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The Estonian Way of Letting Them Eat Cake

You might remember an ex-Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves for being called by a wrong name by Sky News’s Dermot Murnaghan last year or because he simply reminded you of a fat penguin with an exquisite bowtie, it isn’t how the Estonians will remember him. Or at least these won’t be their first thoughts. What will spring up to their minds will undoubtedly be the recent scandals about Ilves’ lavish lifestyle during his presidency with thousands of taxpayers’ money spent on restaurants, short mid-term breaks and Versace boutiques.
Before becoming the small Baltic state’s president in 2006, Ilves, 63, had reportedly said in an interview to the USA’s ambassadors that he didn’t wish to become the Estonian president and “sacrifice his comfortable life in the West for “living on the border of poverty”. However, released this February, the President’s Office’s state credit card records for the years of 2011–2016 — Ilves’ second term — shed some new light on his spending. And, at the end of the day, he didn’t have to be bothered about money sufficiency at all.
The ex-president has had it all for 10 years — luxury, women, the attention of international media, smiles. What he might have lacked was…khmm… decency. Ilves’ state credit card’s expenses reached 94, 000 euros the last nine months in 2016 — it’s more than a half of the sum the taxpayers had paid for his first term in a presidential chair.
In 2011, the then-president spent around 33, 000 euros a year, and his annual state spending during the next three years was a double of that. By 2015 the spending has already arrived at 75, 000 euros, growing like yeast in hot cross buns. So what’s the problem, would you say?
First of all, Estonia is a small country with a population of only 1, 3 million. Ilves’ salary was around 5, 300 euros per month and Estonian First Lady received 30 per cent of her husband’s salary, adding 1, 600 euros into the family budget. At the same time, according to Statistics Estonia, the average monthly gross wages were 1, 119 euros, thus, the monthly net salary was approximately 900 euros. Additionally, last year the unemployment rate reached 6, 8 per cent.
You might also consider the fact that two out of three Ilves First Ladies — all blondes and younger than him — have been foreigners, and it’s all a bit too much. The first Mrs. Toomas Hendrik Ilves was American psychologist Merry Bullock with whom he has two children — Luukas Kristjan and Juulia Kriistine. In 2004, Ilves married Evelin Int-Lambot, who he divorced 11 years later, after multiple scandals in the Estonian press when Evelin was noticedkissing a handsome young fellow in a nightclub. But the ex-president didn’t have much time for sorrow as two years later he found a third spouse — Ieva Kupče, a Latvian national who works for the Latvian Ministry of Defence and is also the head of the National Cybersecurity Policy Coordination Section. She speaks a few words in Estonian. What a bloody soap opera.
However, what’s the biggest problem here is what that money had been spent on. The state credit card was meant to cover his “service” expenses such as food, hotels and transportation. Private purposes weren’t supposed to be covered with it. Maybe, just maybe, it was OK to purchase a mosquito repellent for 49 euros in order to protect a German President Joachim Gauck at Arma Farm, Ilves’ family farmhouse where he used to host EU ambassadors. But what about the rest of the ridiculous amounts?
The most substantive chunk of the taxpayers’ money was spent on hotels when Ilves made official state visits to foreign countries. In 2015, he stayed at Turm Victoria in Davos, Switzerland during the World Economic Forum, with the taxpayers paying 21, 000 euros for it. But a year later, the price for the four-night stay at the same hotel with his new wife Kupče soared by 3, 000 euros for the 810-square-foot suite with a private sauna, Jacuzzi and a panoramic view of the town.
Ilves has also incredibly enjoyed eating out in other countries. From Asian and Greek eateries to New York oyster bars and Dubai hotel luncheons, when the most expensive restaurant meals reached 2, 000 euros per meal. It does not seem to be a rocket science for him.
Curiously, there are some quite fascinating things one could notice in Ilves’ state records. For instance, while the ex-president was staying at a hotel in Romania, he somehow managed to throw in a massage at the Spa centre between busy lunches and dinners. Piret Reintamm-Benno, an ex-chancellor at President Office, said that it was absolutely impossible for the state to pay for anything like that and suggested that “the massage” could have been “a presidential wife’s haircut in a beauty salon at the hotel or a makeup before a state dinner” instead. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.
Then there was a funny case in 2012, when Ilves used his state credit card while being in Warsaw, Poland, shopped in Versace boutique. Overall, the taxpayers paid 1, 270 euros there. On the same day, he also left 260 euros in Calvin Klein shop, 250 euros in another clothing shop and 260 euros in a suitcase shop Samsonite. It turned out that United Airlines had lost Ilves’ luggage, despite the fact that he was using their VIP service.
The state credit card was also used for taking cash out. The chunkiest amount of money was taken out in four installations in Bucharest, Romania in 2013 — a little bit more than 1, 000 euros. President’s Office explained that the cash was necessary for “paying for local services such as floral garland making and photography.”
In September 2011, the sum of 899, 58 euros was spent on a purchase of four tickets to the Jazz band Steely Dan in New York. At the time, Ilves had been staying at the UN General Assembly in the US. Estonian journalists from the Pealtnägija Estonian TV and Radio Network found out that the ex-president had been banging his head at the gig accompanied by a President’s Office employee and two bodyguards. Cute, isn’t it?
Weirdly or not weirdly enough, the amount of money Ilves spent in Estonia was tiny in comparison to his spending in foreign countries. Cafes, restaurants, flower shops — apparently he loves them more if they aren’t located in the teeny-tiny Baltic state.
All this information was revealed half a year later after the ex-president stepped down. A few days ago, there was a new data that Ilves is entitled to 31 195, 62 euros for 175 days of unused holiday opportunities. What a hero, you would think.It’s not certain what precisely the 4th Estonian president’s legacy will be.
Maybe the Estonians will remember him as the King of Twitter.
Or congratulating them with his terrific New Year’s speech two years ago, saying “the autumn was also exceptionally rich in mushrooms.”
Or as receiving the 190,000-euro government subsidy for turning Arma Farm into a touristic paradise in 2006 and never actually doing it.
The Swedish-born and America-raised Ilves thankfully stepped down in 2016. He is well-known for being a passionate NATO supporter and a tireless Russia’s Vladimir Putin opponent. All this isn’t surprising: the fourth Estonian president grew up in New Jersey, the US, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University in 1976 and with a master’s degree in the same subject two years later. His political career ascended pretty quickly, from becoming an Estonian ambassador to America in 1993 to accepting a position of Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1996 and an observer member of the European Parliament in 2003. Ilves only formally renounced his US citizenship in 1993.
He is back to America now. Currently, Ilves works as a visiting fellow at the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies in California. He is also planning to write a book on the foundations of a “functional digital society.”
At the time of writing, the fifth Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid has cost 1,430 euros to the taxpayers since last October.

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