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"Not crawling but standing up!", President Ilves's year-end interview to Eesti Ekspress, 20 December 2007


In your estimate, was the closing 2007 a good year for Estonia, or rather on the lean side?

Generally speaking, it was quite good, as several previous years have been. Despite all our ranting and raving and discontent, the general situation in Estonia, for the people of Estonia, has never before in history been so favourable.

We could be ironic about this, say this and that. And yet, this year Estonia’s economic parity has come up to the level of an “old” EU member country, Portugal. Let us not forget that 17 years ago, Estonia was still an occupied part of the Soviet Union, while Portugal already was a member of the European Union.


Usually, we get two views on Estonia: the government is telling a success story, while those opposed to the government say things go from bad to worse...

We owe our success to the people of Estonia, not to governments. Their policies have enabled Estonians to create values and to build up Estonian state. And this is very good. But first and foremost, it is the diligence of the people, even their daring to take risks, that has helped us. There are countries where people don’t dare to do anything.

Of course we could say that there is AIDS, there are drunken drivers and statistics show a deplorable number of traffic accidents. Yet as we have done well in so many things, we can now concentrate on these problems. Compared to 1994, the traffic situation has improved a lot; it seems worse just because the background is different. Estonians are no longer used to bad roads or tolerant towards drunken driving. 


Could you name some basic fault in Estonia that has come to your notice in your first year of presidency?

We need yet another change of attitude. One could say that the transition period is over and we need to adjust to the new situation. In Estonia, there is a total hysteria over the forecasted five-six per cent of economic growth, as if that meant an economic depression. This is not the case, absolutely not! Indeed, the growth rate is no longer 11 per cent. But 11 per cent growth is characteristic of transition economies. We have reached the level of Portugal, whom no one calls a transition country. Just a less wealthy EU member state. Estonia is no longer a cheap labour country. We cannot attract anyone with cheaper production costs.

Thus we have to restructure our economy once again. This may be too strong a word actually, when compared to what happened at the times of privatisation. Yet Estonia is now a country who must manage on the same terms as other countries.

We must get used to the fact that we shall never again have 11 per cent economic growth. This is only possible when you are crawling out of a pit. We are no longer crawling, we are standing up.


This may be unusual, as we have become so used to fast changes.

Yes, but this cannot last. If we continued on the economic growth rate of the last two years, we would soon be the richest country of the world. I do not think that could ever happen. Now we too are part of the regular economic cycle. The lower economic growth is not a result of Estonia’s economic policy. In the US, until very recently, the housing loan policy allowed people in the first years to pay back just the interest, not the loan itself. Someone considered this a very clever way of perking up the economy. The fact that this no longer works has also affected banks in Great Britain and in Germany. Spain is having a major problem because of the investments into the bonds of the US banks who practiced that. Swedish banks did the same. We are part of this universal system, and therefore affected by developments in world economy, for which the outlook for 2008 is not as good as it was for 2007. 


Can we really consider Estonia a „regular” western economy, when inflation prohibits us from joining the Euro and rising prices are hard on the population?

We can always find a domain where the transition is still under way. Yes, we do have problems here, but for instance in terms of information technology, we left the transition status behind already in 1998, when all schools were connected to the Internet.

I am not an economist, but I do read different forecasts by various institutions of both the public and the private sector. Opinions coincide that inflation rates will continue high. Partly due to the general rise in prices, partly due to the new excise tax imposed from January, the inflation will continue on high rate also in 2008. Yet most of the forecasts also indicate that this will be followed by a period of lower inflation rates. 


Still, hasn’t some uncertainty returned to people’s minds in 2007? Economically, we are facing harder times, Russia’s future is a question mark, and there is a lot of confusion all over the world. Perhaps people can see and feel this?

Indeed, there were some years when we felt safer, perhaps even safer than was good for us. I remember distinctly how, in mid-1990s, people earnestly claimed that the laws of economy were no longer valid in the Internet and dot.com era. Everything connected to computers, IT, and the Internet, was so novel that there could not be any cycles there. The euphoria lasted for several years, until it dawned on us in 2001 that unfortunately the laws of economy were valid also in the world of Internet. 


Danske Bank used a metaphor about having a red light on for Estonia.

We must understand that banks have their own interests to consider. All they say need no be an objective truth, but part of a market-winning policy. When I compare the Danske Bank analysis to that of Nordea, they look quite different. Nordea’s analysis of the Baltic countries and especially Estonia is positive, rather trying to erase doubts – especially in Estonia’s case it is stoutly confident. Perhaps they would be more critical of some other country. This is what one bank says, but another bank, whose market share position is different, tells another story. This also shows that we might be more critical of „others-about-us” opinions. Take them with a grain of salt. 


What is the most important event of 2007 in Estonia?

I haven’t been thinking in those terms. 


The media seems quite unanimously opt for the Bronze Night (disorders in connection with the move of a Soviet war monument) as the paramount event of the year. Prime Minister Ansip, in his turn, has underlined our joining Schengen, which is quite understandable. What is your view?

As there has been no such disorder, such looting and rioting in Estonia before, the Bronze Night certainly was an event that stood out. All those emotions. I believe many people realised: there is something here that could go wrong, and the country may become destabilised. And yet, was it such a big event when compared to the riots in Germany, Denmark, France, Oulu in Finland? It is perhaps too early to tell.

The aftermath of the Bronze Night has been regrettable. The first undesirable consequence was the opportunity for all kinds of people to say that integration in Estonia had failed. That was a cheap trick. It has not!

Secondly, I regret very much that after what happened, people have got the idea that differences do involve looting, robbery, ranting, rioting. And the advocates and followers of those people.

This was one of the worst ill-services to the non-Estonians living in Estonia. It sets them at a serious disadvantage. 


Do you mean that non-Estonians in general are now labelled as looters?

I am sure this connection is not justified, but looking at the Estonian media I can see the gravity of the problem.

It is also quite obvious that it is unacceptable and offending to Estonians if the crimes of an alien army on Estonia’s territory are termed liberation. Any such statement is an offence. Also any claims that we have a fascist government offend us.

People may think what they will of the Estonian government, like it or not, but to call our government fascist will certainly undermine all integration.

This is a more long-term consequence. All this is most deplorable.

Was this the big event of 2007? The event as such was not so big, it is rather the aftermath that matters. Also 11 September 2001 was an atrocious, horrible event, but its consequences for the world are much worse still. 


Was the Bronze Night an attempted coup?

I believe the Bronze Night was part of an attempt to make Estonia unstable, or at least into a country whose stability could be doubted. Nevertheless, when the Bronze Night was followed by cyber attacks, and experts saw us coping with them quite well, also Estonia’s request to house the NATO cyber defence centre received a much more positive response. We had been interested in housing the centre already earlier, but the chances were not all in our favour. Due to these attacks, Estonia’s involvement in important NATO structures will strengthen. 


Are you satisfied with the subsequent analysis of the Bronze Night riots? Last Thursday, for instance, a joint „”Bronze Night” meeting of several Riigikogu committees took place, but the discussions were not public. Could such things not be discussed publicly, for everyone to hear?

It is traditional that in a Parliament, some things are discussed behind closed doors. At the same time, a series of public hearings would have been useful a long time ago already. The Parliament makes its own decisions. I will just say that as I see parliamentary work, it is not just preparation, elaboration and adoption of legislation, but should include also discussion of more general issues. And, for instance, hearings where experts and witnesses participate. 


What grade would you give to the public authorities’ actions on the Bronze Night?

This is not a school class, with pupils facing the teacher over a desk and some of them being graded. 


Perhaps you will give your grades in the form of Independence Day decorations?

Many people worked with great self-denial to preserve or restore public order. This is their primary task when someone turns violent and starts rioting. In my opinion, the Estonian police was very competent. 


You said that integration has not failed in Estonia? What is the actual state of affairs?

It is very varied. We have very many non-Estonians who are so well integrated into the Estonian society that we simply never notice them. Their system of values is clearly European, they speak Estonian. They are loyal to Estonian state. The real divide seems to be between those who look towards Europe and those who lament for the Soviet Union. The Europeans and the Soviets. 


During the Russian Duma elections, there was a long queue of people in Pikk Street. From their replies to the media, it was quite clear that the President in Kadriorg was not their President...

They are Russian citizens, who have a residence permit in another country. This is their decision. 


Alien inhabitants of Estonia have notably more freedom of choice than Russian citizens living in Russia. They may live here, either as Estonian citizens, Russian citizens with a residence permit, or as stateless persons. They are free to follow Putin’s appeal that Russians should move back to Russia. Or choose to work elsewhere in Europe. And now, with Schengen, their freedom of movement increases further.

This may be a paradox of life that not everybody has yet discovered the rights and freedoms they actually have; the rights and freedoms that perhaps would be hard to find somewhere else. 


Are they perhaps expecting the state to make all decisions for them, as the Soviet state used to?

I do not know their expectations. Estonia is part of the western, European culture, and this does not just mean that we have Gothic churches here. It also means that everyone must take the important decisions of his life himself. In Estonia, no one is going to tell you what to think. This is one of the foundations of our statehood.


Recently you spoke of the establishment of a new institution, the Estonian Memory Institute. Why do we need it?

A great deal of our recent history is unresearched. The new institution would embrace all those topics. I anticipate the need for a commission, such as the Max Jakobson Commission, although their task was to focus on crimes against humanity in accordance with the Rome Statute. The worst atrocities did end with Stalin’s death, but the society was still not free. The political repressions continued. 


Would the commission consist of foreign experts?

Not exclusively, but I wish that foreign experts too would participate. That would rule out labels like “Estonians are making up their own history”.

The commission might look into russification, for example. Where and how did this policy develop, what were its goals? Also into compulsory service in the Soviet Army. What happened to the dissidents? Censorship, limitations of freedom of speech. Arguments will certainly not cease even when the commission has concluded its work, but right now we do not even know what we are arguing about. More often than not, we read interpretations where facts have been ignored. Considering how much history has been used as a weapon in domestic policy, we should compile a work telling us what happened and what did not happen. That some things are myths and others lack credibility, lack proof.

This idea of mine has been met with incredible wrath and partiality. Well, funny rather than incredible. Some articles have been incompetent, some have been showy. But why? Don’t we want to know what happened? Do we prefer myths? 


The ESSR is indeed unresearched, but does this really call for a new institution?

There are several internationally renowned experts on history of the ESSR in both Tartu and Tallinn University, and they will certainly be requested to participate in the research work. Yet it is clear that university staff cannot commit themselves full-time, as they also need to teach students. And we need to hurry, as many of the witnesses are elderly. 


Next year, you will travel to Russia, to the World Congress of Finno-Ugrian Peoples. What is to be expected of that visit?

As yet I have received no invitation, so we shall see. Estonia has always supported our Finno-Ugrian kin peoples. This subject is close to my heart too. 


Could you have a meeting with the Russian President in the course of this event?

This is a speculation, and hard for me to comment on. We do not even know yet who will be Russia’s President at that time. 


Even if there is a chance that a meeting could take place, a breakthrough in Estonian-Russian relations would probably be too much to hope for?

Those Estonian politicians who are abreast of foreign politics, probably understand that there will never be a breakthrough. What is called a breakthrough is usually the result of a long-term process. „Breakthrough” is a term that should be deleted from foreign policy dialogue. 


Do you have a concise Christmas or New Year wish for everyone?

I wish everyone peace of mind. Ignore the panicking media, understand that also panic means profit for someone, but not for you! This was by no means a reproach to Eesti Ekspress. We have reached a new stage of development, where mindless scramble for success is no longer necessary. Of course we have many serious matters to attend to, but I recommend that in the coming year, people should think more of their families, their children, spouses, parents. Think more of your health! With living standards approaching those of old Europe, we could also try to match a European’s average lifespan. This matter is in our hands.

Let us be realists – if we are unable to produce a lot of new Estonians, let us at least prolong our own lives.