Posts Tagged ‘Toomas Hendrik Ilves’

“The most wired country in the world”: Estonia’s prez at Stanford (video added!)

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014
Estonia Pres. Ilves visit_24

Estonia’s dashing president … in a nerdy sort of way. (Photo: Steve Castillo)

Most of us couldn’t find Estonia on a map – even though the Ukrainian crisis has brought the Baltic states into sharper focus. It’s too bad, because there’s so much to know and like about Estonia. For one, it’s the Silicon Valley of Europe – Skype came from this tiny country of 1.3 million, and they do taxes online and vote online from their laptops.  (I’ve written about a few of its other good points  here and here and here.)

Another reason to like it is President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who spoke at Stanford last week, wearing his signature bow tie. The New Jersey-reared and American-educated former journalist has been president of Estonia for eight years, and in public life for decades prior to that. He also had a famous Twitter spat with Nobel economist Paul Krugman two years ago; we wrote about it here. Although he learned computer programming at 13, he insists “I am not a geek.”

McFaul introduces Ilves in the Bender Room (Photo: Steve Castillo)

McFaul introduces Ilves in the Bender Room (Photo: Steve Castillo)

Ilves was at Stanford to discuss “the fundamental issue of our time” – the future of the digital world. “We are probably the most wired country in the world,” he said of his tiny homeland. By contrast, America’s record as the land of invention is outstanding – “but using IT to make the life of people better? Not so good.”

He recommended “digital ID card” that would provide a unique identity to everyone, and is legally equivalent to a signature.  “Unless you have a guaranteed ID, anything can happen,” he said. The Estonians borrowed the concept from the neighboring Finns, but took it a little farther.

He also told the story of Estonia’s remarkable post-Soviet recovery – which itself offers a perspective on current events in Eastern Europe. Estonia suffered three occupations in the 20th century: first the Soviet Union in 1939, then the Nazis in 1941, then the Soviet Union again from 1944 until 1993. (How did it end? Cf. my post on The Singing Revolution here).

At the time of their independence, Ilves said, the nation hadn’t built any new highways or overpasses in 50 years. Estonia had a 1938 phone system. Their good friends, the neighboring Finns, were upgrading in 1993, and offered the Estonians their “legacy technology” from 1979. Definitely an improvement. Ilves urged Estonia to refuse the offer, and it did.  With commitment and will, he said, they had a thoroughly up-to-date digital system within six months. Ilves explained that when he was ambassador to Washington, he had a worse phone connection to the State Department two miles away than he did to Tallinn, 5,000 miles away. By 1998, “all our kids were hooked up with computers in schools.”

rifkinIt’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re in a small country on the periphery, and the economies of scale are working against you. “If you don’t have scale, you get kind of suicidal,” he joked. He changed his mind about the possibilities when he read Jeremy Rifkin‘s 1995 The End of Work. He explained that story in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ilves declined to talk about the topic that was on everyone’s mind: Russian aggression in Ukraine.  As former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul explained in his introduction, “If you want to understand Russia today, you have to follow Ilves on Twitter – and do it today. There’s no greater authoritative voice about our current crisis.”

You can do that right now, right here.  I did, about the time of the Krugman spat. Meanwhile, we’re told there will be a youtube video of the event at Stanford Libraries any moment now. We’ll post it as soon as we receive word. Promise.

UPDATE on 5/30: We promised you the YouTube video … and heeeeerrrrrreee it is!

Christmas present for everyone: “This is the story of how culture saved a nation.”

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

Can culture save a people from annihilation? It did.  (Photos from the film.)

Can culture make a difference?  It did once upon a time…

In a Christmas season where war is all around us, I have a gift recommendation that celebrates the power of non-violence – a Gandhian update for the 21st century.

I’ve become friends with Estonia, thanks to the savvy and sophisticated Estonians I’ve met in the course of my work, the Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves‘s witty Twitter spat with Paul Krugman (I wrote about it here), and my article on the Estonia’s Museum of Occupations – though I’ve only been as close as neighboring Lithuania and had a quick drive through Latvia.

Nevertheless, I attended a recent Stanford screening of The Singing Revolution, a 2007 documentary film by James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty, from a sense of solidarity and duty, rather than any real enthusiasm. I thought it was going to be, well, a bit drippy.  I was wrong.

It was sensational – powerful, moving, uplifting, with an absolutely gripping storyline.  And the music is downright addictive.

Estonia, a nation of about 1.3 million people, is one of mankind’s oldest residences, yet has lived under almost continuous occupation in modern times, with the Swedes, the Poles, the Danes, the Russians, and others taking turns.  In the 20th century, the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again, swallowed the small nation that had enjoyed a brief, interwar independence.

What did the Estonians have to resist such a brutal and murderous totalitarian power?  Their weapon of choice was song.  Estonians like to sing.  Obviously, not everyone is a singer, but training in choral music is pretty much nationwide, and everyone is at least exposed to it.  And after all, most people can sing, even if badly.  It’s better than baseball.

Even the New York Times was impressed:

Under the Soviets, especially, Estonian culture was brutishly suppressed, but it welled up every five years in July, when Estonians gathered in Tallinn for the Estonian song festival, which often drew upward of 25,000 people. The images of these festivals are moving already; the force of the singers and the precision of their conductors are stunning to behold.

But the emotion swells further when Estonians defy their occupiers by singing nationalist songs. This bold act reclaimed Estonian identity and set the stage for a series of increasingly daring rebellions under the Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who advocated glasnost and got more than he bargained for.

“If 20,000 people start to sing the same song, then you cannot shut them up. It’s impossible,” said one participant in the uprising.  The New York Times again:  “Imagine the scene in Casablanca in which the French patrons sing “La Marseillaise” in defiance of the Germans, then multiply its power by a factor of thousands, and you’ve only begun to imagine the force of The Singing Revolution.”

The DVDs are available here (and if you recognize a familiar voice in the narration, it’s Linda Hunt).

Meanwhile, please do yourself a favor.  Watch this video. It will make you happy.  Promise.

Estonian president to Paul Krugman: Shove it! Update: The final battle?

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Estonia’s high-tech president is fluent in the language of the tweet.

I spent several hours today with the Estonian mastermind behind Histordamus, an interactive website that is being adopted in half of the small Baltic nation’s schools.  Now that I have a number of Estonians among my acquaintance, I’ve learned about Estonia’s enviable technological savvy.  Estonian engineers invented Skype.  Who knew?  The small, mercifully debt-free nation has universal WiFi.  Citizens vote online.  And my Estonian visitor today told me that he did his taxes online in six minutes.

Silence is golden.

When I got back to my computer, however, I learned that Estonia had just declared war in the Twittersphere.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves responded to a volley from the New York Times with  … a handful of tweets.

Nobel economist Paul Krugman started it.  He scoffed today in a short blogpost:  “Since Estonia has suddenly become the poster child for austerity defenders — they’re on the euro and they’re booming! — I thought it might be useful to have a picture of what we’re talking about. Here’s real GDP, from Eurostat” – then there’s a lackluster graph.  Then he asks: “this is what passes for economic triumph?”

President Ilves (@IlvesToomas) is no stranger to America: he grew up in New Jersey and has a 1976 bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University and a 1978 master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. The Guardian has a profile of him here, hailing him as the hero of the Baltic states and saluting Ilves for the nation’s “robust economy.”  Clearly Krugman doesn’t agree.

In addition to Estonian and English, Ilves is fluent in German and Spanish.  But clearly he knows the language of the tweet as well.  Here are five of today’s tweets to Krugman, in chronological order:

Let’s write about something we know nothing about & be smug, overbearing & patronizing: after all, they’re just wogs:

Guess a Nobel in trade means you can pontificate on fiscal matters & declare my country a “wasteland”. Must be a Princeton vs Columbia thing 

But yes, what do we know? We’re just dumb & silly East Europeans. Unenlightened. Someday we too will understand. Nostra culpa.

Let’s sh*t on East Europeans: their English is bad, won’t respond & actually do what they’ve agreed to & reelect govts that are responsible.

Chill. Just because my country’s policy runs against the Received Wisdom & I object doesn’t mean y’all gotta follow me. [The article praises Estonia’s economy.]

Sorry, not conserv. or leftist. Just can’t fathom why following agreed upon EU fiscal rules justifies smug & snide gloating re: my country.

No replies from Krugman. Perhaps it’s best.  A closed mouth gathers no feet.

Update on 6/7:  The war continues… A few more tweets followed in a similar vein, plus some back-and-forths with what appears to be the public at large.

But many wondered: Was it really the president of Estonia tweeting his peeves this way?  Terms like “y’all,” “chill,” and “wog” seemed to leave some room for doubt.  (They forgot that he grew up in New Jersey.)  The New York Observer‘s column “The Politicker” left no stone unturned in ferreting out the truth: it reached out to the Estonian government and received confirmation and a statement from the man himself:   “Yes I send my own tweets,” Mr. Ilves said. “It was a sincere and immediate defense of the major and often difficult efforts of Estonia to deal with the economic crisis and to stick to the rules adopted in the European Union.”

A few hours later, Krugman finally responded loftily in his own column, “Ballistic in the Baltics”: “I’m hearing from various sources that my rather mild-mannered post on Estonia has generated a vitriolic response from the nation’s president. I’m not going to try to track the thing down.”  Mild-mannered?  I think not.  And somehow I doubt Krugman was so far in the clouds that he couldn’t  click on the links to Twitter to find out what a foreign president was saying.  Fortunately, Krugman more wisely turns to a graph for the economics of FDR’s administration, and let the matter rest.

Would I have gone Ilves’s route in riposte?  Probably not.  But I notice he’s gained about 2,300 Twitter followers in the last 24 hours.

Twitter seems to be cheering for Ilves.  The New York Times comments strongly favor Krugman.  Both sides are saying … exactly what you would expect them to say.

Food fight over.