President Karis: We possess power, but only if we take heed of one another

President Alar Karis delivering a speech at the president's traditional Rose Garden reception on the Day of Restoration of Independence. August 20, 2022.
President Alar Karis delivering a speech at the president's traditional Rose Garden reception on the Day of Restoration of Independence. August 20, 2022. Source: Margarita Mironova/ERR

There are 1.3 million of us. We possess power and strength. But only if we go forward taking heed of one another, not elbowing our own truth through, President Alar Karis said in his speech at the Rose Garden reception in Kadriorg on the Day of Restoration of Independence on Saturday.

On August 20, 31 years ago, Estonia restored its independence. 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.

Everyone 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 toward 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 the coup d'etat would be pulled off — their hands were trembling too violently on TV.

Yet the most vivid image burned into my heart and memory took place a couple years earlier: on one of the many days on which we sang ourselves free, poet and philosopher Jaan Kaplinski stood on top of the hill at the Tartu Song Festival Grounds, slightly apart from the crowd, holding a large Estonian flag. He looked like Kalevipoeg.

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 Ott Tänak races today, as high as Karmen Bruus can jump, as far as Viktor Morozov can leap. Even moreso, it was like a decathlon — a comparison that Janek Õiglane can appreciate.

Let's be honest — never again will there come a time like August 1991.

There cannot, because what transpired is not drifting toward us, but rather moving away.

President Alar Karis delivering a speech at the president's traditional Rose Garden reception on the Day of Restoration of Independence. August 20, 2022. Source: Margarita Mironova/ERR

Nevertheless, the past sometimes clutches at us from the present, and even from the future.

We saw this with the memorial people call the "Narva tank," which earlier this week was moved from a pedestal on the [bank of the Narva River] 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 raze Ukraine's cities and villages.

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.

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.

Estonia doesn't have two antithetical histories

 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.

A quarter of a century ago, former President of Estonia Lennart Meri asked whether there is room in our homeland for two opposing histories.

He answered the question himself: "One country cannot have two histories that stand with their backs to one another."

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.

What could be a solution? Just an hour and a half's drive from Narva is the Vaivara Sinimäed Museum. It is a small and nice museum focused on the Battle of Tannenberg Line, one of the bloodiest in Estonian history, as well as military activity in and around Narva in 1944.

Battle museums can be found all around Europe. They are, for the most part, bigger and fancier than the Sinimäed Museum; they have plenty of funding, knowledge and innovation with which to tell their history. It isn't just the history of the victors, but the history of the people.

The story of war in those museums is the face of its people — the soldiers on either side, but also the civilians. I believe that investing and making the Sinimäed Museum larger, more compelling and more diverse would make it an appealing 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 one another.

Let's 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've 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 Pärt or Veljo Tormis; after viewing the works of Eduard Wiiralt or Konrad Mägi; after enjoying Aarne Üksküla's moving performances or Anu Raud's spectacular textiles. All these arts are available to teach empathy and humanity..

Culture, education and knowledge will carry us forward as a state, a nation and a people.

Whose war is Russia waging?

I 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 in 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.

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.

Yet, not all of 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.

An aggressor must be opposed. The worst course of action is silence, which Vaclav Havel called "cringing caution" in a speech he gave in Prague on May 8, 1995. 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 dignit 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.

President Alar Karis delivering a speech at the president's traditional Rose Garden reception on the Day of Restoration of Independence. August 20, 2022. Source: Margarita Mironova/ERR

We have no reason to fear. In regard to neither domestic nor international concerns. However, we do have cause to be alert and to prepare, as Russia has shown itself to be aggressive toward the entire world. As commander-in-chief of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), I can assure you that we are well prepared for a variety of threats.

We should also keep in mind, and be proud of, the fact that on November 29, 2021, the length of Estonia's independence and that of the Soviet occupation were equal. Since then, we have been free for longer than we were occupied, and the difference grows with every day.

Such knowledge should not render us foolishly careless, but rather confident. Every time that Estonia has stood on the verge of a promising future, we have reached it. This was true both when our republic was formed and as we restored our independence 70 years later.

We possess power and strength

Confidence grounded in knowledge and education can be Estonia's device as we tack through the reefs toward calmer seas, not knowing when we will reach them. 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; setting differing opinions aside; and fear of change and of that which is unknown or incomprehensible.

While Estonia faced an extraordinarily high electricity price on 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 toward 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.

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 fights — found the path that makes our hopes reality.

There are 1.3 million of us. We possess power and strength. But only if we go forward taking heed of one another, not elbowing our own truth through.

I recently attended an opera adapted from Eino Leino's play "Lalli." The Finnish legend's work speaks of a 12th century man who wished to live in peace, undisturbed by others and disturbing no one. But where do you draw the line between social cohesion and individual freedom? 

Where is the line between proclaiming one's own truth and accounting for that of others? How can we coexist in a society of mutual consideration?

The only way to answer these questions is to consider each decision like the theologian Toomas Paul: "How can I go through life without adding to anyone's pain?"

Even if we constantly seek but never arrive at a final conclusion to that troublesome question, we will always grow to be better people.

Many of you have seen a photo in which Patrol Officer Viktor Eksi is frying eggs and making toast for an elderly woman in her apartment as she waits for an ambulance to arrive, as she had not eaten anything since the previous evening.

Now that is the kind of empathy we need. Empathy when governing through political decisions. Empathy at school and at work. Empathy in our relationships with one another. In our families. Everywhere.

That will make Estonia stronger.

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.

So, what are we left with? The courage and wisdom to give our youth a chance.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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