Toomas Hendrik Ilves
President of Estonia
Born December 26, 1953, in Stockholm, Sweden; married Merry Bullock (a psychologist; divorced); married Evelin Int-Lambot, 2004; children: Luukas, Juulia (from first marriage), Kadri Keiu (from second marriage). Education: Columbia University, B.A., 1976; University of Pennsylvania, M.A., 1978.
Addresses: Office —c/o Embassy of Estonia, 2131 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008.
Assistant director and English teacher, Open Education Center, 1979–81; director and administrator of art, Vancouver Arts Center, 1981–83; lecturer in Estonian literature and linguistics, Simon Fraser University, 1983–84; Radio Free Europe, analyst and researcher, 1984–88, and head of the Estonian desk, 1988–93; ambassador of the Republic of Estonia to the United States of America, Canada, and Mexico, 1993–96; Estonia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, December 1996–September 1998, and 1999–2002; joined Peasants' Party, 1998; elected to Estonian parliament, 2002; elected to European Parliament, 2004; Moderate People's Party, chair, 2001–02; elected president of Estonia, 2006.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves became president of Estonia in 2006, and is only the third person to hold the post since the Baltic republic regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Known as an ally of the West and ardent supporter of the European Union (EU), Ilves emerged as a surprise challenger to Russia, which had long attempted to control Estonia and the other Baltic territories, and sparred in the press with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two nations have a long and troubled history, and an independent Estonia seeks to reduce Russian interference in domestic and foreign policy. "The road to Moscow goes via Brussels" where the EU is headquartered, Ilves has famously asserted, according to the International Herald Tribune .
Ilves was born in 1953 to Estonian parents who had fled a repressive Soviet regime that installed itself in the Baltic nation following World War II. The family immigrated to the United States and settled in New Jersey. After his graduation from Leonia High School in 1972, Ilves attended Columbia University in New York City, earning his undergraduate degree in psychology in 1976, and went on for a master's in the subject from the University of Pennsylvania, which he received in 1978.
For a few years Ilves taught English at the Open Education Center in Englewood, New Jersey, and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, as director and administrator of art at an arts center in the Western Canadian city. He went on to teach Estonian literature and linguistics at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia before joining the staff of Radio Free Europe in 1984 as an analyst and researcher. This news service, based in Munich, Germany, broadcast anticommunist propaganda to the Soviet-controlled countries of Eastern Europe during the cold-war decades that followed World War II. Four years after he joined Radio Free Europe, Ilves was named head of its Estonian desk, a post he held until 1993.
Estonia, meanwhile, had finally achieved independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s after the disintegration of the Soviet communist regime. Ilves's fluency in English made him an ideal choice to serve as the newly independent republic's ambassador to the United States, Canada, and Mexico in Washington, D.C., a post he held from 1993 to 1996. He became Estonia's minister for foreign affairs in late 1996 in the cabinet of President Lennart Meri, serving until September of 1998, when he resigned to join the Peasants' Party, an agrarian-conservative opposition party. In March of 1999, after new parliamentary elections, Ilves returned to his post as foreign minister, serving until 2002.
The Peasants' Party went through several incarnations. It became the People's Party, which joined with another group, the Moderate People's Party, in 1999 to become the Moderate People's Party, which Ilves was elected to chair in 2001. A further shifting of internal alliances and splinter factions led to a reformulation of that group into the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of Estonia in 2003. A year later, Ilves was elected to the European Parliament as one of the first wave of official Estonian delegates sworn in when the country became a member state of the European Union. In March of 2006, he announced his candidacy in upcoming presidential elections as the frontrunner on a slate formed by the SDP along with two other groups, the Reform Party and Pro Patria Union. During the campaign, his political opponents attempted to portray him as an ally of U.S. President George W. Bush and frequently mentioned Ilves' years in the United States, Canada, and Germany.
Estonia elects its presidents by vote of the Riigikogu , or parliament, and the right-wing parties boycotted the August of 2006 voting. Ilves' main opponent was the incumbent, Arnold Rüütel, who was a former Communist and popular with both older voters and the large number of ethnic Russians who still lived in Estonia. Because of this, the election had to advance to an Electors' Assembly on September 23, and its 345 members—mostly Riigikogu legislators and municipal officials—chose Ilves over Rüütel by a vote of 174 to 162.
Estonia's president has little actual power, but he does serve as supreme commander of the country's military forces. His main tasks are to represent Estonia abroad and to quell the partisan bickering in the Riigikogu that hampers governments. A far more contentious battle soon erupted, however, that landed Estonia in news headlines in the spring of 2007: The Riigikogu had voted to remove "The Bronze Soldier," a memorial to World War II casualties that had been erected in a park in Tallinn, the capital, back in 1947. The remains of several soldiers were buried there, and legislators had approved a plan to relocate both the statue and the remains to a military cemetery. Moscow reacted strongly to this, as did ethnic Russians in Estonia. Their argument was that the Soviet Red Army had fought Nazi Germany—which had occupied Estonia during the war—and the memorial to the fight against fascism should not be disturbed.
To Estonians, however, the statue was a symbol of the long and restrictive Soviet occupation of their country. Estonia was an independent republic until the Soviet Union invaded in 1939, and its native political leadership essentially vanished—probably to prison camps in Siberia—once Estonia was formally annexed by the Soviet Union in June of 1940. "We don't want to be weighed down by the past," Ilves explained to Steven Lee Myers, a journalist with the New York Times , about the controversy over the statue. "We want to think about where we are going, what we are doing, but all of that sort of comes back when you have, basically, a very provocative demonstration glorifying the Soviet Union and Soviet power." When the Bronze Soldier was dismantled in May of 2007, civil disturbances in Tallinn left one person dead, and in Moscow diplomats were attacked outside the Estonian Embassy there. Ilves issued a cool rebuke to Moscow, asking that the Russians "try to remain civilized," according to the Guardian 's Ian Traynor.
Ilves has two children from his first marriage to an American psychologist, and a daughter born to his second wife, Evelin Int-Lambot, whom he married in 2004. He is frequently photographed wearing a bow tie, a sartorial habit he inherited from his father.
Guardian (London, England), May 3, 2007, p. 22.
International Herald Tribune , September 23, 2006.
New York Times , January 25, 2007.
Washington Times , November 29, 1996, p. 20.
"Biography," President of the Republic of Estonia Web site, http://www.president.ee/en/president/biography.php (May 9, 2007).