Toomas Hendrik Ilves: “As soon as Russia becomes a democratic country, its best relationship will be with Estonia”

The recent dispute between Russia and Estonia over potential Estonian espionage has heightened tensions in the two countries’ relationship. It has also fueled public fears that Russia will annex Narva, a predominantly Russian-speaking border city of Estonia. However, Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves believes that Vladimir Putin will not be able to replicate “the Crimean scenario” in his country. He explained his reasons in an interview with Elena Servettaz.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the fourth president of Estonia, came to office with a unique profile and background. Ilves was born in Sweden to a family of Estonian refugees and was raised in New Jersey in the United States. He received his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and his master’s from the University of Pennsylvania. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of Estonia’s independence, Ilves became the country’s ambassador to the United States. He later served as Estonia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and as a member of the European Parliament. In 2006 he was elected president of Estonia, and in 2011 he was reelected for a second term. In the words of U.S. president Barack Obama, Ilves is “the son of refugees who returned home to help chart a path for a free and democratic Estonia.”

Elena Servettaz: In September, an Estonian intelligence officer was abducted at the Estonia—Russia border and taken to Moscow. The Russian authorities claim that he is a spy, while Estonians say that he was kidnapped from their territory in violation of sovereignty. Do you think the European Union’s reaction urging Russia to release this officer has been adequate? Has its voice been loud enough on this matter?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves: What is going on is very clear. I have not met one European who has not had a position on this [matter]. Last night I met with my old colleague, Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament. One of the first things he told me is that the abduction of the Estonian officer [who was] investigating a criminal case is completely unacceptable. But Europe’s position is strong enough. Of course, Europe’s voice won’t be as loud for one person as it was in the case of Ukraine, but Europe is very strong, and I’m not really disappointed [with its reaction].

ES: Sometimes we hear speculations that Narva could be “the next Crimea.” Do they make you laugh, or are you worried about this possibility?

THI: It is true that many Russians living in Estonia for emotional reasons support the annexation—I should say the Anschluss—of Crimea. When an average salary of a Ukrainian or a Russian miner in Donetsk is €200 a month, he would [consider joining Russia]. But when [your] average salary is €2,000 a month [as it is in Estonia], [you] are not going to want to be a part of the Russian Federation, where the average salary is closer to that of Ukraine. [Living] in Estonia, [you get] free movement of persons and labor throughout Europe. If you want to live in Paris or in London—go ahead. But if you live in Russia, you’re only free to move [around the country, say, to] Kamchatka. It’s not something [Estonian] people want. That’s why I am not worried, and that’s why I find the idea of “the next Crimea” silly. It is a journalistic trope.

ES: Are you expecting Estonia to improve its relationship with Russia? Or, rather, can Russia rebuild its relationship with Estonia once Putin’s regime is gone?

THI: The problem with Russia is that it is an authoritarian regime that [derives] its legitimacy [from] its longing for an authoritarian culture. Estonia ruins that intellectually: a post-Soviet country that has one of the highest ratings of freedom of speech.

ES: You have free elections here . . .

THI: Yes, freedom for whatever. If your position is that you cannot have [freedom] as part of Russian civilization and tradition, then, of course, you would hate Estonians the most. That’s why as soon as Russia becomes a democratic country, its best relationship [will be] with Estonia. Because Estonia, of all the post-Soviet states, is the one country that’s most open, most liberal, least authoritarian. Thus, [the outcome of the relationship] really depends on [Russia]. But right now, [the Russian authorities] can’t take us; they hate us because we proved to them that you don’t have to be as they are.

This piece was originally published here by the Institute of Modern Russia and reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

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