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Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid on NATO, Russia, and Building a Digital Nation

November 19, 2019, 7:28 PM UTC

As Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and the European Union continue to butt heads over a range of territorial, anti-corruption, military, trade, and security issues, the Republic of Estonia finds itself caught in the middle—quite literally. 

The country shares large borders with Russia, Latvia, Finland, and Sweden. 

Estonia also has a very large and isolated Russian-speaking minority who had, until recently, been largely left out of establishment politics leading to fears that they were susceptible to annexation by Moscow. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, the first female and youngest-ever leader of the country, quickly realized that Estonia was at risk of being the next Crimea and has made moves to integrate that Russian population. 

“International experts have come to Estonia and commented on how wonderful how integrated our minority language groups are,” she said on Tuesday at the Fortune Global Forum in Paris. “It’s because they’ve lived for 30 years in an independent Democracy and have come to love their Democratic freedoms.” Russians living in Estonia, she said, don’t support the Putin-regime, and it’s important to acknowledge that “we don’t confuse people with their management, they are suffering. Let’s not add insult to injury,” to applause from the crowd.  

Russia, Ukraine, and Estonia

Still, Russia and Estonia are in a border dispute over Narva, a small town in Eastern Estonia where the majority of Russian-speakers live and which NATO keeps a careful watch over. Kaljulaid recently met with Putin and said she was outnumbered. “He had two ministers and I was alone so it was not really sporty, I would say,” she said. The pair spoke about “Ukraine, Georgia, all these hairy subjects” and the conversation is likely to continue as Kaljulaid said she invited the Russian president to an upcoming conference in Estonia. “I don’t like Putin’s regime,” she said, but when Russia is on your Eastern border you “can’t avoid them.” 

Estonia’s reliance on NATO to fortify and shield its eastern border against Russia is also behind Kaljulaid’s vocal support of the organization, and opposition to French President Emmanuel Macron calling it “brain dead,” in a recent Economist interview. “I’m somewhat disturbed by what what Macron said,” she commented Tuesday, claiming she also discussed NATO’s importance and success rate in an official meeting with President Donald Trump. 

“Everybody is fainting over the fact that we’re discussing whether we could have better strategic organization,” she said of reported troubles at the organization. “Yes we argue, but then we know how to implement…we’re not falling apart we just need to be frank about it. 

Anti-Russian sentiment, however, has fueled a recent string of far-right ministers who have promised to protect “indigenous Estonia.” The Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) won nearly 18% of the vote in elections held this March, and several members made the “OK” symbol now associated with white nationalists at their swearing-in ceremonies. There’s a fear that the election of EKRE members also plays into Russia by sowing division in the country. 

Kaljulaid used her platform at the Fortune Global Forum to claim Russian-speaking Estonians and members of the EKRE actually had common ground, politically. 

“You say far-right, but their economic policy isn’t right,” she said. “They are nationalosts, true but they’re also conservative in gay rights,” much like “our Russian-speaking population.” There is no “clear distinction between the Russian speakers in Estonia,” and others, she said.  

Turning a Digital Society Into a Digital Military Operation

Kaljulaid added that she didn’t think Russia was the great power her country and the European Union had to worry about anyway. “We need to worry about China, they’re coming close to being as powerful as the U.S… We still need to stick together because Europe and the U.S. together make up 50% of the world’s GDP,” she said. 

One concern with China is its liberal use of artificial intelligence in weaponry. Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million people, has made great leaps and bounds in recent years in becoming a “digital society” and Kaljulaid says she often thinks about how that will extend to AI. 

Others in Europe are also looking to the Baltic country for guidance on how to leap into the 21st century and keep up with competitors abroad. 

The country has a protected data embassy located in Luxembourg, and citizens can finish their taxes online in just five minutes. About 99% of all public services, including banking and healthcare records, are available online 24/7, and a third of citizens vote on the internet. Every school in the nation is also online, and the country has implemented a safety system that pairs physical ID cards with digital signatures.  

It’s important to create a trust between the government and its citizens, said Kaljulaid. If anyone accesses her health files, she gets an alert, she said. Whereas if her records were kept on paper at a doctor’s office, she wouldn’t know who was looking at them. Still, the country suffered from a major data breach in 2007 that led to the establishment of the NATO Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, which regularly conducts cyber defense drills. In 2017, there were a reported 10,000 cyber incidents in the country. 

Still, argues Kaljulaid, at a state level, cyber security is “much better regulated than” at a corporate level. And, it’s time to think about how to apply that model to defense and weaponry, she said. 

“If we need to use AI for future weaponry, we need to figure out how to accommodate this,” she said. “China has no problems with privacy rights and its AI can learn faster than ours because of that.”

The question, asked Kaljulaid, is if “we should do something about it and create safe legal spaces for face-recognizing technologies.”

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