Jonatan Vseviov, Estonia‘s ambassador to the United States, can present his country’s evolution from the downtrodden annex of the Soviet Union into the embodiment of Western ideals much like a fairy tale.
During his visit to Atlanta last week, he spoke of Estonia’s “prison” past under the Soviets for 48 years until its independence in 1991 and its transformation into a healthy democracy and vibrant economy.
It also is a world leader of electronic voting and an increasing tourist attraction by maintaining its natural beauty and the medieval architecture of Tallinn, its capital, with structures predating Christopher Columbus‘ voyages to the Americas.
This past Sunday Estonia once again provided a model for democracies contemplating voting over the internet when it held its parliamentary elections. According to published reports, nearly a quarter of its 881,000 eligible voters used e-voting. Estonians have been able to vote online since 2005.
Estonia’s center-right Reform party, which has a pro-business platform, won 29.4 percent of the vote, and now must form a coalition government. Should it be able to do so, Estonia will have its first female prime minister. Kaja Kallas, 41, is a former member of the EU parliament who specialized in digital issues and the daughter of Siim Kallas, the 14th Estonian prime minister who also was an EU commissioner.
Mr. Vseviov told an Atlanta Council on International Relations (ACIR) luncheon Feb. 28 that it took him a matter of minutes to vote in the parliamentary elections on line from Washington. At a breakfast of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta the following day he repeated that it took him even less time to complete his taxes online. “It takes most no longer than 30 minutes,” he added, which drew sighs from the breakfast attendees who grapple with complex U.S. forms.
In an interview with GlobalAtlanta, Mr. Vseviov also underscored what he considers the “miracle” of Estonia’s transformation in 28 years, but like any good fairy tale he also evoked surroundings cloaked in dark, threatening shadows.
He had no hesitation in naming names and immediately underscored the threats that Russia and other totalitarian and authoritarian governments present to Western values embodied in its Estonia’s Declaration of Independence, also known as the Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia, its republic’s founding act in 1918.
“The clouds are gathering again,” he said. “Russia is a challenge to the West. We are facing a new world with the breaking up of the NATO alliance, China rising, the Middle East in chaos, the impact of globalization and technology changes that are leaving some people behind.”
“Russia may be relatively weak,” he added. “But the weaker they are the more dangerous they may become. You can’t underestimate the Russians. The Russian leaders can’t retire and become professors or write books. They are at a higher risk and have to retain power.”
And to retain influence, he added, they are mastering cyber attacks and adopting Nazi subterfuges as they have against Crimea and the eastern portions of the Ukraine.
Estonia learned the hard way about Russian meddling in its elections in 2007 when it was hit by a series of distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, which temporarily crippled the country’s online governance system.
The extent of the damage was widespread. Cash machines and online banking services were knocked out; government employees were unable to communicate with each other and journalists couldn’t deliver the news.
Besides voting, Estonians today conduct their banking, their purchases and all of their government transactions online. “We have emerged as a digital nation, Europe’s new tech hub and others are now catching on.” he told ACIR explaining that the country reemerged from Soviet dominance simultaneously with the birth of the internet.
“We welcomed innovation, even a national ID hasn’t scared Estonians,” he said. “In Estonia, you are you,” he clarified even with the ID, which is a card issued by the government similar to a driver’s license. “You are the owner of your data. No one has access to your data but yourself.”
“We are a very private people,” he added, indicating that if there was any suspicion that personal information would be accessed or abused the system wouldn’t work.
With Russia on its border and its 2007 experience not forgotten, however, Estonians are wary and protective of their technology and have developed a voluntary Cyber Defence Unit, which is made up of average citizens outside government who are information technology specialists in key cyber-security positions and experts in other fields including lawyers and economists who volunteer to protect Estonian cyberspace.
As a small country with a relatively small population, many of its citizens know each other personally and work together closely to protect their democracy, he said.
Mr. Vseviov elaborated on how much worse the impact of hackers’ attacks could be once the internet-of-things’ services are compromised including household appliances and logistics operations responsible for delivering food to grocery stores.
Due to its size, warnings are generally respected such as individuals guarding against outside interference by not opening links with which they were unfamiliar and updating antivirus software. These are presented, he said, with the same seriousness as brushing teeth to prevent cavities.
To highlight the extent of the threat to cyber-security, he said the Estonian government determined that the 2007 crisis originated in Russia, but was actually enabled through computers located throughout the United States and Egypt. Why the U.S.? — because of the number of easily accessible computers from which to launch the attack once they were taken over. Why Egypt? — because of the lack of prophylactic software on its computers.
While these 21st century threats are a daily concern, he said that traditional military aggression remains as much a fact of life as in the past.
“NATO has woken up from two decades of sleep,” he said at the ACIR luncheon. “Some thought that history had ended and state conflicts were of the past. They weren’t taking the challenges seriously. But due to our proximity to Russia, we knew that they were smart and ruthless and that they were doing things people didn’t know.”
Having been occupied by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Mr. Vseviov said Estonians were well-aware of the repressive measures of authoritarian governments. While Estonia is too small to be much of a military target for today’s Russia, the former KGB operatives running the current Russian government, he said, are able to exacerbate political and ethnic divisions in many target nations abroad.
He compared Russian tactics to those of Nazi false flag operations in which Nazi troops dressed in Polish military uniforms to attack German radio stations and other installations to provide Hitler with an excuse for inviting Poland and launching World War II.
He said that Russia’s “little green men” who have invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine wearing nondescript uniforms to disguise their Russian identities have adopted a similar strategy.
“The first lesson learned from its years of occupation,” he added, “is that we must never be alone again.” For this reason, he told ACIR, Estonia has joined every Western institution possible including NATO, the European Union and the euro.
“The second lesson,” he added, is that not fighting as Estonians first attempted when the Germans invaded in 1941 “is not the safest option.”
And, without mentioning the current U.S. administration, he warned that the U.S. should not abandon its role since the end of World War II as the main protector of the liberal democratic order.
“This is not a fairy tale,” he concluded.
Mr. Vseviov was appointed Estonia’s ambassador to the U.S. last year. The appointment marked his third posting to the U.S.. From 2016 he was permanent secretary of Estonia’s Ministry of Defense and played a major role in shaping his country’s defense policy.
He is a reserve officer in the Estonian military, a graduate of the University of Tartu, with a master’s degree with honors in security studies from Georgetown University.