Spiegel interiew with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves: “We want to Re-Write History”

June 26, 2007
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves discusses the dispute over the Soviet memorial in Tallinn, why the Nazis were not necessarily worse than the Soviets, and the ethnic Russians plotting against the Estonian state.

Nicole Maskus
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves during his interview with DER SPIEGEL in Berlin.

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, no other country has drawn the ire of Russia in recent weeks as much as little Estonia. Russian newspapers have called your country the EU’s “fascist backyard,” and a mob surrounded your embassy in Moscow. And all this because of the removal of a Soviet war memorial in the Estonian capital Tallinn?

Ilves: Sometimes we need someone to hate, a concept of an enemy. A year ago it was Latvia, nine months ago they deported hundreds of Georgians from Moscow and searched for schoolchildren with Georgian names, and now it’s our turn. Why? The fear is that true democracies will show the Russians that the philosophy of a “guided” democracy is wrong. If Western democracy, with freedom of the press and the rule of law, functions in Estonia, Ukraine and Georgia, then the argument that it cannot function in Russia, merely because they supposedly have a different culture, simply doesn’t hold water.

SPIEGEL: The dispute was triggered by a simple bronze memorial …

Ilves: I thought it wasn’t a good idea to move the statue. The matter was not important enough for Estonia to gamble away political capital. The real issue was public safety, because the monument developed into a place where anti-Estonian demonstrations were held, where Estonian flags were torn out of people’s hands and where some people held up slogans calling for the reestablishment of the Soviet Union. This angered Estonians. The Russians, for their part, insisted that this was a holy place and that any change would be blasphemy.

SPIEGEL: What do you envision as a solution?

Ilves: I would have given the monument a new meaning. Berlin has the Neue Wache (New Watchhouse), which was originally built as the royal guardhouse. In 1931 it became a memorial to those killed in World War I, and under Hitler it was called a memorial of the German Reich. In East Germany it was a memorial to victims of fascism, and in 1993 (former German Chancellor Helmut) Kohl made it into a memorial to the victims of war and violence. In short, its meaning changed.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves, 53, grew up in Stockholm. His parents, who had been active in the anti- communist resistance movement, fled to Sweden when the Soviets reoccupied Estonia in 1944. The family later emigrated to the United States, where Ilves studied psychology. He ran the Estonian- language section of Radio Free Europe from 1988 onwards. He was appointed Estonia’s ambassador to the United States, Canada and Mexico in 1993, and twice served as his country’s foreign minister. He was elected president in September 2006.
SPIEGEL: The conflict points out a fundamental difference between the Russian and Baltic views of history.

Ilves: Moscow lacks the will to really come to terms with the past. The Russians were prepared to open their archives 10 years ago, but not today. If you wish to build your new self-image solely on the basis of nationalism and glorifying the Soviet Union, then the crimes committed by Soviet troops are not something you want to see integrated into that picture.

SPIEGEL: Is that the reason no one in Russia talks about the occupation of the Baltic states in 1940?

Ilves: Moscow has returned to the old way of looking at things, according to which the Baltic states joined the Soviet Union voluntarily, that is, were not occupied. But this ignores the fact that in 1989 (former Soviet President Mikhail) Gorbachev admitted to the existence of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

SPIEGEL: Putin sees this completely differently. He accuses you of rewriting history and speaks of an “ideology of extremism” comparable to that of the Third Reich.

Ilves: Yes, in fact we do want to rewrite history. We want to rewrite Soviet history books. We want to fill in the gaps. Soviet history books contain just a single line about the Gulags, stating only that the camps were abolished. This means that the deportation of 30,000 Estonians to the Soviet Union on a single day in 1941 is being deliberately suppressed.
Toomas Henrik Ilves (r) met German President Horst Köhler in Berlin in February.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to the Estonians who were taken to Siberia after the Soviets invaded Estonia.

Ilves: One can disagree about the interpretation of history, but it’s very difficult to argue about crimes against humanity, mass graves and thousands of people who were shot. It is a fact that the Soviet Union committed massive crimes against humanity in the Baltic states and did not behave like a liberator. I think it’s offensive to accuse us of being fascists when we talk about Soviet crimes against humanity.

SPIEGEL: Germans are perplexed by the view of many people in the Baltic states that the Nazi occupation was not much worse than that of the Soviets.

Ilves: If you tell me that the Nazis were worse, then I would say to you that you are comparing the culinary habits of cannibals. I will not say who was worse. When it comes to the number of people murdered, I believe that the communists killed more people. Some say the Nazis were worse because the ideology behind their murders was worse. But for Estonians, our people were not murdered by communists or Nazis, but by Germans and Russians. The question of which ideology the murderers had is irrelevant to us.

SPIEGEL: If it is true, as Estonia claims, that the unrest in Tallinn was directly organized by the Russian embassy, that would mean that the Russian minority in Estonia is not sufficiently integrated, and is as a result easily provoked.

Estonia forms part of NATO and the EU’s eastern border with Russia.

Ilves: Forty percent of those who were arrested had criminal records, so we’re not talking about a representative cross-section of the Russian population living in Estonia. It certainly isn’t the case that 40 percent of Russians in Estonia have criminal records. They were hooligans. Are they integrated? Probably not. Of course, there are also people who resent the loss of their status as the master race, people who work with the Russian embassy, hold secret meetings and organize uprisings. They are a threat. But I believe that we have made a lot of progress on the whole. More than half of the Russians in Estonia have become Estonian citizens.

SPIEGEL: But there is an ongoing dispute over why Russian is not an official language in Estonia.

Ilves: Why should it be?

SPIEGEL: Because at least a quarter of the population are Russians.

Ilves: They’re welcome to speak Russian. But in light of the experiences we had during the occupation — when Russian was the official language and there were no doctors or civil servants who spoke Estonian — not a single Estonian would vote for a government that plans to change this. In this context, I’d like to mention a speech recently given by (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel. She said that everyone in Germany should learn and speak German, not only so that they can understand their teachers, but also so they can have an economic future in Germany. That’s what the German chancellor said.

SPIEGEL: But many Russians in Estonia feel like second-class citizens because, without a passport, they don’t even have the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

Ilves: They have more rights than non-citizens in most other countries. First of all, because they can vote in local elections. And secondly, because — if they truly want to vote — it’s very easy to become an Estonian citizen. We have much more liberal citizenship laws than Germany, Finland, Sweden and Denmark — not to mention Switzerland and Austria.
Members of the Russian nationalist movement Young Guards picket the Estonian Embassy in Moscow in February 2007. The slogan reads “Hitler is a Hero of Estonia.”

SPIEGEL: You were at the security conference in Munich when (Russian President Vladimir) Putin gave his now-famous speech against the American missile shield. How do you interpret the new tough talk coming from the Kremlin?

Ilves: People respect Germany because it is a reputable country that behaves in a normal and democratic way. It’s a rich country. Russia, on the other hand, they respect out of fear. I think part of what’s happening is an attempt to forge a new national identity that extends from Peter the Great through Alexander II to the Soviet experience. Referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century is like comparing apples and oranges. Celebrating the establishment of (the Bolshevik secret police) the Cheka by Felix Dzerzhinsky is the same thing as celebrating the founding of the Gestapo. There is no difference.

SPIEGEL: Those are strong words.

Ilves: What do you want me to say? In Russia, the president visits the headquarters of the Cheka or the KGB or, as it is now called, the FSB every year on December 20 to commemorate the anniversary of the Chekists. When I visited German President (Horst) Köhler, he thought I was crazy when I asked him whether he could imagine paying a visit to (Germany’s domestic intelligence agency) the Office for the Protection of the Constitution on the anniversary of the founding of the Gestapo. He looked at me as if he were asking himself: Who is this idiot who’s come to visit me from Estonia? I said: “But Putin does this every year.” He answered: “No.” I said: “Yes, he does.” Then his Russian advisor confirmed it, saying: “Yes, yes, he does do that.”

SPIEGEL: Since 1991, Russia has been trying to maintain its influence in former Soviet republics by fanning the flames of latent conflicts. It has also supported an autonomy movement in your country’s northeast, and now it is preventing heavy goods vehicles from crossing a bridge at the border. How effective can such leverage be in a country that is now a member of both the EU and NATO?

Ilves: As long as Moscow claims — as in the case of the boycott on Georgian goods — that it has nothing to do with politics, then it can do all kinds of things. In the case of our border bridge, they simply said: It needs to be repaired. But as soon as this becomes official policy, they are dealing with the EU. I believe Russia is currently testing the meaning of membership in the EU. They don’t know what it is yet, and they prefer to take bilateral action. The idea of a political union of nation states seems odd to the Russians.

SPIEGEL: How should the EU deal with Russia in the future?

Ilves: We must abandon the myth — which some people in Germany have propagated — that Russia is a large democracy. It simply isn’t. I believe that would save us some illusions. We will need a pragmatic relationship with Russia, because it supplies most of Europe’s natural gas.
SPIEGEL: But in the EU everyone decides for himself what exactly “pragmatic” means.

Ilves: Given Russia’s behavior, we must see ourselves first as EU states, and we must state that this or that is unacceptable, because we are a political union. Old and new members must act in concert. I always tell my Polish friends, you can’t be against the constitution and then expect solidarity from the EU when you have problems with Russia. Conversely — and I say this to my German friends — you cannot have a constitutional treaty and expect countries like Poland to agree to the “double majority” voting system when they don’t feel completely certain that they won’t be sold down the river to Russia in some dubious bargain.

SPIEGEL: Are you under the impression that the new EU countries with their unique historical experiences are not taken seriously in Western Europe?

Ilves: Yes. One cannot simply extinguish people’s memories in these countries. A common trait among the new EU countries is their pro-American stance, which results from their fear of Russia. It generates great resentment when people who don’t know Russia try to tell people who have experienced Russia at first hand what Russia and the Russians are like.

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, thank you for the interview.

Interview conducted by Christian Neef and Jan Puhl.

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