Independence Day speech by President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid

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Independence Day speech by President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid.
Independence Day speech by President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid. Photo: Sander Ilvest / Postimees

My dear Estonians! Happy Independence Day!

100 years ago in the winter, our War of Independence was sweeping across Estonia.

Snow fell, a cold snow fell.

— Why are bright lights driving there,

thick feathery snowflakes suspended in air? —

The crowd was silent, the cheerful crowd silent.

Did you say the trucks come from the railroad,

bringing bloodied soldiers from the railroad,

young men, young women?

Hendrik Visnapuu’s poem speaks of city dwellers’ merry path going either to or from the opera intersecting with those, whose duty it was to fight our War of Independence.

Snow fell, a white snow fell.

A resolute notion grappled within.

A wordless cry among the din,

heard by the hour, heard by the night-time hour.

Pain in their step from the opera home,

amid white snow falling they went home,

young men, young women.

A world of contrasts. There wasn’t only war in Estonia 100 years ago. Did it weigh heavily upon those cheerful opera-goers? Did what they’d just seen weigh heavily upon them for a very long time? I suppose it’s only natural that it probably didn’t particularly.

As if to commemorate the War of Independence 100 years later, we’ve been given a brighter and lighter winter again for the first time in quite a while. But somewhere, there are still shadows. In those shadows are Estonians who must manage to get by with sick loved ones. Women and children suffering from domestic abuse. But there are also young singers, female and male television hosts alike who admit that online harassment has brought them to tears, caused depression, and affected their ability to handle their jobs.

Illnesses are inevitable. Being left without assistance in life’s difficult moments is not inevitable. That just does not happen in a caring country. Arguments are inevitable. They do not have to end in physical or psychological violence. And, in an observant society, they don’t. Criticism is necessary. How else is one to improve? But degradation is not criticism. Insults with sub-tones that strike below the belt are degrading to all women who wish to have a say in life in Estonia. It’s unfortunate that the internet is full of violence in our mother tongue that is directed against all who wish to do something.

First, there comes confusion, because the world is changing around us. That makes us angry. Then come insults, which used to be more anonymous. Now, they are posted proudly on social media under one’s own face and name, but are also replicated by fake accounts, which even further facilitates us ripping ourselves, our very own society, apart. Persistent public abuse and figurative violence rapidly break down the barriers that restrain us from lifting a hand against our fellow person. Our society certainly cannot be made safer that way in real life, either. Angry words may lead to acts that shake society. Everyday violence doesn’t shake us, unfortunately, even though it still exists and shows no sign of decline.

It’s unfortunate. We should be speaking about those, for whom life is inevitably hard, not creating more of those whose lives are hard but could be easy. Illnesses, accidents, and dealing with their consequences are an inevitability. However, the unwillingness to provide enough help to those whose whole life is a struggle is not an inevitability.

All of us, even those who express their dissatisfaction through malice, are actually joined together by the exact same desire: to create a country in which we all fare well. A welfare state in the literal sense.

There is so much still to be achieved. Hearing about the struggles of those who are left without assistance, we often must ask ourselves: are the values we support with our words still important to us when value-based behaviour is costly for society?

Topics surrounding the protection of human dignity are not absent from political agendas and debates. Nor were they absent four years ago. To put it simply, they were somehow no longer as important afterward, once the elections were over.

As a state that offers universal forms of assistance and free services to all its residents, Estonia is a leader even among wealthy nations. Nevertheless, these types of proposals multiply with every election cycle. Such promises cannot be left unfulfilled after an election; it would be too conspicuously embarrassing. They can only be abandoned later as the consequence of a severe economic crisis, which I doubt any of us dreams of.

No state has the means to provide everything for free to everyone. Even so, we are spending more and more money on precisely that. There is a danger that after these upcoming elections as well, the first things we discuss will not be caregiving, help for abused children, the support system for disabled children, welfare for persons on the autism spectrum, or providing a dignified and, within the realm of possibility, happy life for those in their final days.

After elections, we’ve usually been quick to forget that many municipalities still lack either the will or the wisdom to understand: a municipality is obligated above all to uphold the human dignity of its residents. We do, in words, wish to offer families a support system that ensures the rest of their lives will not be ruined if someone requires constant home care, but in reality, we still do very little.

Here among the guests in this auditorium today are also caregivers, employees of children’s houses, assistants of persons with autism, teachers and educators of disabled children, social and youth workers, and operators of women’s shelters: many of those who would like their worries to not be resting on society’s back burner all the time. Yes, something positive does happen on the back burner every day and increasingly more often, because a rising tide lifts all boats. Still, their vessels do not rise evenly, but in fact only when others find the time outside of their own rosier lives.

My dear politicians, please take a look at your agendas of four years ago. And after you do, today, look into the eyes of those who are truly accomplishing things in those difficult fields in spite of a lack of greater understanding and care. It is a shame to set attractive undertakings aside, but there is simply no justification for failing to address people’s real worries. We all have only one life to live, and all of our days go by at the same speed. All our days are of equal value.

This issue cannot be dismissed over budgetary resources, because our economy is growing briskly at the present. Businesses are making ends meet and adjusting surprisingly well to changes such as rising salaries and labour shortages, which have emerged a result of growth itself.

Since half of salaried workers already earn over 1,000 euros per month, it is clear that to stimulate Estonia’s economy, the ABCs of a developing state are no longer enough: low taxes, a well-educated populace that nevertheless constitutes a relatively cheap workforce, and a place in a large free-trade region.

Maintaining an entrepreneurial environment is still crucial, as are free-trade ties with the world. But we must act much more cleverly at home: no one is coming to build factories in our backyard anymore. There are much cheaper places elsewhere for that. What’s more, the Estonian public puts forth very steep requirements for setting up industrial enterprises.

Our companies, both start-ups and classical production firms that set up factories elsewhere, have shown us that a small economy can be made bigger. The ideas our companies are developing provide jobs to more and more people around the world.

There is a great deal of groundwork to be done at home to make sure our globally-minded entrepreneurial eagles do not fly off for good. We must create a cosy and caring society, the likes of which few other countries are capable of providing. A supportive state, not a mean one.

There are enough mean states around the world already. None of them have managed to accomplish what we have, my dear Estonian people.

Estonia has seen very unique and rapid economic development over the last 27 years. The basis for our advancement has been an openness to the world and new ideas, a readiness to participate in international cooperation, and an ability to stand up for our own needs while at the same time understanding the worries of others.

Estonia has the resolve to consistently take a firm stance for others. For example, Georgia and Ukraine made one wrong choice after another in the 90s, most of all underestimating the importance of the rule of law in fostering development. Still, there’s no point in saying: it’s your own fault. Every nation deserves better. Additionally, keeping the nations that are shackled to the past by Russia today within international dialogues means the continued reinforcement of our own security.

All of our partners and NATO allies are more focused on our collective defence capability than ever before. The armies of European states must become stronger, defence cooperation between NATO and the European Union must tighten, and our willingness to accept its unavoidable expense must also strengthen.

Of course, everything would be much better if European states were able to agree to each put that 2% of GDP towards the green economy, for example, instead of towards ensuring the readiness of green machines. But we cannot. We must account for the fact that there will always be countries that do not pursue peaceful coexistence. Yes, they may do so in words. But their method is simple: the strongest takes all.

On a global scale, Estonia seems much bigger than its 1.3 million people. Estonian soldiers work as peacekeepers in Mali; they help to ensure civil security on training and military policing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The dangerous work Estonia’s men and women perform on their missions is of incalculable value.

Yet, it is not only with weapons that Estonia is made bigger far from home. It is also with words: meetings, hallway discussions, and assisting other nations through humanitarian cooperation. Estonia’s diplomats go to great pains to tell our story with the aim of developing international ties: something done with rather limited resources. It’s done during international summits at the expense of sleep and mealtimes, because we are so few. Estonia’s campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council has brought us friends and visibility, helping us find like-minded countries even in places where we wouldn’t have thought to look.

Our notability has increased exponentially around the world. Estonia has become a well-known story. It is a country that has applied innovative solutions in the public sector like no one else; that has established a fantastic business environment, which produces unicorns; that has set up an education system, which feeds unicorns. Today, the story of Estonia is an example and a source of hope for many.

Of course, it would not be possible for our diplomats to tell this story if the whole country had not been writing it together for 30 years. It is our story, my dear Estonians, and it resounds proudly and memorably.

This story is simultaneously the source of our security and our prosperity. Positive renown is an important means for boosting security. Unfortunately, states’ and nations’ reactions to adverse developments always depends on how close they feel to whomever is in peril. You know a friend in need. Yet, friendships must be forged when everything is fine; when you have the time and the strength to do so.

Estonian businesses have also begun to peer ever more boldly into the distant corners of the world. We can see that Estonia’s story truly supports Estonian businesses. Every contract for developing e-services or manufacturing wooden buildings that is signed somewhere far away means growth for Estonian companies, the likes of which is becoming more and more difficult to achieve with things that are made and produced here at home. We are short on workers, and an ever-increasing part of the global market has lower purchasing power than our own.

It’s much easier for companies to sign every one of these contracts if the enterprise’s homeland has a positive story that underpins its own credibility. The magnitude of Estonia’s story is sometimes even shocking: are we really that good? But looking around the world with wide-opened eyes, we must admit that we are, indeed.

We have, at long last, accomplished the dream that was created with our War of Independence. The Estonian people has remembered the sacrifice of the fallen and has built a strong state upon what they founded. Our country is no longer poor. Our country is no longer alone. We are part of a pattern of treaties and relationships between independent states. We fit into that pattern while at the same time being distinct and outstanding.

This is the type of place in the world that will protect us and our future. It has been earned through diligent work in the European Union, NATO, and the UN. Over the last few years, we have witnessed some countries manage to significantly weaken their place in the pattern of international relations by being sloppy. May we maintain enough political instinct to continue recognizing that the best way to protect our interests is at the table, not behind a door slammed shut. 100 years ago, in the maelstrom of the War of Independence, we were, for the most part, behind that very door we needed to get through. We didn’t fully manage to do so before the Second World War. We did indeed win our War of Independence with the support of our former allies, but their support was neither stable nor systematic at the time.

We lost our independence due to the carelessness of large states. Following the restoration of that independence, the path from behind the door to the table began all over again. The start to that path was arduous, though Lennart Meri, wearing his elegant white suit and his confident smile as he strode before us, did not let it show. Doors were opened with seeming ease by that man, who would have turned 90 this year.

Today, we are more behind the table than ever before. Negotiations are not held over us – we hold the negotiations.

This winter, all of Estonia’s political parties have presented to us their ideas for the country’s future. It has been an important discussion and thanks to our electoral system, the outcome will be a consensus born of competition between the best ideas. No one in this country can ever decide anything solely on their own, and that is a positive thing. One ideology, one view, even if it seems absolutely right at the moment, is always too narrow to weather the changes in the surrounding world that history wheels before us.

We are all connected by a dream of a better Estonia. We all have good ideas for how to achieve it. And although it may sometimes seem like politicians aren’t coming up with good ideas at all, each and every one of us must nevertheless determine which of them corresponds the most to our expectations. If you leave your vote uncast, then your dreams will most certainly not be included in our next government’s coalition agreement.

I am cautiously pleased that a fair amount of time has been dedicated to social issues in our political debates. I am likewise pleased, and still just as cautiously, that this year, which is dedicated to celebrating the Estonian language, a common opinion on the future of Estonian schools is finally taking shape. There are certainly disagreements over how to achieve it, but the overwhelming majority of our political parties want there to be single Estonian-language schools from now on, which no longer divide our people into two separate communities. Our Russian-speaking community is likewise more than ever prepared for this change. However, ahead of us lies a long and difficult path from intention to plan. It is, I might add, also a rather costly path. But we cannot forego the journey, because it leads to the protection of Estonia’s independence, language, and culture, as well as to the creation of equal opportunities for all residents of Estonia. 

I am also very glad that nearly all of Estonia’s political parties have realized: without adequate domestic support, it will be hard to continue successfully competing in the international field of science.

Now is a busy time that looks forward towards the future. I hope that at this hour of fiscal opportunities and the balancing of promises given, an hour that will come when the winner of the elections begins assembling a new government in the bright sunshine of March, those shadows that presently do not allow Estonia to truly become the country of our dreams will be banished as well.

Today is our dear Estonia’s birthday. It is a day that belongs to all of us, and it ties together into a common future, into close companions, everyone whose heart it touches. May this sense of unity carry us through the budding spring, and through the complicated choices and negotiations, so that the coming four years may also bring true change for those who cannot keep pace themselves. May this sense of unity be borne into our everyday lives!

It has been a bright and sunny winter, cold like in the days of the War of Independence. Global warming has nearly deprived us of winters like these. We cannot be sure we’ll get them back even if we do wipe away the footprints of our economy, which still today pollutes more than the world average. But wipe them away we must. No one is given a second planet.

Simply, I’d like for the children of Estonia to be able to leave little happy, confident paths in the pure white snow every coming winter for as far as the mind can reach.

Let us care for Estonia!