cm modules. Currently they are still in the prototyping-phase and operate in a simulated mine environment but will hopefully be ready to hit real mines in two years.

These small robots could evoke a big leap forward in the industry that currently employs about 20 million people around the world, in both open pit and underground mining, using technology that is at least a century old. “The current technological paradigm in mining on Earth relies on heavy machinery, human labour, drill and blast bulk mining. We can’t export this way of mining to the Moon.”

Unlocking one challenge after another

Having been to underground platinum mines, Erika describes them as the toughest places for humans to work on Earth. “These mines are dark, low, hot and smell of ammonium. I spent only a few hours there, but I was already struggling to breathe. The workers, however, spend 12 hours down there and I could not believe that we still send people to work in these conditions in 2017. Half a million people get sick every year working in the mining sector.”

So OffWorld has a solution to let the robots do the hard work for people and have people working in command and control centres on the surface instead. If a conventional small diamond mine employs 500 people today, it would only need 50 in the future, plus around 3,000 robots. In other words, that would mean that 90 percent of the current workforce would be laid off.

“But that is only half of the story − the other half is that there are thousands of ore bodies around the globe that cannot be mined today because there is no economically viable way to do so. Our swarm mining robots would make mining these ore bodies economically viable and open up a whole new inventory of mineral deposits. That would mean new human jobs where there would otherwise be none. I can’t tell exactly what the net effect on employment in the mining sector would be − we have not run the numbers on this yet. We won’t be displacing 90 per cent of the workers in the mines that we start. In many new mines, we would be creating new jobs.”

The mining robots weigh only 50-100 kilograms (110-220 lbs), so hundreds of them could be sent to the moon. “For starters, launch capacity of our rockets is the first bottleneck. Non-existent human labour is another. So we have to rely on small, modular, highly redundant robots with a high level of autonomy.” With different subsystems inside each same-size block with a standard interface, the robots would be able to assemble themselves.

It’s unlikely that once the robots are on the moon and asteroids – and have assembled factories – that there would be a necessity to send the “production” back to Earth. “The only things that we will be sending to Earth are communications signals and maybe beaming down solar power,” Ilves explains. “If we find products that can only be manufactured in micro-gravity environment, we would bring those down. Other than that, I currently don’t know of any commodities that we could get from space that we would not be able to get cheaper on Earth. Helium 3 extracted from lunar regolith is often touted as one such commodity for use in fusion reactors, but we need to first build commercially viable fusion reactors before we can seriously have that conversation.”

The main question here is obviously funding. “When it comes to development of space infrastructure projects, the markets themselves, not just technology, need to be created. To deal with this, our master plan is to first develop our universal robotics platform for the mining sector on Earth, then use that platform and money to jumpstart operations on the moon. In other words, we will underwrite moon activities ourselves, without relying on external investors. That’s why serving the mining sector on Earth is critical for our off world plans. And it puts us in control of our destiny.”

A lot is changing in the space industry every year. Even one to two years ago, remote sensing and satellite constellations were the big rage, with lots on interest in commercial space startups. This year we are already seeing the first signs of consolidation in that space. Only in the first quarter of 2017, there have been four acquisitions in this field. So it is a big deal that OffWorld has a five-year development agreement with their mining client. They work in cycles of three months to unlock the next challenge. In May, they will be presenting their masterplan and vision to a small audience in Canada but in June they will be “coming out of the closet” at NewSpace, the big startup conference of their sector.

And last, but not least, OffWorld has also hired its first Estonian employee in Tartu, who is in charge of machine learning.

Not a rocket scientist

Erika Ilves’s story seems do defy the myth that in order to have prospects in the space industry, one should be at least a “rocket scientist” by training. “Rockets are just a transport segment,” she laughs. “They are important but we need a wide spectrum of skills and sectors to enable space settlement. Two of my cofounders are literally rocket scientists, but one of them is now working on developing small factor mining technologies, the other is looking at integration of off-the-shelf innovative technologies into our system. So they aren’t even working on rocket engines. Five of my cofounders are aerospace system engineers, the other two are lawyers by education. What we all have in common is a strong drive to pick up new domains fast. In the last 12 months, we have all had to learn terrestrial geology, rock mechanics, machine learning and robotics. As Nietzsche once said, ‘he who has a why to live for can bear any how’.”

Ilves herself is one of the two lawyers in her company. She studied law at the University of Tartu because back in 1995, when she graduated from high school, there were only two “reasonable” options for further studies: law or economics. “I chose law because economics was too easy. I had always loved maths and physics, so law was a completely new experience.”

But she only practiced as a lawyer for less than a year because it was not quite a fit for her. She had just earned a Fulbright scholarship to do her PhD in law at New York University but decided not to pursue her career in this field and joined a consultancy firm instead. She spent six years at McKinsey, was based in Australia, Singapore, Africa, and learned a lot. She then joined the executive team of a Norwegian public company producing videoconference equipment, but that ended up being bought by Cisco. Her next stop was Dubai in a strategy firm solving big scale problems like how to replace income from oil on the Arabian Peninsula with other sources.

“At the time, we had a boutique strategy consulting firm, called Executive Office,” Ilves tells the story. “We always argued for removing the distinction between corporate strategy and corporate responsibility, and building companies and nations that from the outset contributed positively to the arc of human history as an integral part of what they were about. This always led to conversations about the most important global challenges facing humanity. Most of our clients at the time asserted that the most important issue was climate change. My cofounder and I got curious how people knew this was the most important issue. Had they looked at all other global issues? We were determined to answer those questions for ourselves (and thereby make sure that we personally were spending our own lives on issues that actually mattered), we started doing research in our spare time. That effort evolved into a book and an app, and a Kickstarter project and collaboration with 150 volunteers.”

Australia, Estonia or the lunar South Pole

So the space is no longer an abstract idea, but rather a collection of actual locations like the Far East or Australia. “We don’t use the word ‘space’ anymore as we are looking into specific areas like the low Earth orbit, the South Pole of the moon, or Mount Sharp on Mars − these are all different places,” Ilves says. Also, apparently people working in the field, while referring to going to other planetary surfaces to stay, no longer use the paternalistic term “colonise” but “settle” instead.

For now, Ilves herself has settled in London with her family (and to those who always keep asking, she assures them that she is not related to Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former Estonian president). OffWorld has offices in Pasadena, CA; and in Vienna, Austria – obviously she still has to travel a lot, but she does not really mind. She will still make time to come to Estonia at least once a year. Last year she attended the Latitude 59 conference and was blown away by the bustling local startup scene.

“The fact that we have survived as a nation in that small dark corner of the world is a miracle,” Ilves recently told in the “Globaalsed Eestlased” (“Global Estonians”) podcast. “It’s not only about the future of Estonians, but all the people of the world. It’s all about the perseverance. We will need a truckload of that to be able to settle space!”

As she always introduces Estonia as a “small and fearless” country to those who have never heard of it, she also encourages Estonian companies to benefit from the “space race”. “There is no reason why Estonian companies could not be part of the commercial space ecosystem, pushing the final frontier. There are plenty of opportunities but first, you need to be able to imagine things that are not there today, and second, find a way to pay the bills while you are developing a new technology or application.”


Cover: Erika Ilves (image by Imke Pinz-Cochran. Images by Imke Pinz-Cochran, Woland, Wikimedia.) The print version of this article was first published in Life in Estonia magazine.

Paul Piliste – a vehicle designer for future cars

Paul Piliste is a London-based vehicle designer who is part of the team behind the “Driverless Futures” exhibition, currently held at the London Transport Museum.

Passionate about cars

Piliste, who is orginally from Tallinn, Estonia, has been living, studying and working in the United Kingdom for twelve years, past three years in London.

He works at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for design at the Royal College of Art as a designer and researcher. His background is in product design and he has spent a few years working for a plastic product manufacturer in England.

His interest in cars started when he was a child and he went to car shows with his dad.

”Being a small child I would climb inside the cars and my parents were always losing me in the crowds at the shows because I was so excited,” he says.

Initially he wanted to study automotive design, but was also interested in electronics and everyday objects. After speaking to the professors at the University of Northampton, he decided to study product design, to gain a wider understanding of ergonomics, aesthetics, colour theory, form, materials and manufacturing.

”Admittedly, most of my projects involved wheels of some sort, and my degree project was an electric driverless taxi for London, called ‘Opti’,” he recalls.

”After a few years, I realised I wanted to follow my dreams of designing the most exciting and romantic products we own – cars.”

He applied for the vehicle design course at the top university in the world for art and design, the Royal College of Art in London.

”I knew that the university had taught some of the most influential figures in the vehicle design world and I was amazed and shocked when I was offered a place,” Piliste notes.

Exhibition “Driverless Futures”

Currently, he is one of the designers and minds behind the exhibition about driverless vehicles, which include display and series of exciting pop-up events at the London Transport Museum.

Part of the Gateway Project, it is a government-funded collaboration between the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art and the Intelligent Mobility Design Centre. The project is about research and design looking to the future of urban driverless vehicles, based in the Greenwich peninsula, London.

”Last summer, we held workshops with over a hundred people, gathering their hopes, fears and gaining an understanding about what would make their dream vehicle. Simultaneously, we worked together with vehicle designers, project researchers, architects and textile designers from the Royal College of Art to formulate ideas about how the future of transportation could look, feel and work,” Piliste explains.

The exhibition raises questions about how we should design future driverless vehicles. It also shows the future of London in juxtaposition – on one side a dystopian society and on the other side a utopian society.

”We have a chance to reinvent this machine that transports people and goods, it does not have to be the same as before – the rules are changing,” he adds.

Driverless cars and their impact for the future

Self-operating cars are definitely another step in manufacturing cars and vehicles in general. It will change our everyday life, changes our habits and our perspectives about vehicles and their usage. Also it has both a positive and a negative impact on us.

”In my opinion, the positive points could far outweigh the negatives, for example independence for the disabled, older people, the visually impaired and those not able to drive, could really change people’s lives,” Piliste mentions.

A driverless car, also known as autonomous car is a vehicle capable of operating without human input. Many such vehicles are being developed, but as of February 2017 automated cars permitted on public roads are not yet fully autonomous.

”I think the future is really up to the designers, architects, engineers and the thinkers of today. If we do it right, the future can be amazing. The danger is, of course, with machine learning technology developing faster and faster. Yes these machines are here to make our lives better, but I share Elon Musk’s fear of artificial intelligence becoming smarter than human beings,” he says.

”Our exhibition in London focuses on the next few decades – when the technical issues have been resolved and driverless vehicles are sharing the roads with each other. These machines and computer minds need to be created with values and ethics that are similar to our own, ultimately their purpose is to serve and help humans.”

In the future, Piliste sees himself designing all kinds of vehicles, driven and driverless. A long-term dream of his is to walk down the street, whether this is in Europe, the Americas or Asia, and see cars that he has designed, driving around and being loved by their owners.

”I am in love with Chris Bangle’s (known for his work as the chief of design for BMW Group – editor) quote, ‘a car designer is really a sculptor’, because people often forget that cars are a work of art, they are engrained into our culture and they express emotion, passion and purpose, much like a painting. Automobiles are not just boxes that move people from A to B, they are moving sculptures,” Piliste says.


Cover: Isolation pod dystopia by Paul Piliste (courtesy of Royal College of Art.) Driverless Futures: Utopia or Dystopia? is open until 23 April at the London Transport Museum. Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

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