How to Fill Very Big Shoes: Estonia’s Choice for a New President

Very soon Estonia — or its representatives — will be electing a new president, to succeed Toomas Hendrik Ilves, whose second and final term is ending in September. It is all but certain that the vote will go to the Valimiskogu, or Electoral College, to make that decision as it has nearly each occasion since the restoration of independence. So who will fill the rather large shoes that the outgoing president leaves?

Although Estonia’s presidency is considered weak compared even to other parliamentary states, it is often varying in practice — on whether the individual occupying the office seeks to assert influence or power. For the most part, the last decade has seen an assertive presidency actively engaging in foreign affairs, but has been notably conscious in considering its constitutional boundaries especially on domestic affairs. Whither the presidency goes depends on how the successor defines the role, and after ten years this could mark a significant change in how Estonia is run, and how Estonia is perceived.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves (left) and former President Arnold Rüütel (right) in Tallinn, 2011.

The Importance of the Ilves Presidency

At the time of his election in 2006, many thought the country’s reputation as a small state that punched above its diplomatic weight had waned under the presidency of Arnold Rüütel. Certainly Rüütel played an important role in engaging a segment of the population that felt uneasy with Estonia’s rapid progress and entry into the European Union, but arguably the active diplomatic presence of the presidency under Lennart Meri was missed. At the same time, many during the Rüütel era did not miss the intrusiveness of the Meri presidency, one that truly tested constitutional boundaries and had the worrisome potential to set bad precedence.

During the period of 2002-2006, despite the triumphs of EU and NATO membership, the hard work of keeping Estonia’s above-weight diplomatic presence fell mostly on its excellent but overworked and exhausted diplomatic corps; a series of ineffective ministers from Kristiina Ojuland (who has bewildered many with her recent transformation from a cosmopolitan Europhile into a race-baiting bigot) to Urmas Paet (who sadly will be most remembered for his leaked conversation during the beginning of the Maidan crisis) did not help fortify the much-admired ministry, especially in the period of devolving specific EU areas of competency to appropriate ministries.

…his presidency will go down as the most important and effective of the country’s interrupted history.

With the election of twice Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves to the presidency, Kadriorg once again had a strong foreign policy hand. In many ways, Ilves acted more like the country’s top diplomat during his two terms, while the foreign minister (which was mostly Paet) played a lesser, almost supporting role. This was seen very clearly not just in US and NATO affairs- in which Ilves, as long-time ambassador in Washington DC, has unique competency- but also in EU issues when at critical moments he played a bigger role than even the prime minister — such as during the Greek debt/bailout crisis. For the most part, this division of power was less contentious than one would otherwise think.

President Obama and Ilves in Tallinn, 2014

The role played by Ilves during his ten-year, two-term presidency cannot be underestimated. Estonia continued to punch far above its weight diplomatically, especially with his vigorous activities in areas of technology and cyber policy; under his guidance, Estonia has become the leading expert in cyber defence and strategy within the West, and his briefings attract intense attention from the most important actors in this sphere — often below the radar. Estonia, thanks to its policies and Ilves’s efforts, has a place among US policy makers and security officials that few other countries have — something of which other Baltic and even European — countries are jealous.

Even if the domestic Estonian media makes light of Ilves’s efforts, his presidency will go down as the most important and effective of the country’s interrupted history. He did not push the envelope of the constitutional role of the presidency like Meri, nor did he stay in the shadow like Rüütel. He defined the role as he saw fit, within its constitutional bounds and maximised his influence home and abroad, to the benefit of Estonia. And now those shoes are extremely difficult to fill.

LATEST ESTONIAN PRESIDENTIAL POLLING JUNE 2016

Source: PM

Who Can Fill Those Shoes?

The point of this article isn’t specifically who can — or should — fill those very big shoes of a departing President Ilves. It is not about arguing who is most competent, who is most Ilves-like, who is most unlike Ilves, etc. As Ilves created his own style of presidency — much like his predecessors Meri and Rüütel — it is up to his successor, whoever it is, to do that themselves.

As an experienced diplomat, some will argue that Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand is best suited and will likely maintain Ilves’s foreign policy efforts. Others argue that the president should take on more of a domestic role as gatekeeper, something former Legal Chancellor Allar Jõks is most qualified to be. The arguments for each candidate go on. However, most importantly Estonia must choose a president that can fill those shoes — whoever he or she is. And it’s about quality and qualifications rather than name recognition.

First of all, the person elected president must be able to be the head-of-state, the symbolic leader of the country. The person must be someone the country can respect, and can be counted on during difficult times and crises, someone they want to represent the nation. Even in parliamentary democracies with relatively weak presidencies, it is never good to have a weak or chaotic presidency — such as the confusion in Germany earlier this decade when two presidents (Horst Köhler and Christian Wulff) both resigned within a two-year period, damaging the credibility of the office. Italy, where the presidency is often seen as a bought-and-sold office, required the unexpected leadership of controversial former-communist Giorgio Napolitano to get through the worst of the debt crisis. In other words, when it hits the fan, the president is someone that is needed to guide the country through the crisis, with the coolest head in the room and the broadest view of the country — and the world.

Second, the person elected president must be able to bring together the entire country, to represent everyone and all sides.

As much as Meri and Ilves were seen as elites, they successfully represented the entire nation; the same can be said about Rüütel who, as much as the elites derided him, did well, bringing all parts of the country together, especially over EU membership. The next president needs to do that, and bring Estonians together.

What the next president should not, and cannot be, is a divisive figure who thrives on the politics of division, especially over issues of ethnicity. This is a difficult and potentially explosive topic for Estonia that requires someone who has earned the respect of all sides on this issue. Despite some earlier trepidation, it is not surprising to see that Ilves has become popular with young Russian speakers, as he worked extremely hard to be their president too.

What Estonia cannot have, is a president who seeks to divide and conquer, whether for political advantage or something more malevolent. You cannot disqualify someone just because of ethnic background, as one angry political party has advocated against one specific candidate; in fact, most “full-blooded Estonians” have foreign blood, whether it is German, Russian, Swedish, Latvian, or eventually, Syrian or Chinese, as the world becomes more diverse.

A good president for Estonia does not require passing a DNA test — which, ironically, most of the people screaming for one, would fail themselves. This is 2016, and the world — including Estonia — is diverse, and the leadership needs to reflect reality (not some pipe dream of people still mentally living in the 1930s*).

Third, the person elected has to be effective on the world’s stage. As much as Rüütel did a good job on certain issues, such as selling EU membership to the Estonian people, he was ineffective on the world’s stage. Not just due to his linguistic limitations, but as a product of the Soviet era leadership. He failed to transform himself in a way that the even-more-criticized, Algirdas Brazauskas, in Lithuania managed to.

After Lennart Meri’s vigorous international work, the Rüütel years were perceived as a foreign policy vacuum, which the Ilves presidency helped to quickly fill. And indeed after ten years of vigorous foreign policy work on some of the biggest (and lesser known) stages, this work needs to be continued by his successor. The president must be completely au fait with all aspects of international relations, especially security and defence policy during this era of uncertainty. The role is far too important to “learn-on-the-job” at this point, with a revanchist and aggressive Russia causing chaos in the region and the world. Russia respects strength, and whoever is the next president must be able to stand as an equal — as a head of state of a sovereign, independent country — with any other heads of state, including Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama (and his successor).

What will hurt Estonia now is a president who does not understand Estonia’s role on the world stage and one who cannot keep Estonia punching above its weight in Washington and other capitals and international organizations. In short, Estonia cannot afford five years of another Rüütel in the current geopolitical environment.

Hugely Symbolic Period Needs an Effective Leader

The next president of Estonia will have some very symbolic tasks. Most importantly, the new president will lead Estonia on its 100th birthday in 2018: a defining national event. At the same time, Estonia will also hold the Presidency of the European Council (barring any Brexit-forced change, that is…), and may also hold a seat in the United Nations Security Council if the burgeoning campaign succeeds.

Estonia will need a president who will meet the diverse and demanding challenges that the country faces. It is Estonia’s time to shine: it would be a shame if an ineffective or unwieldy president marred all of the hard work and achievements that have been produced over the past decade.

What Estonia really does not need at this critical and symbolic time on the world’s biggest stage, as it is celebrating its 100th birthday, is ineffectiveness to the points of passivity a la “Valsts Rācenis” or the other polar extreme that comes «имени А. А. Жданова» of alkali-in-water emotionalism. Estonia has been served well with calm, collective — but resolute — action from its heads of state, and that needs to continue.

Even if the next president cedes a portion of foreign affairs back to the government, the presidency is nevertheless a critical focal point of those looking up for leadership inside the country at this key moment, and for those looking in from outside at the country. We cannot escape the fact that the presidency is an important symbol for the country at this most symbolic of times. The individual occupying the office will wield important influence on how successful this period is for the country as it enters its second century of sovereignty.

Big shoes to fill indeed.

* Ironically, the decision on writing this piece came to me as I walked past Artur Sirk’s grave in Helsinki, a reminder of how irrational desires for the shape of the presidency can cause utter chaos.

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