Disconnecting the economy from SWIFT may also be a response to the regime's crimes.
Over the years of its independence, Estonia has become one of the key states for North Atlantic security and human rights protection in the Baltic region.
To a large extent, this image of the country was formed in the era of vigorous political activity of one of its most famous presidents, a great friend of democratic Belarus, Toomas Hendrik Ilves (he headed Estonia from 2006 to 2016, before that in 1999-2002 he headed the country's Foreign Ministry).
Charter97.org spoke with the legendary Estonian president about the geopolitical situation in our region, and the problems associated with the illegitimate Lukashenka regime.
- Recently, the United States conducted the largest Swift Response exercise in Estonia in 25 years. How do you assess the geopolitical situation in the Baltic region? Do you think Estonia is properly protected?
- Estonia is more secure than ever. It is difficult to say whether to the full extent. As a NATO member, we have Article 5 (if a NATO ally becomes the victim of an armed attack, each Alliance member will view this act of aggression as an armed attack on all members of the alliance - edit.), which works pretty well. This is important because we hear a lot of noise and bragging from our Russian friends, and their inferiority complex manifests itself everywhere.
- What important elements of regional and national security have been implemented during the decade of your presidency (2006-2016)?
- Continuous process of updating the armed forces. Even before I became president, I insisted that 2% of GDP be used for defense spending. We were able to achieve this, and in 2011 expenses already exceeded 2%. The NATO Cyber Security Center, which we have been promoting since 2002, is another big step forward.
In 2007, we had a huge number of cyberattacks against Estonia. Then people were not sure that the Russians were behind this, there were doubts even about NATO. Of course, not everyone doubted: the United States of America and Great Britain were well aware of what was happening. In any case, the cyberattacks were reevaluated, politicians and the military began to take them more seriously, and a NATO center opened in Tallinn around 2008. After my presidency, at the NATO summit in Warsaw, the cyber realm was declared a military sphere - in addition to land, air and sea. I think this is a very important event.
- What can dramatically change the configuration of forces in the region and why does the Baltic need a system of containing Russia? What danger to regional security is posed by the policy of the leadership of Belarus and the complete subordination of Lukashenka to the military plans of Moscow, which can be seen, for example, from the “Zapad” military drills?
- I've been talking about the Suwalki corridor for 7-8 years now, because Suwalki is the main geopolitical and strategic city of Poland. The distance between Belarus and Kaliningrad is only 60 kilometers, therefore, if you want to cut off the Baltic states by land, then 60 kilometers is not the most difficult task.
In addition, serious build-ups of troops are constantly taking place near our borders. As a rule, if you want to occupy someone's territory, then you need to create a massive concentration of troops, as we saw a month ago near the border with Ukraine. All this takes time, and as a NATO member I expect that in this case the Alliance will transfer troops to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for protection.
I believe that if an aggressor country does not conduct a lightning campaign of occupation with the help of special forces, then we do not see any threats, because such a country is playing games with Article 5 of the NATO Charter. Of course, you can attack Estonia, make it a “theater of war”, but the article assumes that then all NATO members can attack you, anywhere. Thus, Vladivostok, Omsk, and Tomsk, and not only Estonia, can be a theater of military operations.
-You often referred to the novel by Vasily Aksenov “The Island of Crimea”. You cited this work as an example of what a free Russia can be, which in the novel exists on an island, and not on the Crimean peninsula. However, the novel turned out to be tragically prophetic: Crimea, as in the novel, was forcibly annexed to Russia. And what work, in your opinion, corresponds to the present time, to what is happening in Europe and Russia?
- There is a piece that is very close to all this. Russia today is a crumbling country ruled by modern guardsmen. Just a repressive police state, lawless and criminal, run by a bunch of mafiosi with military power. I have been saying for 10 years that the best way to understand today's Russia is to read the book “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo, or watch a movie.
- Estonia, like all countries of the world, faced another global challenge in 2020-2021: the COVID-19 pandemic. In August 2020, you became a member of the pan-European commission to assess the response of various countries to the pandemic. What successes have Estonia and the EU countries achieved in the fight against COVID-19?
- I was dealing with technologies and innovations, where the problem was not in the programs themselves, but in the laws and necessary legal structures. For example, Estonia has blockchain-based COVID-19 passports. You just have a QR code, and you can use it to determine who has been vaccinated.
Such a system can work in Estonia and other countries, it is not a problem to make it, 45 minutes of work on a computer, but the technology needs to be legal. A legal basis for this technology is required, for another country to be obliged to recognize my COVID-19 passport. This was my task.
- How do you assess the position of the Belarusian authorities on denying the very fact of the coronavirus epidemic in the country, which is why quarantine measures were not introduced during the first wave?
-They are insane, completely insane. This was completely irresponsible and resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths. Only an idiot can say that you can cure coronavirus with vodka and a sauna.
- In Belarus, many say that in order to get adequate statistics on COVID-19, it is necessary to multiply the official figures by 10.
- Russia is not better, it is a little freer there than in Belarus, not much at all, but at least there are scientists there who in fact can still speak out and talk about real numbers.
- The Belarusian, like the Russian, authorities are actively using propaganda tools. Estonia has repeatedly become the target of information attacks from the Russian Federation: it is enough to recall the case of the “bronze soldier” in Tallinn. How do you manage to resist the Russian propaganda?
- There are several factors: language, experience, and civil society. Firstly, there are many Russians who speak English well, so they can distinguish propaganda, and find the truth on English-language resources. If we talk about the case of the troll factory, then there are not many Russians who can conduct decent propaganda in Estonian. Estonian is an inflectional language, so you can't just take it and translate it by Google Translate.
The second is the experience that we got even before the independence of Estonia. The KGB declared that Estonians were “nationalists”, “Nazis” and so on. The standard thing that Russia uses in the post-Soviet space. We do not take it seriously, because we are used to it, so such propaganda has no effect, as, say, in the USA or Great Britain, when they started doing it there too.
Third, we have a group of volunteers, a Baltic phenomenon, the elves. These people are monitoring Russian media and mark propaganda. They browse news sites and other resources to find these really stupid stories that are clearly misinformation.
- You once said in 2016: the story with the “polite people” worked once, if the “polite people” find themselves in the Estonian forest and stumble upon an Estonian hunter, I will not envy them. What is your confidence based on?
- The fact is that it worked once in the Crimea, but it won't work anymore. In 2014, no one thought it was possible. People create many different scenarios: they say, what if “little green men” come to Estonia. This will not happen, because if the National Guard sees “little green men” without insignia who do not speak Estonian, they will be shot.
- After August 2020, you said about Lukashenka: most countries do not recognize him as legitimate, in our eyes he is a petty despot. How much has his toxicity increased since then? Has the regime passed any new “red lines” that worsen its position?
- Europe has finally reacted seriously to the situation in Belarus because of the Ryanair plane. I have been criticizing the EU for a long time: why don't you do more for Belarus - and finally, for the first time, we saw a really strong reaction. Ultimately, this already concerns the EU itself, because the company is registered in Poland and the flight was flying from Athens to Vilnius. The equivalent would be if you fly from Brussels to Dublin but fly over the UK and the British shoot down the plane. It is inconceivable, it is an act of terrorism and state terror.
- What should be the sanctions of Western countries against a regime that allows the possibility of shooting down a plane with passengers, among whom were citizens of the European Union?
- Almost all were EU citizens on this plane, only three passengers were from other countries. I believe that Europe should do much more than banning Belavia from flying. I would prohibit employees of any ministry, as well as their family members, from entering Europe, I would use all the data from MI6, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, the CIA and so on to find out where Lukashenka keeps his money. We know that most are in the United Arab Emirates. Lukashenka does not keep his money in Russia because he does not trust it. Russian oligarchs, as well as Putin himself, do not keep their money in Russia either. They are afraid that someone will take their money. Their money is in the West - and we must find everything.
- How do you assess the initiative of German lawyers who filed a complaint with the Federal Prosecutor's Office of Germany about the crimes of Lukashenka and his subordinates against humanity? What will happen if his regime is recognized as a terrorist one, following the example of the participants in the crimes of the Assad regime convicted in Germany?
- There are cases in Vilnius too - I mean that there are already several such initiatives. Unfortunately, court cases brought against totalitarian regimes abroad are awaiting practical implementation. However, I believe that if you win the lawsuit, sooner or later the court's decision will be executed.
- How do you assess the three packages of sanctions that the European Union has already adopted against Lukashenka? What do you think about the preparation of the fourth package of financial and economic sanctions?
- I think it was a good first step. It was an immediate response. We'll see. I think there should be more sanctions. For the EU to do this is actually a big step.
The weaker the economy, the weaker the regime.
- What could be the effect of disconnecting Belarus from SWIFT and other high-tech systems if the authorities continue crimes against citizens?
- Disconnecting from SWIFT will really stop the economy. If you are unable to make international transactions, your economy will freeze. Here is the effect. Nobody ever wanted to turn off SWIFT anywhere, but when a state is terrorizing, well, that might be the answer. I have heard people say that we should do this, but I have not yet seen this in big politics.
- In your opinion, are there any scenarios in which the Kremlin will refuse to support Lukashenka?
- If it becomes too much of a burden. A friend of mine who follows the Russian media (for example, Solovyov's program) said that Russian analysts with imperialist sentiments, who spoke out, there was also one madman from Belarus, said that he was simply ridiculous. However, the problem with Russia is that it cannot afford democratic elections. It can recognize the fake elections in Belarus, because they do the same at home.
- You once said: Lukashenka's regime will fall when the security forces refuse to obey his orders, since they refused to obey the orders of the State Emergency Committee in August 1991 in Moscow. What can make them do it?
- Rather, everything will be like with Nicolae Ceausescu in 1981, when people started laughing at him. There should be complete ostracism from people. You must exert psychological pressure on the people in the riot police. To do this, you need your very smart guys who, using artificial intelligence, identify people from the riot police, even when the siloviki are wearing masks. The more photos of riot policemen, the better.
Who are the people who grabbed, for example, an independent journalist? Their data must become public. Who are they, what are their names? Once you know the names, then immediately people will know where they live. Then you will no longer talk to them, serve in a restaurant, or even sell food in a store.
- How do you assess Lukashenka's decree No. 2 on the transfer of all power to the Security Council in the event of a successful assassination attempt? Could the existence of such a mechanism stir up interest in the change of power among the security officials themselves, members of the Security Council?
- I don't know, but I think it's unconstitutional, like everything else. The fact is that in this case the security forces can legally refuse to comply with orders, because it is unconstitutional.
- At one time peaceful protests of citizens helped the Baltic states to become independent and democratic. What could be the role of constant protests in changing the political system in Belarus?
- Lukashenka is worse than the Soviet Union in 1990 or 1991. I do not know. It was easier for us, because the Soviet Union did not then have the desire to kill many people, but Lukashenka does.
- You are known for your love of music. As President, you have repeatedly opened Tallinn Music Week festivals with your performances. And in public statements, it has often been admitted that you are a music lover. What can you say about contemporary Belarusian music? How do you assess the role that music played in the Belarusian protests?
- I don't know much about Belarusian music, but it is the most effective way to convey any message to people. This especially helps to convey the message beyond the borders of your country. We saw this in Ukraine in 2004 and again in 2014. There is Pussy Riot, probably the most famous band from Russia today. There are many good Russian bands out there, but this one is well known. Music is the primary means of conveying a message. It is no coincidence that you sing the song “Changes” on the streets of Belarus.
- Your example can inspire many Belarusians from among those who want to return to their homeland and build a new country. You were born in Sweden, then left with your parents for the United States, where you graduated from two universities. At the same time, you remained Estonian and, after the country gained freedom, returned to become its president. What would you like to say to Belarusians who now consider themselves active citizens of a free and independent country?
- I did a lot before becoming president, when I returned: I was a diplomat, a oreign minister, a member of the European Parliament. It took a while and I didn't just come along and become a president.
I look at the creative energy of Belarus and how far it has gone even in the worst conditions, I see how many Belarusians are engaged in high technologies in the Baltic countries, in California. You have the potential to become a prosperous country that thrives in today's world. You must make sure that this collective farm chairman ceases to be president - and then you will have a chance.