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On the 30th Anniversary of the Restoration of Estonian Independence Presidential Rose Garden

20.08.2021

At 11 p.m. 03, August 20 1991, at 11 p.m. 03. At first, you don’t quite recall it having happened so late. Less than an hour before the clock would have struck midnight and the coach turned into a pumpkin. A fairy tale.

Just a few years before that moment, it all truly would have sounded like a fairy tale. Estonians regaining their independence and living happily ever after. Just a few years earlier, there was a much stronger sense that the clock would unstoppably edge closer to midnight – and there was nothing we could do about it.

The time Estonia had remaining to regain its freedom flowed quickly through the hourglass. The proportion of Estonian speakers was declining. At the same time, incoming generations had largely adapted to the situation, found for themselves a functioning way of life, and lived without daily grief.

A functioning way of life meant a readiness to make greater or lesser compromises – many jobs demanded membership in the Communist Party. Positions that entailed public speaking required that one demonstrate Soviet worldviews, at least in words. Anyone unwilling to do so had to voluntarily retreat to society’s periphery. Yet even there, those who dreamed too loudly could be discovered and exiled from academia to the boiler rooms; and those who recklessly dared to voice the memory of a free Estonia could be sent to the Gulag.

The determined processes of creating a Soviet society and Homo Sovieticus functioned steadily in Brezhnev’s seemingly stuffy, directionless, and helplessly stagnated USSR. Dissidents were repressed. Hundreds of thousands swirled in the melting pot of nations. Many did so by their own volition, lured far from home by state-sponsored perks. Perks that were shared far less generously with the local peoples whose lands were occupied. Over an entire one-sixth of the planet.

Nevertheless, there were many who heard the ticking of the clock perilously approaching midnight.

Stories circulated at dinner tables, telling of an earlier era, of Siberia, and of Estonian exile communities who waved tricolour Estonian flags and demanded that governments persistently refuse to recognise the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states.

None of us know for certain exactly how many households heard these stories, but enough did.

The clock that was nearing midnight inspired people to act, to write a letter that would not burn, as Andres Tarand has so eloquently called the Letter of 40. Modest steps were also made, such as measures within the system to guarantee the survival of the Estonian language – steps that appeared realistic and achievable.

That same clock nearing midnight motivated Mart Niklus and the late Enn Tarto, who, together with a number of Latvians and Lithuanians, wrote an equally indestructible document – the Baltic Appeal.

When I first heard about it in the 1980s, the initiative nevertheless seemed quite hopeless – what good were words of support by bigwigs in congresses and European parliaments? What good was it to us, those who were able to do less and less in our native language?

To the Estonians born in 1969 whose birth certificates were still printed exclusively in Estonian, but whose younger brothers and sisters were issued bilingual birth certificates by the mid-1970s?

The concept and overall approach of the Letter of 40 seemed almost achievable back then – demanding that local languages and cultures be given greater respect in the Soviet republics. No doubt the Baltic Appeal and Letter of 40 were, to those who had undergone the horrors of Siberia and the overall nightmare of the Stalinist era, a sign that there were still others who thought freely and were concerned for Estonia. Yet, they didn’t necessarily seem to stand as milestones along the road to renewed liberty just yet.

Though that is precisely what they were. Milestones. Markers in time. Ones born from a concern for fatherland and mother tongue. Born from the courage to suffer for one’s homeland and, yes, even to die for it. Anyone who chose the path of publicly remembering had to count on suffering losses. The size of those losses does not matter in retrospect, for whoever took any step was unaware of what the empire’s counterblow would be.

Fortunately, history finally delivered that rosier of fairy tales – the one where fate turns before the sand runs out. Fate turns before time is up, and we all live happily ever after. Luckily, that moment arrived when there were still people who had faith, people ready to seize the opportunity, and a people who still remembered. We needed all of them in those revolutionary times – those who had adjusted and acquiesced, those who had actively resisted, and the quiet carriers of memory, who passed it down to their children and grandchildren.

Each had their part to play in those years. They all did something which meant that at 11:03 p.m. on August 20th – less than an hour before midnight, before the sand ran out, before Estonians went the way of many other Finno-Ugric nations and withered away – independence came.

It came with arguments; it came with a smaller consensus than people may have grasped, but it came. Now, 30 years later, I am grateful to all who were able, who wished, and who dared to step up, seize hope, and carry it forward at various points in history. This, regardless of whatever path any person took to arrive at that point in time – from within the system or to its detriment. We all ultimately reached that point in time together. And an independent Estonia, one that arose from debates and was restored on the basis of legal continuity, set off on its path to become a democratic state based on the rule of law, which would be the bedrock of our economic development and lasting sovereignty.

As she announced the decision of the Estonian Supreme Soviet to restore independence, a decision that emerged from debates and compromises, Marju Lauristin said:

“Today’s decision is a very solemn message to all those who hoped that now, at the moment the might of a global superpower is directed against us, the Estonian state and Estonian society would fall as a worm-eaten apple. Today, we show the whole world that any and all hopes of obstructing our path to independence through internal conflicts will not be fulfilled.”

Only in hindsight does everything seem more unanimous than it really was. For those who do not remember that day, August 20th, 1991, the debates and different paths that led to those arguments are insignificant. For those who participated in them, their significance will never fade. Such is the passage of history – the further one stands from it, the simpler and clearer it all begins to appear.

In a way, this knowledge is reassuring; that debate is precisely how we arrive at the very best decisions, which ultimately – once history has proven their veracity – seem self-evident and merely the inevitable flow of history within its banks.

These historical lessons are also an encouraging consideration in our present day. The world, which as a whole is generally a wealthier and safer place than ever before, appears to stand upon several fault lines of history. Estonia, likewise, an overall wealthier and safer place than ever before, is situated in direct proximity to classical historical fault lines – good and evil, free and totalitarian. There now also exist additional fault lines without geographically definable locations, such as how a society manages and adapts to new technologies that have totally transformed the social mechanisms of discussion and thought sharing.

We are still learning this new world, just like those who restored and strengthened Estonia’s independence learned a new world 30 years ago. The learning process does not look graceful. Neither did the process of restoring independence and subsequently building up the state at any and every moment.

How can we succeed? And how can we keep our spirits high when the process looks anything but graceful? Only if we set more ambitious goals and move towards them without making any compromises of conscience is this possible. Then, many of our everyday concerns will become mere background noise and that which truly matters will be apparent. I know – it sounds idealistic. However, the last 30 years have also shown that later, in retrospect, once the noise dies down and we analyse the course of events, this generally proves true.

What is our task in this world where none of the old fault lines, to the correct side of which we positioned ourselves in the 1990s, have disappeared? What is the duty of our generation, which stands at a much more favourable starting point than the previous generation’s politicians did when fate turned at 11:03 p.m. on August 20th and Estonia was given the chance to make choices that have since turned us into a strong and prosperous country with independent institutions?

Are we capable of understanding that we are a country with much to protect and cherish, and may tend to permit itself convenient decisions in the short term? May we have the faculty to realise this threat, and to move past it!

The environment surrounding us today is no less complicated in terms of classical security categories. States that didn’t cope as well with the upheavals of 30 years ago, when we embarked upon our new beginning, are straining to make up for lost time. The might-based world order will not release its grip. The value-based approach is seemingly powerless. Anyone who dares to stand up for values in a great and unequivocal way must count on being attacked, no matter whether they are in a country that is striving to achieve liberty, or a member of the European Union or NATO, where we enjoy even better protection of freedoms.

They must count on attacks that are meant to silence, side-line, and give force freer rein. We have to recognise the current situation on Lithuania’s border for exactly what it is – an act of aggression against the freedom-honouring world order as a whole. We must convey this understanding to those who prefer to trivialise what is underway. The network of friends that we build in fair times becomes crucial at moments just like these.

We will persevere if we stay honest and bold. Being honest and bold is a risk, but one cannot do without courage. At least not when operating in geopolitically seismic areas like those of the Baltic states.

And, of course, in addition to pressing and prolonged current affairs, we must also turn our attention each day to the pandemic, which will only pass if we win the arms race against it and do so both at home and abroad. Although this is a day of celebration, the grave concern remains near. What else must we do so that all of us, every person of Estonia, shoulders the common responsibility to protect one’s neighbour, even if they are convinced that – purely out of personal interest – they’d rather risk contracting and suffering through the virus? What must we do differently?

For something most certainly can be done better or differently – planning, directing, organising. Also convincing, influencing, and appealing. No country in the world can offer a vaccine that protects against 100% of mild coronavirus cases, has been in use for a long time, and functions in a way that anyone can understand. Something we also cannot do is to rid the world of conspiracy theorists and curb the spread of false information without losing many of our freedoms.

No country can presently say that the path they’ve taken in fighting the pandemic – and each country’s path has been different in this regard – has been ideal. As always, the truth becomes clear in retrospect and no matter where you are, measures have been taken that will certainly be seen as mistakes later. Yet, I hope you still believe that even when we err, the decisions we make are in the interests of our state, our people, and the greater free and democratic world order, honouring the rights of all people.

Without that faith, we will not exit the pandemic, stop the climate from warming, preserve Estonia’s 30 years of accomplishments, protect the Estonian language and culture, or be capable of ensuring equal opportunities for all our people.

We do not have to believe everyone and everything all the time. For some of us, one set of decisions is good, and another is bad; for others, the opposite is true. Perhaps it will help and encourage us to have a little more faith in the art of political leadership if we consider the kinds of debates that led to the rebirth of Estonian independence. Yes, there was common ground – the Baltic Way and the Night Song Festival. But there were also bitter arguments, as there always are in a free society. We also need debates. If there were only one decision and one path, one truth – then we would have had no success in restoring our state.

But sometimes, we do need to form a Baltic Way and take the hand of someone with whom we often strongly disagree, all to simply save our children’s future. To fight climate change in a way that the Estonian economy develops, not suffers. In a way in which the cost of those changes does not fall upon those who have kept the lights on until now. In a way that all children in Estonia are given an equal starting point in schools, so they might take equal part in society, regardless of what language is spoken at their dinner table, how far their front door is from the nearest town or city, or the nature of their parents’ position or income.

Dear people of Estonia!

Our country has done well over the last 30 years. This is not to be taken for granted. It is an outcome of political decisions. Estonia did not simply end up here – the Estonian state was led here, to today. Today, we must also make bold decisions and not waste time by clinging to yesterday.

Smart and bold decisions are needed for us to build an Estonia where the development gap between the capital and other regions shrinks, not grows.

Smart and bold decisions are needed to guarantee that not one child entering school in Estonia will ever again have their future choices limited by inadequate skills in Estonian.

Smart and bold decisions are needed for our economy and society to benefit from the green revolution. This is both possible and unavoidable.

Smart and bold decisions are also needed for us to construct the success story of the coming decades upon the world’s best digital state, helping it to reach a new technological level.

Smart and bold decisions will keep our allies and partners close. Together, we will preserve a world order that protects every nation’s right to shape its own future.

And smart and bold decisions are needed so that every person in our country genuinely feels that they live in a free and caring Estonia where everyone is granted equal opportunities, regardless of whether they presently belong to the majority or the minority on any issue.

These smart and bold decisions always come to us through large debates. That is the way things should be. We will manage if we focus on the core and content of the given issue as we argue. We are able to include more people in discussions if we refrain from political schoolyard bullying. Again, idealistic – I know. But a fine, caring country that looks to the future and is equally dear to all who live there cannot be built without idealism.

As Jaak Jõerüüt said in discussions prior to the August 20th decision:

“The spirals of history are perpetually turning and occasionally, we manage to end up at a place we were before. One of the first decisions made in this hall was to cooperate with the Congress of Estonia. Since then, there have been many developments on Estonia’s domestic and foreign policy scene. I believe that in today’s decision-making project, the spiral of history has turned back to a very right place. The pain of crafting today’s decision once again expresses a birth of consensus in Estonian society. It is actually the sole and fundamental component, upon which a state may be restored.”

For 30 years, we have consistently managed to do exactly this at moments of critical decisions – having faith in that which is sole and fundamental when remaining on the right side of history hinges on the birth of consensus in our society. May that give us courage!

Let us cherish what we have achieved and continue building! Let us cherish our Estonia!