Kaljulaid: Conflict between national and liberal values doesn't exist

President Kersti Kaljulaid in Kadriorg, Aug. 20, 2017.
President Kersti Kaljulaid in Kadriorg, Aug. 20, 2017. Source: (Rene Suurkaev/ERR)

In her speech given on the occasion of the 26th anniversary of the restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1991, President Kersti Kaljulaid spoke out against replacing dealing with the country’s actual issues with trumped-up and artificial conflicts—the latter of which were a threat to democracy.

Talking about Estonian society, President Kersti Kaljulaid pointed out that even in the most crucial events of the country’s history its people had never been in complete agreement. “Why should we? Among other things, independence also means the opportunity to disagree. One idea, one opinion, one law—this is what we wanted to be free of. At that time, we explicitly recognized that this way of thinking meant totalitarianism,” Kaljulaid said in her speech.

Conservatism is the art of avoiding revolutions.

But for some reason, 26 years after Estonia regained its independence, its people had now started to think that different opinions were no longer necessary. “It also seems we are not able to reach reasonable compromises anymore, the kind a lot of people would agree with.”

Instead of supporting positive choices, the emphasis was more and more on everybody’s right to make their own selfish choices about their lives, the president pointed out. Politics too often shifting towards the attempt to fill the state’s coffers didn’t help, Kaljulaid added, referring to the increasing difficulty of Estonia’s political scene to justify its measures with a particular political ideology.

But the reaction to turn away and go for the other extreme, conjuring up images of a revolutionary return to a time when people, including women and children, had significantly fewer freedoms, seemed just as strange. “Conservatism is the art of avoiding revolutions. But the wide-ranging restriction of the freedoms of a liberal democracy under the guise of promoting nationalism would be a drastic upheaval, not sensible conservative policy,” Kaljulaid said. The actual aim of conservatism was to try and anticipate events long enough in advance to be able to slowly prepare for the future without having to make drastic changes.

If you don’t listen, the ideas of others will just turn into noise. That’s all it takes, and democracy is consigned to the past.

When Estonians fought for freedom, everything had been simple and clear. “Freedom was the right to do everything totally differently from the occupiers—and our liberal democracy grew instinctively out of doing everything the other way. We see that of the countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain that are now free it is the Baltic states that have grown quickly and unhesitatingly into democratic states that follow the rule of law, value personal liberties, allow free media, and keep the power of the state within a predictable framework.”

This had happened because the Baltic nations had been occupied, and explicitly not free in their choices. This made the goal a simple one: a 180-degree turn away from the situation as it had been under Soviet occupation.

The current situation was more complicated. Some occupations could go entirely unnoticed. “An occupation usually begins in the name of an idea, rallying around a concept without listening to other ideas or concepts. This is followed by shutting off the annoying buzz of dissenting opinions, because if you don’t listen, the ideas of others will just turn into noise. That’s all it takes, and democracy is consigned to the past,” the president said.

“We see this self-occupation occurring in countries where we thought that our similar experience behind the Iron Curtain could help avoid such developments,” she added, pointing out that typically everybody had been convinced that democracy could only be destroyed by a foreign power.

The language of bullies turns all of us into bullies.

There was the danger that threats to democracy went unnoticed because those that promoted this way of thinking spoke the same language as everybody else. Self-occupation was more insidious than occupation by a foreign power: “The restriction of freedoms, in the name of any sacred idea, be it pure Estonianism or a better choice of food, can mark the start of self-occupation,” the president said.

Estonia’s future couldn’t be put at risk by politicians and parties focused on their own short-term goals. The ambition to lead country and society couldn’t be reconciled with compromising in the name of petty self-interest. Any victory won came with the obligation to make sure that the losers didn’t feel that they were being sacrificed for the interests of others. 

But whether or not this could be avoided in a time where even small disagreements were inflated to become supposed major debates remained to be seen. “We can say that radical rhetoric is only a way to attract attention. However, I fear that the impact is deeper. The language of bullies turns all of us into bullies. Holding on to our dignity is what turns us into statesmen. That’s just how it is,” the president said.

I am proud that I am an Estonian, and I do not see any contradiction in also being part of an international community based on values.

“I believe that it is possible to preserve the Estonian nation and culture without inhibiting democracy, so that the great majority of our people will still be moved by the spirit of our song festivals. I am proud that I am an Estonian, and I do not see any contradiction in also being part of an international community based on values. Quite the opposite, I do not see any other alternative for the protection of Estonia’s culture and people than cooperating even more closely with like-minded democratic countries, and making sure that this cooperation does not weaken and that the basis for this cooperation does not shift from shared values to profits and special interests,” Kaljulaid stressed.

There was no contradiction between national and socially liberal values, she added. “In reality this conflict does not exist. Sure, it can be constructed artificially, but the result would be ridiculous, boorish, and predictable.”

No matter the language used, this issue made no more sense than “arguing who a dead dog belongs to”, the president said. And it couldn’t be given any sense by means of shouting and swearing either.

Politics is the art of leadership, and as such needs to explain, substantiate, and argue.

All the while, the country was faced with genuine challenges. Its location made it necessary for Estonia to always be vigilant, and there was great change looming from current and future technologies. “A change that will likely be just as great as the one faced by those that experienced the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. Geography will lose its importance, one’s home and location will lose their importance, the production of goods will not provide mass employment, and new jobs will develop in areas of activity that we cannot describe, regulate, or tax. And then what?”

The Constitution called for the protection of Estonian culture and language. But how could that be done as the nation and Estonia’s entire society was multinational? How could it be achieved in a time where Estonia was a global society and no longer constrained to 45,000 square kilometers?

Estonians needed to deal with the country’s current issues if they wanted to continue the work taken up by those who had seized the moment and helped restore Estonia’s independence. Old as well as artificially created conflicts needed to be overcome. “We have things to think about,” the president said.

“The local elections are approaching. The administrative reform needs to be given meaning. We need to agree what is the same throughout Estonia, and therefore naturally assigned to the national government, and what is more visible locally, and should be left to local governments and communities. The subsidiarity principle needs to be given meaning. The obligation to ensure equal opportunity for everyone will be left mostly to the local governments, starting with those whose irrefutable right to be cared for is not disputed by anyone, and ending with those who are partially responsible for the difficulties they now face. How are we planning to do this?”

Estonian director and actor Kaarin Raid (1942-2014) had once written on the corner of a leaflet that if something couldn’t be explained, it was theatre. Politics was neither theatre nor entertainment, but the art of leadership, and as such needed to explain, substantiate, and argue. “Politics needs to be our common tool to organize our collective life,” Kaljulaid said. “When our independence was restored, our cultural figures were excellent at making policy. However, politicians today are very good at making theatre. While they shouldn’t, at least not exclusively,” the president added.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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