By Peter High, published on Forbes
From an early age as an Estonian refugee in the United States, Toomas Hendrik Ilves understood the transformative power of technology. He learned to code in BASIC in the 1970s. He would go on to study psychology at Columbia University and at the University of Pennsylvania, but as Estonia gained independence after the Soviet Union collapsed, Ilves returned to serve his country. Some of the earliest reforms that he ushered in involved the use of technology in schools. He also understood that the blank slate that the country had at its independence was a rare opportunity to rethink how a government interacted with its citizens.
Through many waves of innovation, the country not only made tremendous digital advances, but it also future proofed its technology. Ilves would become president of Estonia in 2006, serving for two terms through 2016. Along the way, he defended his country during the first cyber war with Russia, and ushered a number of radical digital ideas. He describes all of the above in this interview.
Peter High: You have an international background. You were born in Stockholm, Sweden to Estonian parents. You spent much of your upbringing in the United States in Leonia, New Jersey where you graduated from high school. You have degrees from Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. I am curious what you drew from the international experience in the development of your thought process?
President Toomas Hendrik Ilves: To begin with, growing up bilingual often has an impact on people’s thinking and their ability to see things from different perspectives. I am also the child of refugees, so I was far more tuned to foreign policy issues than normal kids my age. I remember beginning to read the New York Times when I was nine because of the Soviet Union and how that was connected to my parent’s country being occupied.
A second major influence is that I learned to program when I was in ninth grade. I had a math teacher who was doing her Ph.D. in Math Education and decided to teach a small group of us how to program. At the age of 14, I was programming in Basic. This was a unique experience, and it had a huge influence on me. It was the inspiration for the first digitization program in my country. Finally, I am fundamentally interested in democracy, and that was fueled by the enormous course load that is required for a Political Philosophy degree at Columbia. These were all influences when I was in the United States.
Later, when I went back to Europe, I worked as what you might call a cold-warrior. I was an analyst for Radio Free Europe, and, later, I headed the Estonian Service. Through this, I met a lot of authors who were part of the underground dissent decades before Estonian independence. Eventually, we would lead the independence movement. That was also formative.
High: It was in the early to mid-1980s that you returned to Europe through Germany at Radio Free Europe. In 1996, you became the Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was during that period in the early to mid-1990s that this radical transformation of the country began.
Estonia emerged from the Soviet Bloc after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is remarkable how the leaders of the country had the foresight to recognize this tabula rasa and not waste the opportunity to do something special. I am curious, why Estonia? What was it about that environment?
President Ilves: There are a number of reasons. I was the first Estonian Ambassador before I became a Foreign Minister to the United States after the occupation. That is how I became Foreign Minister. In many ways, we had a number of alternative paths before us in the early ‘90s. If you look at the history of post-communist countries, they seemed to have chosen every possible variant from harsh authoritarianism to the very open, liberal approach that we took. Our government focused on economic reforms, privatization, and liberalization of the economy. We created a currency board system that allowed convertibility of our currency at the time.
Much of the digital push was largely my input into the government. I looked at the situation and it seemed so backward. As a point of reference, in 1938, the last full year before World War II, Finland and Estonia had the same GDP per capita. When we emerged in 1991 from the Soviet period, Finland had a GDP per capita 13 times that the GDP per capita of Estonia. Then, we had this direct contrast between them. One of the things associated with that was the enormous success of tech in Finland, such as Nokia.
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