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A Vibrant Culture Smooths a Transition to Democracy

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia from 2006 to 2016, shares how Estonia’s independent culture made its transition to democracy easier than some nations after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Interview with Toomas Hendrik Ilves June 23, 2022 //   16 minute read
Celebrating Day of Independence in Tallinn, Estonia on February 2013. (via Shutterstock)

Toomas Hendrik Ilves served as President of Estonia from 2006 to 2016. The son of Estonians forced to flee their country, Ilves spent his formative years in the United States, graduating from high school in New Jersey. From there, he earned degrees at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania, taught school in Canada, and worked as a journalist before becoming Estonia’s foreign minister in 1996. Since leaving the presidency, he has served as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution and is now Visiting Professor of Democracy in the Digital Age at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

President Ilves explains in this interview the importance of a vibrant culture in helping nations make a transition to democracy. As he tells David Kramer, the Bradford M. Freeman Managing Director of Global Policy at the George W. Bush Institute, and Christopher Walsh, Deputy Director of Freedom and Democracy at the Bush Institute, Estonia’s independent culture made its transition to democracy easier than some nations after the Soviet Union collapsed. Estonia’s culture also led to a fierce determination, he says, to build strong institutions that could avoid Soviet-style corruption.

Let’s start with Estonia. Why has your country been such a success when it comes to democratic transition?

There is a plethora of answers. Starting with Joseph Stalin, who said in a text that was then subsequently scrubbed from [Vladimir] Lenin’s complete correspondence for the following 75 years: "You could never incorporate into the USSR countries that have enjoyed their foreign embassies abroad, their own flags, their own diplomats."

That gets at why 20 years of independence on the part of the three Baltic countries – Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia – created a whole different understanding. What we were going through was occupation rather than their revolution. No one ever took their revolution seriously.

There was always an attitude in Estonia of “when we get independent.” That’s why a large number of people, mainly in the intelligentsia, saw the Gorbachev perestroika was a possibility to achieve independence. They began to plan what to do. People thought they were crazy. But there were seminars, papers on economics and forms of government, and debates that were carried out before independence even came. The attitude was one of, we will be ready when it comes.

Indicative of that preparation was that within three weeks of the declaration of independence, we started a constitutional convention to figure out what kind of constitution we wanted.

We were ready. If you contrast that readiness to a lot of other countries, independence basically fell on their laps. Even if there were movements for independence, the idea that you would be independent didn't cross their minds much. That also led to the smooth transition from being the first chairman of the Communist Party to becoming president right after that, which is a rather common phenomenon in those countries, though unique elsewhere.

There was always an attitude in Estonia of “when we get independent.” That’s why a large number of people, mainly in the intelligentsia, saw the Gorbachev perestroika was a possibility to achieve independence. They began to plan what to do.

Another factor leading up to Estonia’s transition is the influence of television. That sets us apart from even the other Baltic countries. Estonia was the only part of the Soviet Union that had a clue what capitalism was about.

This led to some bizarre ideas. Since Estonians watched Finnish television, which did not dub its programs, they ended up with pretty decent English. Their favorite programs were Dallas and Dynasty, so they had this image that all Americans had four-car garages. This led to some interesting events when you would visit your relatives in the West and say to them, "You only have two cars?"

But there was this understanding that capitalism is probably pretty good, even though there was never anything negative about the Soviet Union on Finnish television. 

We also opted for a parliamentary system, which puts Estonia more or less together with Latvia and Lithuania. And at least for the first 15 years after the Soviet collapse, that set us apart from all the other former Soviet republics.

I remember reading a comparative politics paper about how parliamentary systems generally tend to remain democratic. It is notable that, even though their transitions to democracy have endured challenges, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine all later opted for parliamentary systems.

In a presidential system, especially as you near the end of your term, you start to worry about what you did that wasn't so nice or legal, and then you decide that maybe you don't want to leave office. In a parliamentary system, they're always collapsing, even though we made it difficult in our constitution for governments to fall in the middle of their four-year terms. Parliamentary systems tend to have less stable governments. But, at the same time, they allow for corrective action to be taken when you get a rogue head of government, as we have experienced in recent times even in established democracies.

----dynamic----

 

We also enacted a series of laws that put Estonia on the path to being quite capitalistic. Against the advice of the International Monetary Fund, we ditched the ruble, adopted a currency board system that was fully convertible, made land sales open to foreigners, allowed full repatriation of profits for foreign companies, an approach that in comparison to other countries brought in foreign investment. All of these things spurred economic growth. 

One more crucial step was a law that created a professional civil service. If you were a minister, you had two advisors or counselors and everyone below that was apolitical or non-political. The highest authority in a ministry is a career civil servant. That led to a far more professional civil service than elsewhere, where it was fairly common that when a government changed, everyone down to the cleaning lady changed.

Of course, we were beset with all kinds of problems, beginning with the Russians cutting off our gas. Boris [Yeltsin] the Great cut off our gas supply in the winter of 1991 and 1992. It was not a fun thing to do.

Let me ask you about the role of culture and history impacting a country's ability to transition to democracy. Ukraine, for all its fits and starts, was moving in a more democratic direction. Russia, of course, has moved in the exact opposite direction. So, what about the role of culture and history in a country?

Things like the glorification of the state help focus the mind. I have not done studies, but I have my doubts as to how wonderful the USSR appeared to Ukrainians when the state, after all, was the problem.

Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet, writer, and public figure, is a pretty good example of a culture that has been for independence since the 19th century. And that culture is part of the 19th century national awakenings that took place all across Central and Eastern Europe.

There was this idea that the ultimate unit of society is culture, which was opposed to the Lockean, Jeffersonian, and French idea that the basic unit is the individual. The fact that there was a culture of national pride in Ukraine, and that Ukrainians were not necessarily just Russians as [Vladimir] Putin and the Soviet Union have pushed for all these years, has had a tremendous effect. 

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On the negative side, I was asked in 1999 by the United States' own National Security Council to go to Ukraine and talk about what Estonia did right. At the end of my long boring talk, sort of a longer version of what I'm doing today, the first question was “We can’t do what you did because you’re a small country and we’re a large country.”

The second hand went up and said to his colleague, “No, you're an idiot. The reason they're successful is because they're Lutheran and we’re Orthodox.” That was an interesting idea, and then the third hand went up and said, "No, no, no, it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the fact that Estonia was not occupied for 70 years, but for 50, and so people had their memories from their grandmothers of what independence was like."

The rest of the discussion was about why Ukraine couldn't do what we did. That led me to pen an aphorism that “all successful countries have reformed alike, and each unsuccessful country finds its own excuse.”

The fact that there was a culture of national pride in Ukraine, and that Ukrainians were not necessarily just Russians as [Vladimir] Putin and the Soviet Union have pushed for all these years, has had a tremendous effect.

Do you think that one day, after Putin and the system he has entrenched are gone, Russia could move toward democracy?

I don't think nations are genetically prevented from becoming democracies. But there are quite a few cultural hurdles to overcome.

Russia is a very status-driven society and has been since about the 16th century. Richard Pipes' Property and Freedom book makes a strong case that the complete absence of property rights in Russia has really messed it up. The example Pipes cites is that in the UK, you could lose your head for offending the queen, but your family still maintained its property. But since all property was owned by the czar, if you offend the czar, not only did you lose your head, but your family lost everything as well.

That’s an early cultural advantage of at least Latvia and Estonia, which maintained their special German property rights. The German property rights have been there since the 13th century. You could buy and sell property, and your property wasn't confiscated if you ran afoul of the authorities.

There is also the Protestantism and spirit of capitalism argument that Max Weber has made. You see confirmation of it in this part of the world.

Secondly, as late as the 1896 all-Russia census, the literacy rate in Estonia was 92%, and the literacy rate among our compatriots who lived adjacent to administratively Lutheran Estonia was 7%. That is strictly a result of the requirement of the Lutheran church that all people read the Bible instead of listening to their priests.

These cultural effects can be long lasting.

Can Russia ever do it? All countries are capable of it, though in the most successful cases, which are Germany and Japan, they had a good deal of help from General Lucius Clay and General Douglas MacArthur. Generally, military occupations are not beneficent like that, but in the Japanese and German cases, the United States changed the way things were done in those countries.

Beyond the military occupation route, what nation or nations have managed a transition to democracy well? And how did they do it? Is there a secret sauce?

I am with [Francis] Fukayama in this case. Building strong institutions is critical. Estonia is one of the least corrupt countries in the world today. But we were horrible 30 years ago. We were no different from the Soviet Union. People, though, didn’t want to be like the Soviets. And now we are so highly digitized that corruption gets caught. It’s very hard to do corruption in this country, especially the low-level corruption that eats away at public trust in governance.

I don't think nations are genetically prevented from becoming democracies. But there are quite a few cultural hurdles to overcome.

There's high level corruption, such as paying off a minister for a better tender or something. But low-level corruption, where you must pay off a bureaucrat to get something done, is very hard to do in a digital society where you can do non-discretionary decisions online. No bureaucrat can decide how much you have to pay or what you have to pay him. It happens digitally.

In turn, this provides institutional trust. This does not mean that Estonians like their government’s leaders, but they trust the institutions that administer the state.

What about the reverse? Why are some countries where democracy has consolidated, like in Hungary or the Philippines, going backwards now?

I wish I knew. I think it's a matter of the binary nature of the first-past-the-post electoral systems leading to winner-take-all results. This is one reason parliamentary systems are inherently more stable. You end up with coalition governments. Sometimes they can be not as rapidly acting as presidential systems. But having a coalition of parties that are more or less centrist generally keeps the wackos on the sidelines, be they far left or far right.

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I don't know about the Philippines, but countries that have populist leaders all seem to have first-past-the-post elections. Those lead to two-party systems, where you go further from the center to win the primary. In the United States, both Republicans and Democrats end up with people who win their primaries who are far to the left or far to the right of the country's mainstream.

This leads, I think, to more of the rhetoric that you don't see much of in countries with a parliamentary system. So, I'm a strong fan of parliamentary systems.

You can solve it, I guess, in the U.S. with a ranked-choice voting system.  But it’s been done very little in the United States.

But low-level corruption, where you must pay off a bureaucrat to get something done, is very hard to do in a digital society where you can do non-discretionary decisions online. No bureaucrat can decide how much you have to pay or what you have to pay him. It happens digitally.

The polarization that comes out of the electoral system feeds most of the populism. If you get into power, you have the old, "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely," mentality. What we see in Hungary today is a dismantling of the Montesquieuan institutions, the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. That’s also been attempted in Poland.

I don't have a good answer, but the mechanics of elections matter.