Editorial: Second Chances

Tallinn TV Tower (Postimees/Scanpix)
8/20/2014 2:32 AM
Category: Opinion

It is August 20 in Estonia, a public holiday.

This week in 1991, among much else, Estonians rose up to defend the free airwaves against Soviet tanks. It remains one of the most enduring images in the freedom narrative - people barricading themselves into the control room to stay in charge of their own national voice. Come to think of it, "August 20, Free Media Day" would even have a nice ring.

Officially, it is of course Restoration of Independence Day. In another great display of national unity, the national legislature of that time voted on that August 20 to re-establish the independence lost in 1940.

It was a great political stroke of timing. The literary and the religiously inclined reserve phrases like "grace of God" for such events... the hardliner putsch failing when it did, the different factions agreeing in Tallinn. Yet August 20, 1991 has always had a hollow, unsettling character. That's because the holiday should never have existed in the first place.

Without Nazi and Soviet dictators agreeing secretly to divide up Europe on another August day, in 1939, or the US, Britain and the USSR sealing the status quo at Yalta in 1945, it might have just been another late summer day in a boringly Nordic country. Estonia would have probably achieved "boring Nordic" status sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, had a per capita GDP of over US $40,000, a population of over 1.6 million, and would be connected by now by rail and tunnel to Scandinavia and Central Europe.

If "Re-Independence Day" rings somehow more hollow than an Independence Day (because of the whole business of losing 50 years and having to start from scratch in 1991) a Re-Re-Independence Day would be even more devalued. Although it's better than no independence at all, many would shudder to imagine what such a re-re-independent Estonia would look like.


Most of us are well aware of the news from Ukraine over the last nine months, and a fairly firm consensus has formed about what is going on. There is much that is confusing and grey. There are still the occasional contrarian opinions that re-imagine the whole conflict from the aggressor's point of view. But the leading non-fictional version is that Putin's Russia has malign, irredentist intentions, and it puts those plans into motion in a sneaky, opportunistic way.

The West, which has long paid most of any moral debt owed to Eastern Europe, has done much to reassure the Baltics over the past few months, but there was bound to be a small setback.

It came two days ago. Amid talk about the supremacy of Article Five and collective defense, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Riga that Germany does not support NATO bases in the Baltics because a special NATO arrangement with Russia from 17 years ago takes precedence over the Washington Treaty.

This seemed quite shocking. It means that despite the fact that Russia is bankrolling, facilitating, even participating in a gradual invasion of a sovereign country, and despite the fact that NATO has halted cooperation with Russia, the German government apparently still sees Russia as something other than, in the language of the 1997 agreement, "an adversary." It would mean that there is a second echelon of NATO members.

Even though Merkel's message was delivered subtly - not everyone read through the lines - it seemed irresponsible.

First of all, bases are essential. If indeed Russia is on a post-Versailles-like sore-loser vendetta trajectory, then it's time to batten down the hatches, just in case. The only way to really defend the Baltics against an invasion is to have permanent NATO military bases or at least deep NATO stockpiles in place.

The poor man's, second-place option, though still a good one, is psychological deterrence, which amounts to not much less than telling the world that the permanent bases are on their way.

Of course, a comment by one head of government of a NATO member is not a comment by all NATO members: there is no Article Five for NATO communication. Merkel speaks for herself, a national politician under extreme pressure from business circles. And people will spin Merkel's message in different ways, saying that maybe she was just buying time.

But it still deserves to be countered. If Merkel was playing good cop, it's time for a bad cop to step in.

Enter perhaps an unlikely figure to play that role: Barack Obama.

Yet the stage is set: all eyes are now on the next VIP visit to the Baltics - the US Presidential Tallinn visit - and the Wales summit for clear word on deployments of the forces NATO needs to enforce Article Five in the real world, not just on the rhetorical level. Otherwise, NATO will need to explain how exactly how it plans to stop a hypothetical invasion - whether a blitzkrieg or little green disrupters - with just a few hundred troops. The last NATO summit in Chicago was good to the Baltics, but more concrete positive decisions are now required to complement punitive sanctions.

Here it is again wise to recall the meaning of August 20: it was a great second chance, but no one really wants more independence days than one.

Regular publishing at ERR News resumes on Thursday, after the holiday.

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