The West can learn a lot from tiny Estonia about defending freedom.
TALLINN, ESTONIA—The walled Old City in Estonia’s capital, overlooking the Gulf of Finland, is the last intact medieval Hanseatic merchant town left in Europe—a monument to the unwillingness of this tiny country of 1.3 million to go away. Over the last eight centuries, having been overrun and occupied by one invader after another, Estonians have been masters of their own destiny for exactly four decades. Such is the fate of small countries with bigger, hungry neighbors.
Yet Estonia’s story over the past quarter-century, when the Soviet Union suddenly disappeared, has been a happy outlier. Regaining freedom after the Soviet implosion, Estonians worked hard to leave the Communist past behind and re-embrace their Western heritage with gusto. Their democracy is secure, their civil society is vibrant, and their economy bears few vestiges of the Soviet past. With an educated and English-speaking workforce—Estonians know foreigners will never learn their obscure and difficult language—the knowledge economy has thrived. Technology innovations are a staple of today’s Estonia (Skype being but one of their achievements), which is proud of its involvement in the cutting edge of e-everything.
Thanks to a national “smart” identity card, Estonians are far ahead of Americans in most things involving information technology. WiFi is everywhere and average citizens have gone paperless in their government interactions, voting and paying taxes online. The national ID card uses two-factor authentication, making it much more secure than anything online that’s merely password-protected.
One of the evangelists of Estonia’s e-revolution is Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a technology guru who happens to be the country’s president since 2006. Despite being past age 60, Mr. Ilves has an IT fan’s appreciation of how the digital revolution is reshaping his country—and the world.
A gadfly, and easily the most interesting head of state in Europe, President Ilves speaks several languages engagingly and his English is flawless, with a pronounced American lilt. This is because he is really from New Jersey. Like many Estonians, Mr. Ilves’ life story involves a meandering path to liberty reborn. A bit of the country’s recent history explains its president.
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