We are celebrating the 104th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia in a very complicated security situation. For a long period after restoring the independence of Estonia, the international security situation has been stable and peaceful for us. We have been able to concentrate on building our economy and society, relying on the international security architecture remaining intact, as we and our allies are standing up for it. Since 2014, the situation has been changing and now we have reached the boiling point. The current situation in Europe resembles the tensions before World War II.
Nothing less than freedom is at stake in the Ukraine crisis. I was born in occupied Estonia and therefore have a personal, albeit limited, experience of a society which was anything but free. In the thirty years after restoring our independence, we have raised a generation of young people who take the current organisation of our society for granted. During the events to celebrate our sovereignty last summer, several young people wrote to me and said that they regretted that did not know what it felt like to fight for freedom. I, in turn, thought that we must have done something right in the past thirty years if our young people no longer had to live in fear and were just like the young people in Germany or France. We had become a normal European country.
Our freedom did not arrive by itself. I am grateful to all those heads of state and government who had important roles in restoring the independence of Estonia and in maintaining our sovereignty. The lengths of the histories of the Estonian and Ukrainian statehoods are very different and our paths have also differed greatly; on the other hand, we undertook the same journeys in establishing our democratic nation states more than one hundred years ago. The futures of the nation states were planned together and Estonians followed the example of the Ukrainians up to declaring our independence. When the Congress of Minorities assembled in Kiev in 1917, it was also attended by some Estonians, including Otto Strandman, who later served two terms of office as the head of state of Estonia and whose portrait is hung in the hall of the heads of state here in the Stenbock House. The right of self-determination of nations and the consensus of the minorities created the conditions for the formation of both the Estonian and Ukrainian nation states. The People’s Republic of Ukraine became independent on 25 January 1918 and the Republic of Estonia was declared thirty days later.
In this hall, there is also a portrait of Jüri Uluots, whose sacrifices to leave his home country and ensure the continuation of the constitutional order of the Republic of Estonia in exile allow us to celebrate the 104th birthday or our country tomorrow.
The fates of our countries have been different in spite of beginning together at the same time. Estonia is about celebrate its 104th anniversary and Ukraine has been independent for thirty years. Estonia is a member of the EU and NATO, whereas Ukraine is not.
In the last three decades, we have reinforced our right to sovereignty and have taken our sovereignty to the level at which we may state proudly: the independence of Estonia is permanent and inalienable. Estonia has never before been so well-protected as today. We can say so thanks to having followed the motto of Lennart Meri: ‘Never again alone’. Estonia is no longer alone, as we have many friends and allies worldwide and we are heard as equal partners. We are considered. This, along with the unwavering will of our people to defend ourselves and with our defence investments is the foundation of our security.
I am proud that we have together built Estonia, which is one of the freest countries in the world. We are free to express our opinions. We are free to protest. We are free to choose what we do. We are free to leave Estonia and to return. Even in the latest Covid year, our people have enjoyed much more freedoms than the residents of many other countries; we have kept our society open and our children at school. We have also reached the highest level in the latest ranking of economic freedom and are in the seventh place among all countries worldwide.
We have been told that we had some luck when we restored our independence and became free again, but it would be more appropriate to cite the Ancient Greek historian Thukydides here: ‘The secret of luck is freedom and the secret of freedom is courage’. We had the courage to fight for our freedom and we achieved it, we became free again.
Yet, our freedom has never been under such a serious attack in the last thirty years as it is today. Our freedom is attacked at the international level, but unfortunately also domestically. Our main threat coming from abroad is the activity of Russia. We can choose our friends, but unfortunately not our neighbours. We have for a neighbour a country which persistently continues to bully and attack its neighbouring countries. I am not aware of a single neighbour of Russia whom they have not attempted to conquer by force in their history. This results in smouldering conflicts and the facts that the neighbours of Russia are constantly forced to think about defending themselves. At the ministerial meeting of the European Union, I often think that, for some attendants, discussing security is an interesting intellectual discussion, while for us it is a daily concern. We had the wisdom, skills, and courage to apply for the NATO membership back in the day and we have been included in this defence alliance as a full member since 2004. Being included in the European Union ensures our economic and social security, the NATO membership, however, our military security.
We are well-aware of what Russia has done in Georgia and Ukraine. The increasingly growing global ambition of Russia has gained much less attention, but referring to the activity of Russia in Syria, Libya, in a large part of the African continent, and also in the cyberspace suffices. Recently, Russian attacks demands to the western countries have become increasingly aggressive, peaking with yet another attack against Ukraine. Some say that we should compromise and concede, offer something to Russia, and refrain from provoking Russia by strengthening our defence. To those people, I only have one thing to say: the NATO and the western countries have not attacked Russia and do not intend to do so. Only the Kremlin itself can alleviate the situation. The aggressive behaviour of Russia does not merely endanger Ukraine and Europe; it may motivate other countries worldwide that also desire the territories of their neighbours. Estonia as a small country is interested in a world order which is based on common rules and international law – this is the prerequisite for stable relationships between countries. It is also in our interests that one of the most important provisions of the Charter of the United Nations will remain in force – the prohibition on using and threatening to use armed forces in international relationships.
The memorial to the victims of communism in Maarjamäe reminds us how many victims the loss of our independence caused. The majority of Estonian families were affected by deportations, executions, and the destruction of property. As we have lost our independence before, we know what it means. We as a nation have experienced the violence of a foreign power. Thus, we support Ukraine politically, financially, as well as with the means required for defending themselves. At the international level, however, we must make sure than in a situation where the tensions have peaked, no such agreements would be made behind good intentions for which we would have to pay a high price. Fortunately, the western allies have remained united so far and we have managed to keep calm.
The west and the united front of the west must remain standing in this crisis and we must remain in the west. Lennart Meri has said that Europe is not geography. Europe is the unity of principles and remaining faith to the principles. The principles shape the geography: the geography does not shape the principles. We must be the solution for our allies, not a problem. Harassment of the minorities, inciting hate, trampling the rule of law under our feet, and provoked conflicts turn us into yet another problem, not a potential solution. Freedom grants rights to all. However, rights also come with responsibility. Responsibility for the functioning of the society, for respecting the freedoms and rights of others. One of the most important issues of our security is to prevent the repeating of Bronze Nights, provoked violent conflicts, in which our own Estonian police is turned into the enemy.
We must remember that difficulties have always united us as a nation. We must stick together in difficult times, as the difficult times always pass. The victory lies in the relationships between people and in being understanding or at least attempting to understand. None of us can help everyone, but each and every one of us can help someone.
We have not always been able to take independence, freedom, and welfare for granted. We cannot today, either.
Juhan Liiv has written:
Let us take care of one another and our country for our nation and the Republic of Estonia never to disappear.
Today, we have more reason than ever before to be grateful four our independence. For the independence which is symbolised by our tricolor on the top of the Pikk Herman tower. Happy approaching birthday to you, free Estonia!