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With rights come responsibilities, President tells Riigikogu

President Kersti Kaljulaid addressing the XIV Riigikogu at its special sitting on Tuesday.
President Kersti Kaljulaid addressing the XIV Riigikogu at its special sitting on Tuesday. Source: ERR

President Kersti Kaljulaid emphasised in strident terms the twin importance of responsibilities and freedoms, in her speech marking the 100th anniversary of the Riigikogu on Tuesday morning, ERR's online Estonian news reports.

A special sitting of the XIV Riigikogu was convened to mark the centenary, which dates back to the founding of the Constituent Assembly, the forerunner to the Riigikogu, in April 1919.

''A just state must understand that under the rule of law, rights are directly related to obligations and responsibilities,'' the President said in her speech, at the sitting opened by new Riigikogu speaker Henn Põlluaas (EKRE).

She went on to note that every MP is free to make his or her own decisions, but at the same time is responsible for his or her own conscience.

"Responsibility for what is happening in this hall is for noone other than every member of the Riigikogu. Responsibility for every word spoken. For every decision made. This responsibility is individual, made only in the light of our consciences - as outlined in Chapter IV of the Estonian Constitution," the president said.

"... Yes, on every vote, a member of the Riigikogu is free in his or her decision. He or she will always take full responsibility," she added.

''Among other things, the composition of each parliament is responsible for all our freedoms and human rights. This has been the case since the Constituent Assembly [was founded]. Here, I recall the chapter on the fundamental rights of the first citizens of Estonia, adopted by the assembly which formulated very clearly our position at the time: 'There shall be no public rights and veto rights that are dependent on birth, belief, gender, status or nationality','' she pointed out.

Many media commentators have noted a somewhat tense or unpleasant atmosphere in recent months in Estonia, perhaps dating back at least to the governmental split on the issue of the UN Global Compact on Migration last November.

According to the President, freedom without the liberty of the land is no freedom at all.

"This is why personal freedoms, freedom of the media, freedom of expression, freedom of enterprise in our country are paramount. So long as we have these freedoms, people will choose to be here, to come here - and not to leave from here," Ms Kaljulaid, who met with President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin last week in Moscow, continued.

''Again I repeat - the Estonian people are free. Estonian entrepreneurs are free. Estonian journalists are free. Estonian creative persons are free. Estonian parliamentarians are free. Truly free, with responsibilities for every word and every deed," she continued.

In what the ERR article refers to as a clear reference to the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), now one of the three coalition parties entering into the new administration after being voted in last week by the same Riigikogu the president was addressing, and a party whose members had recently called for the removal from the airwaves of journalists who displayed ''bias'', Ms Kaljulaid said that: "There are no structures in Estonia which are not subject to legislative and parliamentary control. The state of Estonia is not guided by the state, but solely from this hall. Everything that happens in Estonia and with regard to the state is the responsibility of this chamber. Every claim to the contrary, no matter whether referred to as a "real direction", represents an attempt to circumvent your [ie. the Riigikogu's] responsibilities''.

''Finally, I repeat in the same Chamber what was said at the beginning of April: the idea that our Constitution lives when we make use of democratic values as Estonian citizens and patriots, and let others use them too," the President concluded''.

The special sitting and the president's address come as part of a week of ceremonies marking the Riigikogu's 100th birthday, which include an outdoor exhibition in the governor's garden, adjacent to Toompea Castle where the parliament sits, a specially-minted commemorative coin, and an official history of the early part of independent Estonia's parliamentary body.

Brief timeline of events leading up to the Riigikogu's formation

Following the February 1917 revolution in Russia, which toppled Tsar Nicholas II, the Russian provisional government declared Estonian autonomy, and elections to a Provincial Assembly (Estonian: Maapäev) took place in July and August of that year. Imperial Russia had already in its twilight years experimented with various democratic bodies, including its own parliament, or Duma.

With the Bolshevik takeover of power in October 1917, Constituent Assembly elections were held in Estonia in February 1918, but were disrupted by events leading to the Estonian War of Independence, both with the Bolsheviks, and with German occupying forces.

After the declaration of independence by the Estonian provisional government on 24 February 1918, the 1919 elections took place in April, using the d'Hondt system of proportional representation (which is still used today), with Estonia treated as one single district.

Those eligible to vote included troops in the front line of the War of Independence, and the assembly adopted a temporary Constitution of Estonia as well as reaffirming the previous year's independence declaration.

After the 1920 Treaty of Tartu with the nascent Soviet Russian state, the Estonian constitution was adopted, elections to the new Riigikogu took place in November, and the assembly was dissolved at the end of that year.

The original Riigikogu elected in November 1920 had 100 seats, compared with the current 101 seats. From 1922 the Riigikogu sat at Toompea castle, its current location (the 1919 Constituent Assembly convened at the Estonia Theatre in central Tallinn).

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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