- Reset + Print

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 someone said. And as always with festivals, the best is kept for last to hold our attention and make us crave more. Thank you, Riina Kaljurand, 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 turning. 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 is 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 tread carefully with our words, calling the evil line of occupation in Georgia something else. When I asked the EU Monitoring Mission in November about why exactly we use euphemisms like ‘Administrative Boundary Line’, he could not give me a clear answer. I felt sympathy for him, because he had to stick to the agreed vocabulary. He noted that Georgians, though, do call it ‘an occupation line’. Why don’t we at least give Georgians that little bit in our every word and gesture: recognition that part of the country’s territory is occupied? Calling an occupation an occupation is something our political predecessors did not hesitate to do, down to the final little detail.

Today at the conference, we heard from my Austrian colleague, President Alexander Van der Bellen, who had an Estonian passport until he was 15 years old: only then did he realise that his passport had been issued by a country which, at that moment, was not free. Still, that passport was recognized.

About two months ago, I had the 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 yet. Everything on it was 21st century, apart from a number of old-fashioned paper maps that were probably there only for looks. As a result, 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 users: Estonia – occupied; Latvia – occupied; Lithuania – occupied. Not just ‘parts of the Soviet Union’.

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

Last week, I was in Ukraine. It is a country that 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 the country a promising investment climate, therefore kicking off quick economic development as a result of its size, natural resources, and educated workforce.

I myself have felt that impatience many times. Even so, I can see that Ukraine’s civil society is hopeful, and even if we fail to see much change, they themselves feel the reforms are gaining momentum. This in healthcare, in the pension system, and in empowering local governments. There is hope among Ukrainians, and therefore there are good grounds to keep our faith and hope alive, too.

Last Thursday, less than 30 kilometres from the line separating Ukraine and its occupied regions, I experienced something, which convinced me most that we must continue our efforts to support the country. I was sitting in a building that offers various forms of aid to the internally displaced people of Ukraine who have lost their homes: 1.5 million of them. In May alone, 150 new families 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 though it is absolutely worth being told.

We were sitting and talking to people in a garden in a village called Proliska, where the locals are used to hearing shelling every night. It was I and Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Hennadiy Zubko. People were expressing gratitude to the Estonian government and others for our support, and to the EU for its financial aid. And then, the discussion turned sour for the deputy prime minister. People were truly unhappy with how little the Ukrainian government is doing, or not doing at all, to help them.

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

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

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

However, 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 second. Or, simply, out of a sense of powerlessness, trying to make it look like as there is no war going on for already the fourth year right here in Europe. By avoiding using the words ‘war’ or ‘occupation’. By refusing to recognise that sometimes, solutions based on the respect of international law may take a long time to achieve; much longer than our own political lifetimes will last. Even in this century, in which people demand quick fixes for everything from us as political leaders.

Even if we have nothing more to offer than strategic patience combined with frank admission of the failures we encounter in upholding the rule of law for countries like Georgia and Ukraine, we should at least offer that. Our political predecessors managed to do so for the Baltic states under conditions that left the West with much less room for helping occupied nations. At the time, they could not, for example, 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 freedom might take half a century, or that all is lost anyway, or that we should all move on and get back to business.

Yet, we can offer Georgia much more. While the country celebrates its first big, round anniversary, we should recognise that it deserves inclusion in our discussions about future EU enlargement: something that should not be limited to the Western Balkans only. It should also be about successful Eastern Partnership countries that wish to take their place among us. It should not be with fixed dates, and it should be with all proper conditionalities. These countries need to be strict on human rights, democracy, freedoms, and rule of law. There can be no special treatment because of war or other difficulties with which these countries may be wrestling. All conditions must be met. But there must be hope.

And not only for them. It’s necessary for us, too. For the rules-based, democratic, liberal world order can only survive if we stop pretending that we were not under pressure by those who believe that the interests of the powerful are much more important than the freedom of people and nations. Because freedom is important. My examples have concerned an empire in decline, but there are also other players who are increasing their capacity to limit the freedoms of their own citizens and others.

The least we can do is to be open with our partners and allies in regard to how much closer we are to the edge of the abyss compared with at the beginning of this century.

My final words today 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 in principles. The conclusion, in light 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.