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Address of the President of the Republic at the charity dinner of the Carolin Illenzeer Fund at the Tallinn Creative Hub

Address of the President of the Republic at the charity dinner of the Carolin Illenzeer Fund at the Tallinn Creative Hub © Erlend Štaub

11.04.2018

Esteemed President of the Riigikogu, Commander of the Defence Forces, dear friends,

Two weeks ago the former Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces, General Aleksander Einseln, reached his final resting place. He was the first commander of the Defence Forces following the restoration of Estonia's independence, to the Americans he was Colonel Einseln. He taught us defence diplomacy; he taught us that on the modern battlefield just one country – no country in the world, for that matter – will be able to call all the shots. He also taught us that defence diplomacy can only succeed, when words are backed up by deeds. Estonia's words are backed up by deeds. That is why we have been successful and are able to carry on today, in the particularly tense atmosphere that prevails currently.

Our self-confidence is based on the fact that Estonian servicemen have been participating in our-of-area operations uninterruptedly for 23 years. We have been together with our allies; we have learned to fight in realistic situations. And we have learned how to prepare for war. Both of these things – us being brothers in arms, active defence diplomacy based on it, and the skills we have learned – guarantee our security, also today. And especially today.

More than 3000 Estonian soldiers have kept peace, but also waged war in the Balkans, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Africa, the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aden. All of them have my utmost respect. I am grateful to them every day.

Decisions to take part in operations are not made easily, but nevertheless usually enjoy broad political consensus, as well as the approval, or at least the tacit support, of the Estonian society. As we know, that is not necessarily the case with all our Allied countries. In dispatching every mission unit we need to remind people in Estonia, even today, why our soldiers are serving – and if needed, also fighting – so far from home. This way, the understanding, support and gratitude of the nation are maintained.

Because it has been the participation in out-of-area operations that has turned us from consumers of security into contributors, and trustworthy allies who are being taken seriously. This is something that I am often reminded about abroad – during the last week alone in both the United States and France, for example – and it is not mere lip service. The contributions are noticed; our soldiers' sacrifices are remembered. Opportunities are even sought that bypass national consensus in order to support us; people make an effort in their own countries to take steps that are very important to us.

Nor has Estonia shied away from contributing to dangerous, long-term missions. We have fought alongside American soldiers in Iraq; with our British and Danish allies in the long and loss-heavy Helmand campaign; we were the first ones to respond to France's call for help in the Central African Republic. All of this has played an important role in the fact that we now enjoy a special and deep security-based relationship with the United States, and that soldiers from the United Kingdom, Denmark and France contribute to the NATO Battle Group in Estonia. General Einseln, who now lies in rest on a pretty slope in Arlington National Cemetery, and all those who have fallen for Estonia know, in soldier's Valhalla, that the fruits of their labour are very much needed in this day and age.

It is not as we ever wanted as unpredictable a neighbour as the one we have. In heading off on our first missions, and even to those in Afghanistan and Iraq, we never thought that such a low point in relations between a values-based and force-based world view would come so soon. And even today we don't know whether this is the low point, or whether in a couple of years we will look back and think that in fact the relations were quite good. But unfortunately we have to admit that the effort our fallen and injured soldiers have made for Estonia, while fighting so far from home, needs to produce and is producing actual security-based dividends.

And finally, let us not forget also the human dimension of our operations. Having ourselves suffered at the hands of dictatorships, violence and lawlessness in the past, we want to do something tangible to defend other people in crisis areas around the world today. To make our own contribution so that crises would be resolved where they emerge. And to try to avoid the consequences of those crises reaching our streets and homes.

For a small country in a geopolitically complex location we are very fortunate to be able to defend our safety and security while fulfilling our duties as allies far from home soil.

As I go about my day-to-day work I very often think of the sacrifices our servicemen and those close to them have had to made. 11 Estonian soldiers have lost their lives on operations, while dozens have sustained injuries – both visible and invisible – that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives. Those close to mission soldiers have lost husbands and sons, and children have had grow up without their fathers. In serving Estonia I rely on them at all times – the wounded and the fallen – to guarantee what is most important: that Estonia is protected. It has been a high price we have had to pay. We must do our utmost every day to ensure that it hasn't been in vain.

But Estonia as a nation, as a society, all of you here tonight – we have not forgotten these people or left them without support.

The veterans policy approved five years ago provides a wide range of extensive measures and guarantees for defence personnel who have been injured while serving their country, as well as those who have lost their lives, and their families. These measures are arguably as considerable as those of our allies. Estonian servicemen can be sure today that if something happens to them, the state will not forget them, but guarantee them the world-class medical treatment and rehabilitation, the aids and medications they need, financial support, employment and retraining.

The veterans policy also underscores the importance recognition of and support by the society. For the fifth year the Estonian Wounded Warriors Association and the Women's Voluntary Defence Organisation are organising the charity 'Hepatica flower' campaign to shine the spotlight on veterans and support their rehabilitation. And the Carolin Illenzeer Fund has been operating for even longer, donations to which – including the money raised from tonight's dinner – go towards supporting the education and hobbies of the children of defence personnel who have fallen or been injured while serving.

And the activities and campaigns of volunteer associations do not mean that state measures in support of our veterans are in any way wanting: on the contrary, they reflect the growth of Estonian society as a whole. Support for those who have served in the Defence Forces has become a shared concern for all of society. All of us can make our own small contribution so that initiatives launched by citizens have an increasing role to play in the organisation of life in Estonia. And the use of these private contributions isn't restricted by official rules and reglements.

I would like to thank those who set up the fund, those who contribute to it's activities and those who donate to it – you have made Estonian society better and given our soldiers an even greater sense of security.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Recent years have been rather quiet for Estonian soldiers in terms of foreign missions. The security situation in the Baltic Sea region has changed, as we know, and our defence forces' military cooperation with the Allies has taken on a different dimension in connection with the NATO Battle Group deployed to Estonia. Unfortunately, the security situation outside Europe is by no means satisfactory, and this is something to which we must respond. In the middle of the year an Estonian infantry platoon will depart to Afghanistan. The Riigikogu is currently discussing a new operation in Mali alongside the French.

These missions are unlikely to be as intense or dangerous as those in Iraq or Southern Afghanistan were, but neither will they be traditional peacekeeping missions. Moreover, we know that our soldiers may be threatened in the mission areas not just by fighting, but also by accidents and diseases. Therefor I hope that the support system within the Defence Forces has prepared for the fact that the number of personnel taking part in missions – and by extension the number of those close to them – is set to double overnight. I also hope that all of us here in Estonia remember that in a couple of months' time there will be significantly more people among us who are close to the soldiers serving on those missions, who will need our understanding, and if needed, also prompt support, assistance and recognition.

Dear friends,

Here tonight we are showing that we care about Estonia. That we care about our people. That we respect our wounded warriors. That we want to defend our country. I thank everyone who cares.

I could never give enough thanks to those who dedicate themselves to defending our nation – our soldiers, Defence League members, our allies and their families. Know that I take the responsibility to preserve the fruits of your labour very seriously. Every single day.

Let us hold on to what we have. Let us hold on to it with your hands. Thank you.