WASHINGTON – Toomas Hedrik Ilves,president of Estonia,didn't want to speak about Russia during a lecture on his country Wednesday. He said he would mention it only once in the beginning and he would try not to say “Russia” again.
But he had to,as a lot of questions from the public about the history of his country and himself were connected to the relationships with the neighboring Russia.
Estonia is one of three Baltic countries that were under Moscow's rule during Soviet times. It was one of the first in the post-Soviet Union that began to rebel in the late 1980s.
The U.S. and the majority of other democratic countries never officially recognized that Estonia was under Soviet rule. They considered it an illegal annexation.
Estonia became independent in 1991. At that time,Ilves worked in Europe as a journalist for Radio Free Europe. He became highly involved in politics later,as the minister of foreign affairs and then as a ruler of a political party.
Ilves has been the president for less than a year. He discussed the future of Estonia during his lecture at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He was here for an official meeting with President Bush. His visit was less than a week before a meeting of Bush and President of Russia Vladimir Putin this weekend,at which they are expected to discuss problems with a European missile defense system,among other issues.
Ilves,who was dressed as usual in a bow tie and oval glasses,is a tall 53-year-old. His family fled the country during the Soviet-era. He graduated from high school in New Jersey and earned degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University in New York.
Ilves has a sense of humor and knew how to make the audience think about the ideas he was introducing. Several times,his speech was interrupted by laugh and claps.
“Nothing happens automatically,and no one will like you if you only say the right words – you should do something,” he said.
He was speaking of the new members of NATO and the European Union,which he said have achieved new levels of maturity in recent years.
His country joined the EU in 2004. Ilves worked at the EU Parliament,representing his Estonian political party. He is one of the board members of the think tank Friend of Europe,a part of the EU. He said he sees the future of Estonia in the European Union.
Estonia has one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe. Its gross domestic product is growing 2 percent per year,which is higher than in many other older European countries. It uses Internet technologies broadly for finance systems. Recently,it became a problem for many Estonians,as the system was attacked by hackers.
Some Estonian officials said the attack came from the “Siberian side,” which is a part of Russia.
“When we are looking to the relation of crime and the reasons why it happened,then we probably cannot say that the attack came from the Europe ways,” Ilves said,smiling as he answered a questions from the audience.
He said Estonian officials asked the Russian side to cooperate in the investigation,but they didn't in any way.
During his speech,he called Russia an “empire.” His country has a long history of political problems with Russia since it became independent. They mainly were because the Estonian government was active in integration into NATO in 1994 and criticizing Soviet times and the new Russia. A majority of Estonians supported those policies.
But the attitude toward Russia and the U.S. and European countries is changing in Estonia,Ilves said. The young generation doesn't have so strong an alienation toward Moscow and has become more critical of Europe and the U.S.
“Things change. Nobody will automatically love the United States,but most of them still do,” Ilves said in an interview after the speech.
Regarding Russia,Ilves said that many problems come from its domestic problems.
“We are dealing with a country that doesn't have freedom of speech,there is no freedom of press,there is no freedom of fair elections. What we are going to do about this? Not much. Things change – they change. But Estonia is not going to change these things,” he said.
Ilves is one of the most active leaders in the post-Soviet countries,and he supports post revolutionary leaders in Georgia and Ukraine. They have some of the same problems with Russia because they are seeking membership in NATO and the EU. Ilves is a strong supporter of integration of these countries into Western institutions.
“Never base what you do on what some other countries want to do in your own country,” said Ilves,regarding Georgian intentions toward NATO and the EU.