Prime Minister of the Republic of Estonia Jüri Ratas spoke to a standing-room-only audience at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies Tuesday, August 29. Travelling with an Estonian business delegation, the Prime Minister’s visit to Indiana included a meeting with business partners in Indianapolis as well as members of the city’s Estonian Society before the Bloomington appearance. The approach of Estonia’s centennial of independence provided the occasion for Ratas’ remarks about his country’s history, its commitment to justice, democracy, and international relationships, and its current global status as a technological and political leader.
Having established its independence from the Russian Empire in 1918, Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union during World War Two. The Baltic republic restored its independence during the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991, and became a member of the European Union and NATO in 2004. Estonia currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Estonia’s connections within the EU and across the Atlantic are critical, explained Ratas, who met with US Vice President Mike Pence in Tallinn in late July. Throughout the Soviet era, Ratas explained in his address, “the belief in a future freedom was vital for us in Estonia. We needed to feel the support of those on the other side of the Iron Curtain.”
Since the restoration of independence, Ratas explained, Estonia has practiced a foreign policy borne of its experience of isolation, which can be distilled in the phrase, ‘Never again alone.’ “It means closeness with countries whose values and vision of the world we share; those we can count on and who can count on us,” Ratas elaborated. “Establishing and maintaining such relationships requires intensive and continuous work: through diplomatic, cultural, economic, or personal relations.”
The prime minister has his own personal link to the Hoosier State. Ratas was introduced to Indiana when he came to visit his cousin Ain Haas in the summer of 1994. Haas, professor emeritus of sociology at IUPUI and the chairman of the Indianapolis Estonian Society, attended Tuesday’s address. “I learned a lot about your state,” Ratas recalled. “I came to understand the true meaning of Indy 500 cars, Indiana University basketball, and of course, Reggie Miller.” Sixteen at the time, Ratas would go on to serve as president of the Estonian Basketball Association, in addition to his many political posts.
Beyond a shared fervor for basketball, the connection between Indiana and Estonia is substantial. Not only is the state home to people of Estonian ancestry, Indiana University is one of only three American universities offering courses in Estonian culture and language. Undergraduate and graduate students may focus on Estonia within a major or minor in SGIS’s Department of Central Eurasian Studies, which grew out of an Army language training program established at IU during World War Two. IU has offered Estonian language instruction since 1952, a legacy that prompted some levity as the Prime Minister began his remarks. “Since I know you have been studying the Estonian language already for over 60 years here,” he told the audience, “I hope to speak in Estonian for the next thirty minutes.”
During his introduction of the prime minister, SGIS Dean Lee Feinstein drew attention to another connection between IU and Estonia. “We’ve been named the ‘most wired’ public university in the country, while Estonia is considered the Silicon Valley of Europe,” Feinstein noted. “Or perhaps, Silicon Valley should be known as the Estonia of the US.”
The birthplace of Skype, Estonia is a hub for technology startups and is renowned for the sophistication of its cybersecurity, the digitization of its government services, and the integration of computer programming in elementary education. The prime minister made it clear, however, that Estonia’s commitment to technological advancement serves a humanist purpose.
“Being good at digital governance has very little to do with technology and everything to do with the mind-set,” Ratas stated. “The technology that Estonia is based upon is old-school stuff, a system working perfectly without incident for 15 years now. The mindset means that we have to be open to new ideas. We need to be constantly ready to discover the uncharted territories, trying to re-invent our worldview and the tools we use to craft the everyday reality of our citizens.”
Technology has allowed Estonia to serve its citizens in an “invisible” way, Ratas explained, providing the example of how a new ID number is automatically generated upon the birth of a child. “And in a few minutes both of the parents will receive an email: ‘Congratulations, for the boy or girl. From now on, on that particular day in a month you will receive this much money from the government. And don’t worry about kindergarten; all has been taken care of.’”
In Estonia’s “hassle-free” system, as Ratas described it, 99.8 percent of banking transactions and 95 percent of income tax filings occur online. Not only does digitization save time, Ratas noted, but also money and trees. The financial benefit of digitizing services amounts to two percent of the annual Estonian GDP and “more than 300 meters of paper a month,” the prime minister explained, “meaning one Eiffel Tower a month or twelve Eiffel Towers a year.”
The strength of its digital infrastructure has demanded an emphasis on cybersecurity, Ratas stated, a field in which Estonia’s leadership was recognized by the establishment of the NATO Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn in 2008. Estonia’s participation in the trans-Atlantic alliance is critical, Ratas said, to “the international fight against terrorism and cyber threats,” as well as global economic vitality. With regard to frequent speculation about Russian aggression toward Estonia, Ratas expressed misgivings while stressing the need for the EU and the US to “convey a common message when we engage in bilateral contacts with Russia.”
Following his Bloomington engagement, the prime minister’s itinerary proceeds with a stop in San Francisco — to meet with members of the business community and visit the Stanford University library, renowned for its Estonian holdings — and in Los Angeles, where Ratas is scheduled to open the West Coast Estonian Days, part of the worldwide celebration of the Estonian centennial.