Click to enlargepadIlves wins Estonia presidency

September 23, 2006

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) -- European Parliament member Toomas Hendrik Ilves was elected Estonia's new president Saturday, defeating incumbent Arnold Ruutel in an electoral college vote.

Ilves received 174 votes from the 345-member electoral college, made up of lawmakers and municipal leaders, against 162 votes for Ruutel, the electoral committee said. Eight votes were left blank, while one ballot was rejected, according to the official results.

Ilves, 52, starts his five-year term October 9.

Ilves said he wishes to take Estonia "more to the center of Europe."

"Estonia should be among the idea generators in Europe," he said during a postelection news conference.

A two-time foreign minister and former diplomat, Ilves was born in Sweden to Estonian parents and raised in the United States, where he got a psychology degree from Columbia University in New York City.

Before moving to Estonia in 1996, Ilves worked for Radio Free Europe in Munich, Germany, and has served as the country's ambassador to the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Ilves -- well-known for always sporting his trademark bow tie -- has been lawmaker at the European Parliament since 2004.

Ruutel, 78, had been considered a front-runner in the race, after the 101-seat Riigikogu, or parliament, failed to settle on a candidate in three earlier voting rounds in late August.

The former communist leader enjoyed popularity in rural areas and among ethnic Russians, who make up some 26 percent of the population in the small nation of 1.3 million.

But Tallinn's business and political leaders have snubbed Ruutel because of his past as a Soviet-era leader, his age and alleged lack of vision.

Instead, they have openly supported Ilves, who is expected to integrate the country deeper into the EU and tighten the already warm U.S. relations. Estonia joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.

Critics say Ilves -- dubbed "an American in a bow tie" by his opponents -- has spent too much of his life abroad to understand current domestic issues.

They also say he has no experience in dealing with Russia, Estonia's huge neighbor, with whom relations have been icy since the Baltic country's regained its independence in 1991.

"The road to Moscow goes via Brussels," Ilves said, when asked how he intends to handle relations with Russia.

While holding few powers apart from representing the country abroad and being the supreme military commander, the president is seen as a balancing power above the fray of partisan politics.

But past presidents -- especially Lennart Meri, who died earlier this year -- have shown that the Estonian head of state can also have a large influence on domestic opinion and become an internationally respected figure.

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Octobr 17, 2008 - President Bush Discusses the Visa Waiver Program
Office of the Press Secretary/ White House News

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all. (Applause.) Please be seated, thank you. Welcome to the White House. I'm pleased to stand with the representatives of seven countries -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and South Korea -- that have met the requirements to be admitted to the United States Visa Waiver Program. Soon the citizens of these nations will be able to travel to the United States for business or tourism without a visa. I congratulate these close friends and allies on this achievement, and I thank you for joining us here.

I also thank Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of the Homeland -- Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff for working hard to make sure this day has finally arrived. Appreciate other members of the administration here and members of the Diplomatic Corps.

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