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"Going in and doing it yourself", National Post, 28 May 2008


Peter Goodspeed, National Post

Toomas Hendrik Ilves fought for Estonian democracy all his life. Now, he's the country's President.

The first time Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the President of Estonia, came to Canada was in 1967 at age 14, when the Swedish-born son of Estonian exiles travelled from his home in New Jersey to attend an Estonian summer camp in Uxbridge, northeast of Toronto.

Toronto, with a community of at least 13,000 Estonians who had fled Soviet occupation after the Second World War, was a crucial centre for preserving Estonian culture and forging dreams of a future when their country would once again be independent and democratic.

"Toronto was the place where people had the critical mass needed to maintain the culture," Mr. Ilves said yesterday during an interview in the city.

Families enrolled their children in weekend language classes, church groups sponsored community events and summer camps wove dreams of political freedom and Estonian cultural pride into days filled with canoe trips, swimming and campfires.

"When I was here as a child in the '60s there was an extremely powerful belief in a democratic Estonia," Mr. Ilves said. "It's still there to this day."

That belief transformed tiny Estonia from a Soviet-occupied state into a member of NATO and the European Union and changed forever the life of Mr. Ilves, who served as director and administrator of the Vancouver Arts Centre from 1981 to 1983 and briefly taught Estonian literature and linguistics at Simon Fraser University.

While lecturing in Canada, he became involved in Estonian politics and was offered a job at Radio Free Europe, where he became head of the Estonian desk and regularly broadcast calls for Estonian independence behind the Iron Curtain.

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, Mr. Ilves took a 12-fold paycut and went to work in a homeland he had never lived in.

"I'd spent all those years on Radio Free Europe talking about the need for Estonia to be an independent country, I didn't think I had the moral right to talk about that, if I didn't go back and do it myself," he says.

In rapid succession he became Estonia's ambassador to Canada, the United States and Mexico; chairman of Estonia's North Atlantic Institute, then Estonia's Foreign Minister.

In 2006, he was elected president by Estonia's electoral assembly.

In between, he helped transform the country's economy, which had been ruined by decades of Soviet misrule.

"We had nothing," he says. "We were completely behind in everything. Fifty years of infrastructure development didn't exist. The phone system was like from 1938-1939 -- prewar. There was a shortage of everything and money was worthless.

"We were completely behind in everything, but at the same time, there was one place where we were on a level playing field," he adds.

"In 1991 and 1992, in terms of computerization, Estonia was like everyone else."

Mr. Ilves had been introduced to computer programming by "a very weird math teacher" during a four-year experimental high school program and worked briefly as a programmer while a student at Columbia University.

In Estonia, he helped build an educational system that focused heavily on computers and moulded a high-tech future for his country.

"If you want to look at the future, you can see a lot of it in Estonia," he boasts.

The country had no banks when the Soviet Union dissolved. Now, 97% of its citizens do their banking online. They can also vote online, use the Internet to propose new laws to parliament and pay their 21% flat national tax.

Estonia has outpaced other Europeans in integrating the Internet into everyday life, but that also created a new vulnerability. Last year, when Russians inside and outside the country became enraged by a decision to move a Soviet-era war memorial, Estonia fell victim to the world's first cyber-war.

In a highly organized assault, the Estonian government and economy were temporarily brought to a standstill when its Internet servers were overwhelmed by attacks of robot networks believed to have originated in Russia.

Just last week, NATO decided to establish a "centre of excellence" in Estonia to study ways to combat and prevent future cyber-wars.

For now, Estonia takes pride in its accomplishments.

"Some economists have said Estonia is the most successful post-Communist country," Mr. Ilves says. "Last year, we surpassed the GDP per capita of Portugal, which was both in NATO and the EU when we were still in the Soviet Union."

Much of that success is rooted in the values and examples he experienced as an Estonian in exile and at summer camp.

"I know so many Canadians," he says. "One of my oldest friends is a guy I met in summer camp and Boy Scout camp. And 35 years after the fact I convinced him it might be a good idea to join the Estonian army reserve, where he is now a captain. He just did six months duty in Iraq."

"Canadian Estonians have played a pivotal role in what Estonia has done after Independence," he adds. He gives the example of an Estonian woman from Toronto who has been Estonia's main foreign policy advisor for six years. The McGill and London School of Economics graduate worked for him when he was foreign minister.

Another Canadian from Vancouver is the European Commission representative to Estonia, while another Vancouver friend will soon become ambassador to Germany.

"Our time here was a yardstick and repository of the right values," Mr. Ilves says.

"You learn what to aspire to and it's a good reality check."