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Digest: Today's Estonia is far more than a speech, and so is the centennial

President Kersti Kaljulaid singing with the choir at the centennial presidential reception, Feb. 24, 2018.
President Kersti Kaljulaid singing with the choir at the centennial presidential reception, Feb. 24, 2018. Source: Karli Saul/Scanpix

Appropriate optimism, perceived presidential spinelessness, surprising elegance in the least offensive option, and the golden mean: Here are a few comments on President Kersti Kaljulaid's centennial address, all the way from the grandest of receptions to a humble immigrant's domestic epiphany.

Prologue: It's the centennial, optimism is appropriate

Columnist Kaire Uusen wrote in a comment for daily Postimees (link in Estonian) that it was clear that this speech couldn't have been anything like the ones held on Estonia's 88th or 94th anniversaries. That alone would have made writing it a daunting task, Uusen said.

What stood out, in Uusen's opinion, was the speech's optimism. Rising above the everyday din and getting a broader, more perceptive idea of where the country and its people are headed is naturally tricky, and an even greater challenge these days, as Estonians might be feeling somewhat lost and less defined than they did in earlier times.

Throughout its history, Estonia always had clear enemies, problems, and dreams. There is no clear enemy today, and on the flip side no clear dream anymore either, Uusen wrote. "What do we strive for once freedom is achieved? How can we defend ourselves if we have no idea where the next attack might come from?" She wrote. "How can we preserve our being Estonian and at the same time be a modern country?"

Kaljulaid's speech was appropriate considering that there is no single answer to any of these questions, Uusen wrote. At the same time, there are achievements that are definitely worth pointing out. As a people of just a million, dealing with giants on even terms, that is one of them. Just as well, Estonia's infrastructure wouldn't have developed at the speed it did without the European Union.

There are plenty of problems, Uusen wrote. But the president had reason and did right in pointing to the things that went well and are going well on the occasion of the country's centennial.

Suddenly soft on domestic violence, but speaking elegantly on integration and immigration

Müürileht editor Maia Tammjärv suggested in a piece for daily Eesti Päevaleht (link in Estonian) that just a little over a year in, it is difficult to talk about this president's specific agenda or legacy. But while in her first Independence Day speech a year ago, President Kersti Kaljulaid had set the bar very high, at least in one respect this year's speech was disappointing: Kaljulaid merely touched on an issue that she had made a core promise, namely domestic violence.

This part of the president's speech was optimistic, perhaps too optimistic, Tammjärv opined. Whether this had something to do with the criticism Kaljulaid faced for insisting on NO99 director Tiit Ojasoo for the cultural part of Saturday's reception, and whether the improvement of the past year regarding domestic violence can be seen as good enough is left to the listeners to decide, Tammjärv wrote.

With her treatment of the topic, the president had taken a flexible approach to a wicked problem. The issue of the elephant in the room needed to be mentioned and disarmed somehow, and though for lack of a better word the president didn't show much backbone, the topic's treatment was appropriate for the speech.

Where Kaljulaid spoke of integration, she did so very elegantly: "It is imperative that we consider everyone who grows up here one of our own. No seven-year-old should feel that they are not fit for an Estonian school. They might have a charming accent when they speak Estonian, they might be of different color or their name might be hard to pronounce, but that all cannot matter," the president said.

With this short passage, Kaljulaid managed to cover generally very difficult issues such as the negative birth rate, the integration of Russian speakers, and the migration crisis very elegantly, Tammjärv wrote.

Going for the golden mean and all things reliable

Opinion editor of ERR's online news, Rain Kooli wrote on Monday (link in Estonian) that Kaljulaid successfully aimed for the golden mean. While that worked for plenty of people, all those who were farther away from this happy medium of everything would naturally have felt less content with the president's speech.

Kooli pointed out a few things other commentators overheard: that the president is still asking Estonians to be critical of all those who make it to the top, to not just accept what is going on, but to be careful in the choice of who they appoint their leaders and representatives.

Kaljulaid painted an image of the ideal Estonia, with a state that helps and supports, where national pride and feelings are a source of joy rather than anger. All that, rather than hatred, envy, obligations, and orders to be carried out.

Epilogue: An immigrant's Estonian epiphany

As for me, an immigrant of 11 years in this country, there is one thing that stood out beyond parades, speeches, and strange artistic performances.

I spent the evening of Estonia's 100th birthday with my wife's family, eating, drinking, celebrating, and talking more than anyone first encountering Estonians would ever guess. I was sitting under a flag dating back to 1919, arguably one of the first to show up again in the area in the late 1980s when people were still afraid to fly it.

There they were, an Estonian family, chatting away, laughing, shouting, passing around drinks and piles of potato salad and cake, blissfully unaware of the TV in the background, and with it the reception, NO99, and the president.

But when the crowd on TV started singing Mu isamaa on minu arm, one by one they fell silent. Something else was in the air, something bigger than that room, that home, that centennial celebration, and certainly something bigger than the cream of the crop assembled in Tartu.

And I felt that perhaps for the first time I got a small glimpse of the real depth of feeling and the sincere pride that goes with Estonians' love for their country and culture. And that, more than anything else, is a quality I hope will keep the people in this country together, even once their squabbling is on par with that of the rest of the world.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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