President Ilves: Estonia is like a wild strawberry

By Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia, on the 95th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia in Tallinn, 24 February 2013.

Today, on the 95th anniversary of Estonia, the thought of independence has, once again, become natural. It neither requires interpretation nor explanation because it is a basic truth. Just as freedom is no longer something to strive for, there is also no other possible alternative, at least not for us, not for Estonia. The idea of Estonia’s freedom has become perpetual. And this is the way it should be.

Taking this into account, albeit often unconsciously, we look towards the future. Standing on this foundation, we take care of our people’s standard of life and their vitality.

Standing on this foundation, we compare ourselves to other nations, and no longer to those who used to share our fate, but instead to those whose history and opportunities have, in the meantime, been different.

And this is exactly what it should be like. For we cannot endlessly search the past for the cause of our problems like a former colony that continues to blame it all on some 19th century injustice.

Standing on this foundation, we compare ourselves to our neighbours, both in what is good and what is not. At times, these concerns can tend to be too big. Things tend to get magnified in comparison.

Let us not forget that we are able to measure and evaluate ourselves precisely because we are standing straight and on firm ground.

Those who are younger amongst us do not even know that in the past our coastline was fenced off with barbed wire. In twenty-two years we have come so far that alongside our partners in NATO and the European Union we no longer need to fear a repeat of recent history.

Within the twenty-two years of restored independence, the Estonian state has come so far that we no longer compare the present day to the occupation or the Singing Revolution. We compare ourselves to countries in which freedom and democracy are natural.

This is the right, in fact, it the only possible way. We are and must be more demanding of our state. Yet in a democratic state this means that we must also be more demanding of ourselves.

In a democratic state the rulers are not “they”, just like there is no “Brussels” somewhere far away “demanding” something from us without our consent or in violation of agreements that we have contracted.

In a democratic state, every complaint against the state or its rulers is directly or indirectly a complaint against ourselves.

More social empathy needed

Within one generation Estonia has changed beyond recognition. Our concerns have changed as well. If the historical burden has to a large extent fallen off its cart, we now face the question: How do we proceed from here?

We are still recovering from the economic crisis that shook the whole world for quite a few years. The level of unemployment that plagued us a couple of years ago has now dropped below the European average. Already, entrepreneurs complain that incomes are rising too quickly, driving up inflation. Unlike in many other European countries, the Estonian economy is growing.

Yet how and why should those people whose worries include the daily effort to make ends meet rejoice at these macro-economic figures? Those people whose income does not reflect the recovery of growth and who follow the growth of prices with concern?

I know of no quick fix. It also took us a number of years to climb back up from the bottom of the crisis. Economic growth creates the means for the growth of wellbeing in the entire country, albeit not immediately, and not for everyone at once.

The growth of the Estonian economy cannot delight those people for whom the state’s support is not enough to avoid poverty. Couldn’t the rules of our social policy be a bit more flexible, at least temporarily, in order to assist our people?

We must accept that the ups and downs of the economy are a truly difficult phenomenon for some. So let us find alleviating measures, together.

As I said, this is something that we can do when our economy is growing. But there will certainly not be any improvement without growth, as we can see in many other countries.

I would especially like to thank and recognise Estonia’s older generation who survived the loss of independence, survived the horrors that followed, and often, with the restoration of independence, lost everything they had been able to accumulate in the meantime.

Despite all this, you have retained your optimism towards Estonia, thank you.

The state needs to interact better with the people

If during the past five years of the global economic storm we have to a large extent been influenced by external forces, the same does not apply for relations among ourselves, between people, and with the state.

If the state treated the people with similar care and love as most of us treat the state, we would have a lot more of true patriotism, instead of phoney one.

We should not create any illusions about panaceas to solve all problems at once. As if all would be well if we changed one minister or the entire government. As if we would get better decisions if decisions were to be made not by parliament, but by means of the internet or in referenda.

No, I do not consider the current government to be irreplaceable, nor do I consider the way our decisions are made to be the best. Both will inevitably change if only the citizens so wish.

This is a cornerstone of democracy. Over the past years, this has also been the citizens’ clear message to politicians.

One of the greatest virtues of democracy is the legal transfer of power without the spilling of blood, in which the state continues, and decision-makers change. Democracy teaches us that if one is insensitive or deaf to the murmurings of the people, someone else will soon come to power, already after the next elections.

If the feeling spreads in a democratic society that those in power are unwilling to listen, other means will be sought to make one’s voice heard. This is why the People’s Assembly or “Rahvakogu” was created at the end of last year. And today, I recognise its work.

This fresh initiative, based on the citizens’ free will, has already proved to be a place for citizens to propose ideas that soon enough could become laws.

The Rahvakogu, I emphasise, was created by the citizens, among them by politicians convinced of the inevitable need for change, and for the citizens, in the interests of the health and future of Estonian democracy.

Looking back on last year’s indignation the question has been asked: Has the parliamentary way of making decisions that we have become used to, exhausted itself?

Populism is not a long term solution

Experience from history and elsewhere proves that in referenda it is not always more just or humane values that come on top, as those who support this idea would hope.

A referendum could support the restoration of the death penalty, the abolition of minority rights, or the reduction of education spending. Let us recall how ten years ago in France some people’s bias towards eastern Europeans – epitomized by the Polish plumber – decided the result of a referendum.

This is why representative democracy has been successful: Elected members of parliament must take responsibility, must dare to vote in the interests of the state and its people, and to disregard the populism that has occasionally been fired up.

We must, however, think seriously about how to make decisions in the future so that not only would the concerns of all interested parties be heard, but also be taken into account.

This also means that decisions would be explained. That the government would neither be nor seem to be deaf or dumb; that the powers that be would not look down upon the voter; that government representatives would not descend to a base and spiteful level of communication.

Estonia’s international reputation all time high

I personally am of the opinion that Estonia is doing quite well. I am sincerely proud of my country. When during foreign visits I listen to praise for Estonia’s achievements, in my thoughts I always thank the entire people, every Estonian mother and father, every senior citizen and youth, every worker and employer, every artist and every statesman.

I thank everyone whose care, skills and dedication have brought Estonia its probably all-time best international reputation. A reputation that has not been fashioned but that has developed based on our deeds and skills, on Estonians’ enterprise, ingenuity and open way of thinking.

We might not even know that the world’s most famous composer of classical music alive is Arvo Pärt from Rakvere. That no-one else has recorded as much classical music as the Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi.

Tiger Leap, Skype, the digital prescription, the e-police and e-tax and customs board, as well as the X-Road’s database environment are studied or copied by countries across Europe and even further.

These examples, many more of which I could have named, prove that here in Estonia we can continue to do great things. Even if the greatest thing of all, our very own state, is something that we have already accomplished.

Yes, I know it is easy and popular to scoff and laugh at admitting Estonia’s success. As if we should be ashamed of our achievements and speak about them only in a lowered voice. Not forgetting to emphasise things that continue to be bad or remain unaccomplished. One does not exclude the other.

Dear friends, let us be justly proud of our state and common achievements, but let us also honestly face the things that we have failed to do. Especially today when exactly five years separate us from Estonia’s great jubilee. And why not from a perspective that would demand the fixing of these things by Estonia’s one hundredth birthday.

Tough challenges ahead

Let us look beyond the horizon of the approaching elections. Let us carefully weigh the choices we will be given. Because our situation in the coming five to seven years will change markedly. Although we cannot predict everything that could happen over those years, we already do know some things.

We know that by 2018, due to low fertility rates and higher life-expectancy, the labour of three people will have to suffice to support five.

Our entire system of social security and benefits will rest on the shoulders of those people. All of it: schools, pensions, child support, the police and rescue services, the health insurance fund, and unemployment insurance.

Let us also consider the fact that as we become richer – and this is exactly what we want – this increasingly requires more effort and responsibility.

Should our relative wealth grow with the continuation of economic growth, this will also mean that when the next financial framework period begins in 2020 we may not get as sizeable a piece of the pie as our government obtained this time round just two weeks ago.

It could be that we ourselves will have become net contributors, as incredible as this may sound today. But it is entirely possible. Because we are already so close to the 75% level of the European Union average GDP, a threshold from which onwards a country can no longer be a net recipient of European funds.

What kind of a conclusion can we draw from this? In brief, we must learn to manage in a different way. Firstly, we must find or invent a model of the state for such circumstances, a model that is not only more resilient to these changes, but one that also ensures the sustainable improvement of people’s livelihoods here.

In the coming seven years we must become clever enough to manage on our own. We must also use the European Union support we receive up until then to create something sustainable – something that later on will be able to continue and develop by itself.

Let us distinguish the most important

And hence my appeal. Let us fix Estonia by its one hundredth birthday. The French built the Eiffel Tower for their century-jubilee. Let us build a metaphoric tower, one that shines bright and is visible from far away in its innovativeness and inventiveness, in its shrewdness and also its tone, a friendly, argumentative and efficient one.

Such a timeframe and financial limit, a predictable yet definitive possibility of the closing of the window of financial opportunity, sets concrete milestones – goals that are not impossible to achieve, but which do require consensus and longer term planning than merely for one election-cycle.

This should not be something insurmountable for us. Planning for the next general song festival begins at once when the fire of the previous one has gone out at the song festival grounds. 50 000 singers – this means that every twentieth Estonian takes part in the preparations, practising during their free time.

How then could other things be beyond our means, for instance to fix Estonia?

In order to reach this goal we need debates and also balanced decisions as a result of them. We need enforceable action plans, not development plans that are written for the sake of writing and then immediately forgotten. We need ideas, ideas that are innovative and possibly atypical, but certainly not slogans.

These ideas and action plans must take into account Estonia’s needs, not arguments about whom, how, and how much to tax. We will come to taxes once we know the answer to the question of what to do in order that the state may function prudently.

We need a debate on what to do with our education system as the number of schoolchildren rapidly declines, not fearing difficult decisions, but making sure that quality is preserved.

Without pathos and populism we must reach consensus on how to organise life in the countryside so that enterprise may be possible there; so that people who want to live in the countryside would not have do so at the cost of their families and wellbeing.

It should not be a heroic act to live anywhere in Estonia. And we must also see what we can do, if anything, in order that our connections with the outside world may not diminish.

Instead of arguing about whether different universities need the same syllabi, we need a debate and decisions on what should be taught, and to what extent, in order that people may have jobs in Estonia with salaries that make it possible to live here after they graduate.

As citizens who are demanding of our state, as the owners of our state, we could compile a list of problems that await at least some kind of solution within the next five years.

We need a debate in which we can list all our wishes, calculate their price and then let the voters choose whether they are willing to pay for it all.

Otherwise we cannot solve anything and will remain trapped in our dreams and nightmares.

We can reach Estonia’s big goals if we jointly take counsel. Let us debate these issues in the spirit of Artur Alliksaar, now that we have our freedom and we perceive that

Freedom is to seek.
Freedom is to err
Freedom is to lose, and to find again
An endless insatiability.

But here sprouts another need. We ourselves and the state power that is the government as well as the political parties of the Riigikogu that do not belong to the government, must be prepared to make big decisions. This is why we have elected you.

There is no need to spend time on petty popularity-seeking laws that in the end recall meaningless activities. Laws abolishing the land tax for homes and curbing monopolies are not the kind of things that bring us closer to important decisions.

We do not need the kind of obstructionism that mires the entire parliament’s reputation and that gives the impression of it all being a political game.

We must pay for our own state. With money, but first and foremost with work, care and a will to stay together. If we do not want to or feel we cannot do so, then let us be prepared to demand less of our state. This too would be our free choice as the citizens and owners of this state.

We do not have to do as the French did, and give our state an Eiffel Tower as a present on its one hundredth birthday. Let us provide solutions and decisions in the fields that I spoke about a minute ago.

I hope that in the coming eighteen months we can exchange so many ideas on these topics that every citizen can pose questions to and demand solutions from the candidates before the 2015 parliamentary elections. I believe that politicians have also understood that compared to five years ago the voters are a lot more demanding today.

I hope to, and also believe we will see a new quality that shall arise from our people’s increased awareness of everything to do with governance. The voluntary sector or the “vabakond” – a term that didn’t even exist five years ago – has appeared in all possible forms.

Some of its phenomena are brittle, others more serious. It is no longer possible to ignore this almost unnoticed growth of awareness in the governing of the Estonian state.

Estonia is like a wild strawberry

As citizens we are all owners of our state. And an owner takes responsibility and cares. Just as we grew from the Noor Eesti, or Young Estonia movement into a European state, we will also become a more open and modern people who can cope with anything that we are faced with. But only if we are prepared for this.

All that is dear and sweet does not have to be big and grand. Estonia is like a wild strawberry: pristine and small, difficult to find and those who do not know how to, fail to recognise and value it. But once we possess it, once it is ours, then it is one of the best things of all. Our home is a wild strawberry field.

And what Estonia will be like tomorrow, is up to us.



The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Photos: Andres Putting

Kadri Liik: Let us think again. About Russia…

We need to engage in a calm and sober debate on whether or not and how Russia threatens us and on the real meaning of its vicinity and our common history to us.

Estonia is a quite good place for discussions on foreign policy, I think. (In their own way, one hundred issues of Diplomaatia magazine should give evidence and proof of that.) Our people can appreciate what is ours and be fascinated by what is unfamiliar. We have a practical sense of curiosity, a healthy ability to be sceptical and enough personal contacts with the world outside our borders. Somewhere out there – in Washington or in Brussels – the exclusive club that follows the minutest ever-changing details in everyday politics might be wider, but the quality of discussions that encompass different parts of society is higher in Estonia than in most other countries.

This is partly due to the elite, i.e. foreign policy makers who try to truthfully explain the backgrounds to all developments (although more and better work could always be done on this), and partly due to the media, which now and again wakes up to foreign issues, covering them on air and on paper (although more and better work could always be done on this). Primarily, this has become possible because of our people who are simply incredibly reasonable and practical. I have followed foreign policy debates in many a state; I have also been asked to participate in a few. They are different from ours – ours are better.

Yet there is one issue on which we are not able to have balanced discussions. The issue is Russia. Our hypersensitivity rooted in the feeling of existential dread of the 1990s has indeed decreased, but it has been replaced by a rather unpleasant polarisation that makes it hard – if not outright impossible – to have in-depth argumentative debates and requires hardheartedness and patience from all parties.

There are those among us who think that nothing good – or even nothing neutral – can come from the other side across our eastern border. If somebody over there says something negative about us, it means that they are making preparations for an attack. If somebody says something positive (which does happen, although seldom), it is all smoke and mirrors, meaning that they are nevertheless preparing to attack. And if they do not talk about us at all (which happens most often), it is obvious that they are making preparations for an attack, but doing so sneakily because they are playing dirty.

There are others among us who are convinced that any statement even slightly critical of Russia (alas, it is objectively difficult to avoid criticism when talking about Russia) has nothing to do with the realities on the ground in Russia – it could be either incitement of fear by the Estonian political parties in power or, alternatively, a propaganda ploy by the US Embassy.

Our official foreign policy rhetoric is also characterised by a certain dualism. On the one hand, we have already long ago realised that it is not beneficial to have a one-track mind, i.e. to be a Russophobic small nation that talks of Russia and of nothing else in the international arena, doing so incessantly and emotionally. On the other hand, if Russia accuses us for no reason, then we must counter those accusations, must we not? And sometimes – for example, during the Georgian war – Moscow’s steps really do cause us acute and grave concern.

These two attitudes – efforts to remain calm and composed vs. genuine heartfelt emotions – often become oddly intertwined. I have seen Estonian top politicians speaking about Russia at conferences abroad: they begin with a statement that we have no problems with Russia whatsoever, that everything is fine, but during Q&A sessions afterwards they forget their cool composure and superiority and start cursing from the bottom of their hearts: “It’s a mafia state! They’re all criminals! They’re dangerous! Why don’t you do something to stop them?”

In actual fact, both extremist attitudes are, of course, wrong. Everything is not fine across Lake Peipus, but this does not mean that they will attack us any minute now. We should engage in a calm and sober debate on whether or not and how Russia threatens us and on the real meaning of its vicinity and our common history to us. We should forget our prejudices, leave behind our politically correct attitudes and start shaping a coherent understanding of the situation in Russia and its meaning through informed discussion – an understanding that we ourselves would subscribe to. If we had this vision, we could express ourselves honestly and at the same time we could be taken seriously in international debates. More importantly, this would also pave the way for the return of normal discussions on Russia inside Estonia without various forms of paranoia or self-censorship. It is always beneficial to engage in reasoned debate, the more so as – maybe it is ill-advised to remind the reader of this – we have already had to pay for not speaking about Russian affairs in the past.

Does Russia threaten us and in what way?

The year 1940 continues to cast a dark shadow over our senses. I have been asked surprisingly often: “When will the Russians come back?” Not if, but when. Quite a few members of our military in Afghanistan observed the Taleban’s tactics closely, asking themselves how to make use of it in guerrilla warfare against Russia. We have a deep-rooted fear of another territorial occupation. Is it justified?

Admittedly, Russia harbours many thinkers, politicians and other ‘talking heads’ who consider the Baltic states to be ‘ancient Russian territory’ the re-annexation of which would be an entirely positive development, if not unavoidable and inescapable due to the flow of history. It cannot completely be ruled out that owing to an extremely unfortunate coincidence of several circumstances these views may indeed translate into a real and present danger. However, it seems to be more likely that they will become history. Territorial empires are expensive and out of fashion. Nobody wants them any more. Estonia is a NATO member. Russia already has plenty of trouble with its current territory. I don’t believe that 1940 will be repeated.

Rather, we should pay close attention to the uses to which Russian money is put on Estonian territory. When someone invests here, we should ask ourselves why. If business is slack or the owner does not seem to be interested in making a profit, then it sounds suspicious. We need not look far for examples: a Russian state company supplies Latvia and Lithuania with electricity for abnormally low prices. Many experts suspect that the Russians have ulterior motives in doing so – they want to dent the enthusiasm for the construction of a new nuclear power plant. At the same time, Gazprom sells gas to Estonia for exorbitant prices, but this is at least based on sound business logic.

Moreover, if money comes from illegal sources, it is not wise to take it. Estonia is no haven for money launderers. An eye must be kept on the links between politics and business – for example, Finnish intelligence agencies have already long complained that Russian money tends to corrupt people. (Let us not forget that there are plenty of states where lots of dodgy money circulates and no one complains about that.) There is always the risk of different Russian investors – for example, pro-Kremlin investors and those who flee from the Kremlin, or maybe simply rivals – turning Estonian territory into a battleground for them. This potential scenario would be extremely disagreeable, the more so as we can do little to prevent it.

The above does not mean that business relations between Estonia and Russia cannot be mutually beneficial and reasonably clean – they can be and they are to a certain extent. We must simply try to understand what is what.

In the longer perspective, however, what we should care about is the general direction of Russia’s development. Recent parliamentary elections there have indicated that its system of ‘managed democracy’ has begun to lose its vitality. What will happen next? Will the Kremlin be able to restore its sacral status? If not, will they liberalise the political system or, on the contrary, tighten the screws? Will Russia manage to overcome political stagnation through evolutionary change or will a greater, revolutionary shift occur? When and how will it happen? Who will be its heroes and what will be its end result? What will become of the North Caucasus? To what extent and in exactly which direction will Caucasian developments affect the rest of Russian society before, eventually, something will ‘give’?

And foreign policy – how will Russia handle the rise of China? What kind of relations will Russia have with the West? Where will Russia ‘end up’ in the international system? How will it define its national interests? Let us be honest, these are not clear at the moment: Russia puts in a great deal of effort to expand its influence, but how it intends to use this influence – how Russia would like to shape the world – we do not know. Admittedly, Moscow does not know either, which is understandable as the country has had to painfully reassess many phenomena during the last twenty years and will probably have to continue with that during the next twenty. If you do not know who you are, you cannot know what you want.

Answers to the questions concerning Russia’s future are still bound to impact Estonia. So, we cannot help feeling somewhat concerned. At the same time, it is gratifying to know that our vision for a positive solution, our aspirations and interests coincide with those of Russia’s growing middle class. This gives us hope!

Confrontation on the intellectual plane

I would like to lay special emphasis on what national defence experts call ‘psychological defence’. In essence, this means propaganda wars – one opponent attempts to undermine the other’s morale, to strip it of its international allies and to erode its popular support and appreciation at home. We have, of course, been subjected to such attacks from Moscow – the mudslinging media campaign that accompanied the Bronze Soldier riots in April 2007 was the most memorable one, but actually during Putin’s entire second term of office from 2004 to 2008 Moscow waged a constant war of words against its democratic neighbours, the United States and NATO.

It is most disagreeable to find yourself in a situation where you must fight with a gigantic well-oiled propaganda machine. Some of the methods used by the Kremlin ‘spin doctors’ are indeed cunning; there is no arguing with that. We – or, to put it more accurately, those among us whose job is to deal with these matters – should acquaint ourselves more fully with their methods, while resisting any temptation to use them in our interest. If we did so, we would not be any better than them! The best defence is not to become like them. Moreover, cynical propaganda devalues the word as such and undermines trust. Recent Russian elections have demonstrated that this has happened to the Kremlin. We would not want the same fate to befall Estonia. It would be gratifying if the relationship between our politicians and society was based on rational dialogue and sufficient trust, not on hysterical euphoria fuelled by propagandistic slogans.

After the Bronze Soldier riots, the social debate in Estonia became distorted, which has disconcerted me a little. Fortunately, the situation passed, but it was nevertheless dangerous. Maybe I got it wrong but what I think happened was that many politicians and the media were somewhat angry with Prime Minister Ansip because he had obviously underestimated the significance of the Bronze Soldier. Yet they did not want to criticise him because that would have meant siding with the Kremlin. So, during the summer of 2007, they began to find fault with him on completely different issues of which he need not have been guilty at all – they did so for artificial, substitute reasons…

These kinds of developments are highly undesirable. To say one thing and to think another – this closes down rational debate, renders learning from your mistakes impossible and erodes trust. Meaningful debates are thus transformed into irrational propaganda wars.

In addition, this gives evidence of a lack of independence. If Estonia is a free country, we should be able to criticise our prime minister when we want to do so and for what we consider fit. We decide what is important to us and we are responsible for our own words and actions. If the only reason for us doing something is that we want to do the opposite to Moscow’s wishes, then we are almost as dependent on Moscow as when following its orders. Joseph Brodsky has written: “Freedom is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name.” And not when you continue to fight with him in your head.

Our Russians and our Estonians

There are at least two more major issues which we need to gain control over and take responsibility for. First, the Russians who live in Estonia. If we perceive them as a problem, it is our problem, not someone else’s. If we perceive them as an asset, it is our asset – we should be smart and make use of it!

We might like it or not, but their lives are now joined together with those of Estonians and this is how it will stay. I think they are quite aware of this fact. They do not expect any solutions to their problems from outside the Estonian state. Actually, there is no one else who could help them. Clumsy facilitation attempts by overseas great powers or occasional efforts by Moscow to evoke hostilities do not work (or at least I believe and I hope that the latter too does not work any more).

Maybe our Russians cannot be integrated quickly and smoothly – the very reason for their arrival here is not conducive to quick integration – but they need not become a ‘fifth column’ either if we only bothered to put in some effort to prevent this from happening. To start with, we should simply talk to people, for example, via an Estonian Russian-language TV channel. In the 1990’s, I would not have thought it realistic to establish a channel like this, but now I think it is and very much so. Life in Estonia is so different from that in Russia that it makes the same information space inapplicable in the two countries.

Second, we are responsible for our Estonians. Although life has a fortunate wound-healing side-effect, our people still feel extremely traumatised and are full of hatred due to the humiliations they had to suffer during occupation, deportation and Soviet domination. Something should be done about this. We should not make ourselves dependent upon Moscow’s public apology for its past crimes, while believing that this would relieve us of all our sorrows as if by magic. It would be nice if Moscow apologised, but there is no point in demanding an apology. After all, we do not want a forced apology. Moscow must take its own long and winding road to find a sincere apology in due course (if it ever does).

Everybody knows that hate eats you up from the inside. Our people have suffered enough; now they deserve to live at peace with each other and to be reconciled with their past. How to consciously contribute to this reconciliation – a notion so personal and spiritual – I really could not say.

The opinions in this article are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian World Webzine.

This article was first published in Estonian foreign policy magazine Diplomaatia:

Main photo: Ilya Dubovsky/Visit Estonia

Second photo: Wikipedia

Estonia to host EU’s IT Agency

Estonia hopes to firm its image of an information technology leader after the European Union’s agency that manages large-scale IT systems in home affairs opens in Tallinn this weekend.

This article was first published by Wall Street Journal.


One of the tasks of this new agency will be supporting the implementation of the EU’s asylum, migration and border management policies. It will have to ensure that systems such as Visa Information System and Eurodac operate 24 hours a day and it will be responsible for issues related to the security of these systems. As of next spring, the agency has to start managing the second generation Schengen Information System, which serves the EU’s passport-free area that now comprises 26 nations.

The temporary office of this new agency in Tallinn for the moment looks dark and deserted. Empty desks are waiting for employees while the hiring process is taking place.

One of the very few desks that are in use is the desk of Krum Garkov, the agency’s executive director with more than 15 years of experience in IT. Although the official launch date for the agency is this Saturday, Mr. Garkov has been in Estonia for about a month trying to get things started and settle in.

“There will be quite a lot of challenges in the next months,” Mr. Garkov said in an interview. “We need to build up our capabilities quickly and meet the expectations regarding the value we have to the member states.”

Estonia’s Minister of the Interior Ken-Marti Vaher said that locating the headquarters of the IT agency in Tallinn is as a sign of respect Estonia enjoys when it comes to IT and cyber security.

“Estonia has high expectations that the agency will become a true center of excellence in the development and management of large-scale IT systems,” Mr. Vaher said. “The agency will offer Estonia greater visibility in the IT field and further enhance its reputation as well-developed IT country.”

The agency’s technical site will be in Strasbourg, France, with a backup site in Austria. The budget for the agency is about 20 million euro ($26 million) this year and 41 million euro in 2013. Estonia will invest about 7 million euro to give the agency a permanent location.

In April 2007, Estonia was the target of several cyber attacks after the government decided to relocate a statue to Soviet soldiers, which for Estonians was a symbol of occupation but for the local Russian population it symbolized the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis in World War II. Many local websites, including those of government institutions and local banks, were attacked from abroad. NATO established its Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence in Tallinn in 2008.


Photos: VisitEstonia

Edward Lucas: The Baltic states – defending the least defensible?

Russia is poised to gain technical superiority over NATO in areas that are crucial to the defence of the Baltic states.

Scandinavian defence pundits are a sober bunch. But the latest report by the Swedish Defence Research Agency is a gripping read. Its 115 pages offer the first comprehensive and unclassified look at Europe’s biggest military security problem: how can a weakening NATO credibly guarantee the security of its least defensible members – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania?

NATO has restored territorial defence to its strategic concept. It has drawn up contingency plans to defend its new ‘eastern’ members. A big exercise next year – Steadfast Jazz – will rehearse those plans. But for politicians and officials in Brussels and Washington, DC, any public discussion about dealing with an unfriendly Russia raises too many unpleasant and embarrassing questions.

But the Swedish authors – Bo Ljung, Tomas Malmlöf and Karlis Neretnieks, and the editor Mike Winnerstig – are able to say what NATO will not. The alliance has a serious credibility problem in the Baltic region. Its members there are too small to defend themselves, so they rely on the alliance’s guarantee. The neighbours most vital for their defence, Sweden and Finland, are not members of NATO. And NATO is cutting defence at a time when Russia is spending billions of roubles on updating its military.

That modernisation is, of course, plagued by corruption and bad planning. In the 2006-15 period, the report notes dryly that only “two of seven SSBN [ballistic-missile submarines] have been delivered, none of six attack submarines…22 of 116 fighter aircraft, 60 of 156 helicopters, four of 18 S-400 [air defence] battalions and one of five Iskander [battlefield missile] brigades. This does not look very encouraging from a Russian point of view”.

Slow progress is better than none. Russia’s haphazard modernisation comes at a time when NATO is cutting spending to the bone and beyond. Even if modern weapons systems comprise only 30%-40% of Russia’s inventory, the report notes, “a larger part of Russian systems will be newer than similar systems in NATO countries”. In other words: in areas where Russia is modernising, NATO’s technical superiority, which is often taken for granted, could disappear within the next ten years.

All this makes defending a thin strip of flat land on Russia’s borders particularly tricky. Deploying heavy NATO ground forces there is difficult: partly because of transport problems, and partly because these military assets are already scant and due to decline further as defence cuts bite. It will be hard, the report says, “to conduct effective defensive operations either in the Baltic states or from outside the area”.

So NATO must rely on air power. But Russia is giving “very high priority” to its air defences, which are already “far more capable” than anything that NATO had to deal with in ex-Yugoslavia, Iraq or Libya. Western reluctance to intervene in Syria is largely because of the difficulty of overcoming the S-300 system that the Kremlin sold to the regime of Bashar Assad. Russia itself has the still more formidable S-400 system, currently being deployed in the Kaliningrad region. And the S-500 is planned for delivery later this decade. “The outcome of a duel between Russia’s integrated air-defence system and NATO’s most advanced air assets is impossible to predict,” the authors note. NATO at full strength, of course, is far stronger than Russia. But by the time it musters its forces, the Baltics could be “overrun”.

Nobody says that such a scenario is likely. But security is about credibility. A weak defence encourages the other side to try its luck. The answer is clear: higher defence spending, more exercises and closer NATO ties with Sweden (and Finland). Any takers?


Disclaimer: This article was originally published by European Voice.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Photos: Picture pictures

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt: “The future of democratic capitalism is bright”

Iivi Anna Masso interviewed Carl Bildt for the Estonian magazine Diplomaatia when Bildt took part of Lennart  Meri Conference this spring. Full version of the article can be found here. You wrote beautifully in your blog when President Ilves visited Sweden at the beginning of 2011 of how his parents had …

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt: “The future of democratic capitalism is bright” Read More »

Francis Maude: The cyber-attack against Estonia was a big wake-up call for the world

The British minister in charge of cyber-security, Mr Francis Maude, thinks that the cyber-attack against Estonia in 2007 was a big wake-up call for the world, adding that a balance should be struck between cyber-security and personal freedoms.

This article was first published by the Estonian foreign policy magazine Diplomaatia.

Interview by Erkki Bahovski.

Estonia fell under a cyber-attack five years ago in 2007. Since you are in Estonia now, I think you are familiar with the situation here, but overall it was probably the first nation-level cyber-attack. What is the situation now? What has happened in the meantime? How seriously does the world take the challenge of cyber-war?

The first point is that this is a new issue because of the Internet which is a wonderful thing. The Internet has driven economic growth and prosperity. It improves people’s lives. So, we only have a problem with cyber-attacks because of something which is incredibly positive.

Having said that, obviously what happened in Estonia was very serious. This was a big wake-up call for the world. In terms of Estonia herself, it meant that the Estonian government and those in Estonian business got very serious about defence against a net attack. I think that it has been a good development – bad event what caused it, but a good development that illustrated the problem of vulnerability. Governments take this extremely seriously and businesses are taking it increasingly seriously, but still there are massive variations – some businesses are at a high level of readiness, whereas others have much further to go.

To what extent is cyber-war real war? Estonia would like to link cyber-wars to NATO to be covered by NATO’s famous Article 5. What is your opinion? To what extent can we take cyber-war for actual war?

It is a very difficult question. There is no doubt that it is possible to use malware of different kinds, distributed through the Internet, as an offensive weapon which can inflict serious damage on a country, both on its government and its economy.

Do we really know where the attacks are coming from? The attack on Estonia could be traced back to a huge number of places. Some of them were in America; some say that the actual source of the attack was very dispersed. Being satisfied as to where the attack comes from, the attribution of the attack to a state, a government or a particular source is really difficult indeed.

Consequently, a state can use non-state actors when it is bound to cyber-attack?

It can. The difficulty is being satisfied about knowing that it is happening. It is very hard to know. This is not over yet. Sometimes a cyber-attack can happen without anyone knowing that it has happened. It can have a delayed effect. So, it is very hard to attribute a particular act to a particular actor.

Most of the documents of international law have been written at a time when there was no Internet. What is your opinion now? Should the possibility of cyber-warfare and cyber-attacks be inscribed in international law?

Those are complex areas. International law itself is a complex field of law. The Internet is a relatively recent phenomenon, as I said, an overwhelmingly positive phenomenon. Finding the way in which international law can cover the possibilities of Internet attack is going to take time.

There are various kinds of attack. There are attacks which are designed to inflict damage on a country or economy, on a particular business or a particular government. There are attacks which are designed to steal intellectual property for purposes of espionage which might be espionage against the government, but it might be industrial espionage in which case there need to be consistent laws stating that such attacks are criminal. These are not trivial events; these are serious events.

Finding the right basis in international law will take time to be satisfactorily concluded, but there will be criminal offences in many countries’ domestic law which cover this eventuality.

Consequently, there must be a difference between cyber-war and cyber-crime?

Yes, there is. They may well overlap. It may be in some circumstances hard to know which is which – an attack on a country’s crucial infrastructure, its power grid, for example, or its transport system or major oil refineries. You might imagine this in international law to amount to an act of war. It is certainly cyber-crime; it is inflicting damage on private or public interest. There will be cyber-attacks on countries’ weaponry which will be clearly warfare rather than crime. But there will be a lot of overlap.

You already mentioned that governments are more aware of the possibilities of cyber-attacks. This also raises the question of cyber-security and this, in its turn, raises the question of personal freedom. When we are talking about security, not everything is free. How do you see the situation developing in terms of the relationship between cyber-security and personal freedom?

I think that the two should not be seen in conflict. The Internet has given people a lot of freedom. The Internet and social media underpinned the emerging democracies in the Arab world. The Internet is very much a promoter of freedom. It gives people freedom; it liberates them. People are entitled to have the Internet protected.

In terms of protecting against Internet attacks, there is no inconsistency at all between personal freedom and security. Where there will be tension is in the protection that governments and the law seek to give to intellectual property on the Internet – where one participant’s right to drive an income from intellectual property, such as films, music, whatever, may undermine another participant’s belief that they are entitled to participate in it.

A balance has to be struck because the reality is that imposing sanctions on those who use the Internet to abuse others’ intellectual property – any sanctions – can have a disproportionate effect on impairing the freedom. Striking that balance will always be very difficult because those two interests are in tension with each other.

The developed world is more and more relying on the Internet. This, of course, raises concerns about cyber-attacks. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves whom you met here has spoken about e-dependence. We are literally an e-state. Everything we do is happening on the web. That creates a situation where less developed nations can attack a country that relies completely or almost completely on the web. How do you see the situation now? What are the checks and balances?

I can see the issue that in a country like Estonia where e-government and the digital delivery of public services have gone very far – as far as anyone in the world has gone – that by definition creates vulnerability.

How do you deal with that? I think that however we decide to deliver the public services, we need to have a business continuity plan and that has to be serious. We have been facing activists’ attacks on the government’s websites in the UK. These are of the kind that are organised by huge numbers of computers that log into the particular government’s website and cause them to crash. Now we have business continuity arrangements. We knew that this was happening and they have not managed to hack into the underlying material at all. So, when it actually happens – you cannot absolutely guard against it happening – you put something else in place. People know what is going on and it is not the end of the world. I think that having the proportionate preparations is the best security against an attack and then having a business continuity plan if there is a successful attack. This has to be done proportionally.

In the era of industrial warfare, large industrial nations played a very important role. In the era of cyber-world, what is the situation? What is the role of large and small states there?

In some stages, large states are more vulnerable because there are more points to attack. There needs to be a high degree of international collaboration which is one of the reasons why we hosted the cyber-conference in London last November. We brought together not only heads of states and governments, including the President of Estonia who came and spoke very eloquently, but we are very keen not only about governments collaborating closely. We were very much behind the Budapest Convention negotiations, but we wanted also to bring together the business world and civil society organisations because of the role of these organisations in collaborating much more closely. I think it still has some way to go.

How well is the United Kingdom prepared for cyber-attacks?

Getting better all the time. Despite our austerity measures and having to cut public spending, we committed an additional 650 million pounds to cyber-security. That is underway; I have responsibility for that. We are endeavouring to show that money has been spent as well as possible. We are to promote a space where the public sector and the private sector companies can interact and share information, knowledge and know-how and help each other prepare. There is a long way to go and this will be very fast moving. There will be people – developers all over the world – who would be spending that time developing new Internet attacks and new forms of malware. We are aware of that and we need to deal with that as best as we can.

The issue of cyber-attacks and cyber-war is being taken very seriously by the Estonian media. How seriously does the British media take it?

They are not very much focused on that until there has been no attack. There were some activists’ attacks on some of the government’s websites; that attracted some attention. They were rather unsuccessful attacks, but that does not mean that they cannot be successful. The media will tend to react if there is a high-profile story, but in terms of general awareness and the need for sensible organisations to prepare, the attention is not very high yet.


Pictures: Wikimedia Commons.

Edward Lucas: “Estonia is now an insider, not an outsider anymore.” Interview with The Economist’s senior editor

Edward Lucas is the International Editor of The Economist, the London based global weekly news magazine, and also oversees the paper’s political coverage of Central and Eastern Europe. He has been covering the region of Europe since 1986, and was the Economist’s Moscow bureau chief from 1998-2002. Lucas has been visiting Estonia on numerous occasions, and for many years has been a strong advocate for Estonia’s economic and political affairs on the international stage. He has also been highly critical of the current Russian regime for many years, and has written many books about the subject.


Edward Lucas, how did your love affair with Estonia start?

My interest started in my childhood, looking at the various maps of Europe from different eras, and trying to figure out why the countries which had previously existed, had disappeared – it looked mysterious to me. Coming from Britain which has had the same shape since the last Ice Age, and England that has been roughly the same country for 1000 years, the idea that a country could just disappear from the map so easily, was very puzzling – and I became very interested about the fate of the three Baltic states.

Later on, I remember reading The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz and I was very pleased when at his Nobel Literature Prize lecture I heard him mentioning the fate of the three Baltic states. As time went by, I gradually met many anti-Soviet campaigners in the 1980’s. In 1989, when I was in Prague, I noticed a couple of young men on a tram reading Homeland, a pro-independence English-language paper from Estonia and we started talking – it turned out that they were a couple of engineering students from Estonia. We had a long and interesting conversation about the history of Estonia and her on-going struggle against tyranny. In early 1990 I visited Estonia for the very first time and met many people who at the time were involved with the Estonian independence movement – like Trivimi Velliste for example, and found it very engaging. I decided to visit again soon and started making many friends – and I’ve been going back ever since.

Since you went to Estonia right at the beginning after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Estonia regaining her independence, you have obviously seen a huge change in Estonia’s progress and outlook. How do you rate it?

Yes, I think that the change has obviously happened on many different levels. Some things never change in Estonia – like brief summer nights and a tradition of celebrating Jaanipäev for example (St John’s Eve and St John’s Day are the most important days in the Estonian calendar, apart from Christmas. The short summer seasons with long days and brief nights hold special significance for Estonians. Jaanipäev is celebrated during the night between June 23 and 24, a few days after the summer solstice, when night seems to be non-existent – Editor).  I think that a huge difference in Estonia compared to 20 years ago is its openness. My Estonian was never good but I rarely get to use it now, because everybody speaks English in Estonia, even in remote locations. I think that Estonians are naturally very open and integrated people, and luckily the country itself is now open, democratic, and integrated as well. I also think that not only Estonia looks open externally, but the Estonian people themselves have managed to lose their fear of old Soviet style oppression and are truly feeling free.

And of course, there’s no doubt that economically and politically speaking, Estonia has taken a huge step in 20 years. Estonia’s position has never been stronger. It has almost the fastest growing economy in the European Union, the lowest debt and the most vigorous entrepreneurial culture. The business environment is clean and friendly. However, until quite recently Estonia was still an outsider trying to get in. There were other countries – bigger, older, and better-connected – that set the rules. I noticed the first hint of a change at a NATO conference in Oslo, where a Norwegian diplomat was listening with interest to an Estonian official explaining the complexities of EU security policy. That struck a new chord: Norway, by its own choice on the outside of the EU, was listening to a member state on the inside. I noticed a similar conversation in Brussels: an Estonian was chatting about NATO to an attentive Swedish official. Again, it was the same story: Estonia on the inside, Sweden, normally so self-assured, on the outside. Estonia is the only country in Europe that is a member of both the Eurozone and NATO, and obeys the rules of both clubs. It easily meets the debt and deficit criteria for the Eurozone. It is one of the very few countries in NATO that comes even close to spending 2% of GDP on defence.

Estonia, once such an outsider that it was not even on the map of the world, has become the quintessential European insider. At a time when other countries are breaking the rules, Estonia has shown it is possible to keep them – and prosper. Oh, and by the way – the taste of a local beer in Estonia has also improved immensely!

What are the future challenges for Estonia in your opinion?

There’s a lot to do. The challenge is to catch up with Western style living standards, but to do it in a way that reaches not just the income levels but also the quality of life on many different levels. For example, I feel horrified to read about the opening of a new golf course on the beautiful island of Muhu. Countryside is very precious and once you destroy that, you will never get it back. There are also many ugly buildings erected during the early stages of the transition period from communism to capitalism – near the old town of Tallinn, for example. These remind me of concrete buildings built in Britain during the 1960’s – and in Britain we are gradually tearing them down. I think that the green growth is very important.

Like most countries in Europe, you will also face the question of allowing more immigrants into the country. It is important to manage this in a way that preserves economic dynamism without making Estonians feel threatened again. The memory of forced Soviet-era migration is still painful. The best way to increase public confidence in future migration will be to press ahead with an active integration strategy for the existing non-citizens and residents of Estonia who are not fluent in the language or do not feel part of the society.

There’s also a growing debate in Estonia about which economic model is more suitable – liberal versus social democratic one, Swedish model versus US model, if you like. As you know, for the most part since regaining independence, Estonia has followed the liberal one. What’s your view on this?

I think that this is a perception – as a percentage of Estonian GDP, the tax levels are quite high. It’s just that the income tax is low, but the level of social insurance tax is quite high. I think that the current system of flat income tax is very good, but Estonia could look into making more of the land tax system, which would be progressive and fair.

There is room for making public services more efficient and better. People sometimes forget that it’s a part of being globally competitive to have really high quality public services. Sweden is a very interesting country – economically it has got a liberal model in terms of starting companies and hiring and firing staff. Trade unions do not interfere when it’s clear that the company is not viable anymore and therefore needs to fire its employees. But as a counterpart to this, there are good unemployment insurance and re-training programmes in place. The downside of capitalism is the uncertainty that it brings. You’ve got to make sure that people accept uncertainty in life in order to keep the economy flexible and innovative (see Schumpeter’s creative destruction), but you must not make people feel as if they are bearing all the burden and face life-changing catastrophe, if something goes wrong. You have to be ready to cushion the people during economic shocks, to make people feel that they can take risks.

Estonia’s model has worked very well, but in my opinion you have to look at what public services you have to improve to be globally competitive. For example, you would need to have a better (English language) school system for foreigners. If you want serious foreign talent to come to live and work in Tallinn, they must be able to educate their children with high quality education in English. Same goes for universities – if Estonia wants to attract global talent, it should make itself an educational hub of the local region.

Do you think that Estonia’s system of flat rate of income tax should be implemented in the UK, as recently considered by the British chancellor?

That would be a brilliant idea in my opinion. Thanks to the simple tax system, Estonia spends much less in collecting its taxes than Britain, so I think that it’s a huge disadvantage not to have the same system in the UK.

Finally – from your experience, how well do you think the Russian minority in Estonia have been integrated in the local society?

I think that the integration has been a success, compared to what some people were predicting 20 years ago, from the stories of Narva (town on the border of Estonia and Russia) separating from the country – to a civil war. All these ignorant left-wing Western advisers have been proved wrong. What is a central for me in this context is that Estonia is not a country based on ethnicity – it’s a country based on a constitution. You can become a citizen if you learn Estonian (that is, broadly, the constitutional requirement).  Estonia doesn’t have enough people to waste them, so it is therefore important to make sure that the quality of Estonian language education in local Russian schools be absolutely excellent – because all the studies show that if people have excellent written and spoken (Estonian) language skills, they don’t face any obstacles on the job market, regardless of their ethnic origin.


Cover photo by Tiit Blaat/Delfi. Note that on 1 December 2014, Edward Lucas became Estonia’s first e-resident.

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