Former Estonian president: „Eastern Europeans are the only nations towards whom racism is politically correct”
Recently “westplaining” has become a very fashionable term. It concerns the problem of patronizing the Eastern European states by Western politicians. Anne Applebaum stated that “American and European leaders’ profound lack of imagination has brought the world to the brink of war”. Will the Russian invasion of Ukraine change the attitude of looking at Eastern policy through the Western prism?
For me, westplaining is mostly germansplaining and the shock of the February 24th invasion was enough to lead chancellor Scholz to revise 50 years of Ostpolitik. We could also see that the German president Steinmeier has announced his regrets on his position. I think that, until now, there has been a general inclination to always believe the Russians and to look down on and disregard the views of the countries who have experience in dealing with Russia.
I was saying for years that there is an anti-empirical bias among West Europeans and Americans. You have experience with Russia and instead of listening to your experience, they write you off as being biased. That willingness to believe a Russian narrative always before an Eastern European narrative is something that we have had to deal with for a long time.
Sometimes it comes up in really obnoxious ways. Last year’s defense of building Nord Stream II on the part of Steinmeier for example. He basically said that Germans owe it to the Russians because of all of the suffering they inflicted upon them, forgetting about the fact that far more people, not only proportionally but even in absolute numbers, suffered in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine than suffered in Russia.
I think that this kind of attitude will not go away. I do not want to focus only on Germany. After the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, former Finnish president Tarja Halonen, trying to explain why Estonia was so concerned about Russian actions, said that Estonians suffer from post-Soviet traumatic stress syndrome. And nothing has changed since then. Recently she was asked why did Estonia join NATO and Finland not. She answered that Estonians were in the Soviet Union so they always liked collective defense.
To borrow from Edward Said’s famous book, it is a case of orientalism. The only people left in the world toward whom it is politically correct to act like a racist are Eastern Europeans. You cannot do it toward Russians because then you are Russophobic.
There is a book by Robert Kaplan, “Balkan Ghosts”. He writes there about “primitive tribal hatreds” of the Eastern Europeans. What could be more racist than that? It is just like during a massive cyber-attack against Estonia in 2007. We went to NATO to talk about it, and the response was „you are just being Russophobic”. And that is from countries all far less advanced digitally than we are. None of these people had a clue about anything digital. Will we see a change in 30 years of this smug, patronising behaviour? It’s too early to tell.
What are your thoughts on the trip of representatives of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia to Kyiv? You and Polish president Lech Kaczyński were among the leaders that flew to Tbilisi to support Georgian society. Are they alike situations or do you see some differences?
It is basically the same situation. My president also went to Kyiv separately. The background to the trip we took to Tbilisi in August of 2008 was that president Kaczyński called me up and we drafted a statement about the invasion that was then also supported by Latvia and Lithuania. Of course, it was completely ignored. Kaczyński called me up the next day and he was very angry, in the way that only Lech Kaczyński could. He was absolutely furious and asked, „what do we do?.” I said, as a joke: „Well, we can always go there.” And Kaczyński replied: „I will send a plane in the morning.”
His staff also rounded up leaders from Latvia, Lithuania and ultimately also president Yushchenko from Ukraine, so it was very spontaneous. But it was a worthwhile trip. Ever since, I have heard from Georgians on numerous occasions how important it was to them. I was giving a speech a few days ago – it was about new media and academic research, nothing to do with politics. After that, there was a Q&A session and some woman said: „I am from Georgia, and I know it is not about what we talked about here today but I just wanted to say thank you to you and the other presidents who came to us. You do not know how important it was to all Georgians to know that people cared about us when we are being attacked by Russia.”
Some people say that this war will solidly unite the West. Do you believe it?
It has united the West more than earlier, but I do not know how much further we can go. It is clear that we are standing closer together today than before February 24th. I think that one big test awaits us, because I bet that when we see any small movement back from its current course on the part of Russia, a number of countries will call to ease up on sanctions.
My position on the following is: no easing up on sanctions until Russia has paid for the damages of what was done to Ukraine. We can get $200 billion from the seized or frozen assets by the West, but it will not be enough. Ukraine needs around $700 billion to be rebuilt. Russia also has to pay the reparations for the killings and for the injuries that have been done.
The other requirement must be that all of the people responsible, from the lowest to the highest, have to go to court. From the corporal who shoots and rapes people in Bucha to the people who write articles in the state media saying we have to eliminate the Ukrainian people. They say the same things about Poles and Estonians. The lies they said about Poland regarding the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact are utterly ridiculous, but this is what we face.
How does Estonia support Ukrainian refugees, taking into account actions taken by society and the government?
We welcomed them exceedingly warmly. We have 30-35,000 refugees here which compared to Poland is much fewer, but for Estonia, it is a huge number. Beginning from when they get there, the police give kids teddy bears and candy and then we do all the needed paperwork very quickly.
I have taken a family of two refugees to my farm and the bureaucracy has worked amazingly well. I got them their ID numbers so they will get digital identities and I took care of the formalities to open a bank account for them. I have also driven them to get the older woman registered for her pension, and to put the younger Ukrainian refugee’s CV on the unemployment list so she can get a job.
On the part of civil society, Estonians are donating everything. Many people have given their houses, apartments and furniture, while more wealthy Estonians are buying up four-by-four cars to send to the territorial defense units in Ukraine. One guy even bought 35 ambulances on his own!
The same thing is happening in Latvia as well. I think it goes back to the issue of experience. None of this that we see today is new to us. We have lived through it. You have lived through it. There is no need for me to teach Poles about your own history, though there is a need for all of us to teach Western Europe about our own history.
How does Estonia help Ukrainians in terms of military aid?
Estonia has given $220 million worth of military assistance to Ukraine. Notable is that if e.g. the UK has given $400 million worth of military aid with a population of 67.7 million, then Estonia, with a population of 1.3 million, has given almost half of what the UK has done, while their population is 50 times larger than ours. We have given more, even in absolute numbers, than Germany.
It is a fair bit, but there are reasons for that. We, as well as Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians, know what the Russians do. I do not think Estonians were really surprised by Bucha because we have similar experiences. It is no less horrifying, but when we see it, we know they could do that because they did that to us as well.
You mentioned earlier Russian cyberattacks in 2007. Now Estonia is a leader in cybersecurity in Europe. What Poland and Europe could learn from Estonia in this field?
What you need is a mandatory secure, end-to-end encrypted and unique identity for every person. One directive mandates that governments offer a secure, unique and then encrypted digital identity. But you have to have the political courage to say that everyone has to have it, otherwise, you will get no development of secure digital services.
Most countries have a very low rate of uptake, 15 to 20% of the population. The problem is that government ministries and agencies will not digitize services if 85% of the population does not have an ID. You have to bite the bullet. This is the advice I gave to Greece and they were smart enough to use the COVID pandemic to get people to seriously digitize.
When you have a unique identity for every person, you need to create a data exchange architecture and secure data integrity. Everyone is worried about privacy but you should worry about data integrity. Privacy is if someone can see my blood type or my bank account. Integrity is if someone changes the record of my blood type or my bank account, and that is a problem. Unfortunately, not only in Europe but also in the United States no one is really worried about it, though we do.
In terms of cyberwar, we are constantly in defense, being satisfied neutralising threats or removing the effects of an attack. Do you think we could adopt the “eye for an eye” strategy?
Only if we can identify who has done it. And that is very hard. The United States before the 2020 elections, having fully identified certain Russian sites, did go after them and it was effective. In terms of reprisal tactics, we have not really gotten there to be sufficiently convinced that we are attributing it to the right source.
The other side of that is even when you do figure out who did it, it may take even 8 months to get that answer. When you discover something does not work, you do a forensic investigation for many months. Maybe you will find out who did it, but that is a little late. So overall it is really tough.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves