TALLINN - It was May 15 when President Toomas Hendrik Ilves opened his Twitter account and started tweeting. He said: “Help! I’m being followed (smiley face).” Within this short period of time he has already earned a place among Foreign Policy magazine’s ‘Twitterati 100’ list. Ilves is the only highlighted member from the Baltic States, sharing a place in the list of such politicians as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and U.S. Senator John McCain.
He has grown his list of followers to almost 8,000 and has gained attention across the world, as well as raising many different opinions in Estonia about his method of using social media.
Ilves’ overnight celebrity status in social media came during the late hours of June 6, when he severely criticized Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman’s article, where the American economist noted his disapproval of Estonia’s austerity measures, stating that they haven’t been an economic triumph. Ilves re-tweeted his comments and referred to Krugman as being “smug, overbearing & patronizing.”
Nevertheless, that was the end of his emotional comments on Twitter. He continued: “Guess a Nobel in trade means you can pontificate on fiscal matters & declare my country a ‘wasteland.’ Must be a Princeton vs. Columbia thing.” He added, a few minutes later, “But yes, what do we know? We’re just dumb & silly East Europeans. Un-enlightened. Someday we too will understand. Nostra culpa.”
In his last tweet he even used a profane word to describe the situation of the East Europeans. At the beginning it was considered that Ilves’ Twitter account was the victim of a cyber-attack. This was not true.
The boundaries of good taste
Ahto Lobjakas of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute believes that Ilves left behind the boundaries of good taste with the use of some words, and another issue is that Ilves as an politician attacked an expert. “I don’t think that any publicity is good publicity,” Lobjakas asserted.
However, the critics were outnumbered. Afterwards, various announcements started coming out of the government, other state figures and academics of supporting President Ilves. For example, Finance Minister Jurgen Ligi stated on the news portal Delfi that Ilves’ reaction was reasonable. “I have not heard such one-sided arguments before. It was worthy of criticism and responding.”
Estonian political analyst Tonis Saarts points to another problem with these statements. “In Estonian publicity there has lately been brought to [our] attention that politicians do not make arguments, just ridicule opponents.” He says that it is an invective-culture (or insult-culture, in which people just make insults to others without giving any arguments or trying to justify their positions).
The analyst adds that with his comments, Ilves has shown that this kind of culture is completely acceptable. “Politicians and state leaders do not have to argue, produce facts or respect the opponent; the swearing and the ridiculing phrasing is OK.”
Not the end of sharp-edged tweets
On Aug. 17 Ilves expressed his support for the Russian feminist punk-rock collective called Pussy Riot. “Witch-trials for blasphemy and visa-free travel defined a ‘common European civilization’... in the 13th century,” he tweeted. With this, Ilves showed what he thinks of their trial in Russia.
His latest comments came on Sept. 11 when he made fun of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Twitter. He referred to an article in The Moscow Times, which wrote that “live” cells of a mammoth were discovered in Siberia, which could be used for cloning those ancient mammals. Ilves sarcastically replied: “Meanwhile, after the tiger, the amphorae and the cranes, I have a queasy feeling I know what’s next. Just sayin’...” This was a crystal-clear hint about Putin and his media tricks.
Some diplomatic sources stated that this tweet reached even Putin himself, and that he disliked the message.
This all caused resentment in the Center Party and among businesspeople. Former Estonian Prime Minister and businessman Tiit Vahi said to Estonian daily Eesti Paevaleht that Estonian politicians should have enough engagement in solving local problems. “And they should handle the problems that we have here, not intervene in Russia.”
Saarts points out that Ilves was being sarcastic with Putin, but verbally is more reserved. “The Russian elite more or less consider Estonia to be quite a Russophobe country and I do not believe it raised an unpleasant surprise.” He adds that after a year, nobody will remember it.
Goals of his tweet-policy
Still, Ilves’ tweets raise the question of his goals. In his second and final term as president, he certainly can feel more freedom in his statements, because he does not have to worry about re-election. However, with his social media statements he has often been un-presidential and offensive. It is assumed that Ilves’ goal is to introduce to the world what is this Eastern Europe country called Estonia.
Lobjakas believes that the president does not seem to realize that in his position, he has very limited possibilities in expressing his personal views. “Western politicians understand this. Everything that Ilves says goes on Estonia’s account.”
Certainly, Ilves, and Estonia, despite its size have gained a great deal of attention through these presidential tweets. If this was Ilves’ goal, then so far the mission of introducing Estonia to the world has been successful. Just another question arises: is every kind of publicity good publicity?