Estonia's capital Tallinn
Estonia's capital Tallinn
Romain Gueugneau

TALLINN - It’s 4 p.m., and night is already falling on Tallinn. The wind is freezing. Covered in snow, the old Soviet military barracks located on the outskirts of Estonia’s capital city look like the set of a Cold War movie.

Uniformed soldiers occasionally cross the courtyard. You almost expect James Bond to suddenly come around the corner of one of the three buildings on the site that in 2008 became the headquarters of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence.

The flags of the 11 members flutter in the central court. Behind the thick walls of the barracks, experts simulate cyber-attack scenarios and ways of fighting back. The existence of the center and its location in Estonia bears witness to the new status of the little Baltic state on the outer rim of Europe. Since it was the victim of major data pirating in 2007, ostensibly orchestrated by its big neighbor Russia, the country has built state-of-the-art expertise in computer security.

In addition to cyber defense, Estonia, which is the birthplace of Skype, is one of most connected countries in the world. You only need to stroll through the streets of Tallinn to take stock of this – Wi-Fi has been available everywhere – free – for a decade. Third generation (3G) Wi-Fi is available throughout the country, in the cities as well as in the rural areas. A third of the country is already covered by 4G. In Tallinn, it’s not unusual to see people pay for their parking space with their smart phone.

By 2015, the former USSR satellite state will be in a position to provide 100mb/second connections to the entire population. The EU objective is to attain this by 2020 when it is expected that no more than about half the total population of the member countries will be using it. Yet in Estonia, “Internet access is considered as a basic right, like access to water and electricity,” says Indrek Vinberg, the young director of the new technologies demonstration center in Tallinn.

The richness of its technological infrastructure has made Estonia a pioneer in terms of e-government. Introduced in 2000, electronic tax filing has become the norm. “Ninety-four percent of Estonians file online,” says Minister of the Economy and Telecommunications Juhan Parts, adding that this has made paying taxes “almost fun.”

The country has been using electronic ID cards since 2002, and this is the real keystone of the system. The card makes it possible to access various public services on the web (social security, police, education, etc.) with the guarantee that the different government portals and their data are safe and protected. Tallinn’s residents can also use the card as a transportation card. It is also a voter registration card for those opting to vote via Internet, which 24% of citizens did during the 2011 legislative elections.

Teaching coding from primary school

It is not surprising in this context that the new EU Agency for Large-Scale Information Systems, charged with managing the second generation Schengen Information System and supporting management of European immigration policies, has officially been headquartered in Tallinn since Dec. 2012, while maintaining a base of operations in Strasbourg. This is a real source of pride for Estonia, which has been a EU member since 2004 and converted to the euro last year.

“The importance given to e-government was a decisive factor in the decision to set up here,” acknowledges Krum Garkov, the Bulgarian executive director of the agency.

The resolutely high-tech profile of the little Baltic state is part of its heritage as a former Soviet bloc country. After the USSR imploded, Estonia – who had hardly ever been independent – had to rebuild itself from scratch. And this was a real opportunity say the country’s leaders.

“Being such a small country, after the Soviets left there were too few people to administer it effectively,” recalls Estonian President Toomas-Hendrik Ilves, who has a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. “So we opted to make up for the lack of human resources through automatization.”

As the country’s leaders in the early 1990s tended to be young and high-tech aware, they decided to invest massively in new technologies, a public sector initiative that was rapidly imitated by the private sector. Banks and telecom operators also invested in building new technology infrastructure. “Being a ward of the Soviet Union for several decades made it possible for us to train a competent generation of engineers and mathematicians, which turned out to be very useful after independence,” says Minister of the Economy and Telecommunications Juhan Parts.

The government introduced computer and new technologies training in schools, starting in primary school, to better prepare Estonians for the new economy. In 1996, the Ministry of Education launched the Tiger Leap foundation to equip every school in the country with computers and get them connected to the Internet – a mission that was accomplished just a few years later. Today, the foundation promotes computer-programming training. At the Gustav Adolf School in Tallinn, for instance, children from six through high school age learn programming basics, which are taught as games.

“The training is crucial for this generation, who often know how to use a computer before they learn to read,” says Valdur Parasin, a French teacher at this school that counts the inventors of Skype among its former students.

“The training helps children with their math and logic as well,” adds Kristi Rahn, a computer science teacher. The private sector also plays a role in the education of young Estonians. After creating partnerships with companies like IBM and Microsoft, the Tiger Leap foundation is turning to the increasing numbers of Estonian high tech companies. The objective is for these companies to come to the schools to explain what they do to, awaken interest in a career in new technologies, and attract future talent.

You don’t need to go very far to find a good model. The success of Skype, sold to eBay in 2004 and then to Microsoft in 2012, has inspired a whole generation of students and young web entrepreneurs. Grabcad, which specializes in 3D printing, is one of the latest Estonian success stories. “The start-up ecosystem is booming in Tallinn,” says Enn Saar, who works for telecom firm Elion. “It’s great for the country. In the early 2000s, companies were afraid of a brain drain, of young high tech talent leaving for abroad. Today we’re seeing the opposite: Estonians wanting to develop their business here.” The country is drawing foreigners as well. The Swedish bank Swedbank recently set up a division charged with managing IT in the whole Baltic region.

Recruitment isn't easy

Several IT hubs have been created these past few years in the Estonian capital. Here too the Soviet past turned out to be a source of new opportunities. Many start-ups have elected to set up in the Ulemiste district, where during the Cold War the Dvigatel factory employed around 10,000 workers to make parts and munitions for the Red Army. The buildings, looking just as sinister as they did back then, are still standing – only now all you hear is the click-click of hundreds of blue-jean clad developers and webmasters typing on their keyboards.

The government is aware of the formidable potential of this new economy. In 2010, it created a cluster to help export Estonian know-how in new technologies and to expand the sector, which accounts for about 15% of GDP. In 12 years, research and development investment has gone from 0.9% to 2.3% – something that will help get the country’s economy back on track – it is expected to show growth of a little over 3% in 2013 after having plunged by 15% in 2009 during the crisis.

The main challenge for this country – with its population of almost 1.3 million – is to keep growing. Yet despite all the efforts in education and training, companies have a hard time finding the personnel they need to develop. Skype, which employs more than 500 people in Tallinn, finds it difficult to grow its local teams.

“It’s one of the limitations of our model,” notes Enn Saar. ”You couldn’t, say, hire 3,000 software developers in a year here.”

And this, says one computer industry representative, may be the limits of the place. “Estonia is a fantastic place to nurture ideas. Unfortunately, it remains difficult to grow a company and move to the next level.”

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


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