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Ilves: "We Have Too Few Surviving Men." Interview to "Eesti Päevaleht" supplement "Möte", 22 February 2008


Liisa Past 


Mr. President, your recent statements stand out from the rest as seeking solutions for future challenges. Should Estonia perhaps look more into the future and spend less time discussing the past 90 years?

I would not say that. It seems to me that we do not talk enough about future, this is why I do it. But I am not at all of the opinion that the past 90 years deserve less attention.

It is the President’s role to address the future in a longer perspective than an election cycle. There are specific matters that some politicians are unwilling to consider or discuss, as those matters belong to 2018 rather than 2008. 


Exactly a year ago, in your address on Estonia’s 89th anniversary in Tartu, you warned the public of voting for slogans, of populism. Is the tendency to ignore the future an inevitable side-effect of the emergence of a class of professional politicians, because they are above all engaged in arranging for their own re-election?

This is one of the tell-tale signs of democracy. If politicians of an immature democracy are engaged in getting re-elected, politicians in mature democracies are busy manipulating the elections. At least, we have free elections.

It is for the people to decide whether they want to follow slogans and catchphrases, and vote for three or four words without considering their true meaning. It is our business to weigh a politician’s promises, then also decision-making will be easier. It is not just a politicians making and fulfilling promises, there are certain policies involved.

I would rather not interfere with the current political slogans, but generally speaking, they seem to underestimate people’s IQ. 


Isn’t this a vicious circle? A citizen feeling underestimated will distance himself from politics, and the politician will come out with an even simpler slogan. Who should take the initiative to make a change?

First, a clever politician will at some moment say: perhaps we should talk more intelligently to people, not consider them simple-minded? Then he will rather offer a deeper analysis and explanations instead of slogans. And the citizens in their turn should be stricter with the politicians. Yet those who have not voted will have to be content with what there is to offer. On the previous elections, the voting rate increased, yet I keep meeting people who complain of the result while not bothering to go and vote. 


If the citizen feels no inclination to vote for any of the candidates, should he rather spoil his voting card than abstain from voting?

We are not living in a single-party society without any choice. There is a wide choice both in general outlook and individuals. If no candidate is to your liking – although I find that hard to believe – try to find someone whose views are closer to you rather than the contrary.


The appeal to make Estonia greater is important to you. How should we go about it?

The best example of making Estonia greater – on the state level, I will soon come to the citizens – is that four countries have drafted a proposal for increasing cyber security in NATO; the countries were the United States, the Great Britain, France and Estonia. I am truly pleased, this is just the thing for us to do as a country: take an active stance and come out with our proposals.

On the citizen’s level we can be greater when the citizens start taking care of things that we have left too much to the state so far. A good example of that is the drunken driver in Põhjamaa who tried to escape but was caught by local youths. Ten years ago the „none of my business” attitude was much more widespread.

Today we are much more aware of the role of drunken drivers, and what losses they are causing us. I was really glad observing that in South Estonia, four or five young men had assisted in catching one of them. 


And yet the last peaceful and massive grass-roots campaign which actually attained to make some changes was in fact engaged in getting you elected...

I would not say it was the last one. The most recent one was the Youth Song and Dance Festival, where the audience proved to be several times larger than expected. It used to be 20,000 and this time it was 100,000. This is a 140-years-old tradition: people come together to do something jointly, with others.

I would rather not prescribe anything, say „do this” or „do that”, but I would be glad to see more people participating in helping others or generally changing life for the better. 


Politicians are not so good at looking into the future, what do you say about the business sector?

I believe that Estonian business circles have gathered that a certain stage in the development of our economy is over. What we did once – produce with labour cheaper than in the West – is no longer a competitive advantage. Now we have to be more productive, more innovative. 


We have been hearing for several years that Estonia should be innovation- and research-based. Who should help us to get there?

The state has made a big contribution; at this stage, the private sector could contribute more. We are getting closer to the goal of the Lisbon strategy, which is to invest 1.9% of our GNP in innovation – our investment is 1.1%. In Finland, about 3% is invested in innovation, and most of it comes from the private sector, not from the state. In recent years, this issue has been highlighted in Estonia, I feel very positive about it and am just giving encouragement.


Is this a shortcoming of the educational system: too few engineers and scientific researchers, whom we desperately need?

No, this depends on individual choice. People are choosing professions that recently did not exist, and it is therefore we have too few engineers, too few research scientists, while people are studying public relations, business management, and public administration. These branches were not very well-developed in Estonia 20 years ago. We need people who understand differential calculus, but we get less and less of such students from secondary schools. 


It is, of course, an individual’s free choice, but how can we help a 19-year-old to make as informed a choice as possible, and give more consideration to engineering and science?

Students have favourite subjects because they are well taught at main and secondary school, not because their mother, father, or the President tells them so. That does not work.

I did study natural sciences, because they were very interesting. They were interesting because the teachers were good. We need to invest in having happy teachers who love their profession and get a sufficient salary. 


Does the Estonian education system breed good citizens?

On the one hand we can see that our students have ample knowledge to do well at the PISA testing. The question is whether that makes our approach to education automatically right. In Estonia, only 6% of the population has been engaged in additional training or training for adults. In Denmark, this percentage is 30. Also when discussing the flexibility of the labour market, we must not forget that that in the Danish model, often used as example, people have ample possibilities to change profession and acquire additional training.

Would you like to see a doctor who has learned nothing new in the last 40 years? Probably not. But it is not only medicine that has undergone enormous changes, but the whole world. A country is successful when the people in that country are learning. 


Should there be more flexibility and choices in higher education?

It is hard to say what would be best. To decide your area of study too early is limiting. I also started out studying one subject but graduated with another. I do not really know how narrow or how flexible the 3 +2 system actually is, because it was has only been applicable for a few years. 


Is it inevitability in a small country that all academic subjects are not available here and graduate students have to continue their studies abroad?

This is quite normal. It is our business to make Estonia so appealing that people wish to return here.

It is obvious that in a country of Estonia’s size all subjects cannot be researched on a level sufficient for doctoral degree – one reason being that competition with fellow students is one component of a good education. There must be other clever people studying the same subject. Then you do not get stuck in some sort of complacency.

On the other hand ... we should rise above this talk of a small country, a small country, a small country – 400-500 years before Christ, in the heyday of Athens, where all the great thinkers, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Pericles – lived and worked, there were 40,000 citizens in the polis. If 40,000 citizens were needed to lay the foundations of the Western culture, what are we complaining about? 


You said that competition with one’s peers was an important part of academic education. Do talented people tend to get lazy for lack of competition in Estonia?

No – competition does not mean being better than all the others – it means seeing others and being stimulated. With a population of one million it is unthinkable to have ten doctoral students attending a high-quality programme in the same field every year. 


About living abroad, you said awhile ago in the Estonian House in New York: if you want the Estonian language and Estonian bread, come back. Have you had any responses to that? Has someone come and said: Mr. President, you called me, here I am?

I don’t know of anyone having come and said so, but people of certain age are returning to Estonia.

Already 12-13 years ago, research in emigration countries – which in those times were Italy, Greece, Ireland and Portugal, showed that when a certain level of welfare had been reached, people started coming back. The level of income they had reached was then 13-14 thousand dollars a year. Our GNP per capita is higher than that, but we need to consider the inflation. Yet in general, when a certain level has been reached, more value will be attached to things that cannot be measured in money: your mother tongue, familiar food, habits, family, acquaintances, and childhood friends. Estonia has risen to this level of welfare. We are not as rich as we wish to be, but for most people, hard life is not an obstacle to returning to Estonia. 


Estonians managed to keep alive their language and culture even in the hard Soviet times, without our nation state. Why did we succeed so well?

For different nations, the values that create a “we-feeling” are different. The Estonian language as such became the key of Estonian identity already in the 19th century – you were defined by the language you spoke. For other nations, other values may be important – for the Irish, for example, it is religion.

In the 19th century, it was very important to establish the use of the Estonian language in this country, that was our Kulturkampf. In Chechnya the national feeling sprang from the same source. Estonians had acquired enough wealth to wish for a nicer home, they wanted to see theatre in Estonian, not in German; they wanted to read books and newspapers in Estonian. Linguistic self-consciousness is a symptom of a better-off people.

Speaking of people in Estonia, it is impossible to ignore those who have neither Estonian citizenship nor any other.

Although there are fewer and fewer of such people. 


Should we take some more steps towards them?

The Estonian state has taken many steps as it is – after 17 years from the restoration of our independence, this is in fact a strange question to ask. Considering how easy it is to become an Estonian citizen, I would not know what other steps to take. Perhaps people do not wish it, because the rights of a citizen and a non-citizen differ very little. In some countries, the difference is much wider. Here, you can do practically everything except participate in the Riigikogu elections, there is freedom of movement, you can work anywhere in Europe. This is the result of the strong external pressure in the 1990s.

The group that after 17 years has not managed to make up their mind about citizenship probably sees no difference. I read the draft of the human development report: there are thousands of children who are entitled to citizenship automatically, but whose parents have never applied for that. So we could actually take this a little easy, applying for Estonian citizenship is not complicated. 


What is it that defines being Estonian these days, both as a nationality and as an individual? Is it language, citizenship, attitude, culture, a shared vision of the past?

Everyone is free to define it in their own way: by location, values, language. I would rather not delineate anything in terms of „is” and „is not”. Yet the Estonian language certainly does play an important role: to be an Estonian means to know the language at least to some extent, and to be loyal to the Estonian state. 


In last May, when we had a bit of disturbance here, you said we would be able to agree upon a common future. Is it necessary to agree upon a common vision of the past first?

In general I think this is true. As far as we have a common past. The past of the Estonian territory is quite different from the past of those countries where the people living here come from. It is quite obvious that an Estonian can by no means accept as his liberator a regime that has committed mass crimes against humanity. It must be realised that atrocities were perpetrated in Estonia and to call them liberation is on par with the negation of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was more widespread, so the matter is not as grave, but to call mass deportations liberation is not acceptable. 


Estonians often feel that it is complicated to explain our history as it has so many junctures. As Minister of Foreign Affairs and Member of the European Parliament you had to do this constantly. What are the points that help convey Estonian history to an educated foreigner?

I recommend them to read the books written by authors whom I decorated with the Cross of St. Mary’s Land this year, and watch their films. The best idea would be to read Robert Conquest and Norman Davies, then there is no need for a British or American reader to worry that they might be reading an Estonian fairy-tale.

The problem is, rather, in a broader understanding of the East European history. I believe that seeing Katyn (Andrzej Wajda’s film about the Katyn massacre in 1940) will help many people understand what was happening in this part of the world – we are not so unique, what happened to us has happened to others too.
It should not be a full-time job for Estonians to keep going around and explaining what we are and who we are. We are too sensitive in this matter.

The newspaper topic „Others about us” also reflects this development. Ten-fifteen years ago it was nice if anyone noticed us, but today, we could take things a little more easily. This is one advantage of freedom – we are free, and we don’t need to worry about „what they are thinking about us over there”, as the old joke about the Finns used to run. 


How worried should Estonia be about her diminishing population – in fact, it seems that the population has started to grow again?

Well, there is no actual growth yet. We have been relatively successful in one respect: several problems have been solved for women – parent subsidy has been introduced, etc. But we could have a real population growth if there were more men, partners for the women wishing to have children. We have too few surviving men. Estonian men die in traffic accidents, drink themselves to death. According to statistics, we could already have positive population growth if there were not so many deaths. We have solved the problem of declining birth rates quite successfully – we will not make women to give birth to even more children – the battle to be fought now is about men, not women. 


So it is for Estonian men to prevent the situation that Rein Taagepera calls „a demographical toilet pot”?

I would not say „a demographical toilet pot”. I believe the situation is better than that.

The real question is not the question asked in the play GEP of the NO99 Theatre, the question is for men to stay alive, to live to be 40 years old. It is agonising to read that once again, someone was driving somewhere ... and that horrendous euphemism „swerved to the opposite side of the road”. What does this mean? That someone has irresponsibly tried to overtake another vehicle. Vehicles do not swerve to the opposite side of the road, they are driven there deliberately to overtake another vehicle. It is worst for those who keep to their side of the road and collide with an irresponsible speeder ... All these things affect our population growth. 


What is to be done?

Everyone has a free choice – to overtake another vehicle in a blind curve where the responsible driver of a meeting car is unable to devise that there is someone on his side of the road, or not. And never to drive when you have been drinking alcohol. That’s it.

What we can do ... we can demand more conscientious traffic checks, although the police have tackled this problem actively. But we should not be wasting the time of our police on speeding and drunken driving, they could spend it on thieves, assaulters, etc, if people were not speeding or driving when drunk. 


How important is it for population growth to stress traditional family values, which tend to be the favourite subject of several political parties?

Research has shown that people living together and having children are happier than single people. A bachelor’s life is quite unhappy in fact, it is much better to have a partner. I don’t know if it is for politicians to talk about family values, that is for the people to decide. I believe, naturally, that it is a good thing, but I will not interfere with the private life of others. 


Can we today be creditable partners and have a say in the policies of those international organisation that we aspired so eagerly to join ten years ago?

I already brought an example about NATO. If Estonia, the US, France, and Great Britain come together and submit a proposal, this is not bad at all. In the different domains of the European Union we are more successful in those areas where the problems and issues are more directly related to our own. It is obvious we cannot have much to say about the cultivation of olives.

Our trouble is not that we are not talking enough; we simply need more people who are top experts in their field. For instance, we have very good specialists in energy supply and energy issues, but we need more of them. 


In the Baltic space, we have left co-operation aside and are talking about coordination. What are the common interests of the three Baltic countries today?

Certainly energy and security. In these areas, regional co-operation is much more efficient than acting on one’s own. We know that the Ignalina power station must be closed down already by the end of 2009, and then we will have an energy gap. We knew that two years ago already – and the Latvians knew, and the Lithuanians knew.

We have to do something. We are still to be convinced of that. Latvians are probably still convinced too. In Lithuania, things have come to a standstill. The clock is ticking. We cannot just sit and wait until, on the first day of 2010, we suddenly lose several Terawatts. We must take the initiative in the discussion.

Can we go on without a nuclear power plant in the Baltic area? Where would the power be coming from? Should we build our own power plant if the Lithuanians are unable to decide whether to build or not, when to build and who will be the owners? Shall we do it jointly with Latvia? Or alone? Shall we go in for nuclear power at all? If we shan’t, where will we get the power to satisfy the demand which by that time has grown considerably? These are the matters that we must see ten years ahead, matters that do not fit into a single elections cycle.

This is part of the Baltic co-operation. I fear that if we do not manage anything together in good time, we have to tackle this matter alone. To do something alone, we have to start somewhere. This is such a long-winding matter that we should really get the discussion started.

Another issue is defence policy. The Baltic Battalion, which was disbanded for a while, has now been reinstated. This is a very good example of useful regional co-operation – as well as Estonia’s participation in the Nordic or Estonian-Finnish-Swedish strike force within the European Union. 


Do Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania need more tanks and aircraft?

This question is too simple. First, as a NATO member, we certainly need transport capacity. I am not talking about fighter planes, but air transport hours. Second, by 2011, we have to find a solution for the protection of our air space after 2018. Shall we buy our own fighters, or contract someone else – we have to sit down and come to a joint understanding. If we fail to come to a common Baltic understanding, we have to reach an Estonian understanding. It seems foolish to settle such a matter alone, but on the other hand, something has to be done. 


Do you have some special wish or advice to all Estonians on the anniversary of our country? How should we celebrate this day, what should we be proud of?

I will speak of that on 24 February at 6 PM in my Independence Day speech – I have used too much of my speech here already.

Everyone will celebrate as they think fit. I hope that our national day is a day when we think of the significance of all these things. 


Where should we make amends and what should we be especially proud of in ten years, on the one hundredth anniversary of our country?

This will also be part of my speech; I want to speak about „Estonia One Hundred”. 


How would you celebrate this day if you had no official duties on this weekend?

Also this year, I follow my usual routine. At 7.35 in the morning I will be at Toompea to witness the hoisting of our national colours. I invite everyone to attend a flag-hoisting ceremony, wherever that may be held. Our National Day is a day to be spent with family and friends.