- Reset + Print

President of the Republic at the Lennart Meri Conference dinner


Dear organisers, dear participants of the Lennart Meri security conference!

This magnificent week is almost over. It's been a great week for Estonia – a "security Woodstock", as defined by Toomas Hendrik Ilves. And as always with festivals, the best comes last, to keep our attention and make us crave for more. And thank you, Riina, for organizing the Lennart Meri Conference for so many years, and also a happy birthday to you!

As we sit here in Tallinn and discuss cyber- and conventional security matters, the world around us has not stopped. In Ukraine, during the last week alone, four people, including a 15 year old girl, have been killed in shellings, and another 15 people have been wounded. That's not a frozen conflict – that's war. And while we celebrate the centenary of the Georgian Republic, we also have to accept that for ten years – ten years already – we have not been able to do much about the partial occupation of Georgian territories. We carefully tread the words, calling the evil line of occupation in Georgia something else.

When I asked the EU Monitoring Mission in November why exactly we use euphemisms like "Administrative Boundary Line", he could not give me a clear answer. I felt for him, because he had to stick to the agreed vocabulary. He noted that Georgians, though, call it "an occupation line". Why don't we give Georgians at least that little – recognition that part of its territory is occupied, in our every word and gesture? Calling an occupation occupation is something which our political predecessors did not hesitate to do – to the final little detail.

We heard today at the conference my Austrian colleague, doctor Alexander Van der Bellen, who had an Estonian passport until he was 15 years old – only then did he realise that his passport was given out by a country that at that moment was not free. But, that passport was recognized.

Similarly, some two months ago, I had a chance to board a brand new military transport plane of our eFP framework nation, the United Kingdom. The plane had hardly done a few rounds around the globe. Everything was 21st century, apart from some old-fashioned paper-maps that were probably there only for back-up. So the maps were old. Very old, from the Cold War era.

And you know, even 26 years after the occupation ended, I was deeply moved by the fact that these maps made it very clear to all its users: Estonia – occupied; Latvia – occupied; Lithuania – occupied. Not just "part of the Soviet Union".

If we are not able to figure out how to solve the issue of partial occupation of Georgia, let us at least be blunt in our recognition of the situation. If we are not able to find a concrete solution for this problem, then let us at least remind ourselves sometimes – on a little larger scale than the European External Action Service and its brave monitoring mission, the only one who cares at all about what goes on in Georgia every day – that this evil line of occupation is calcifying daily. First comes the road, then the ploughed strip – this way it is more and more impenetrable. Russia is using to its own advantage our ability to turn away and not look.

Last week I was in Ukraine. It is a country which has regularly frustrated us because it's not fighting corruption quickly enough. We know that an even playground to all businesses and more freedom for SME development will make that country a promising investment climate, therefore kicking off a quick economic development based on its size, its natural resources and its educated workforce.

I have myself felt many times the impatience, yet I could see that the civil society of Ukraine is hopeful, and even if we fail to see much change, they themselves feel the reforms are gathering speed. In healthcare, in the pension system, in empowering the local governments. So, there is hope among Ukrainians, thus there are good grounds to keep also our faith and hope alive, too.

Last Thursday, less than 30 kilometres from the line separating Ukraine and its occupied regions, there was something, which convinced me most that we must continue our efforts to support Ukraine. I sat in the house which offers internally displaced people of Ukraine – there is 1.5 million of them – various help to manage their lives when they have lost their homes. Only in May, 150 new households were added to the list of those whose houses had been bombed by the Russians. But that is not the story that I wanted to tell you, even if it is totally worthy of being told.

So, we sit in the garden in this village called Proliska where people are used to hearing shelling every night, and talk to people. There's me and the vice prime minister of Ukraine, Mr. Zubko. People were grateful for Estonian government and others for our support, for EU for its financial help. And then the discussion turned sour for the minister. People were really unhappy about how little the Ukrainian government is doing, or not doing at all, to help them.

I listened to the ladies give the minister a hard time and suddenly it dawned to me – I was seeing free people in a democratic country lashing out on their political leader. Fearlessly demanding the politicians to do their work better. And then I understood why it struck me. Just an hour earlier, we had made many attempts to talk to people from the occupied territories, who had come to Ukraine to get their pensions or some supplies. They did not want to talk, even without any camera close to them. They did not want us to see them. They did not dear to talk to us. They were people afraid that for expressing their views, their difficult lives might get even more horrible.

You know, I'm sensitive to this kind of fear, of course. I grew up in the Soviet Union and was constantly reminded by my mother and grandmother that free Estonia is not the subject matter ever to be discussed outside the family. Not even with those, I considered my friends in the school, as you never knew who really was a friend in the Soviet Union. So, if I see this kind of fear, then I have a familiar feeling from the past. These people from the occupied part of Ukraine are living under serious oppression. They fear to speak out.

So, whatever we think of the management quality of Ukraine, its people are free. This is a huge advantage to have. You can build an economy on it, you can build a country based on the rule of law on it. All is not lost, if people can be angry with their political leaders without fear of repressions.

But all can be lost if we forget. If we ignore. If we offer no hope of a better future. If we Put our economic interests first and our values at the second place. Or simply, feeling our powerlessness, trying to make it look like as there is no war going on for the fourth year already, here in Europe. Avoid using the word "war", or "occupation". Avoid recognizing that sometimes solutions based on respect of international law may take long time to achieve, much longer than our own political lifetimes last, even in this century when our people demand quick fixes for everything from us as political leaders.

Even if we have nothing more to offer than strategic patience combined with straight admission of the failures we face to hold up the rule of law for countries like Georgia and Ukraine, we should offer at least this. Our political predecessors managed to do so for the Baltic states, under conditions which left the west much less the room for helping occupied nations. For example, they could not offer us free trade or visa free travel as we can today for Ukraine and Georgia. They could not offer us much more than making sure asylum seekers from occupied countries could settle in the free world. But even that helped, because they never said that your freedom might take half a century, or that all is lost anyway, or that we should move on and get back to business.

But we can offer Georgia much more. We could recognize that while the country is celebrating its first big round birthday, it deserves inclusion into our discussions about future EU enlargement. It should not be (limited to) the Western-Balkans only. It should also be about successful Eastern Partnership countries who wish to be among us, too. It should not be with fixed dates, and it should be with all proper conditionalities. They need to be strict on human rights, democracy, freedoms, rule of law. No special treatment because of the war or other difficulties these countries have been facing. Full conditionality. But the hope should be there.

And not only for them. It is for us, too. For rules-based, democratic, liberal world order can only survive when we stop pretending as if we were not under pressure from those who believe that the interests of the powerful is much more important than freedom of the nations and people. Because they are. My example dealt with an empire in decline, but there are also others who are growing in their capacity to limit the space for freedom of their own citizens and others. The least we can do is to be open among our partners and allies how much more closer to the cliff's edge we are compared to the beginning of this century.

Final words come from Lennart Meri, the first President of Estonia after we regained our independence: "Estonia's message to the world is simple: do not trade with principles. The conclusion, in the face of which we so diligently close our eyes, is simple and cruel: a principle, once betrayed, will unleash a domino-effect, and stopping it will be more difficult and costly then remaining true to the principle."

Thank you for listening.