A Conversation With The President Of Estonia

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the president of Estonia, grew up in New Jersey and went to Columbia University. A few weeks ago, NPR's David Greene sat down with him ahead of his trip to the U.S. for this week's U.N. General Assembly.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

And, Robert, here's a little guessing game for our audience. Listen to this world leader speak and let's try to guess what country he leads.

President TOOMAS HENDRIK ILVES (Estonia): Well, I'm an American by accent and I grew up in the States, living there between the age of three and 24.

SIEGEL: He's the president of New Jersey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: That's actually very funny. He's Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the president of Estonia, but he grew up in New Jersey and went to Columbia University. He's one of the leaders I cover in my normal job as NPR's Moscow correspondent, and I sat down with him in Estonia a few weeks ago before he left for his trip to the U.S. for the U.N. General Assembly meeting this week. I went out to his sprawling farm in Estonia.

(Soundbite of wind chimes)

GREENE: We sat on a little patio with wind chimes hanging above us. The farm really fell into disrepair back during Soviet times. But after the Soviet collapse in 1991, Ilves returned to his homeland. He reclaimed the farm, spent days clearing away brush, which gave him something to talk about when former President George W. Bush visited Estonia.

Pres. ILVES: George Bush and I share a love of steel brush cutters. It turns out we use the same professional brush cutter. He asked me what I did. I said I cut brush. He says, oh, what do you use? I said steel. He goes, oh, me too.

GREENE: The 56-year-old president actually made me feel very overdressed on his farm. There I was in a suit. He was barefoot in a T-shirt. But things are relaxed in Estonia these days - far more so than two years ago. That's when Russia went to war with the former Soviet republic of Georgia. At that time, small democracies like Estonia, right on Russia's doorstep, feared being bullied. But Ilves says these days, Russia is much less intimidating.

Pres. ILVES: Because I think the smarter people running policy there realize that it is a dead end to act belligerently and aggressively towards small countries that are no threat. I mean, none of these countries are a threat.

GREENE: And Ilves gives some credit to President Obama. The U.S. policy of engaging Russia more, the so-called reset, he says, gave Russia an opening to soften its behavior, without having to losing face.

Pres. ILVES: Oh, now the U.S. has finally become reasonable. Now, we can talk to the United States, which allowed a whole series of other kinds of behaviors. Among those behaviors is much better policy towards all of the countries in Eastern Europe.

GREENE: What's interesting about Estonia, it's so close to Russia. You can take a bus, or even walk across a bridge between the two countries. But Estonia wants to be so far away. It joined NATO and the European Union, trying at every step to distance itself from the Kremlin and also to erase the hard days of Soviet occupation, when so many wealthy or outspoken Estonians were deported to Siberia.

President Ilves makes the argument that those memories are finally fading.

Pres. ILVES: I think the change will come with the younger generation. I mean, young people have no clue about a single-party, dictatorial state.

GREENE: Of course, Ilves himself is among those who didn't have to live through the darkest days. His parents fled during Soviet times to Sweden, where Ilves was born. Then it was on to the U.S. I asked him if this makes it difficult for him to connect with Estonians who did live through hardship during Soviet times. He insists his time abroad was nothing but a strength.

Pres. ILVES: My American undergraduate education probably gave me a better idea of the fundamentals of what European civilization is about, better than the undergraduate education you get at most European universities.

GREENE: Still, there can be awkward moments when President Ilves gets together with other European leaders.

Pres. ILVES: I was surprised by some of my French colleagues who immediately assumed that because I spoke English with an American accent, that therefore you must be a supporter of whoever is the current president of the United States. There seems to be this widespread feeling that, oh, American accent, therefore you like cowboy boots.

GREENE: I didn't ask him if he wears cowboy boots when he's clearing that brush on the farm. This week, Ilves is in the Big Apple for the U.N. General Assembly. And he told me when he visits the U.S., he often makes time for his old college roommates from Columbia. Not surprisingly, he's the only one at the table who can talk about long days at the office being a president in Europe. As for his roommates?

Pres. ILVES: They were all rich, quite rich. I mean, whether in sort of business or as bankers or doctors and lawyers, I look at their lives and I go, wow, I'm really poor. They look at me and they go, wow, you did something really outrageous and weird. And...

SIEGEL: But, you know, David, it's not so outrageous and weird, it turns out. A number of world leaders have earned degrees in the United States.

GREENE: Yeah, we were looking up a few. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the president of Liberia and she's the first female president in African history actually. And she was born in Monrovia but got a B.A. in accounting from the University of Wisconsin. Liberia's president also has degrees from the University of Colorado and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. So, a real tour of the U.S.

SIEGEL: All right. And Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earned a masters degree, also from Harvard's Kennedy School. And Felipe Calderon, the president of Mexico, got his masters...

GREENE: Harvard also I think, right?

SIEGEL: Also at Harvard's Kennedy School. On the other hand, Toomas Ilves has some company among Columbia alumni at the General Assembly among world leaders - the man who lives in the White House.

GREENE: Indeed.

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