e-Estonia: Believe the Hype


Since leaving office Toomas Ilves, president of Estonia from 2006-16 and driver of the Baltic state’s world-leading initiatives in e-government and cyber security, has become a roving advocate for digital government. Early in November he told the 2017 edition of the Microsoft Summit that those countries wanting to emulate Estonia need to “mind the gap” between the pace of digitalisation in the private and public sectors.

Speaking at Romania’s National Theatre in Bucharest, where this year’s summit was held, Mr Ilves – also now a visiting professor at Stanford University – shared with a rapt audience how Estonia’s small size had determined the country to fight above its weight.

“Digitalisation and technology were the only way to do that,” he explained. “We began by hooking up every school to the internet: that was completed by 1999. We then kept the schools open after classes had finished so that anyone could use the internet connections. That way, we were able to get lots of people on the internet fast, and using it quickly became a fact of life.”

Estonia’s real digital revolution began in 2001, however, when the country introduced ID cards with chips in them. A law was also introduced making the new ID cards compulsory.

“Two-factor authentication was crucial in convincing people to trust the new technology,” Mr Ilves said. “The fact that the entire digital world lives in a system where you identify yourself with an email address and a password is outdated. It may have worked in the 1980s, but not today when there are billions of people using the internet. Every password can be hacked; it might take longer these days, but it can still be hacked. With the chip, not only are we more secure but we can do so much more, most importantly we can sign documents. With this digital, legal signature you can do anything you could do before but cuts out the need to physically go to places. So much so that in Estonia the number of instances in which you must be physically present to sign anything has been reduced to just three: when you get married, when you get divorced, and when you buy or sell property. That’s it.”

‘It is all done automatically’

Even from some members of the audience hailing from western European countries, the level of digitalisation in Estonia which Mr Ilves described brought gasps.

“When a child is born, details are sent straight from the hospital to the local authorities. The birth is registered, and the child is assigned a local paediatrician. It is all done automatically, the parents do not need to go anywhere,” Mr Ilves said.

Estonians have been filing taxes online since 2001. They have been able to vote online since 2005. In 2007 even public safety went digital. As such, Estonian police are no longer allowed to stop cars for technical checks, as all the relevant data is available using their onboard computer. This has made the police 50 times more efficient.

What makes Estonia unique in so many regards is how the state has led the country’s digital revolution. “But the beneficiary is not the state,” says the former president. “It is ordinary citizens, who live in a country that works better for them. In a few minutes they can do what used to take hours.”

Küllike Johannson-Singer is a young entrepreneur who runs a small publishing business in the Estonian capital Tallinn. We asked her if life in Estonia really is as digital, and as easy, as Ilves makes it out to be.

“It’s all true,” Mrs Johannson-Singer told Emerging Europe. “I haven’t visited a state institution in 10 years or more and during that time I have had three pregnancies, complete with pregnancy leave, births, daycare and school registrations: what would have before meant lots of paperwork. It’s all been made so easy, you just need to go online, log in with your ID card (which is on your mobile too), and press click, and confirm. All institutions are connected, so if you enter information on one site, the other institutions that need to know are notified automatically. People here roll their eyes if they need to actually go anywhere in person as it’s just unheard of, and such an unimaginable burden.”

Children, however, Mrs Johannson-Singer explains, might not be altogether happy with the way the education system has been digitalised. “E-school is a blessing for parents and teachers and a curse to students, as all the homework tasks and any other communication between teacher and parent goes online,” she said. “All the grades are online too, so a parent can follow everything that is going on at school on a daily basis.”

“Another thing I find beneficial is the digital healthcare system, where all your health records are kept in one accessible place so that whichever specialist you go to see, they can easily pull the results of your latest blood test or see which meds you are taking. All the prescriptions go to an online system so you can just send an email or call your doctor and ask for a renewal, and then go to any pharmacy in Estonia and get your meds within 10 minutes.”


One of Estonia’s biggest success stories has been its e-residency programme, introduced in 2014, which allows people from anywhere in the world to open a business and bank account in Estonia, and therefore the EU. “The e-residency programme gives those interested the right of establishment in the EU. This is of interest to Ukrainians, Indians and now Brits. It doesn’t give you any political or residential rights, and it is not suited for large companies. But if you have an SME and you operate out of Brighton, for example, and you want to enjoy the benefits of trading in the EU, using the digital residency system is perfect,” says Toomas Ilves.

But how safe is all this digital information?

“Very,” confirms Mr Ilves. “We use blockchain technology in order to protect our citizens’ digital records.”

When taking the first steps towards becoming an e-state, Estonia understood that the risk of cyber-attack will always be part of an information society, a risk that must be taken seriously. Although blockchain has only become mainstream in recent years, Estonia has led the way in the blockchain revolution: the Estonian government has been using the technology since 2008. “Remember, the system has survived numerous Russian cyber-attacks, so it can probably withstand anything,” adds Mr Ilves.

Estonia is ranked by the World Bank as the third easiest place in emerging Europe to do business, and 12th in the world. It is also the leading country in the region in the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Index (and 29th overall).

“I set up a company for my husband in 20 minutes,” says Mrs Johannson-Singer. “In 30 minutes you are ready to write out your first invoices.”

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Albania’s Construction Sector Supports the Country’s Growth

SARANDA, ALBANIA - MAY 18: View of the city Saranda, most important tourist attraction of the Albanian Riviera on May 18, 2017 in Saranda, Albania.

Visegrad Group Looks East

Air Passenger Volumes Reach Record High in the Baltics


EconMin: Bulgaria — Number One Outsourcing Destination And an Island of Stability in Europe

Nadiya Savchenko: I Dream of a Great Ukraine

Panorama of the top part of the Andrew's Descent from Castle Hill in springtime in Kiev Ukraine.

Bulgaria and Romania Get EBRD SME Boost

Startup Diversity Teamwork Brainstorming Meeting Concept

Montenegro Accelerates Legal Reform

montenegro law reform

21st century Manufacturing Arrives at Great Stone

Great stone

EU May Offer Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine Customs Union and Schengen Access


Romanian Competition Council Approves OTP Purchase of Banca Romaneasca

BUDAPEST HUNGARY - JUNE 22 2014: People walk by OTP Bank in Budapest. OTP is the biggest commercial Hungarian bank with 1500 branches in 9 countries.

The Problem With Central European City-States

Budapest Hungary - Panoramic skyline view of the famous Buda Castle Royal Palace with the Buda Hills and Matthias Church at background at sunset

IMF: Institutions Key to Sustainable Growth


Romanian Inflation Hits Four-Year High

supermarket, prices, inflation

Ukraine to Restart Privatisation to Realise Profits

Pricatisation electricity ukraine

Georgia Leads Emerging Europe in Ease of Doing Business Report

High Real Estate Prices at Home Force Czech Investors Abroad

Construction of the Petrin lookout tower in Prague Czech Republic

Poland Fails to Spend Billions of Euros in EU Funds

euro banknotes

Fitch And the World Bank: Economic Growth To Remain Solid Within CEE In 2016

New Political Crisis Hits Moldova


Cabinet Reshuffle In Poland Sees Controversial Ministers Axed

EU Triggers Article 7 Against Poland

CRACOW POLAND - JULY 23 2017: Another day in Cracow thousands of people protest against violation the constitutional law in Poland. Defense of the triad of division of power free election and independence of the highest court in Poland

Poland to Switch from Emerging to Developed Market by September 2018

warsaw stock exchange

Poland’s New PM Defends Attacks on Justice System

warsaw supreme court

Emerging Europe Looking Good in Best-Performing Cities Index

Budapest, Hungary. Aerial view of the old city Budapest, Hungary with river and Parliament Building with cloudy blue sky

Czech PM Loses Confidence Vote

andrej Babiš

Is Prague the New Face of Overtourism?

prague tourists

Kaczyński Defends PiS Record

Warsaw City Guide: 48 Hours in Poland’s Reborn Capital

WARSAW POLAND - DECEMBER 28 2016: Downtown Warsaw Financial center in Warsaw Poland. Warsaw is one of the most economical successful capital in Europe in last few years.

Bucharest’s Stock Exchange Reports Growth; Eyes Emerging Market Status

bucharest stock exchange

Economy Minister: Internationalisation Is the Key To the Slovenian Economy

Global Players Dash for Tempting CEE

dollar pound euro coin on euro background.

Belarus’ Economy Is Slowly Recovering From Past Declines

Budapest’s Property Boom Goes Nationwide


Emerging Europe Sees Surge in M&A Deals

M&A (MERGERS AND ACQUISITIONS) Businessman handshake working at office M&A

Mixed Results for Emerging Europe in New WEF Equality Report


Estonia Proposes Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for Robots

Robotic hand accessing on laptop the virtual world of information. Concept of artificial intelligence and replacement of humans by machines.

Estonia: Europe’s Little Technological Giant

P&O Maritime Enters Ukrainian Market

Logistics and transportation of International Container Cargo ship and cargo plane in the ocean at twilight sky Freight Transportation Shipping

Regional News Outlets: The Real Target of Poland’s New Media Law?

poland media

EU Commissioner Launches Veiled Attack on Poland and Hungary

eu commission

Do Your Homework First and Starting Business in Poland is Easier

Emerging Europe Makes Some Progress on Closing Gender Gap

world economic forum gender gap report

Poland’s Flying Circus

airport poland

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