In her speech in the Rose Garden of Kadriorg Palace at a reception celebrating the 28th anniversary of the restoration of independence of the Republic of Estonia in 1991, President Kersti Kaljulaid recalled the importance of two key events in history — the publishing of the Baltic Appeal in 1979 and the organization of the Baltic Way in 1989. She also, however, discussed the crucial role of both consistent foreign policy and maintaining the rule of law in protecting Estonia's democracy and freedom. ERR News has reproduced the president's speech in full.
In the summer of 1979, 45 Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians found themselves unable to use the right to remain silent reserved for each person considered a citizen of the Soviet Union. A public letter to the secretary-general of the UN, East and West Germany and the governments of the countries of the Atlantic Charter became internationally known as the Baltic Appeal.
The appeal demanded the public disclosure and annulment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols. The appeal was scheduled for the 40th anniversary of the pact and was published on Aug. 23, 1979.
All of the signatories were, of course, aware that staying silent would have been safer and less troublesome. However, the Baltic states had been occupied, and somebody had to show that time was being counted even here, behind the Iron Curtain, and with seemingly tacit acquiescence — 40 years since Molotov and Ribbentrop. Nearly 40 years of occupation.
Four Estonian men signed the letter — Mart Niklus, Enn Tarto, Endel Ratas and Erik Udam.
And someone still heard, noticed and took this small spark, which showed that the Baltic states had not surrendered, forgotten or given up, and blew it into a flame.
On the evening of Aug. 23, the Baltic Appeal was already being talked about on the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. The New York Times published it on Aug. 25.
On Jan. 13, 1983, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in which it called for the United Nations to acknowledge the right of the Baltic states to self-determination and independence and demanded that the question be decided via public referendum.
The period that followed the publication of the Baltic Appeal was tough for the freedom fighters. Mart Niklus was arrested in 1980 and Enn Tarto in 1983. Both men were released in 1988.
A year after the Baltic Appeal, the Letter of 40 Intellectuals was published, the authors of which also refused to use their right to refrain from taking a risk, which they, as respectable citizens, had. The repressions that followed were weaker. Ten years after the Baltic Appeal, the number of fearless people had grown so much that we could all stand together to form the Baltic Way.
We wanted to leave, to get out, to get away. Where? To Europe. More precisely, back to Europe.
Were we welcome there? Yes and no.
The European Parliament managed to adopt a resolution based on the Baltic Appeal. The reactions of other international organizations remained within the framework of realpolitik.
President Ronald Reagan proclaimed a Baltic Freedom Day.
Freedom the goal then, now
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the international atmosphere was advantageous for the Baltic states. The atmosphere was certainly shaped by the Baltic Appeal and what followed it.
When we wanted to return to Europe, what did we really want?
Freedom. We wanted freedom.
The right to come and go; the right to freely share our thoughts and feelings. The right to live without fear while not staying silent.
The right to choose our path in life without it being restricted by the obligation to remain silent if we wanted to get anywhere. The right to choose a profession without considering the requirement to enter the one and only party. The right to choose freely between different political stances. And finally — the right to shop and exchange our earned money for goods in Estonia and elsewhere without standing in lines or applying for purchase permits.
The economic underdevelopment caused by the occupation could not be eliminated overnight. However, we were immediately granted our freedoms. On Aug. 20, 1991, we, both as citizens and simply as Estonian residents, were all fundamentally freer than a few days earlier.
What do we expect from our country today? The same — freedom.
The opportunity to walk the streets without fear. To say our thoughts out loud. To love who we want. The right to come and go and to come back with beloved friends of different cultures and children of a different skin color born out of relationships formed elsewhere. The freedom to undertake and even to be supported in these undertakings. The freedom to express our thoughts and opinions, even in the public sector, without the fear of repression.
What else do we expect from our country besides freedom? Support and hope if the burden life has given us to bear is heavier than usual. A loved one with a disability. A child with different needs. A teenager who has lost their way. An abusive professional or domestic relationship.
Among other things, we expect our country to provide us with a sense of security throughout our lifetimes and to keep its long-term promises even if the time of realization is decades from now.
Enn Tarto, Mart Niklus, Endel Ratas and Erik Udam took a personal risk and knew that they were likely to lose what little was available to "normal" people at the time. Because they did not want to be "normal." To surrender. To stay silent.
How easy it would have been to bear it all if we had known the future. However, the future remained unknown. It would more likely be dark than bright.
Nevertheless, they did what had to be done at the time. They did not remain silent. They did not live like "normal people," without provoking anyone. They did not accept that there could be happiness without freedom.
Time takes its toll. Forty years later, the number of those among us who remember the true face of the Soviet occupation, who have felt the true anguish lack of freedom can bring or true fear for their loved ones who refused to remain silent, continues to decrease. Looking back on history is bloody necessary sometimes, but also bloody painful. Above all, we must do so when we start to take the achieved dream for granted.
That dream was our freedom.
Intricate pattern of international relationships
What is freedom anyway?
Freedom is an intricate pattern of international relationships. We perceive it as the European cultural space, the transatlantic value space, the solidarity of Nordic countries, Baltic cooperation — a number of ties of varying degrees of formality. One of the first threads was woven into this fine pattern — which has taken our interests fully into account for 15 years already — in 1979, at the home of Mart Niklus on Vikerkaare Street in Tartu.
Estonia is small and dependent on this delicate pattern. Not only that — we also have responsibility. Our decisions have a definite impact on the future of Europe, the role and global influence of countries respecting democratic liberties and even on whether and how we can cope with and prevent the spread of climate change.
We sit at the table where decisions are made — in the European Union, NATO and, for the next two years, the UN Security Council as well. Everyone who sits at those tables behind the Estonian sign or on the seat reserved for Estonia in the European Parliament is responsible for the future of the democratic world and Estonia's place therein. They are responsible with their every word and vote.
Naturally, everyone is also responsible here at home — in the Session Hall of the Riigikogu and at committee meetings, at municipal councils and meetings of the Government of the Republic. Even if no action is taken, talking can have a significant impact.
We don't know what mistakes could lead to an irreversible change that topples the balance between the side that believes in rights and values and the side that believes in brute force. We do not know what decision's postponement could lead to climate change reaching a critical point onward from which it is not possible to keep the planet in a state suitable for human habitation. However, we do know that Estonia is among those who are making these decisions. We are responsible. For ourselves, and others.
We have come such a long way from the 1979 reminder that the free world should at least spare a thought for us and adopt a resolution that would help to renew our hope.
Long-term foreign policy success
Today, others rely on us. We are relied on by Ukrainians to use our membership in international institutions to keep Eastern Ukraine and Crimea in the picture. By Georgians to prevent a frozen conflict from turning into a forgotten one. By Pacific island states to help spread the word that, albeit with slow effect, climate change is a weapon of mass destruction — a genocide of entire nations.
The change has been rapid, and perhaps it is still difficult for us to comprehend our responsibility before the world. We still feel that we do not play much of a role in maintaining the world that supports Estonia's independent and democratic development. It is as though we cannot stop climate change, end bloody conflicts in the world or stand for a world order that is based on international law. Others do and get things while I am left with nothing, as my grandmother used to say.
But we already stand for it. This is the fruit of our long-term diplomatic labor. This work was made possible because we could rely on long-term, consistent foreign policy. We have been given a place in the world, these roles in international organizations, because we follow international law, democratic values and international agreements.
This year, as we celebrate 40 years since the Baltic Appeal, 30 since the Baltic Way and 15 since our accession to NATO and the EU, it is easy to see what 30 years of foreign political consensus has given to us.
Freedom. Europe. NATO. Good transatlantic relations. Ever-deepening Nordic-Baltic cooperation on a more equal and substantial level. A community of researchers that relies on international cooperation. A varied, increasingly ambitious cultural space, which breathes in unison with liberal arts everywhere in the free world. A smart startup culture that contributes to society on an increasing level, and world-class, standardized schools. Economic welfare, on the basis of which we can ensure our people consistent public services, creating a sense of security throughout our lifetimes. Let us cherish it.
Even one promise given by the state and withdrawn after a few decades, which should have lasted from generation to generation but did not, can lead to a change that makes us lose our faith in the words of our country. Even one very badly worded statement somewhere on social media by an author unaware of the responsibility arising from their position could make Estonia's friends lose their faith in the consistency and the value-based quality of our decisions. Even one case of a politician's will exceeding the limits as set by the rule of law and achieving their goal unlawfully can bring about the end of democratic Estonia.
Why? Because there are things that are timeless and absolute that cannot be bargained over or watered down or stretched without breaking trust: a country's promise to its citizens; obligations before international partners; the primacy of the rule of law over the will of a politician.
We are doing well because soon we will have had the rule of law for as much as 30 years — a country that keeps its word; a country that meets justified expectations. However, in history, things are never so good that we can carelessly swing on the airy threads of balance, to jump up and down on the delicate network of connections and believe that nothing can come out of such a small country as Estonia overstepping its mark.
It can. We are responsible. At home and away. Us being able to address domestic matters that are currently important to handle requires that the international environment continues to be favorable to us.
Will a monolingual, Estonian-language school become the only, obvious option for our schoolchildren? Will Estonia remain the forerunner of bold applications of new technologies that affect the whole of society? Will Estonia initiate an energy revolution before the greats of the European Union and harness changing climate policy for its own benefit? Can Estonia catch up with the world's most productive economies that currently have 74 robots per 10,000 employees against our 11? Does Estonia wish to consistently address social problems that call for society to be better prepared to act with solidarity than we have been used to so far? Does Estonia wish to continue to be a successful utilizer of international research funds? Will Estonia be a place where all fine arts can be practiced freely both now and in the future? Will Estonia remain a country with a free media that shrugs off any kind of propaganda?
These are quite sensible, practical questions. The answers depend on today's decisions. Both those that we make at home and in international organizations.
My predecessor Toomas Hendrik Ilves once said that the road that has taken us so far will not take us further. He was definitely right, and back then he had no grounds to believe that we might abandon our old friends in the process of looking for new paths. However, the values and friends with whom we have made it this far are crucial to us even if we are exploring new opportunities. This bears repeating today.
You can never talk too much about democracy and freedom, just like there can never be too much democracy or too much freedom.
Baltic Appeal, Baltic Way recognized
On Aug. 20, pieces of rock from a boulder brought to barricade Toompea Castle during the anxious days preceding the restoration of independence are handed out here in the Rose Garden.
This year's anniversary is special — a bit different than earlier ones. We are joined by my colleague, President of the Republic of Lithuania Gitanas Nausėda. I invite him onto the stage so we can hand out two pieces of rock together.
I already spoke about both of these pieces of rock — both of these feats and events. These rocks will be given to people who did not remain silent. It is easy to stand for your values among like-minded people. However, those who stand for rights and freedoms when it is hard rather than self-explanatory are worthy of recognition.
I ask Mr. Enn Tarto, one of the four Estonians who signed the Baltic Appeal 40 years ago, to accept the first piece of rock.
Ten years after the Baltic Appeal, the 40th anniversary of which we celebrate this year, hundreds of thousands of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians stood hand in hand in the Baltic Way. The second piece of rock constitutes a bow and a thank you to the organizers of one of the most noteworthy peaceful appeals for freedom in the history of the world. I ask Mr. Rein Veidemann to accept it.
Editor: Aili Vahtla