Toomas Hendrik Ilves was 31 years old when he first visited the Baltic republic he would one day lead. But Estonia had been on his mind for much longer.
“Being a child of refugees is different from being a child of immigrants,” explained the Estonian president in a brief phone interview this past September. During the Soviet occupation of Estonia from 1944 to 1991, “people could not choose to leave, but fled, meaning there was a much stronger domestic connection [for me]. And second, I really hated communism … and wanted to do something to help.”
Ilves, who was born in Sweden to Estonian exiles and grew up in the United States, recalled the introduction to his homeland in 1984 “as one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen—to see normal people [trying to live] in the face of totalitarianism.”
Sixteen years after Estonia regained its independence, that picture has changed dramatically. It has one of the top-performing economies in Europe, enjoying 11 percent growth in 2006. According to Business Week, it is also one of the most “wired” countries, with every school in the capital city of Tallinn connected to the Internet and much of daily business—from paying parking tickets to voting for members of parliament—conducted online.
Ilves took office in October 2006, but says he’s “personally proudest” of something he helped accomplish before then: “getting Estonia into the European Union.” With limited executive powers, he oversees a republic that’s now challenged with keeping its economic momentum and becoming further integrated into the EU. Estonia joined the EU in 2004, but has yet to exchange its kroons for euros.
Ilves didn’t reminisce much about Penn, where he earned a master’s degree in psychology (and also met his wife, Dr. Merry Bullock Gr’79, now deputy secretary-general of the International Union for Psychological Science). “It was tough,” he said. “It was one of the most intellectually rigorous places I’ve ever been in my life. The problem was when I was there I realized I didn’t want to get a Ph.D. in psychology. So I went on to do something else.” That alternate path included working as a journalist for Radio Free Europe and serving Estonia in several capacities : as its ambassador to the United States, Canada, and Mexico ; as its foreign-affairs minister ; and as a parliamentarian. More recently he was a member of the European Parliament.
Though, by some accounts, Ilves didn’t have a standout graduate-student career, Dr. Brian Wandell, now chair of psychology at Stanford, fondly recalls crossing paths with “Tom” at both Columbia and Penn. “He was just a pleasure to work with, enthusiastic and fun and interested in science,” says Wandell, who came to Penn as a post-doctoral researcher. “He was always passionate about his family and his roots back in Estonia … Today, there’s Tom running a small country. It’s quite a remarkable turn of events.”
Juhan Simonson MCP’58, a former president of the Estonian American National Council, describes Ilves as “a very intelligent young man and very astute in international affairs. And he’s a good speech-maker.” When he first met Ilves during a visit to Radio Free Europe’s Munich headquarters and later encountered him in his capacity as ambassador, “he was more of an intellectual type,” Simonson says. “Whenever he analyzed something he would always quote some Greek philosopher. But now I guess he has to deal with a lot more of the nitty-gritty matters in presidential office.”
One such matter is Estonia’s bitter history with the former Soviet Union, which continues to color its relations with modern-day Russia. Estonia’s relocation of a memorial to the Red Army from its central location in Tallinn last spring prompted rioting by some of the ethnic Russians who make up a third of the country’s population.
“From the Estonian viewpoint, there is no difference between Nazis and Communists,” Ilves said at a September ceremony to mark the brief period of independence between Nazi and Soviet occupation. “Both acted brutally and repressed Estonians … the truth is that the Red Army and its NKVD security police ‘liberated’ Estonia as much as the Wehrmacht and Gestapo before them.”
Ilves says that Russia will have to take “full recognition” of the Soviet Union’s deeds to improve relations between the two countries: “If you deny what you did, we’re going to be very difficult.”
He is more measured in addressing his country’s commitment of troops to the coalition of U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’ll see how the debate develops,” he says. “Because the Iraq mission is not a NATO mission, that means there are parties in my country that are not happy with it. The mission has been extended each year by Parliament, but it’s not clear how long that will last.”
Despite his status as president, Ilves says he has “virtually no political power.” But he derives satisfaction from the opportunities to “take moral positions on issues” and “give a lot of speeches and do a lot of writing.”
Ilves recently represented the European Union at a climate-change conference held at the United Nations in September.
“The conundrum is that rapid economic development is associated with high energy use,” he says. “And what do we do with countries like China and India ? They’re countries that certainly have the right to modernize, but at the same time [such changes result in] spewing a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. With the rate at which the polar ice caps are melting, we have to do something.”