1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Freedom of the press is of paramount importance to Estonian President IlvesImage: Sergej Morozow

Democrats and Bullies

July 13, 2007

DW-WORLD.DE spoke to Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves about the challenges facing his country and its stormy relationship with Russia.

https://p.dw.com/p/BFHV
Estland Tallinn Kriegerdenkmal Tag der Befreiung
People lay flowers at the statue at its new location, a military cemetery outside center of TallinnImage: AP

Ilves grew up in the United States and attended Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. He became president of Estonia on Oct. 9, 2006.

In May 2007,
Estonia came under a wave of crippling cyber attacks, which jammed government and business Web sites from computers all over the world. Computer security experts, however, say that, particularly in the early phase, some attackers were identified by their Internet addresses -- many of which were Russian.

It is believed the attacks were prompted by the Estonian government's decision to remove a Soviet Second World War memorial from a downtown memorial in the capital city on April 27. The decision caused an outrage among ethnic Russians in Tallinn and provoked angry condemnation from Russian officials.

DW-WORLD.DE: Who do you feel was behind the cyber attacks against the Estonian government?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves: It was not only the Estonian government. It was a number of Web sites including private banks, the emergency number system 112, and the press. I don't know who's behind it, but clearly it was organized.

Is it coming from Russia?

Well, in onе way or another, it's associated with Russia, clearly. And I think there is no doubt in anybody's mind about that.

Do you feel that this could be considered an attack on NATO?

That's a discussion we have to have in NATO. In Washington, I met with a number of security policy experts from the National Defense University. We agreed that we actually need to find an answer to this, because articles 4 and 5 of NATO's founding charter are about what is considered an attack. The thinking there is from 1949 and things are very different today.

Wladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin strongly opposes US plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern EuropeImage: AP
Estlands Präsident Hendrik Ilves
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the interview with Deutsche WelleImage: Sergej Morozow

Are countries with questionable commitment to democracy -- Russia and Belarus, for instance -- a threat to European security?

I would say that countries like Georgia or Estonia come under absurd attacks because they are democratic. They wouldn't come under these absurd attacks if our neighbors were themselves democratic countries. Are we threatened? Well, we have already been threatened -- just look at the Russian threat to retarget missiles and all kinds of threats that we in Estonia have seen in the past three months. Those are threats. What more can I say?

Can small countries like Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine be a threat to Russia?

I don't think so. 60 percent of people in Russia think the biggest threat to Russia is Estonia. Let's keep in mind, though, that the population of Russia is 143 million. And what is the size of Estonia? 1.4 million people -- that's one hundred Russians for every Estonian. Estonia's army has 4000 men. How are we a threat to anybody?

I think, philosophically, we are a threat. Philosophically, we are a threat because on the territory of the former Soviet Union, in a formerly communist country, you have freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free and fair elections. That's the only kind of threat I imagine Estonia can be to anybody.

But how then would you explain those fears that exist in Russia regarding Estonia?

If you don't have a free press and you don't have freedom of speech, then the press can whip up anything. When we moved the statue from one place to another, that caused hysteria in Russia. It was forbidden in the Russian media to talk about the fact that they simply destroyed a monument in Moscow the week before.

Why did the Estonian authorities move the monument before the 9th of May?

Estland Tallinn Unruhen um sowjetisches Kriegerdenkmal weiten sich aus
Exploding flares the streets of central Tallinn during riots over the Soviet monument moveImage: AP

It was a public security threat: Estonians were faced with people having rallies, supporting the Soviet Union, ripping Estonian flags out of people's hands. The monument was there for all these years and was not a threat. When it became a threat, we moved it. If something else becomes a threat, we will move that, too.

How would you describe Russian President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy?

Well, it seems to be unnecessarily angry. The European Union and the West, in general, would very much like to have good relations with Russia. It is in Estonia's interests to have good relations with Russia. This hostility that we keep seeing seems very irrational to us. We don't understand it.

I think that much of Russian foreign policy today seems to be driven by a desire to re-establish some lost greatness of the Soviet Empire. Russia wants to be respected. But it is not respected when it behaves this way. When it threatens and bullies little counties, it doesn't make people say: "Wow! We must respect Russia."

Estland Tallinn Unruhen um sowjetisches Kriegerdenkmal weiten sich aus
Estonian police cordon a battle-scarred street of Tallinn after the riotsImage: AP

We can see that with countries like Germany. Germany doesn't bully anyone. Germany is probably the most respected country in Europe today. It is a big powerful country with economic might and everyone respects it because no one fears it. Great countries in the 20th and the 21st centuries are democratic countries.


Why does Estonia support Georgia and Ukraine in their intention to join NATO?

There are two mechanisms to support new democracies -- one is NATO membership, the other is the prospect of EU membership. For reasons that have nothing to do with Ukraine or Georgia, but rather with internal EU matters, the EU is not going to get involved in taking new members for a long time.

Do think that NATO can secure democracy?

It can help. If a country wants to join NATO, then it has to do a lot of things in order to get membership and it has to meet standards of democracy that NATO sets out.

DW-WORLD.DE's Russia correspondent Sergey Morozov interviewed President Ilves in Tallinn.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

US Patriot missile defense batteries newly installed at the Rzeszow airport located near the Poland-Ukraine border in Rzeszow, Poland

Ukraine calls for air defense help, NATO vows not to waver

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage