President Alar Karis said in his Anniversary of the Republic speech delivered at the Estonia Theater and Concert Hall on February 24 that Estonia should adopt a tradition where those who seek to add to fixed expenditure must demonstrate which tax hike or public cutback will pay for it.
Dear people of Estonia.
Firstly, of course – congratulations! I wish you well on the birthday of the Republic of Estonia! That is the reason for us celebrating here and in countless homes in Estonia and much farther afield.
In January, I asked students to write essays on the topic: "Why does the world need Estonia?" It's a question for adults to consider as well. Merje Meerits, a teacher at the Tallinn Polytechnic School, sent me her students' submissions with a covering letter. I'll read you an excerpt: "…as every individual is a world, I certainly need Estonia to be able to speak Estonian without fear or shame, to eat black bread, and to live free on my native soil."
Yes – every individual is a world. These worlds create yet another that we all share; one where we all coexist. Like being in the same boat.
But not a boat standing still, because those who remain motionless opt to come in last.
We were in a great hurry when we joined the European Union and NATO. Afterward, it felt like we had time to rest a spell. No longer. Hasty days have returned.
Security. Welfare. Maintaining the foundations of democracy. Education. Health. Environment. Innovation and economic growth. Relations between the state and its citizens. Perseverance as a state and a people.
These are touchstones that will determine Estonia's future if we manage them swiftly.
Therefore, if we wish to truly help ourselves, then we must foster the inner conviction that faithfulness to our land, our people, our language, our culture, and our uniqueness is the only way forward. If we lack that sense for truth, then we are like a heap of sand scattered by a gust or smoke that dissipates in the sky.
Yet, people are not grains of sand and Estonia is not dissipating smoke. We must be tenacious and flexible; inventive and audacious. We must continue to be everything that helped Estonia rise and become an inseparable part of the West anew.
However, we are not connected to Europe by a modern highway or a high-speed railway. I'll leave air connections aside for now. And if we simply sit and watch the sunset, carefree like August Gailit's character Toomas Nipernaadi, then the sun will set, and we will still lack those highways and railways. High-speed connections of all kinds to the north, west, south, and internally should be a component of our strategic intention to avoid being peripheralized at the end of the free world.
My dear people.
In Luhamaa, Koidula, and Narva, we can declare with full force that freedom begins here. Evil extends from the other side of that border. In Estonia, it is a cause for concern and uncertainty.
When I assert that Estonia's military security is fortified and cared for, then the claim's categorical nature may seem like an embellishment of reality. We do live in a geopolitically fragile location adjacent to Russia and its imperialist tendencies. Russia, whose total war on Ukraine, launched one year ago, opened the gates of hell to chaos and suffering.
As a border state, Estonia must entertain an uncomfortable question: though Russia incorrectly assessed Ukrainian resistance and Western support for the victim of aggression, would Russia repeat the same mistake in the Baltic region?
Even before the full-scale war was launched, NATO allies vowed to support Ukraine with weapons in the event of an attack. NATO has kept its word. However, it was also known that NATO troops would not wage direct war against Russian soldiers in Ukraine itself. This knowledge unfortunately emboldened the aggressor. The goal of Russia's leadership remains intrinsically imperialistic: to continue its war of conquest and subjugate Ukraine. Russia places no value in human life, neither at home nor in Ukraine. Nor does it mind its own economic ruin or diplomatic isolation.
Russia must never doubt that the moment it decides to attack a NATO ally, the alliance's response will be swift, devastating, and final. On the ground. Force against force. I am confident of this fact.
True, we ourselves also have much to accomplish in a short amount of time. Our preparedness to defend Estonia will forever endure alongside a country so hostile to peace.
What does this entail? Boosting the battle readiness of our reserve forces and increasing the numbers and capabilities of the Estonian Defense League. Large-scale trainings. New weapons systems and opportunities to practice their use in Estonia. Warehouses stocked full of necessary ammunition. The ability to quickly receive and host our allies.
Estonia has all these things, and the situation is steadily improving. We have worked assertively to increase our defense capability, making difficult and expensive decisions. Every Estonian political entity promises to increase national defense spending. I truly hope that this consensus will also lead to financing for our protection. Together with our NATO allies, we will do everything possible to ensure that in Estonia and the Baltic region as a whole, there exists a visible and unassailable military presence prepared to defend us from the very first second of attack.
We are not readying to attack anyone, but to defend Estonia and our democratic neighbors.
This means being capable of placing such a high price on the independence of Estonia, and thereby of all NATO countries, that threats made by a possible adversary are no longer credible and they lose interest in conquest. So that Estonia – on its own and with allies' support – is so strong that no one miscalculates our will or ability to defend ourselves.
So, when I say that Estonia is protected, then that is the case. Estonia is truly protected.
National defense compels us to establish and maintain trust between the state and its citizens. We must acknowledge that guaranteeing security places a greater burden on some shoulders than on others. So it is right now in Nursipalu.
I believe it is everyone's shared duty to avoid contrasting national defense needs with preserving our living environment. Military infrastructure and the training opportunities we are able to provide are indispensable to the presence of allies, without whom our deterrence and defense would be incomplete. Let us find a solution for expanding the Nursipalu training area through cooperation, treating one another with respect, and taking into account the needs of local governments and communities.
Beneath it all, each of us is representing Estonia's best interests.
We do not merely stand idle and observe war crimes, murders, and destruction being committed in Europe, nor the flouting of international law. Estonians' moral compass compels us to support Ukraine. We provide aid wherever we are able to provide it. That is why we also sent a rescue team to Turkey as it grapples with a deadly earthquake.
I wish to thank every Estonian who has supported Ukraine – tireless volunteers, dedicated diplomats, state officials, medical and education workers, entrepreneurs, police, border guard, and military. The many faces of Estonia.
I believe this effort is being made by our nation as a whole. Something that was neatly summed up by Harri Põllu, who directs volunteer aid workers near the frontline: "Everyone who believes in freedom should help Ukraine."
We must be prepared for a prolonged effort that will ultimately be measured in years. Therefore, it is increasingly necessary to ask: how can we sustain the motivation of Ukraine's friends to support it as this war of enervation drags on and on? Let us look even further: what will the new global security situation look like after the war? We cannot allow ourselves to be bystanders.
Every day, Russia demonstrates that neutrality is impossible in its vicinity. It is why Sweden and Finland decided to join NATO. For this reason, Estonia supports expanding the alliance. NATO and the European Union must draw up a clear but realistic roadmap for Ukraine. Moldova, which has begun moving towards Europe, needs one as well. We wish to expand where it is possible to live in peace. We also wish to diminish the grey zone – that area of ambiguous security in Europe where freedom is vulnerable because of one country's imperialist ambitions.
It is crucial that we also stay strong. That our spirit remains undaunted. As a nation and a country, we are confident and generous, including towards those seeking refuge from the war. But we must also admit that occasionally, we feel weary and worry about our own security and welfare. In these moments, we must rest, get together with friends, go out into nature, take time off, and step away from the news cycle. Each of us needs it – partly so that as a society, we do not buckle beneath hardships and wartime exhaustion. So that our gaze stays clear and inclusive.
How many of you noticed that this year's Estonian Human Development Report focuses on mental health? In it, scientists and experts offer ways to reach a healthier mental state. They include a sense of social security, connection to one's community, abandoning the cult of success and the pressure to achieve, balance in one's life, and recognizing issues early on.
Often, the key lies within us. It is embedded in the manner in which we think, what we say, how we nurture relationships with those around us, and the way in which we take note of others' feelings and react to them. All in all, it's quite a comprehensive approach to how to be a better person to ourselves and others.
Better, which also means healthier.
I have often spoken about mental health – that of our young people in particular – and met with many experts. After one discussion, I was asked whether Estonia might benefit from a Tiger Leap in this field as well. It's an intriguing thought, because the Tiger Leap project was how we became one of the world's most successful digital states. Now, we could make a similar vault towards a more mentally resilient Estonia.
A leap in this area is necessary. But when speaking about mental health, we must also emphasise every person's diligent daily efforts to keep their home, relationships, and community in good working order. Like an ant who doesn't allow rubbish to build up in their nest. With humans, it entails anything that undermines our mental and physical wellbeing. This being the Ministry of Culture's "Be Active Year," we will discover that the more we move, the healthier we become.
As experts have noted in the run-up to the election, Estonia's political parties are promising to pull young persons' mental health out of the mire by increasing the number of smaller classes, adding more certifiably trained advisors to schools, and reining in bullying. We truly cannot waste any time in making these electoral promises tangible acts. Every year we lose means hundreds more children with broken spirits and, most tragically, snuffed out young lives.
One vital task Estonia faces in the coming decade is fixing our energy sector, as otherwise, it will only become an ever-greater restraint on our country's development.
For Estonia's energy policy to truly lean upon diversification, decisions must be made in this calendar year. Over the last decade, our wind-energy capability has been at a standstill due to various disputes. The implementation of solar energy is scant. It's possible for us to build offshore wind farms, but for that to happen, investors must be certain that they will genuinely come to fruition. If we do not wish to depend on electricity imports in the future, then we must make quick decisions now.
On our export markets, ever greater attention is directed towards how green partners are in Estonia. Banks will not finance energy technologies that lack functioning proof or investments that pollute the environment.
Allow me to make a necessary digression. It often feels as if the green transition splits us into supporters and opponents, with no room for discussion.
However, the green transition is not something over which debate is ruled out. By debating, we can determine what is realistic, what is rational, what is within our powers to truly achieve, and what is not. Afterward, there will be clarity and certainty for the government, entrepreneurs, and society alike. Yet to this day, it is hard for me to understand how a sustainability report with up to thousands of lines of data that must be filled out annually by nearly 250 of Estonia's largest companies can fit into that trend of clarity and certainty. A European deal, they call it. Bureaucracy such as that only irritates and harms the European Union's image.
Let us not forget that economic liberalism has been a cornerstone of Estonia's success. It ties us to the Nordic region, as we are similar to those countries in that respect. However, I'm concerned that we have frequently doubted the market and economic liberalism in recent years. Estonia's economic-policy messages spoke too much of price regulation and too little of strengthening competition in 2022. Market intervention that stems from extraordinary circumstances must be temporary and soundly based, lasting only until the initial cause has passed or the measure no longer meets its purposes.
I am baffled by election slogans that promise to magically regulate prices and thereby offer a more favorable solution. The market is usually wiser than any who attempt to warp it. One distortion tends to lead to another until we end up in a vicious regulatory circle that directs us away from the market economy and free choices.
But what are we to make of the fiasco surrounding the floating liquefied natural gas terminal, where entrepreneurs endeavored to be flexible while the state gave conflicting signals? The need for that project was brought up years and years ago, and many different governments held power in the meantime. Unfortunately, it hasn't been the only case as of late. Wind farms, storm-proof electrical grids, four-lane highways, secure water supplies for Narva's power plants – to name just a few examples of many. The now-desolate dock in Paldiski stands as a monument to political indecisiveness and delay that we, a small country, cannot allow ourselves.
This year, we will hopefully see several turns for the better. Inflation is slowing and energy prices are dropping lower than last year's based on market expectations. Perhaps a new wind farm will also sprout in Estonia for the first time in a long while.
My fellow thinkers.
I must also talk about state spending. Let me just say that we cannot practice spending like other Nordic countries while maintaining our current level of taxation. In recent years, under the cover of crises, various governments have increased state spending without detailing the long-term sources of financing. Not only one-time emergency expenses have increased, such as those made during the pandemic, but fixed costs as well. Estonia could make a habit of requiring anyone who intends to increase fixed state costs to show what tax increase or cut to public benefits will be made to cover it.
Again, political parties are promising to shower funding in every possible direction. Like presents left by the Easter Bunny, future governments are the ones who must find the money to back it up. Alas, such gifts are not always located.
I'd like for all of us to come to a shared understanding: money allocated for support does not come from a single politician or political party's wallet. It is the tax revenue that we contribute, and the loans taken by the state that we must pay back for decades to come.
I can also understand politicians' dilemma. Due to difficult times, many countries have boosted government's role in their economies and granted artificial advantages to their own domestic companies. We must also protect the competitiveness of our enterprises. Yet when speaking with Estonian entrepreneurs, I've come to understand that the majority do not expect state handouts. They expect the government to do exactly what it is tasked with doing: ensuring fair competition and equal opportunities for all market entities. In other words, to foster an economic environment that is favourable to entrepreneurship.
But how? In what way?
It is my opinion that the Riigikogu and the Government must work to guarantee that any economic intervention follows the same principles as in the rest of Europe. In this way, we can avoid giving any artificial competitive advantage to those who interfere in the market more during times of crisis. It is Estonia's duty to consistently demand that the rules of Europe's single market be enforced. We must also find allies in this task, as is only just and in everyone's best interest.
A successful economy adapts and changes. You don't fish in stagnant water. Education and research are keys that will open the path to economic growth in five, ten, or twenty years' time. But they must be used now, this very day.
Over the last year, I've visited several Estonian start-ups that are turning researchers' discoveries into business models. Technologies being devised now will only reach the market after many years, sometimes even more than a decade, and will start to turn a profit even later. It takes quite a while for the youth who are presently calculating angles in their primary-school maths class to grow up and become doctoral candidates, young scientists, and entrepreneurs. But now is the time for us to contribute to their development, for if we don't, we'll be left stranded.
My dear listeners.
I'll take this opportunity to share a recent quote:
"Lifting education into focus should be a sign of statesmanship this spring."
To whom can that pithy statement be attributed? Who said that education should be the most important issue of the coming election? Was it the rector of an institute of upper education? A school director or a teacher? A sensitive intellectual?
No, it was Mait Palts – an advocate for entrepreneurism.
I can only agree with him and add that the issue lies not only in a smart and productive economy, but in cultural and social alertness. They are the pillars capable of carrying an Estonia that is greater than themselves. Of bolstering a country on equal footing with the world's most powerful; one we have been in our best moments and wish to carry on being.
These pillars' stones are carved in our schools and stacked firmly to withstand the test of time. But if the temples of education quake, then the construction underway within them will also slant and become unstable.
Of course, school buildings are not the ones who instruct our youth. Nor is it curricula or high-tech learning. Human contact is still at the core of teaching and learning. The teacher's profession will never disappear, but will only gain importance the more complex the world around us becomes.
Yet are we aware of how to support and provide for our teachers? Those who must perpetually work to comprehend new students and the new world they bring with them, in addition to the subject at hand and the task of managing a classroom?
Yes, Estonia has a critical shortage of engineers, medics, skilled workers, and specialists in many crucial fields. But not one of these concerns can be resolved before we deal with the waning numbers of new teachers and instructors. We can approve grandiose development plans and set final deadlines, but they are all just words on paper when teachers become burned out and there's no one to show young people the way to the world and themselves in any given subject.
We thereby lose sight of what matters most: young people in every school who are capable of and excited to learn, acquiring the knowledge and education that will lift each to a more-or-less equal level by the time they receive their diplomas.
What is education's noblest objective? To foster our shared culture and simultaneously coax forth what is unique in every person. Balancing this complex equation requires skilled teachers and the perception of education as a whole: starting in primary school, continuing through upper- or vocational education, and including instruction for special-needs children. None is any less important than the other. Furthermore, we must identify children with exceptional talents and help to develop them. Let us find ways to make all these aspects work together in harmony. And to return to teachers their dignity, which tends to wilt when they are forced to run a range of gauntlets. Teachers are not waiting staff to be pushed and pulled by parents and students, but trained professionals, intellectual role models, and guides.
Estonia's education field needs a compact that transcends political parties to ensure the universal availability of high-quality instruction, the necessary number of motivated teachers, and sufficient funding for both. Many worthy ideas have sounded in the ongoing electoral debates. Now, let us all make sure they aren't forgotten when the time comes to act.
Education determines a nation's future. Wisdom enriches us, both intellectually and economically.
Ladies and gentlemen.
Estonian education and Estonian schools – a wise nation – constitute the backbone of our country and culture. They remind us that people have a soul, not just utility bills, bank loans, and expensive cars. But like education, culture must also be readily available. Both in the city and in the country. For all who wish to participate in it and need it for their everyday lives.
I'm glad that our orchestras and theater troupes travel abroad. That there are galleries, museums, and libraries scattered across the country. That the Estonian public has an interest in new domestic films. That the Cultural Backpack program helps youth find their way to culture. Let us load that backpack even heavier. Our youth shoulder it with pride and joy – the same emotions with which they will gather at the Youth Song and Dance Festival this summer, themed "Holy is the Land".
Those who generate culture and art must be able to immerse in their profession here in Estonia. Serious dedication and surrendering one's life to their craft must be accepted as work, and the state should give it the appreciation it deserves. This means health insurance, social guarantees, respectable public lending royalties, increasing funding for new commissioned works, maintaining researchers at museums, and supporting the research of Estonian thought at institutions of higher education. But can anyone offer a reason why the sums of Estonia's annual awards for culture, sport, and science have remained unchanged for more than 20 years? I certainly cannot, and the situation is unjust.
I like to say that the state must reach every one of its citizens. Yet now, in many places across the country, we see rising concern over the survival of Estonia's vital cultural bloodstream: its community centers, libraries, and small schools. Populations and tax revenue are shrinking in municipalities; car-reliant citizens drive to cities to work and shop, enrolling their children in urban schools. Life in rural areas is drying up. That is a fact.
From a broader perspective, libraries, community centers, and small schools bring us back to the strength and weakness of local governments. Here, municipalities require state assistance, occasionally fair advice, and sometimes money. The way that local governments make ends meet and life outside of Tallinn, Tartu, and their environs should be some of the most important topics for the new Riigikogu and the new Government.
Estonia would become stunted and withered if it were the state of just one city.
My dear people.
A week from now, we will choose our Riigikogu. I ask everyone to cast their vote, even those traveling with their children during the school holidays. The voices that truly do not count are the ones that are not given.
All Estonian citizens who are 18 years and older can vote in the parliamentary elections. Therefore, I appeal to our youth: take up the role of conscious citizen. Firstly, go and vote. Secondly, encourage your friends and acquaintances to vote as well. If you're able to bring even just one more person to the polls, then the Estonian state owes you a debt of gratitude.
Soon, and the day will be here before we know it, we will hand the Estonian state over to you to care for and advance.
Each and every one of us is the Estonian state. Abroad and within Estonia's borders alike, we are all together.
Or, as Juri Lotman said:
"We must live . . . in a human world that forces upon us the agony of choice, inevitable errors, and the greatest level of responsibility, but on the other hand also grants us conscience, genius, and all that makes a human human."
All together in the same boat, my dear friends. The good and the bad, the righteous and the wicked, those of various nationalities, those of various faiths.
All together. Through arguments and debates alike, as such arguments and debates are obligatory.
Believing in Estonia, and in service of Estonia.
Happy Estonian Independence Day!
Editor: Marcus Turovski