TALLINN - Cheers erupted in bars and shops across Tallinn as Toomas Hendrik Ilves was declared Estonia's new president on Sept. 23. "This was a choice between looking backwards or moving forwards," explained one jubilant celebrator. Ilves, 52, won 174 votes in the Electoral College, beating incumbent Arnold Ruutel, 78, who gathered 162 votes.
Until the last weeks of campaigning, Ruutel was widely expected to enjoy an easy re-election.
Yet the nation reacted angrily toward the underhanded politicking of Ruutel's supporting parties, the Center Party and the People's Union, which forced the Parliamentary round of voting to fail and brought about the formation of the Electoral College.
The final result was viewed as much as a protest vote against Ruutel and his supporting parties as a vote in favor of Ilves.
Ilves, a Social Democrat who has served as Estonia's foreign minister and is currently a member of the European Parliament, said he wanted to re-unite the nation, which had been split by the divisive election campaign. He said Estonia should become one of Europe's leading idea generators.
Ilves also gave an indication of the direction of Estonia's future relations with Russia. "The road to Moscow goes via Brussels," he said.
"In a number of fields we have seen that after the enlargement of the European Union the influence of the new member states has been significantly smaller than what we would have liked it to be. I believe that Estonia should be one of those who start taking the floor more in Europe."
Much has been made of Ilves' western leanings.
He grew up in the United States and was educated as a psychologist, attending and receiving degrees from Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania and then working in academic positions.
Ilves worked as an analyst and researcher with Radio Free Europe in Munich, Germany, from 1984-1988, and as head of the Estonian desk of Radio Free from 1988-1993.
After returning to Estonia and relinquishing his US citizenship, Ilves served as Estonia's ambassador to the United States from 1993-1996, becoming foreign minister in December 1996 and serving in that position until September 1998. He then began campaigning for the Moderates (now the Estonian Social Democratic Party) in the parliamentary elections.
In March 1999, after the elections, he became foreign minister again, serving until 2002. He was member of the parliament from 2002-2004.
During 2001-2002 he was the leader of the Social Democrats. In 2004 Ilves was elected to the European Parliament, remaining a member of his party's governing board. He sits with the Party of European Socialists group.
At home, the Social Democratic Party is part of the opposition, siding on a number of key policy issues with the center-right opposition rather than the other center-left parliamentary parties, the Center Party and People's Union, which make up the ruling coalition together with the Reform Party.
Ilves' election means that now all the three Baltic states have presidents coming from the exile community.
Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip was quick to congratulate Ilves, and predicted he would unite the nation and project a positive international image.
"We are happy that we were able to carry out the will of the people," Ansip said.
"We have reason to be glad not so much because Toomas Hendrik Ilves was our candidate, but first and foremost because Estonia got a good president," he said.