Jüri Ratas: Next to survival there must be development ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas. Source: ERR

Estonia has never done so well as it has in the past two decades. We have arrived on the threshold of a welfare society, while its benefits have not reached everyone, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas said at Estonia's 102nd anniversary of the republic concert-ceremony held at the Estonian National Museum.

I would like to open my speech with a bow to everyone who has dedicated themselves to celebrating Estonia's 100th anniversary over the past two and half years. We owe the same thanks to the Estonian people for eagerly participating in the festivities and making a heartfelt present to their community, region and Estonia as a whole.

It has produced a symbolic fabric made up of dozens and even hundreds of smaller and grander events tying the past to the present that will now be carried to the future in artworks, book series, parks, squares and even just home decorations to honor Estonia's 100th birthday.

Personally, the centennial year's opening events at the St. Michael's Church in Pärnu County and the St. John's Church in Saint Petersburg will always have a place in my heart.

Also, hoisting the Estonian flag to the top of the Mulgi Lighthouse in Mustla mere days before Estonia's 100th anniversary where defying the frost on a beautiful winter morning beside me were young folk dancers, teacher Eenok Haamer, little children, home daughters, builders, local government heads and everyone else in the crowd that day.

The weather was still cold when we hoisted the flag to the top of the water tower near the Jakob Hurt Monument in Tartu that afternoon. The elation and festive feeling created at those events were well worth it.

I'm also reminded of other innumerable heartfelt moments in many places all over Estonia and abroad, visiting our friends and Estonian communities. But also, in the birthplaces of state elders, tying tricolor scarves around their necks on photos and sculptures; a public hike on the former border between the Estonian and Livonian provinces etc. Moments that will stay with me.

This series of events recalling the birth of Estonia was concluded with a grand conference, ceremony and dance festival a few weeks ago right here in the Estonian National Museum, when celebrating a full century from the signing of the Tartu Peace Treaty.

The treaty and city of Tartu

The Tartu Peace Treaty is one of the founding documents of the Republic of Estonia both for us and the world that ended the War of Independence, immortalized our sovereignty and opened the way for international recognition.

The wisdom of those who wrote the document was reflected in navigating, in addition to legal intricacies, local circumstances and hitting the nail on the head in terms of the situation in Estonia, its problems and needs. The concept of the nation's right to self-determination helped pave the way for this treatment becoming a part of international law.

The Republic of Estonia that will be turning 102 in a matter of days is still a confident, independent and successful home for us all largely thanks to the wisdom of the authors of the Treaty of Tartu.

We are lucky to live in a country built on freedom, justice and the law. And so it must remain for future generations, so we could view the past two years' jubilee festivities as but a brief moment of contemplation in the work of building centuries of Estonia.

A century seems like a long time for a person, while it is but the beginning of adulthood for a country. The next 100 years and centuries beyond will bring many new challenges and opportunities of how to survive, live and move forward. A lot of these touchstones remain unknown, while a number are clear today.

We have confirmed our cultural consistency, despite a period when our state was put on hold, by celebrating the tradition of song festivals that began in Tartu 150 years ago and the 100th anniversary of Estonian education at the University of Tartu.

We must realize that it is Estonian culture – literature, music, visual arts, theater – that has served as the bonding agent that helped us fix these wrongful cracks in history.

Culture, in which education and research but also sports need to be included, has been our common home. So that when we are asked about our home and where our soul resides, it is in the Estonian language, the Estonian landscapes that speak it and works of art inspired by this local spirit.

The cherry on top of this cultural cake so to speak is Tartu becoming the European Capital of Culture 2024 under the motto "Arts of Survival" that applies also to Estonia as a whole, with the fate of our country and people in mind.

Changes to natural environment

One such master of the "art of survival" is writer Jaan Kross in all of his works whose 100th birth anniversary we celebrated a few days ago. I would borrow a concept from him on which I will now elaborate.

In the novel "Treading Air" that has been regarded as Kross' opus magnum, or at least one of them, the main character Ullo Paerand, while on his deathbed, tells the narrator, in whom the author can be recognized, of a peculiar gas called futurium that might explode under certain chemical circumstances.

Interpreted in Estonian, it could be described as the future in a gaseous state. And while the doctors describe futurium as Paerand's fantasy in the book, this metaphorical agent is fast becoming tangible for us today.

I'm, of course, talking about climate and changes to the entire natural environment that have occurred since the industrial revolution at the end of the 19th century and brought us to the precipice of a global climate catastrophe today.

President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences Tarmo Soomere said in a recent interview to Õhtuleht that we have "survived because nature has been our ally." That might not be the case in the future.

And he's right. The future he is talking about is already here. The 2018 UN climate report warns that global temperatures growing beyond 1.5 degrees could result in consequences mankind will not be able to mitigate. It is forecast that sea levels could rise by 0.8-2 meters by 2100, displacing hundreds of millions of people.

The year 2100 directly concerns generations born in lowland Estonia today. The changing pattern of seasons is also reflected in the absence of winter this year.

The Tartu cross-country ski marathon meant an early spring walk in the woods this year. Sleds, snowplows and shovels have not left cellars and shops. /…/

We are also told of bush fires covering an area the size of Estonia in Australia, the infernal heat and unprecedented flooding that followed. At the same time, we hear of an extraordinarily cold and long winter in North America. These are all signs of extreme weather phenomena becoming more frequent and intense.

We need to dial it back

This kind of volatile "futurium" also tells us in Estonia – we who have felt safe in our four seasons and temperate climate so far – that we need to find new ways of adapting to change that has already occurred, invest in technologies to curb our ecological footprint and to generally dial it back, metaphorically speaking.

Dial back everything to do with the material world, as opposed to the spiritual one for the lifelong cultivation and expansion of which there will always be endless space.

This speech to mark the anniversary of Estonia takes place in the "city of good thoughts." However, thoughts might also be sparked from saddening perspectives or feelings of foreboding. This call to dial back all things material boils down to more than a set of austerity measures.

We need to change where we contribute and the priorities within. Every cost will need to be measured also in natural and social terms, in addition to economic.

For instance, national security cannot be happily married to economic considerations. The same goes for education on all school levels as the latter, according to a definition by Ülo Vooglaid who has been a teacher to many of us, equals preparedness, making it a part of national and public security. Education is a function of culture lifting our people higher.

When it comes to the need or rather the obligation to dial it back, I primarily mean two things.

Firstly, returning to the main message of the Club of Rome report from 1972 published as the book "The Limits to Growth" and the presentations it sparked. We need to admit that purely profit-based economic growth and race for quantity have already created a situation where wealth is distributed very unevenly and a lot of people are cut off from it.

The metaphor of rising waters that would lift up all boats has not materialized. Instead, the tide has simply washed away less seaworthy vessels.

Exponential growth cannot be maintained forever in the conditions of finite resources. Faster growth can only be held back by negative feedback – amplification of stifling factors as the process or phenomenon grows.

The Club of Rome reports have highlighted equilibrium or zero growth. Estonia's Sustainable Development Strategy has prescribed striking a balance between production, consumption and the ecosystem that supports it for a long time. How much longer will we wait?

Achieving this balance requires stabilization of energy reserves and raw materials in the global supply chain.

However, I'm not as naive as to think zero growth could be achieved or that the prevalent cast of mind will see us living in a postcapitalist era based on mutually beneficial cooperation instead of competition and the hunt for profits any time soon. That said, its inevitability is guaranteed in the long run, also in Estonia, because there simple aren't any alternatives on the horizon.

The other thing I want to point out by talking about "dialing it back" is the fact Estonia has never done so well as it has in the past few decades. We have arrived at the threshold of a welfare society, while its benefits have not been felt by everyone. Especially the elderly, single parents and people with disabilities, outlying villages and municipalities.

I'm talking about the Nordic version of welfare societies the closest of which to us is Finland – a country that has and continues to play an important role in our story and the welfare level of which we still fall well short of.

Social anthropologist Aet Annist talked about Estonian people whose lives, values, troubles and joy have so far been but a side note to our success story in the last September issue of Müürileht.

The concept of deprivation is indicative of power processes in which certain social groups – often already at a disadvantage – are deprived of something, such as land, place to live, sources of income, citizenship status.

This in turn leads to subsequent deprivation of social capital or symbolic status without which functional and good relations with other social groups are impossible.

The true danger in these social processes, in addition to losses on a personal level, is that attempts to address deprivation tend to suppress other social groups that are weaker under different circumstances and deprive them of social understanding.

But such self-determination can only yield a seeming victory, and two negatives cannot make a positive in the equation of human relations.

That is why it is our obligation as politicians to foster on the level of ideas, words and actions every single person's positive contribution to society. As human, it is our task to see beyond our fellow man's superficial characteristics and treat everyone next to us as a full person with their own desires, needs, joys and difficulties.

Estonia is in good company in the world when it comes to many indicators. I was recently overjoyed to learn of the brilliant results of Estonian students in the PISA tests. Now, we face two tasks.

Either to break the glass ceiling separating us from the Nordic welfare states that would require an about-turn in mentality and a broad-based public debate, or secondly, and this looks to be the more realistic outlook, to hang on tooth and nail to what we have achieved so far, while avoiding stagnation and setbacks. However, next to preservation, development is usually the better plan.

Talking about the plan, I recall actor and director Mari-Liis Lill's speech to the parliament from seven years ago and her question, "what is wrong with this picture?"

While several politicians and public figures treated it as a humanitarian's cry for help at the time, those who have read Estonia's human development reports from the past ten years on quality of life, ties between economic and social policy, labor market policies, causes of immigration and emigration, must admit the frame is cracked.

Wrong with the picture are growing economic inequality, continued peripherization, subpar social welfare, attempts to quantify compassion, lack of social contracts and even modest consensus in matters of strategic development.

We have done a lot of work and made great efforts since we restored our independence, while we have not managed to solve these questions or even successfully phrase many of them. These are the touchstones that will reflect the value of our lives in time.

That is why we need to be honest in facing our troubles and shortcomings and take action together to be able to leave them behind.

No home more beautiful

An anniversary of the republic speech must also include light and brightness. For there is no home more beautiful than ours. We are happy being a part of the new and the ancient, the primeval and the recent, nature and human creation, that which has appeared and that which has been made – all of it coming together to spell Estonia.

/…/

We have our people – Estonians and Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian communities in Estonia, as well as dozens of smaller communities with their own languages and cultures. We also have representatives of other countries and peoples that have chosen Estonia as a place to liver, study or work.

We are an open small country, and in our openness lies our greatness. I am deeply convinced that as long as we remain open to the future – whether it hold hell or high water – until we meet all challenges without stumbling, we will endure. And not just that – Estonia should develop in addition to surviving.

Long live, blossom and endure, Estonia! Happy anniversary of the republic to all of us! Good luck Tartu, good luck Estonia!

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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