'Let us make an honest, caring, corruption-free and self-confident Estonia'

President Kersti Kaljulaid.
President Kersti Kaljulaid. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

President Kersti Kaljulaid called for the creation of an "honest, caring, corruption-free, and self-confident Estonia" during her independence day speech on Wednesday evening.

Kaljulaid gave her speech in Paide Theater and Concert Hall in Paide, central Estonia, where a scaled-down reception and concert were held.

She called on Estonia to rid itself of corruption and said: "Corruption cripples development, and government leaders' concessions to chummy businesspeople drives away honest entrepreneurs. In the end, we lose both our own and those who once praised Estonia's fair business climate and moved their operations here because of it."

Her speech touched also on the coronavirus and the problems it had caused the human contact that has been lost to the pandemic. She also called on people to trust doctors and scientists and to get vaccinated as soon as possible. "Hard times can make us better. And good people in Estonia can make bad times better," Kaljulaid said.

The president said action cannot be delayed on important subjects such as the green revolution, a unified school system, provide help to people with mental health problems and combating domestic violence. "Talk does nothing to fix these things," she said.

Speaking about city vs. rural life Kaljulaid said: "The revenue accrued by the Estonian state is not fairly distributed across the country, either." She said rural life must be maintained and helped.

She also warned that patriotism should not turn into bigotry, which can easily happen when there are "doubts regarding the safe continuity of our nation, language, and culture". However, today, "there are no great foreign powers threatening our language, culture, or customs. The Estonian Defense Forces and NATO shield us from Moscow. The European Union is a body of nation states in which different languages and cultures are a value."

The president called on people to work together and create a sense of solidarity to get through the coronavirus crisis: "Let us act so that in the year 2051, people will look back at 2021 in politics and wonder contentedly – how did they manage to pull it off? Just as how today, we now look back at the year 1991 and are astounded by the swift, courageous decisions that were made. May 2021 be as worthy a political year of courageous decisions as 1991!"

At the reception, Kaljulaid and her husband Georgi-Rene Maksimovski wore traditional clothes from Jämaja, the southernmost parish in Saaremaa where Kaljulaid's family is from. 

Kaljulaid's speech is republished in full below:

One mouth, as old
as dearest soil;
and a thoughtful face so furrowed.

And a thoughtful face, so honest;
so quiet, pained,
and speechless.

Those words were by Juhan Liiv, the most genuine and deeply-rooted embodiment of Estonian pain poetry. May the lines be in remembrance of the years the coronavirus took away from the people of Estonia; of years left unlived. They would have been brimming with wisdom – precious sharing, precious gathering, precious time spent together.

The coronavirus is robbing the Estonian people of a sizeable body of our elders' wisdom. And not only that part which is permanent. It has also taken away the hours we now cannot spend sitting face to face with our older relatives and friends, enjoying a simple cup of tea. I have felt the absence of those conversations acutely. Everyday things spoken with wisdom are often a crucial source of support and guidance, even if we do not realize it under ordinary circumstances. We have now.

And we are that much richer for it in turn.

Yet not all of the bad can be turned to good. Loss of life is irrevocable. Lost weeks of school cannot be regained. Things one would've liked to discuss at length with their grandmother are forgotten by the time we're able to visit again.

But hard times can make us better. And good people in Estonia can make bad times better.

Every person in Estonia working together can lead us out of this crisis. Yes, vaccination is voluntary, but even now, at a time when there is still not enough for everyone, there are too many people who could receive the vaccine but do not wish to. We must trust the scientists and doctors who have declared the vaccines to be safe!

I am asking all the people of Estonia – let's protect ourselves, our children, our jobs, and our families' welfare by getting vaccinated as soon as the opportunity presents itself!

Sander Teras, an 11th-grader at the Saaremaa Coeducational Gymnasium, lent a hand at the local nursing home last spring to provide real care. It is inspiring to think about him and others just like him.

They went because help was needed. It's as simple as that.

These people are role models to me. There are also many things in governance that simply need to be done. There's no avoiding it: action is necessary. You cannot ignore the battle against evil in our society, such as domestic violence.

We cannot put off helping those who have suffered mentally or physically to get back onto their feet. We cannot delay a green revolution, because our children's futures are otherwise endangered.

We cannot abandon efforts to establish a joint Estonian school system, even though such decisions may be uncomfortable at the present. We cannot allow the development gap between the capital and the rest of Estonia to split ever wider.

Talk does nothing to fix these things. We need decisions, even if they bring along temporary confusion and result in dropping popularity figures. Voters are sure to understand, if not straight away.

By now, we've gotten used to giving thought to life's fragility each and every morning. I hope we hold on to that empathy for a very long time to come. We've witnessed the true, strong, and caring nature of our medical workers, more outstanding than in many wealthier countries. Our healthcare has been relatively inexpensive to run in comparison with many other welfare societies. What we receive for that expense is even unbelievable. I hope that one day, we will have not only the most effective but the most empathetic healthcare system in the entire world. Every day, 24 people in Estonia are diagnosed with some form of cancer, and 11 die from it. The prevention and treatment of mental health issues doesn't even meet our basic needs. This has stood out more starkly in the pandemic, of course – perhaps we can now grasp how far we have yet to go. Those are just two gaps of many in our security net, through which anyone can fall.

Healthcare encompasses much more than treating illness. It includes constant support for disabled children to prevent their conditions from compounding. A child with diabetes or a metabolic disorder who is on a special diet is deserving of aid even when they can lead a dignified life thanks to costly measures and their parents' perpetual care and attention. And the families of sick children and adults alike need to know with unwavering certainty that assistance will always be available, no matter under what law it is provided.

For years, the schools in Kiigemetsa, Urvaste, Näpi, and elsewhere – institutions that teach in the mornings, and in the evenings care for and treat their children and young adults who hadn't the fortune to be born in the fullest of health – have been concerned about their future. The state has failed to assure them that they will be able to continue operating. Local governments lack the capabilities to do so. Today, we know all too well how quickly study habits can break down and motivation fade for a regular student who is forced to learn alone. Special-needs youth caught in the gears of restructuring may never recover from the damage. But all we do is process and debate – with laws, ordinances, and legal transfers.

What if we tried an approach with heart now, instead?

My dear friends,

The elderly living in nursing homes were deprived of their relatives during the crisis. Disabled persons living and working amongst us were ordered to stay home when the virus spread. Of course, they lost their jobs. It very much seems that older persons and those with fragile health have been forced to shoulder more than their fair share of the burden of managing this crisis.

I regret this. I believe it is unjust. But those outstanding care workers performing their difficult task are in no way to blame. Often, they do so for a salary much poorer than the state of their wards' health.

These jobs are not weighed with fair scales in our national budget. Those who perform critical services are as good as invisible if they're not our heroes of the moment. Afterwards, they return to oblivion.

In Estonia, the fields of both education and social security are overwhelmingly staffed by older middle-aged women. They go to work in the morning and do what is necessary. One day, they will burn out. They'll also be exhausted by the fact that what they do is always important in leaders' words, but rarely in true actions.

This is a problem. Estonia's schools and social care rely far too much on teachers', care workers', and nurses' patience and sense of duty. The Estonian Rescue Board sees high recruiting numbers mostly during times of economic crisis, but is drained of younger blood whenever growth is restored.

The revenue accrued by the Estonian state is not fairly distributed across the country, either. Looking out over Tallinn from its highest point just before Christmas, any resident could see that they live in a dazzlingly prosperous city where ample amounts are spent on beauty and other aspects of life. Maybe not always on the elderly or those in need of assistance, but that is an issue of distribution, not total resources.

What glitters in Jõgeva, Pärnu County, Setomaa, and Hiiumaa are not big-city lights, but people's warm hearts shining through their gazes. It is something warmer and more beautiful – a seamless society where self-government relies greatly on volunteers to assist disadvantaged children and the elderly; to do something wonderful and uplifting. Alas, an unfairly meager portion of state revenue is spent on maintaining that warmth and goodness.

Many of the world's most successful countries have made the mistake of allowing their metropolises to become burdens. There is no longer any truly enjoyable urban space to be found because each and every square centimeter is more prized than its citizens' welfare. Labor is also scarce because the majority of people, even those highly educated, cannot make enough to pay back an apartment mortgage over the course of a single generation. This happened because their leaders lacked the courage to spend political capital at the right time to prevent the reduction of social mobility and the constriction of future generation's options throughout the entire country.

That type of development is not inevitable. We can do better by leaning upon the Estonian fondness for nature, peace, and quiet.

An Estonian is intrinsically drawn to two opposing places. They belong to the city and to the countryside equally. Every citizen of Tallinn needs the rest of Estonia.

To quote the late poet Andres Ehin:

A soul hardened to limestone breathes again, and the greenest of grass spreads over the land. The city dweller, distressed by dearth of pasture, asks of the cow if they may now come.

The coronavirus has bound urban and rural more closely together. We've suddenly found ourselves to be one outlying people, all alike. Let us take advantage of that! We can finally achieve a long-lasting dream that once seemed impossible: to be at home somewhere out in the woods by the sea and, at the very same time, in downtown Tallinn.

Not one child should have to miss a virtual lesson because a sufficiently high-speed internet connection still isn't available in their village in the year 2021. Not one teacher should be unable to make it to school just because the gravel road to the highway is simply impassable in spring. If our roads and information superhighway were in fair shape, then life in the countryside essentially wouldn't differ from life in a bigger city. Then, those who have proven the feasibility of remote work to themselves and to their employers during this pandemic can spend more time and money at their second, country home. This winter, there have been more open parking spaces in both Kalamaja and Mustamäe each evening. Wouldn't it be nice if things stayed that way?

Local governments also need a new tax model: one that motivates rural governments and rural residents to attract new businesses to the area. Our most challenging task this coming year, one with effects that will ripple for decades, will be agreeing on a green development model for Estonia.

We need to unpack the energy sector's worries, separate energy security from the question of our residents' prosperity, and smartly implement EU support measures. We must solve the complex equation that comprises both the timber industry and environmental protection. We must provide entrepreneurs and self-governments with an opportunity for greater cooperation that delivers mutually recognizable economic benefit, be it in industry or the energy sector.

Local elections are ahead, and it is the opportune time to consider how Estonia might become a world leader in regional policy. Developed countries' experiences over the last decade have shown that failing to pay attention to regional and social stratification and the intergenerational sense of hopelessness leads to desperation. That desperation, coupled with a sense of injustice, can result in senseless acts. We've seen it happen elsewhere.

My dear fellow Estonians!

Having a sense of belonging is more crucial in hard times like now than in our more carefree days. The awareness that you are one in a population of 1.3 million matters to us here in Estonia. It helps us to get by in a world where even our greatest friends do not balk at making decisions that serve the interests of their own people foremost during moments of panic. Throughout the pandemic, many Estonians have come back home to weather it out here, among their own. They flew to shelter; back to "the hive", as the stirring poem and song goes.

For we are one through our love of homeland. Patriotism is an uplifting emotion. However, it can easily turn bigoted when we harbor doubts regarding the safe continuity of our nation, language, and culture. Each of us who has survived occupation live with that fear of continuity our whole lives. We recognize the fear and do everything we can to prevent it from ever becoming reality.

As a small nation, we need constant affirmation that the Estonian language, culture, and customs are protected. It is an affirmation not missing from any patriotic speech. But such speeches are not enough. One must act. Today, there are no great foreign powers threatening our language, culture, or customs. The Estonian Defense Forces and NATO shield us from Moscow. The European Union is a body of nation states in which different languages and cultures are a value.

Nevertheless, there remains much for us to do.

More than simply the next grand cultural object, I have always preferred to support real Estonian people; the true carriers of Estonian culture. Mooste folk musicians and the Nedsaja Village Band; the Haapsalu Lace Club and Vormsi's traditional boatbuilders; the Seto peddlers and the Viru County knitters. Concrete does not carry culture; people do.

My dear compatriots of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds!

I know this might be hard to understand, but it's simply a fact: as Estonians, we need absolute confidence that we will be able to speak in Estonian with everyone who has gone to school here. We need conviction that all who have found their way to Estonia, no matter whether it was before the restoration of our independence or now, has the opportunity, and even the obligation, to enroll their child in an Estonian-language school. We need the faith that we are capable of offering every child who grows up here a glimpse into our language and culture to a degree that will help them to one day shape Estonia and all it encompasses into a loving, or at least comprehensible, companion. Once we have that confidence, we are more open towards, and curious of, the other cultures that thrive as tiny communities in our midst.

Patriotism also lies in the ability to be proud of one's country while traveling the world; of belonging to a group of nations that respects human rights and its members, and treasures democracy and freedoms. The ability to be proud of what your country means on the world map. The ability to demonstrate responsibility and participate in difficult discussions, even where your presence isn't necessarily essential – such as on the UN Security Council.

Being able to stand up to bullies on an international level and include your partners and allies when supporting the peoples of Georgia, Ukraine, or Belarus. To direct attention to the state of human rights in Russia, China, and Myanmar.

Of course, Estonia's activities on the world stage are always also a matter of our own national security. A small country must take care that it is deserving of protection in the eyes of its partners – something a remarkable friend of Estonia, the former foreign minister of Denmark Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, said in his speech accepting the Endel Lippmaa Medal at the Estonian Academy of Sciences late last year.

Security is primarily attitude – both our own towards our allies and theirs towards us. We must never forget that.

This year, Estonia marks the establishment of diplomatic relations with several different countries one hundred years ago. A close ally recently said to me that although our defense cooperation went smoothly over the last two years, there is always greater certainty that it will continue for a long time more if both countries are operating on the same set of values. I hope that now and forever forward, the developments in Estonia's internal politics will only boost the efforts of our soldiers on mission to keep allies close.

There is one more area where we can greatly improve ourselves – otherwise, we will become mired in the same swamp where several other states that bucked the yoke of communism have found themselves. Corruption cripples development, and government leaders' concessions to chummy businesspeople drives away honest entrepreneurs. In the end, we lose both our own and those who once praised Estonia's fair business climate and moved their operations here because of it.

Dear people of Estonia –returning to a sense of patriotism and national morale. Isn't a small nation's continuity more certain when its standard of living is relatively comparable to that of its neighbors? Isn't having allies that, which serves as an additional safeguard for the perseverance of the Estonian language and culture?

We have done many things right these 30 years. How can we best celebrate that milestone in this challenging year, three decades since the restoration of our independence?

I have a proposal: let's repeat what we did for Estonia's centenary, when people competed with one another to give the country their very best gifts. Let's do that again!

This coming autumn, we will all have the opportunity to vote for 79 of the world's best local political ideas. Each of us has a part to play. Some as demanding voters and, I hope, as many others as possible running as inspiring candidates!
Let's manage our politics the same way that Estonians survived this year of crisis – by caring for one another, taking notice, and running selflessly to the rescue!

Let us make an honest, caring, corruption-free, and self-confident Estonia!

This is a call to each and every one of us. Those who experienced the Singing Revolution and the Baltic Way firsthand did not assume the Supreme Soviet would give us a state – rather, many decided to contribute to the cause themselves and felt that something great depended on their actions. That it depended on them. And that was how our independence came to be. We need a similar collective effort right now, too. Today's crisis unfortunately does not inspire an exhilarating feeling of solidarity, but the task is the same and is just as hard – to give the Estonian state a certain future.

Let us act so that in the year 2051, people will look back at 2021 in politics and wonder contentedly – how did they manage to pull it off? Just as how today, we now look back at the year 1991 and are astounded by the swift, courageous decisions that were made. May 2021 be as worthy a political year of courageous decisions as 1991!

Dear people of Estonia, have a wonderful Estonian Independence Day in your homes! Let us cherish Estonia!


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Editor: Helen Wright

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