Estonia’s president came to Tallinn by way of the Jersey Turnpike

September 3, 2014

TALLINN, ESTONIA - The president of Estonia grew up in a spot that couldn't be farther in distance or spirit from this medieval walled city: northern New Jersey.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves was born in Sweden to Estonian refugee parents but spent his formative years and early adulthood in Jersey. Ilves may now be president of Estonia, but the guy from Leonia but still claims Garden State bona fides. 

"I knew who Bruce Springsteen was before he had his first record," he told USA Today last year - something President Obama noted when the two held a press conference here Wednesday afternoon. 

Ilves moved to Leonia, a borough of 9,000 people a short trip over the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, when he was three years old. He grew up there and learned computer programming at Leonia High School. Ilves graduated as valedictorian in 1972 and went on to receive degrees from Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania.

In New Jersey, Obama said, Ilves "is still known as Tom." Ilves's daughter lives in New Jersey, Obama said.

Ilves was teaching in Vancouver when he moved over the Atlantic to work at Radio Free Europe. After Estonia declared its independence, he was asked to join the government. In 1993, he became an ambassador and has been president since 2006.

"I was one of the few people who knew something about Estonia and the United States who did not have a background in the KGB," he said. "I had to renounce my United States citizenship, and take a tenfold cut in pay," he told The Record in 2008.  

Obama said Ilves's life "reflects the story of your nation, the son of refugees who returned home to help chart a path" to a free Estonia.

Ilves credits the programming classes he took at Leonia High School with his work to turn Estonia from a country that essentially had no communications infrastructure after independence to what is now a European Silicon Valley of sorts. The most notable example? Skype was created in Estonia.

“Not many know where Estonia is, but everyone knows Skype. So now I say I’m the president of the country where Skype is,” Ilves told Skype employees in Silicon Valley a few years ago, according to Skype. 


U.S. President Barack Obama (R) walks with his Estonian counterpart President Toomas Hendrik Ilves as they review military troops at Kadriorg Palace in Tallinn September 3, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing (ESTONIA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)

Many people may not know Ilves, but they may have spotted the world leader at major gatherings sporting a bow tie, a fashion statement he's come to prefer. He donned a striped one with a three-piece suit Wednesday.

Finland once offered Estonia its antiquated analog telephone system when it was upgrading to a new one. Estonia declined and built its own communications systems -- including digital telephones -- in the 1990s, and gambled on the Internet. It also started putting most government functions online, not even bothering to create a paper system for some offices.

Estonia now bills itself as "E-Estonia."

"Most Estonians would not even consider doing things the old-fashioned way, like physically visiting an office when the process could easily be completed online," the government's official website says, alongside photos of people connected to laptop in the country's forests. 

Young entrepreneurs have started the Twitter hashtag #Estonianmafia to promote Estonian startups. In 2012 the country started a public-private partnership to help teach children in school how to code.

About 90 percent of Estonia's 1.3 million people have electronic identification cards that allow them to bank, vote and access services. The card requires a PIN to use and holds a digital signature and a certificate to authorize one's identity.

About 94 percent of Estonians filed their taxes online last year and about a quarter of people voted online in the country's 2011 Parlimentary elections. Ninety-eight percent of all banking is done online.

It is a system whose roots took shape when Ilves was a teenager in Leonia, first learning programming.

"That was something that shaped my thinking regarding Estonia," Ilves told USA Today. "The idea that we should be getting our young people to work with computers."

Obama quipped that he should have called Estonia -- where health records are online -- for some technological help last year.

"I should have called the Estonians when we were setting up our health care website," Obama said.

  

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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