The peculiar predicament of Toomas Hendrik Ilves (8)
Archived Articles 19 Sep 2006 Justin PetroneEWR
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Imagine, that you were a foreigner not in one country, but in two countries, and maybe then you can begin to understand the peculiar predicament of presidential candidate Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

Ilves is a former Estonian foreign minister. He serves as Estonia's representative to the European Parliament. One of the main criticisms of Ilves is that he is a foreigner in his own country. That he doesn't know Estonia, as Villu Reiljan, Estonia's Minister of the Environment and head of the Estonian People's Party put it last summer.

So in the eyes of some, Ilves is not 'really' Estonian — he did not spend his entire life there. That much is true. He was born in Sweden to Estonian refugees and grew up in America. There are thousands of these väliseestlased around the world, from Australia to Canada. Most of them left Estonia, raised families in their adopted homelands, and never looked back except for vacation, or in some cases, to retire. In this way they are no different than any other immigrant community.

But on the other side of the equation there are those like Ilves who have returned. And those on the outside did work extremely hard to maintain Estonian visibility during the Soviet period. And when the wall came down, they came back. Ilves came back. He now lives in Viljandimaa on a farm. He renounced his American citizenship in the early 90s, and went on to serve the Estonian state. In the eyes of the US State Department, Toomas Hendrik Ilves is as American as Edgar Savisaar.

Yet when Ilves speaks English he speaks as an American. Some even allege that he thinks in English all the time, even when he is speaking in Estonian. And his mannerisms and demeanour seem out of whack compared to the less-animated posture of the young person that is a product of the Estonian school system. He is Estonian, yes, this much is true. But, on occasion, he smiles. And once in awhile it is a big open slack-jawed smile. When was the last time you saw any other Estonian politician muster that big a grin? Even Rüütel, who appears genuinely good natured, is incapable of that goofy American expression of joy. Behind closed doors, it is said that Ilves has been known to enjoy chewing gum and when he doesn't know what to do with his hands, he puts them in his pockets, even while in the company of others. And the hands in the pockets give him away. That's pure America.

But as American as Ilves is, he really isn't an American. Could Ilves pass as an American with his eurocratic style in US Congress? Can you imagine him in his smart bowtie throwing out the first pitch of the baseball season? Or how about leading a government meeting in the American pledge of allegiance? In each of these scenarios he would most likely fail. It is obvious where his allegiances lie — with Estonia. He wouldn't of packed up his life and started anew there if it wasn't so.

Ask yourself this? How many Americans are fluent in a tongue other than English? How many of them would be willing to give up their citizenship to return to the lands of their ancestors? How many have served as the foreign ministers of a small European country thousands of miles across the ocean? How many of them have a foreign wife and foreign child, work in Brussels and worry about a foreign country all the time? Not many. There may be a few in Washington, DC or Brussels and elsewhere, but these people are less genuinely American and more of that strange international breed of humanity which knows no true nationality and frequently winds up in the diplomatic arena. Perhaps Ilves is a member of that team.

Whatever his passport says, Ilves may spend the rest of his life sitting at the way station of nationalities. His parents were Estonians. His wife is an Estonian and his child is an Estonian. But in the eyes of „some“ he is not an Estonian. In the eyes of others, he is not American. He may always be something else.

(Justin Petrone lives in America and his wife is Estonian. His blog Itching for Eestimaa is at
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