TALLINN – President Alar Karis said in his speech on the occasion of the 31st anniversary of the restoration of Estonia's independence on Saturday evening that Estonia has always found the path that makes our hopes reality.
"Estonia restored its independence 31 years ago on this day. It was a decision made by us all. So concluded the Singing Revolution that was sparked by our nation’s aspiration for freedom, which persevered throughout the occupation. For the braver, it was not just a dream, but an act. Ultimately, every Estonian movement endeavoring for freedom came together in a single auditorium," the president said.
"Everyone who was alive then remembers it in their own unique way. I can remember feeling anxious as my family, at home in Tartu, watched a column of Russian tanks rumble its way towards Tallinn during the failed August Coup. There were already three children in my family, the youngest just four months old. I wondered what was going to become of us. I thought about my family and, of course, the future of Estonia. Though I was deeply concerned, I never believed coup d'etat would be pulled off -- their hands were trembling too violently on television," he said.
"It was an emotional time in which Estonia once again stood on the verge of a promising future. What followed was a progressive sprint as fast as [Estonian rally driver] Ott Tanak races today, as high as [Estonian high jumper] Karmen Bruus can jump, and as far as [Estonian triple jumper] Viktor Morozov can leap. Even more so -- it was like a decathlon; a comparison that [Estonian decathlete] Janek Oiglane can appreciate," the president said.
"Let us be honest: there will never again come a time like August 1991. There cannot, because what transpired is not drifting towards us, but moving further away. Nevertheless, the past sometimes clutches at us from the present, and even from the future," the head of state said.
"We saw this with the memorial people call 'the Narva tank,' which earlier this week was moved from a pedestal on the riverbank to the Estonian War Museum. For many Estonians, the T-34 tank, which was used widely in the Second World War, resembles the machines of war marked with the letter Z that President Putin is now commanding to raze Ukraine's cities and villages," he said.
According to the president: Russia's war revived those monuments' forgotten meaning, and the tragic past became a bloody present.
"Now, we are engaging in complex discussions over the interpretation of symbols, memory, and history. They are indeed difficult topics that must be thoroughly debated so that as many people as possible can have a clear, common understanding of what the Republic of Estonia deems appropriate, and what it does not. As a museum exhibit, the tank, which Russia's war has turned into an inappropriate symbol, will no longer be a cause for arguments. In today's world, where there are relentless attempts to deceive us with lies, museums are a place for seeking the truth and where the truth can stand out," the president said.
"So, how to proceed? Trust must be restored between Narva and the Government, for we have no other Estonia. This Estonia is a country for us all, with all our differences," he said.
The president recalled that Jaan Kaplinski, that great thinker who so often stood apart, once said that we must somehow compact the world’s infinite diversity into a single code on which the computer in our skulls can operate. Language is that code -- in Kaplinski's definition, a compromise between the world’s infinite diversity, the finite limitations of our consciousness, and our capability to be receptive.
"We must now use this language to speak and to listen; to explain, and to explain again. Without gloating or smugness. We need not apologize to anyone either, but we must explain," he said.
Karis aid that a quarter of a century ago, former president of Estonia Lennart Meri asked if there is room in our homeland for two opposing histories. He answered the question himself: "One country may not host two histories that stand back-to-back."
"Estonia does not have two antithetical histories, but we must acknowledge that some residents of our country do have a different historical understanding. Many of our compatriots are not yet fluent in Estonian, but in addition to the language, or greatly due to not speaking it, they also have not been taught an ideologically unbiased history of Estonia, Europe, and the world. Our historical knowledge has greatly improved since the restoration of our independence, but unfortunately, not everyone's understanding of it has managed to keep up," he said.
"What could be a solution? Just an half-hour's drive from Narva is the Vaivara Sinimaed Museum. It is a small, pleasant institution focused on the Battle of Tannenberg Line, one of the bloodiest in Estonian history, and military activity in and around Narva in 1944," he said.
He said that battle museums can be found all around Europe. They are, for the most part, bigger and fancier than the Sinimaed Museum; they have plenty of funding, knowledge, and innovation to tell their history. It is not just the history of the victors, but the history of the people.
"The story of war in those museums is the faces of its people -- the soldiers on either side, but also the civilians. I believe that investing and making the Sinimaed Museum larger, more compelling, and more diverse would make it an attractive destination for Estonians and foreign visitors alike. More importantly, our own Russian-language citizens and residents would also find their way there, thus giving the two histories an opportunity to face each other," Karis said.
"Let us think about how to create such a museum. Then, we can make peace and connect our histories in the same way that culture connects people. Observing other people at plays, concerts, and art exhibitions, I have found myself pondering how powerful culture really is. In addition to language, people who may hold conflicting views or attitudes can find commonalities after reading Anton Hansen Tammsaare or Jaan Kross; after listening to Arvo Part or Veljo Tormis; after viewing the works of Eduard Wiiralt or Konrad Magi. After enjoying Aarne Ukskula’s moving performances or Anu Raud’s spectacular textiles. All these arts are able to teach empathy and humanity," he said, stressing that culture, education, and knowledge will carry us forward as a state, a nation, and a people.
The president said that while he would prefer not to speak about war today, but ignoring it would be dishonest. Just as it would be dishonest to not question whose war Russia is fighting. It is a question of principle.
"On February 26, two days after the Russian army's invasion of Ukraine, I said at a free nation's free protest on Tallinn’s Freedom Square that it is not a war of the Russian people against Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, but President Putin's war. I still believe this to be true. But I will add an important distinction: it is not the Russian people’s war if that people disowns it. For right now, silence also means support," he said.
Karis said the war would come to a swift end if millions were not silent.
"We saw proof of it nearly 35 years ago when the people of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania refused to be silent; when our popular resolve became one of the falls of the axe that broke through the evil empire's Iron Curtain. With it, a brilliant opportunity for hope and justice came about for many peoples who had been deprived of their liberty and independence. We became free once again," he said.
"Yet, not all those peoples have remained free. With disquiet and disconcertion, I’ve watched the current leaders of Russia and Belarus abandon the ideals of freedom they embraced thirty years ago and manifest the very darkest side of the evil Soviet Union. Only Ukraine has remained true to the principles of democracy. And for that, Ukrainians are now paying a grave price, defending their country against Russian aggression," the Estonian president said.
He stressed that an aggressor must be opposed. The worst course of action is silence, which Vaclav Havel called "cringing caution" in a speech he gave on May 8, 1995 in Prague.
"I cannot resist quoting him: “The cringing caution which many of us were so good at showing both after Munich and during the Nazi occupation and later under Communism must never again be our national program. We have to build on something else: on love for freedom and justice, on respect for human dignity, and on the ability to prove the validity of these feelings, if need be, by concrete deeds."
"We have the concrete deeds. Military aid to Ukraine. Training for Ukrainian soldiers. Welcoming Ukrainian war refugees. Volunteers’ activities in support of Ukraine. Sanctions to weaken the aggressor. Of course, when we enact sanctions, then we must also abide by them. That counts here in Estonia as well. Tourism is not a human right and issuing European tourist visas to citizens of Russia, the invader of Ukraine, is not a self-evident inevitability. Some who argue the opposite claim that in doing so, we are also punishing those who do not agree with Putin's war. That is false, for we are certainly able to discern and assist the people of Russia who seek protection and support in Europe. Nor will we be deaf to humanitarian considerations," Karis said.
The president said we have no reason to fear. Neither in regard to domestic nor international concerns.
"However, we do have cause to be alert and make preparations, as Russia has shown itself to be aggressive towards the entire world. As commander-in-chief of the Estonian defense forces, I can assure you that we are well prepared for a variety of threats," he said.
"We should also keep in mind, and be proud of, the fact that on November 29, 2021, the length of Estonia’s independence and of the Soviet occupation were equal. Since then, we have been free longer than we were occupied, and the difference grows with every day," he said.
The president said that confidence grounded in knowledge and education can be Estonia's device as we tack through the reefs towards a calmer sea, not knowing when we will reach it.
"But we do know the names of those reefs: energy providers' rapid and exponential price increases; inflationary pressure; a vicious virus; teacher shortages; citizens merely making ends meet; decision-makers’ indecisiveness; stagnation; and also submerged obstacles such as troubles listening to and truly hearing one another; pushing differing opinions aside; and fear of change and that, which is unknown or incomprehensible," Karis said.
"While Estonia faced an extraordinarily high electricity price last Wednesday, I was visiting the construction site of a quay for receiving LNG tankers in Paldiski. If we had built that infrastructure five or ten years ago, then we would not have such great concerns over energy security in our region today. Perhaps our electricity would have been less expensive on Wednesday, too. But as the tugboat motored away from shore and towards the site, I noticed nearby wind turbines revolving in the sea breeze. There is wind aplenty at sea and Estonia’s potential for generating electricity in offshore wind farms is great, but currently, we lack the bold decision-making and will for cooperation necessary to achieve such plans," he said.
The president said we have no choice but to manage these challenges.
"That being said, I do not feel despair, because I know that Estonia has always -- sometimes after arguments, and even quarrels -- found the path that makes our hopes reality," he said.
There are 1.3 million people in Estonia. We possess power and might, though only when we take heed of one another as we advance; not elbowing forward with our own truth.
"Last week, a journalist asked my wife how she sees Estonia right now. It is a tricky question that seems simple but is actually very difficult. Sirje replied that the Estonia she sees looks more and more like our children and grandchildren; that they are already better than their parents and grandparents; that they’re quicker, cleverer, braver, and smarter. I am sure that Sirje is not the only one who sees Estonia that way," the president said.
"So, what are we left with? The courage and wisdom to give our youth a chance," he said.