Sten Hankewitz: Toomas Hendrik Ilves – the president Estonia needed

In the past ten years, president Ilves’s approachability and openness have helped bring Estonia’s issues to a far bigger arena than any president, any prime minister of the country has achieved before.

“Where are you from?”

“Estonia. It’s a tiny little country in Northern Europe.”

“Oh, I know Estonia. You have this cool president!”

I’m surprised. A random American in San Francisco – a city that sometimes seems to be a world of its own – knows the president of Estonia.

“Yeah, I’ve heard him speak. In perfect English, with a New Jersey accent, takes the podium, and I’m wondering, who the hell is he. Turns out, that’s the president of Estonia!”

That story would be rather unimportant if this were a one-time conversation. But after time and again being engaged in similar exchanges with Americans from all over the country, from all areas of life, it’s not that insignificant any more. Quite the contrary.

Ilves’s presidency will always be defined by his international impact

On 24 September, the electoral college will elect the new head of state for the tiny Northern European country with a president with a New Jersey accent, and a few days after that, the 10-year administration of Toomas Hendrik Ilves will be over. It’s a normal democratic process for heads of state and that’s the way it should be. But this time there is one remarkable downside to it – no president of Estonia has had, and no future president of Estonia might have such a tremendous international reach and such a positive international impact for the country than Ilves. And that is a bit of a sad thought.

Indeed, many of the current presidential candidates are internationally well-known and have vast experience in the international arena. Siim Kallas, the former European commissioner. Marina Kaljurand, the former ambassador to Russia and the United States, and also a foreign minister.

“Being American”

But none of them are the guy who speaks perfect English with a New Jersey accent. And thus, none of them can even dream of achieving this international reach and fame Toomas Hendrik Ilves has – and therefore, even with great substance in whatever message they might have to the international community, that message will sadly not reach as many ears as it has in the last ten years.

Of course, Ilves’s reach and fame cannot all be attributed to his English skills or accent. But I do believe that a huge part of it is due to the fact that he grew up in the United States. Americans in general are open, approachable people who engage themselves in their communities, happily contribute to the lives of their towns, cities and country, take genuine interest in other people and their lives, and actually care about their neighbours’ wellbeing. And while domestically, some people have tried to offend Ilves by calling him an American rather than an Estonian, internationally his “being American” has always been one of the most important, most significant qualities of his presidency.

Estonia as a country more firmly on the global map

In the past ten years, president Ilves’s approachability and openness have helped bring Estonia’s issues to a far bigger arena than any president, any prime minister of the country has achieved before.

Be it calling other nations and their leaders to their senses about the security challenges Eastern Europe faces because of the actions of the Russian Federation, or be it calls for a digital single market within the European Union, something that it clearly lacks.

Be it engaging in Twitter fights with Paul Krugman or bringing the international community’s attention to the pressing issues of cyber security and the many threats to it. Or be it his work to show off Estonia in the international arena as the startup nation of the world – which, in part, is due to his domestic efforts to promote technology, technical education and entrepreneurship.

All this adds up – and has put Estonia as a country more firmly on the global map as a well-known and well-established nation that, in many fields, is truly one of the leading entities in the world today.

Best effort to have the country’s voice heard

In the Estonian political system, foreign affairs and international interaction are the most important duties of the president. Domestically, he doesn’t have much say. He gives speeches, calls for common sense, asks the winner of parliamentary elections to form a government, signs legislation into laws, and sometimes expresses his contempt towards the domestic troublemakers and populists. But all-in-all, his role is almost entirely ceremonial.

On the international arena, however, the president’s duties are exactly what Ilves has been doing throughout his presidency – making the absolute best effort to have the country’s voice heard, its concerns addressed and its qualities revered.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves - photo by Jarek Jõepera

That will be Toomas Hendrik Ilves’s legacy – having been the best president the country could have asked for. And the other part of his legacy will sadly be that no one will ever – or at least not in the near future – even come close to topping it.

Thank you, president Ilves, for being the president Estonia desperately needed.


The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Toomas Hendrik Ilves (photo by Herkki-Erich Merila).

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