Interview with DELFI shareholder Hans Luik

One of Estonia’s richest people and shareholder of DELFI, one of the biggest media groups in the Baltics, Hans Luik shares stories about getting into the media industry, doing business in Ukraine and challenges to free media raised by dictatorial governments as well as technological advances.

In 2007, you invested into DELFI and it was quite an expensive purchase – it still is the most expensive media transaction in the Baltic history. Do you consider it a successful investment?

I do indeed. Our company, Ekspress Grupp, was a publisher of magazines and newspapers with no future. We were profitable but not digital. I decided that we’d better take a big loan to dive into the digital future. Nobody knew that we were simultaneously diving into an international financial crisis.

As for today, we have recovered the loan. Meanwhile, I had to bring my personal guarantees and pledge my belongings in order to secure bank loans for the DELFI purchase. But we are number-one digital news company in the Baltics.

It was a forced situation with DELFI in 2007. DELFI belonged to an American fund called Texas Pacific. They had a 5-year investment horizon, and their five years came to an end. So in 2007 they were selling – either to us or our competitors.

There were a lot of interested parties: Norwegians, who started 15 Minutes afterwards, and Finnish publishers. At the time, when we paid over 50 million euros to Texas Pacific, they chose to invest into a real estate company called Washington Mutual. The financial crises began and Washington Mutual went bankrupt with a huge investment from Texas Pacific. It seems that big money made nobody happy in times of crisis…

Last year, the result of Ekspress Grupp was close to 9 million EBITDA profit. So the risk has been worthwile.

It has not been an all-lucky trip. The thing I regret is DELFI Ukraine. We had great expectations and we kept on investing for years. Editors and IT people from Lithuania and Estonia were helping to support DELFI in Kiev. But there is an oligarchic structure of Ukrainian media market with lots of middlemen. For an outsider, it was too hard to gain foothold in the advertising market. We made the hard decision to close down in Kiev.

Talking about innovation, we believe that there will be less direct mail in our postboxes, because it is not very accurately targeted advertising. We want to take information about retail discounts digital, at our new website We already have 60 Lithuanian retailers drawn to our idea.

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Savisaar, the one and only

Edgar Savisaar is an intriguing person in the East European post-communist gallery if only because he has managed to stay in the political arena. Savisaar was chairman of the Popular Front in the late 80s, now he is chairman of the Centre Party, one of the largest political parties in Estonia. He has been prime minister, economics minister, interior minister and mayor of Tallinn, ERR reports.

He is one of the most hated politicians in Estonia. That politicians of other parties hate him, is no wonder. More tragic is the fact that Estonian media as a whole, or say, 90 percent of it, wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole. The majority of the intellectuals don’t love him much either.

Savisaar, like other politicians, has skeletons in his closet. He has made mistakes, he has been unethical. He is no saint. He’s a politician. However, the treatment of his mistakes and faults in the Estonian media has been immensely more passionate and choleric than in the case of any other politician. When Savisaar suffered a heart attack in 2003, several of my journalist colleagues couldn’t disguise their schadenfreude. There was open talk of finally being rid of “Old Fatty.” Nothing like that could have ever happened to anyone else involved in politics.

Savisaar has always been suspected of a connection with Moscow. In 2007, it was said that he didn’t take a decisive stand against the looting by Russian-speaking masses exactly because he was Moscow’s handler. In 2010, it is finally confirmed: he asked money from Moscow for his election campaign.

Does it change anything in the present constellation? Not a thing. His supporters are convinced that this was a provocation organized by the KAPO against Savisaar, his adversaries have only received confirmation that Savisaar is, well, Savisaar.

On the evening of December 27, President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves gave an interview to Estonian Public Broadcasting, condemning Savisaar’s actions. Since Ilves is for one camp an instrument of light, a positive force, and to the other an emissary of America, a negative force, his statement will not change anything either.

Read the whole article from Estonian Public Broadcasting: Savisaar, The One and Only

First lung transplant operation performed in Estonia

A team of surgeons under Tanel Laisaar at the University of Tartu Clinical Hospital on  Oct 7 performed the first ever lung transplant operation in Estonia. The results of the operation are in line with expectations at this point, spokespeople for the hospital said.
The surgery was performed on a 61-year-old woman from Tartu County who has been suffering from a chronic lung illness for years. Laisaar said the operation and the immediate postoperative period had gone as planned and the patient remains under doctors’ care in the hospital’s intensive care department.
Preparations for the launch of lung transplant operations in Estonia began almost three years ago when co-operation was started with doctors in Vienna. The programme has gone through several stages, including the training of the team and operating of the first Estonian patient in Vienna in collaboration with Viennese colleagues, spokespeople for the hospital added.
The first patient from Estonia to get a new lung in an operation performed by a team including doctor Laisaar was Natalja Pall, resident of the East Estonian small town of Mustvee, who was airlifted to Vienna on the night of 28 April last year with a chartered jet specially sent to fetch her when a suitable lung became available, the daily Õhtuleht reported.
Laisaar said there were four patients on the waiting list for a lung transplant in Estonia at this point and 10 more were being additionally examined with a view to the possibility of giving them a transplant. In a country the size of Estonia the number of such operations needed is from six to eight operations a year.

Source: Estonian Review

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the “Dean of the Balts

Estonia sits at the intersection of Europe and Russia while also providing a connection back across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. Led by Toomas Hendrik Ilves, often called the “Dean of the Balts,” the country is fiercely transatlanticist and hugely skeptical of Russian actions and intentions.

As the country most severely attacked by Russian cyber hackers, who brought the country’s internet to a halt in 2007, and one of the newest members of both NATO and the European Union, Estonia is poised to play a role in the evolving security architecture on the continent. Ilves, whose family lived in exile during the Soviet occupation and who grew up largely in New Jersey, is calling for more direct cooperation across the Atlantic on meeting emerging threats. Visiting Washington in late March, he sat down for an exclusive interview with The Cable.
Read more here

Best Estonian Nature photos exposed

humor prize went to this photo

A bed worth coming home to

The Baltic Times, TALLINN
By Kairi Kurm
Jan 04, 2006

Oksana was about eight when a social worker took her away from her drug addicted mother and placed her in a Tallinn home for at-risk children. But for her 16-year-old-sister, fate was less kind: she was placed in one of Estonia’s inhospitable orphanages.
Erki Korp, manager of the Tallinn Center for Children at Risk, says Oksana’s humble abode, in which her bed is one of 16, is far better than the alternatives. Importantly, the children who live there now agree. As a result, youngsters who for whatever reason can no longer stay with their parents often turn to this shelter.

“They provide food, clothes and opportunities to wash. Why shouldn’t these children want to come here?” says Alo, who has been at the center for a year.

After the center, Alo will go to the SOS-type children orphanage in Tallinn’s Maarjamae area, part of the city’s system of orphanages. Alo says he will live with a family with six other children from similar walks of life. One will be a friend from the Tallinn center.

Alo was a victim of an untimely family death. After his father died, his mother could not cope with raising five children. Deprived of parental supervision and a sense of family, Alo decided to go all the way and live life utterly free of restrictions and negativity.

“I did not want to go to school. I went to parties and stayed with my friends. There were three brothers [in my family], who had to go to school. It was not about money. She [mother] could not handle us all,” he said. Alo’s two sisters (younger) are now in an orphanage on Hiiumaa Island, and his two older brothers live in Tallinn (neither with their mother). He sees his brothers in Tallinn sometimes and communicates with them by e-mail. His mother used to visit him periodically at the beginning of his “independence stint,” but she eventually understood that it was better not to meet and let things run their course.

He says he likes the center; a much better place than an orphanage, he claims. The regimen is tough, which is exactly what he needs.

Although he has spent his last year at the center with about 10 younger children running around, the 16-year-old is doing well at school and planning to continue his studies at the university. When he turns 18, the city will give him a flat to live in and 400 kroons (27 euros) in monthly support. Even though the government is providing housing and a small income, Alo says he plans to work hard in order to depend on no one.

Alo says he would like to be a history teacher or a lawyer some day.

The center’s primary aim is to get the children back home. (A full-time psychologist works with the children, their parents and the school.) About two-thirds do return, and about one-fifth end up in orphanages. The Tallinn Center for Children at Risk has provided shelter to about 2,000 children since it began operating in 1993. The year 1998 was the busiest, when 24 kids would sometimes be accommodated in a single day. Some children were brought in from the streets, examined by a medical nurse and then dispatched to appropriate places the next day.

Usually children stay in a center for a day, but some as many as two months. Sixty percent of the children leave within a week. Some of the children are brought by the police, some by child protection or social workers. Yet some come by themselves. Ten-year-old Oksana has been here twice, and both times she was led by a social worker. Her parents are divorced, and her mother, who took drugs, now lives in London. Oksana has not seen her for three years.

As Korp explains, “There are no street children in Estonia.” About 20 out of the 50 children seen on the street are runaways from children’s homes, he says. The main reason why children end up in his center is because their parents are dead, or they have become alcoholics, drug addicts or unable to take care of their children.

“There was a case when a family abandoned their daughter because she had received a grade in school that was unsatisfactory. The police found the girl on the street and brought her here,” said Korp.

The Tallinn Center for Children at Risk is not just a place where children are given the basic needs of living – it is also a place where children are given emotional support in various forms of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Aside from having a warm place to sleep at night, clean clothes to wear and a caring community to rely upon, children also have tutors and other employees with educational experience in their presence most hours of the week.

Korp says, “Many of the children have started to receive better grades after they were brought to the center.” One former resident even graduated from school with a silver medal.

Korp also manages a center for drug addicted children. Tallinn Center for Children at Risk/Drug Rehabilitation has been operating for over five years now. It is a closed building for 30 children, where they stay some 10 – 12 months.

The budget for the two centers, which has 57 employees and 46 spaces, is 8.5 million kroons (540,000 euros), 7 million of which goes to salaries. Foster families receive 900 kroons each month for each individual child. In Korp’s opinion, the latter amount is not enough to cope.

“The problem is that we are taking only children from the Tallinn area, and others are not getting help. This is state responsibility, according to the children rights perspective,” he said.

In Korp’s opinion, the drug unit should be accommodating 300 children rather than the current 30. Many in need are sent home as soon as they promise to improve; however, Korp says action should be taken during the very first stage of the problem.

The center for children without parental care is located at Paldiski mnt 51, and the special regimen center at Nomme tee 99.

Religious education may return to Estonian schools

The Baltic Times, TALLINN
By Kairi Kurm
Dec 21, 2005

Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said last month that religious freedom does not mean one should be uneducated about religion. Since his speech at a religious conference, a nationwide debate has ensued, though in reality the question of a religious – or spiritual – education has been on the agenda since right after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The main question now is should religious education be optional or obligatory.

By law, schools where at least 15 students want spiritual courses in one age group should offer religious studies as an optional course. Religion currently is an optional class in more than 40 out of 600 schools, with a total 1 percent of Estonian students taking some sort of religious studies.

Such courses are offered under different titles. In some schools it is called “ethics,” in others “confessional teaching of faith” or “religious education.” According to Tauno Teder, executive secretary at the Estonian Council of Churches, religious education as a course is the most neutral way of teaching spiritual issues. It gives an overview of main world beliefs and develops tolerance toward other faiths.

Since Estonian history and culture is mainly related to Christianity, it also grabs the most attention. Courses such as faith-teaching are sometimes seen by parents as “brainwashing sessions” where students can be easily converted.

Earlier research carried out by newspapers among 800 people in 2003 showed that only 14 percent favored obligatory religious courses – mainly women and less educated people with small incomes. Seventy-one percent of respondents favored religion as an optional course.

“Our standpoint is that religion is part of education,” said Priit Simson, spokesman for the Ministry of Education.

“There is no policy of making religion an obligatory course. The general trend here is to have less obligatory courses and more optional courses in the curriculum,” he said.

Some people argue that religion as part of history can be taught as courses of history, philosophy, literature or art, and students should not spend too much time on religion per se but put more emphases on mathematics and physics instead. Regardless, the Estonian Ministry of Education has decreased the amount of science courses in the curriculum to give students an opportunity to decide which courses they want to take.

Rein Taagepera, a professor and onetime founder of Res Publica, a right-wing party, said that when students are being told at school that God exists but hear the opposite at home, it could result in an ethics crisis. He supports teaching religion as part of history classes.

Astronomer Martin Vallik has raised the opinion that religion hinders intellectual development and the ability to think independently. It gives a one-sided picture of culture and history and the state should not support the ideology of the minority, he argues.

In its platform set in 2002, the Estonian Council of Churches foresaw that religion would become an obligatory course starting from 2007 at all stages, which means from the first grade.

“It is clear that we can not oblige students if a referendum shows that people are against it,” said Teder. “Currently it is an optional course, and we assist schools with textbooks and with training teachers.”

The research ordered by the council and carried out by Saar Poll shows that students support religious studies starting in the 10th grade, and not earlier as proposed by the council. The research was conducted among students that had religion in their curriculum in 2004-2005. Sixty-two percent of those high school students thought it would be wise to start teaching religion at the high school level and most found it should not be taught to students in grades 1- 6.

Religious studies were abolished by the leftists in 1920 and brought back in the curriculum after a referendum in 1923. The Ministry of Education will not establish obligatory studies before a nationwide referendum has taken place.