Lauri Läänemets: Estonians' coping is national security

Lauri Läänemets.
Lauri Läänemets. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Speech by chairman Lauri Läänemets at the general assembly of the Social Democratic Party (SDE) on January 14.

It is April 23, 1919. Social democrat August Rei gets up in front of the newly formed Constituent Assembly, Estonia's first parliament. He gives a historical speech where he describes key decisions that had and have determined Estonia's fate to this day.

I quote: "Esteemed delegates! We are looking at a colossal amount of work. Our first task must be to determine Estonia's constitutional order. Estonia must become a republic where justice and democracy rule, with solving the land issue our number one priority. It is the most painful issue, an existential matter for our people and statehood. Once this crucial issue is resolved, through putting an end to grand land ownership, nationalization and giving people access to the land –only then will all manner of anti-republic propaganda lose its footing."

Let us consider the kind of Estonia we would have had without the Social Democrats' efforts. If we had not abolished class society, given women the right to vote, made Estonian education freely available, given manor lands to Estonians, making them masters in their own land. During a time when having one's own farm meant the difference between coping and starvation, land distribution became the chief reason why Estonians fought in the War of Independence and won. This was also emphasized by the people's army commander [Johan] Laidoner.

Or what re-independent Estonia would have been like if Marju Lauristin's efforts had not given us child benefits, basic exemption and minimum salary. What Estonia would be like without knowledge-based politics or professional journalism.

If Eiki Nestor's initiative of unemployment insurance wouldn't be there to cushion the blow when we lose our jobs or his gene research legislation hadn't laid the foundation for the success of personal medicine, better prevention and treatment decisions in Estonia.

Without Liia Hänni, we wouldn't have the ownership reform, as the most important economic reform since re-independence, that laid the foundation for transitioning to a market economy.

In July, our decision to join the government was not made from a political technological point of view. The Social Democrats have never shirked responsibility during tough times. And so, faced with the cluster crisis, we had no choice but to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Since then, our decision to join the government has been proven responsible and necessary for Estonia. Absolutely necessary.

We have stood firm in the protection of everyone and every person's coping and dignity. We cannot regard as normal a situation where income levels are static during a period of unprecedented price advance. Efforts by the Social Democrats saw the pay of over one hundred thousand workers grow by around €400 a year. Salary advance reached teachers, rescuers, police officers, cultural workers etc. And it reached them without Estonia having to dial back security, quality of education, or at the expense of someone else's job. The average pension also went up.

We have alleviated the impact of unfairly high energy prices on families, NGOs and small businesses and made it a national priority to generate all electricity from green sources by 2030.

Let us recall that it was our family policy that allowed Estonia to lower the child absolute poverty rate by five times. We also pointed to keen injustice in the treatment of families with one or two children at the end of last year, despite opposition from our coalition partners. (Läänemets is referring to the 2023 large families support measure hike that sharply raised benefits starting from the third child – ed.)

Yes, many initiatives by the Social Democrats in Estonian history have been innovative, ahead of their time and, therefore, targets of hesitation and criticism. Especially coming from the political right. And more than a few things have taken longer than we would have liked. But ours is a party of action. Our tenacity was forged in the founding of the republic, maintained in exile and in our hearts and applied to restoring our independence and the rapid development of the past decades. We will never surrender and we will fulfill our promises.

One of the core promises of the Social Democrats from the previous elections –to make sure the elderly can afford a nursing home place for their pension – has been passed in the form of legislation. We got it done!

Making sure a person's pension ensures them a place in a nursing home is not just saving Estonian families thousands of euros in fees, it is also a matter of dignity and respect for every person's life's work.

The upcoming elections will determine Estonia's fate for at least the next decade. Our chief challenge over the coming years is to maintain unity on the state and social levels. It is up to the Social Democrats to make sure feelings of being deprived would not undermine Estonians' faith in their country. We must, more than ever, protect Estonian families and companies precisely because it is wartime. Security is about much more than weapons systems and ammunition. A strife-ridden society the rules of which work to deepen poverty has no hope in war. Everyone coping is Estonia's national security.

Just like in Ukraine, the key to Estonia's success lies in solidarity. That which has helped Ukraine hold out and achieve success many find to be incredible has only been made possible by international solidarity. Just as we help Ukraine and the Ukrainians must we help our countrymen who have been battered by the rising cost of living. It has become painfully obvious that the invisible hand [of the market], after years of being worshipped in Estonia, cannot ensure the survival of the Estonian nation state, environment or local enterprise.

The free market and deregulation as preached by the Reform Party have allowed poverty to grow both in peacetime and in crises, lessened people's chances of finding work close to home, their access to quality education and feelings of security.

To avoid the worst, we must help Estonian families and companies survive this period of tightening our belts. We must do so without pushing anyone away or digging trenches between the right and wrong Estonians.

True patriotism does not need grand words and torchlight processions. What patriotism needs is action. Taking care of Estonianness must not be allowed to drown in EKRE and the Reform Party's ostentatious doomsaying and efforts to fight an imaginary enemy!

Tens of thousands of Estonians nursing grudges against their fellow citizens for taking a different view make Estonia a brilliant target for its true enemy.

We oppose all attempts to clip democracy's wings or hinder freedom of expression and lifestyle. We will not allow people to be labeled, silenced or marginalized as globalists, prostitutes, childless or untraditional.

The Reform Party is not, nor will it ever be, a counterweight to EKRE because the latter are a consequence, not the reason. A consequence of growing inequality, deprivation, disillusionment and hopelessness.

The worshippers of the invisible hand are unwilling and unable to solve problems they've themselves created, problems that lend momentum to those yearning for an iron fist and create fertile soil for aggressive authoritarianism. 60,000 families living in paid poverty, Europe's fastest growing home prices over the last decade, deepening regional inequality and rising food prices are just a few examples.

The Reform Party, in facilitating deprivation, has become an effective tool used by the radicals to try and come to power. The Social Democrats function as a party wall of an asylum in Estonian politics. With Lehman Brothers-style market fundamentalists on one side and fanatics worshipping the Muscovite value space on the other.

My dear friends. The fastest inflation in Europe must not be allowed to destroy Estonian families' subsistence or bankrupt local businesses. Rising prices must mean rising income – salaries, pensions, child benefits. Because it is fair. No one's professional contribution is worth less simply because the electricity market is dysfunctional or because our neighbor is being a villain.

Hopelessness and feelings of being treated unfairly undermine one's trust in their country and provide radicals with an excuse to dismantle democracy and cut back people's fundamental rights and freedoms. Only equal treatment and confidence when looking to the future can ensure social unity, which is the strongest guarantee for the Estonian state and people lasting throughout the ages. That is why every Estonian's coping is national security.

A strong Estonia where no one gets left behind is the Social Democrats' biggest responsibility and most important national goal.

All Estonian parties are rather in agreement when it comes to military national defense. Everyone is on board with taking defense spending to 3 percent of GDP.

Looking at the world at large, democracy is outnumbered and authoritarianism rearing its head. That is why we attach special significance to allied relations with countries with which we share common values and belong together to the family of democratic nations. A closed and confrontational Estonia would not last long next to its brutal and authoritarian neighbor.

I quote: "National security is affected by economic, social and environmental security all over Estonia. Life must be livable and safe everywhere in Estonia. A united society is more difficult to wound and affect from the outside. Social cohesion is boosted by a greater degree of integration. Excess faction of attitudes in society and efforts to condemn diversity work to weaken cohesion and resilience. Equal treatment of the most vulnerable social groups, protecting their fundamental rights and creating for them a livable environment needs to be paid more attention."

Sounds like the Social Democrats' election platform, does it not? Even though these lines would make for a fine addition to our program, the quote is from the framework document on the foundations of Estonia's National Security Policy that repeatedly emphasizes that people's coping is a matter of national security.

Coping IS security. It is the collective conclusion of experts and a valid framework document for national security. However, to what extent can we feel it prioritized in everyday politics?

Dear friends. Our election program Strong Estonia (Tugev Eesti) serves as a guide for the next four years, which we plan to use to shape the incoming government's goals and offer solutions to challenges Estonia faces. I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to the program through lively and inspiring debates and especially our program and statues working group chairwoman Kadri Leetmaa for all her work. Thank you, Kadri!

We will hike minimum salary to €1,200 in three years. This will make paid poverty a thing of the past, help close the gender wage gap and alleviate regional inequality. While the minimum salary should already be €900 in Estonia based on the European Parliament's target, despite the best efforts of our unions, it is just €725 today.

We will support companies that need help during the transitionary period, especially small businesses and rural employers. We will create a salary support instrument and invest €500 million in innovation measures over three years. This will help companies update their business models, offer higher value added products and pay their workers more.

Income levels must rise because prices won't fall further. Once salaries go up, pensiones will follow, alongside central and local government levers for helping those in need. We will hike the average pension to €1,200 and make sure the minimum pension will not fall below double the minimum means of subsistence of €400.

Meanwhile, the Reform Party are looking to spend an annual €340 million on a tax break for the wealthy. The ruling party's proposed tax change (to abolish Estonia's so-called tax hump or gradual basic exemption – ed.) would net a person making €6,000 a month an additional €140, while a person making €1,000 would only see a few extra euros. If this is not blatant inequality and water for the radicals' mill, I don't know what it is.

Professor Mati Heidmets said at the Social Democrats' economic conference that the greatest disgrace of Estonian policy after the restoration of independence is deepening regional inequality. The latter is not just a security threat but also hinders economic development and jeopardizes the vitality of the Estonian language and culture. What would Estonia be without Saaremaa and Setomaa, our cultural and national heritage, small libraries, community centers, local museums or hobby centers?

The political right's belief in the omnipotent free market has left our rural areas and small towns empty. Soaring real estate and rental prices in major cities mean that families have to settle for increasingly modest living conditions.

We need affordable housing all over Estonia to give people the freedom to choose where to work, for young people not to move away and enterprise to be able to develop. We will construct rental buildings with 5,000 new apartments in different parts of Estonia and help create 15,000 lucrative jobs in rural areas.

The smartest work can only be done by the smartest people in the world. That is why education policy is our best long-term economic policy. Naturally, we must ensure every teacher and professor worthy pay, boost higher education funding and ensure education on all levels. However, learning must also become an inseparable part of working life.

The relative importance of low value added jobs is too great in the structure of our economy, the know-how and skills of many have become outdated and too few are participating in lifelong learning. Provided we want to achieve a new level of economic development, we need to have a four-day workweek for people who are studying on the side. We want to get there by 2035 by increasing the number of available study leave days from one year to the next.

Political scientist Tõnis Saarts wrote: "On March 5, the voter will not be basing their decision on the price of electricity or inflation so much as fundamentally different democratic projects. While there can be no doubt that matters of national security and the protection of Estonia need to be on the forefront these elections, the voter is set to choose between utterly different visions of how the Estonian state, its role in our lives and the base values of Estonian democracy will look in the coming decade."

The Social Democrats will be a pointer of balance in this. Without us, a coalition based on European values, universal coping and one that can ensure Estonia's security simply cannot be formed. Only we can prevent Martin Helme (EKRE leader – ed.) becoming the prime minister of Estonia.

Those who think as we do and support us all over Estonia number far more than what the polls suggest. Our candidate lists include people with experience running central and local governments, representatives of civil society, entrepreneurs and experts in many fields. We have a Strong Team for a Strong Estonia.

I would like to thank all regional managers and list curators for such a well-rounded team. I welcome candidates new and old out to win the hearts of the Estonian people and a mandate to run our country over the next four years.

A century ago, the Social Democrats determined the countenance of young Estonia. The country's fate depends on us once more today. Let us talk with our loved ones, friends, coworkers and neighbors. Only then can they be convinced that they share our values and dreams.

The Social Democrats will not allow Estonian families and companies to fall into poverty! We will not allow radicals to dismantle Estonian democracy! We are the guarantee of a strong and united Estonia, because our people's coping is national security.


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Editor: Kaupo Meiel, Marcus Turovski

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