Jüri Luik: Lennart Meri's legacy

Jüri Luik
, diplomat
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Photo: kultuur.err.ee

Lennart Meri as President is beginning to fade. Meanwhile, a man like him would be badly needed in Estonia and Europe alike in these days of the refugee drama, writes diplomat Jüri Luik on the tenth death anniversary of our great statesman. 

Today, ten years ago, we lost the first President of the again independent Estonia, the statesman Lennart Meri. At age 76 which is not much at all for an elderly statesman, and ex-president. At the right moment, they say, the fitting leader and the needs of the age happened to meet and yielded good results. Partly, that is right but I do think Mr Meri would be as effective today when discernment and the ability to detect links are just as highly priced.

The passion of Lennart Meri was the future. Doubtless, today he’d be deep into the big topics: the refugees, the same sex law, the EU dangerously on the balance. A characteristic of Mr Meri was his boldness: never was he afraid to thoroughly unravel any issue as he cared nothing of cheap popularity and would not look at the «likes» today. In his leaning towards initiative by the people there was his deep respect towards his people: the understanding that people were not to be underestimated, not left alone with their worries and hesitations.  

Mr Meri could be piercingly ironic towards some deputy or journalist, he hated mediocrity, while rather appreciating the right of the people to be worried and to desire to understand things. In the current refugee drama, a man like President Meri would be needed both in Estonia and in Europe.


While many a book has been written on Lennart, he mainly is remembered as a man of meaty humour. Alas, as President he is beginning to fade and at times one feels that all we have left is they vague heroism and the failure of a composition at Tallinn Airport. He was taken too early, so he had not the chance to defend and to give meaning to what he had done. Often statesmen word their legacy only after they leave. For Estonia’s greatest in our regained independence, this was left undone.

The skills of Lennart are evidenced in his ability to plainly present what is most painfully in our national memory. Like the question whether we ought to have resisted in 1939. Opting to not take sides in the issue, Mr Meri rather pointed to the mistake having been made in 1934 and not in 1939.

That was a weighty sentence underlying the understanding that due to the «silent era», in 1939 the parliament was unable to honestly and freely decide. Wherefore we don’t even know what the people would have decided. Indirectly, this was acknowledgement that we ought to have resisted, while presented in a way which left intact our national idols Mr Päts and Mr Laidoner.

The political and legal basis for Estonia’s restored independence was the nonrecognition policy which Lennart preserved and defended but not in a stony manner but with creativity. As foreign minister in the government, he was in the team of [Edgar] Savisaar while also member of the Estonian Committee critical of the government, de facto boss to the legally chief consul Ernst Jaakson and the creator of new embassies – it all had to be kept in balance in order to be able to solve the daily foreign political issues while not endangering the nonrecognition policy.

Lennart mastered the difficult art for a politician: converging ideals and real life in a way that none suffers. At that, the greatest sensitivity was needed in the USA, the bastion for the nonrecognition policy. The joining of the two branches of independence culminated with Ernst Jaakson, born in 1905, as Estonia’s fist ambassador in the USA an at UN.  


Often, Lennart has been called a great European and that he doubtless was. At that, the European valued for him were not just a confession of faith but strategy and tactics as well. He got involved in foreign policy in 1990 when the Paris CSCE summit wanted to declare the Cold War to be over. Pursuant to the plan, Estonia was to unavoidably remain in the Soviet Union. Lennart defined the liberation of the Baltics as the final milestone of the end of Cold War and though he and the other Baltic foreign ministers were thrown out of the Paris CSCE summit, the Western world embraced the definition.  

Before the Russian troops were taken out of Estonia, Lennart would not even allow them to draw the line under WW2. He formed an intellectual framework wherein Estonian political needs merged into Europe’s grand goals. In the opinion of Lennart, every opportunity had to be used as the window of opportunity may have suddenly closed. This was taught to us by a man who had been in Siberia, and being with his family and his diplomat Father had seen what was reality today turn into a hallucination the day after.

On August 31st 1994, the last echelon of Russian soldiers was to leave Germany. Always, Lennart would repeat that if the troops on our soil linger after that date, we have lost the game.

In hindsight, Mr Meri has always been spoken of as a foreign-political President. Which is not true. Mr Meri was a very inside-Estonian President. Not after party politics, but by taking the state life onwards. While without executive power, he made full use of the force of his word. Mr Meri saw his role as supporter of the government, but also as one to balance it out – which draw many to despair especially during the first government of [Mart] Laar where they often had mere hours to act.

The fights have long been forgotten; new governments came and it became clearer that at times the balancing role of the President was vital. Mr Meri also supported other institutions independent from the government, primarily the Chancellor of Justice but also the Supreme Court and State [now: National] Audit Office. The weighty role of these was shaped while Mr Meri supported them as Estonia’s institutions were just being formed.

Never a Communist Party cadre, he came of a background partly very tragic. As a child, it took it to Siberia by deportation. Never a prisoner of the glaring injustice of his younger days, he drew on the experience in order to draw a sketch of a future Europe where such crimes would be excluded.

Not revengeful towards the communists, he consistently and stubbornly desired to see justice prevail. Back then, many struggled to realise why Mr Meri was fighting for the return of assets to such Germans as were summonsed back to Germany by Hitler in 1940. Such restoration was not popular , he run into conflict with our understanding of what is deportation; but essentially Mr Meri was right. It had been a forced leaving from homes, though not in cattle cars as with Estonians on their way to Siberia.


The last grand act of Mr Meri as President was the Broken Cornflower lapel pin handed to thousands of victims of communism all over Estonia – honouring fellow sufferers to his own years in that Siberian land of ice. This was typical Mr Meri: a simple, not an expensive pin and an elegant way to thank the thousands who cannot all be decorated with medals.

Of Estonia’s statehood, many aspects though far from all lean on ideas of Mr Meri. Again and again, in the heat of the political battles, people have attempted to step into his shoes but, alas, they do not fit. Perhaps we’d better stop trying and get reconciled to President Meri having been unique and us not ever having another just like him.