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On the Anniversary of the Restoration of Estonian Independence in Kadriorg

On the Anniversary of the Restoration of Estonian Independence in Kadriorg
Iseseisvuse taastamise 26. aastapäev
© Rene Riisalu

20.08.2017

Dear people of Estonia!

August 20th is the day when we restored our independence. The day when the Estonian people’s audacity coincided with a great historical opportunity. A time when the Estonian people were of one mind and able to take advantage of this opportunity.

Of course, even at that time, we did not agree on everything. Why should we? Among other things, independence also means the opportunity to disagree. One idea, one opinion, one right – this is what we wanted to be free of. At that time, we explicitly recognised that this way of thinking meant totalitarianism.

Today, 26 years later, we have for some reason started to think that different opinions are no longer necessary. We seem unable find any reasonable compromises anymore; ones with which majority of people would be content.

I watch and wonder how the bearers of social-liberal worldviews are prepared to change the rules of the game so that the right to make one’s own decisions in everyday matters is significantly diminished – this instead of simply supporting positive choices. And what’s especially bad is when the need to fill the state coffers, not a genuine concern for public health – is what smoulders behind the prohibitions.

Just as strange is the wish for a radical and revolutionary return to a time when people, including women and children, had significantly fewer freedoms. Conservatism is the art of avoiding revolutions. However, the wide-ranging restriction of liberal democratic freedoms under the guise of promoting nationalism would constitute drastic upheaval, not sensible conservative policy. On the contrary, a conservative must seek the opportunity to be informed of the arc of historical events far enough in advance to be prepared for the future little by little all the time and without sudden corrections.

We fought for freedom. It was all clear and simple. Freedom was the right to do everything totally unlike the way of the occupiers – and, instinctively, our liberal democracy grew out of doing everything to the contrary.

We have seen that, of the countries freed from behind the Iron Curtain, it is the Baltics that have grown rapidly and unhesitatingly into democratic states that follow the rule of law, value personal liberties, foster a free media, and keep the power of the state in a predictable framework. For we were most vividly and explicitly not free. Thus, it was very easy for us to understand how to be free: we simply had to make a 180-degree turn away from what the occupying power wanted.

Now, we face a more complicated situation. An occupation can go unnoticed when you are threatening to occupy yourself. Self-occupation is usually initiated in the name of an idea, mobilising behind a concept without listening to other ideas or concepts. This is followed by shutting off the annoying buzz of dissenting opinions, because if you don’t listen, the ideas of others will just turn into noise. That’s all it takes. Democracy is consigned to the past.

We see this self-occupation occurring in countries where we thought that our similar experience behind the Iron Curtain would help to avoid such developments. We were convinced that democracy in those countries, just as in ours, could only be destroyed by a foreign power.

Therefore, we are in danger of not taking offence at support for such developments by persons who speak the same language we do. Self-occupation creeps more stealthily than occupation by a foreign power. The restriction of freedom in the name of any sacred idea, be it pure Estonianism or a better choice of food, can mark the start of self-occupation.

Even stranger is the rhetorical incisiveness of disputes in which opinions differ by barely 20 to 30 degrees, and certainly not 180. One cannot aspire to lead society and then make compromises regarding Estonia’s long-term future in the name of one’s own short-term political interests. Victory is accompanied by an obligation to make sure that the losers do not feel they have been trampled to the ground. But how can we do this if verbal fists are being held under opponents’ noses prior to an election?

We can say that radical rhetoric is merely a way to attract attention; that it is unavoidable in the 21st century. However, I fear the impact is deeper. Using the language of bullies makes us all bullies. Retaining our dignity makes us statesmen. That’s the way it is.

The values of liberal democracy are dear to me and, at the same time, I am also proud to be an Estonian. I know that without restricting democracy, it is possible to preserve the Estonian nation and Estonian culture in a way that the overwhelming majority of our people are still moved by the spirit of our song festivals. I am proud that I am an Estonian and I do not see any contradiction in also being part of an international value-based community. Quite the opposite: I do not see any other alternative for the protection of the Estonian culture and people than cooperating even more closely with like-minded democratic countries, as well as making sure that this cooperation does not weaken and that the basis for the cooperation does not shift from shared values to profits and special interests.

As president, I could not stress others’ obligation to honour the wishes of our country and people in our international value-based security environment if we were to retreat from those values in Estonia. Luckily, though, there is no contradiction between national values and the values of a socially liberal democracy.

I’m sorry, but that conflict truly does not exist. It can be artificially constructed, but it would be ludicrous, boorish, and easy to see through.

Use whatever incisive expressions you may, but I don’t believe it will result in any less ludicrous a conflict than the question once posited in classic Estonian literature of to whom a dead dog’s corpse belongs. No matter how much one tosses it back and forth over a fence, no matter how loud one swears, the dispute will not become any more meaningful or less ludicrous.

We do face many genuine challenges: a geopolitically seismic geographic location, a complicated global society, and a social transformation that derives from modern and future technologies and resembles the transition from agrarian to industrial society. Geography will lose its importance; one’s habitat and location will lose their importance; the production of goods will not provide mass employment; and new jobs will develop in areas of activity that we cannot describe, regulate or tax. And then what?

The Estonian Constitution calls for the protection of the Estonian language and Estonian culture. How will we do that when our nation and our whole society is multinational? Should we someday offer a fully internet-based school for Estonian children being raised abroad so they can also acquire education in their mother tongue?

How are we to provide our people with social guarantees when for them, Estonia is not situated on its 45,000 square kilometres, but rather is a state that offers security and must reach its citizens and taxpayers in a global space? How can we guarantee that those moving from nursery school on to primary school in Estonia can do so in our Estonian language?

Local elections are approaching. Administrative reform needs to be made substantial. We need to find consensus on what is the same throughout Estonia, and thus naturally assigned to the national government, as well as what is more visible locally and should be left to local governments and communities.

Content must be imparted to the principle of subsidiarity. The obligation to ensure equal opportunities for all will primarily fall upon local governments – even those with a greater need for support than ordinary. How are we to do this?

The true issues are the ones we must address in order to commemorate with dignity the work done by those who seized the moment and helped to bring back our independence. Let us put old conflicts and those that have never really existed to rest and focus on Estonia’s future. The true issues are the ones we must address in order to commemorate with dignity the work done by those who seized the moment and helped to bring back our independence. Let us put old conflicts and those that have never really existed to rest and focus on Estonia’s future. We have quite a lot to consider, and enthrallment will arise when introducing the results of our mental efforts anyway: one that doesn’t need incisive language to grab attention.

The Estonian actress Kaarin Raid once wrote on the margin of a concert programme: ‘If it cannot be explained, it is theatre.’ Politics is neither theatre nor entertainment, but rather the art of leadership. Policies must be explained, substantiated, and well-argued. Policies must be a common tool for organising our collective existence, not things in and of themselves or tools for making ends meet. When Estonia’s independence was restored, our cultural figures were excellent at policymaking. Politicians today are very good at putting on theatre, though they shouldn’t. At least not exclusively.

The tradition of celebrating August 20th here in the Rose Garden, a custom that was established by President Ilves, also calls for a ritual: presenting a shard from the freedom boulder on the slope of Toompea Hill, which reminds Estonians of our readiness to defend ourselves by use of force, if necessary; a readiness that existed already before our independence was restored.

Every year, a piece of that rock is given to someone who played an important role in restoring our freedom. During the miserable era of occupation, this year’s recipient possessed a magical power that prepared us for new opportunities. He helped us maintain hope. Along with others, he helped us to recognise the moment, and was on hand when independence made possible the dreams he expressed. But just as always with poets, he will not be in debt to time even now. Listen.

Three skulls in three camps
and born by three winds,
their war rolling ever onward,
never desiring peace.
-Those were Estonia’s skulls.
-Those were Estonia’s circumstances.

I have nothing more to add. This year’s shard belongs to the poet Hando Runnel. The responsibility for maintaining our freedom belongs to current politicians, but also to cultural figures. As in every ordinary society, the work of cultural figures wonderfully enables us to test our freedom and our limits, because the flip side of freedom is always responsibility. Let there be fireworks, also, but never only fireworks!

Happy 26th anniversary of the restoration of Estonia’s independence!