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Toomas Hendrik Ilves: We stand at the gate of two countries

Toomas Hendrik Ilves at this year's Laulupidu.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves at this year's Laulupidu. Source: ERR

Former President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted on the occasion of the Restoration of Estonian Independence on Aug. 20 the significance of the event in the current political climate, hoping that today's young Estonians need never become émigrés in the way that many of their antecedents did.

The English-language version of President Ilves' post from his own site is reproduced below. The title comes from "End and Beginning" (1905), by Estonian poet Gustav Suits (1883-1956), the original quote reading in translation: "We stand at the gate of two nations: one is darkness and the other is light."

Because of fate, evil, and our own mistakes, we celebrate two Independence Days. One, Feb. 24, is our bow to our forefathers and mothers for their courage, foresight, and sacrifices in the creation of the Estonian state. It saved us from the horrors that hit those nations that failed to create their own country a hundred years ago.

The second, the restoration of independence on Aug. 20, deserves the same admiration and thanks. Work for freedom began much earlier. On Aug. 23, 1987, thousands in Deer Park demanded freedom and historical justice. On Aug. 23, 1989, hundreds of thousands of people stood in the Baltic Way in Estonia. It became a manifestation of the will to liberty, which continues to inspire nations to this day, bringing the human chain of freedom and democracy to the streets of Hong Kong this Friday.

I continue to wonder how organized and prudent were those who managed to regain independence 28 years ago. Just a few weeks later, in mid-September, the Constitutional Assembly met, and the ratification of the resulting Constitution in June 1992 still guarantees our democracy, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. Work was done for independence, and it took years to prepare.

This is also the difference between us and those countries where ostensibly independence fell on their laps and continues to do be merely ostensible… or, worse, where independence simply meant the possibility of imposing its own authoritarianism instead of a stranger's. When we look at the countries that have escaped communism, we see mainly failures: backwardness, characteristics of a police state, corruption, restriction of freedom of expression and other rights, absence of rule of law.

However, Aug. 20 is seen as not just another day for another reason: almost everyone in Estonia remembers or has heard from their parents what that day means. As a friend my age reminds me every year:

"Aug. 20 is the most important day of my life (and probably for many others as well). We have experienced what it means to open a door from darkness to light. It was like coming home, because home can only be where you belong and where you are the master."

But those who experience the lack of freedom, who still feel the body and soul what is the difference between freedom and its absence, are today, at the youngest, approaching their fifties. Others who have experienced it are either older or have already left.

The generations that follow them may not fully understand what freedom means. But they have experience of what Estonia has achieved. They also see it in the rankings tables, where, at least until recently, Estonia has been outstripping all prison-mates. Not only in terms of digital advancement, but also in terms of press freedom, internet freedom, low corruption, education, 28 years after the restoration of independence, Estonia is among the best in Europe and in some cases even in the world. It is more difficult to realize how low Estonia started in August 1991. At that time, we were seen as a poor, backward, gray and criminal, corrupt and dilapidated "ex-communist" state.

However, Estonia's great success is now being called into question. The blue-black-and-white, which since its birth 135 years ago was a symbol of European democracy, freedom and equality, has been hijacked and some seek to make it a symbol of closure, hatred, anti-Europeanism and anti-rule-of-law, and to wrap it with crudeness and profanity.

For the first time in the history of the restoration of Estonia's independence, we are in the situation where people are worried about democracy. Our quest for freedom in the 1990s is called today "mass hysteria", the rule of law is violated, and members of the government criticize citizens with language that come from the 1950 plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Estonia.

Thus, we not only are worried, but also fear the loss of restored Estonian democracy. Apologies saying that nothing has changed and that everything is supposedly alright convince neither the public or the apologists themselves. The Estonian government apologizes these days more than Mark Zuckerberg, but an apology is useless unless it is followed by actions that show that the apology was taken seriously. For the first time, we are in a situation where power is more important than justice, where the brake is more important than gas.

I think of this steep decline every day. I think how easily 30 years of hard work to free and rebuild Estonia can be so easily put in danger. Through lust for power and through machinations, by those whose contribution to rebuilding Estonia is negligible.

The nature of freedom does not change, its characteristics are eternal and have been recognized in our culture for centuries. But the threats to freedom have changed, and so have the challenges we face when defending freedom. The first challenge for free Estonia in the 1990s was security — the withdrawal of Russian troops, fixing the border, joining the European Union and NATO. The security challenges continue to this day.

But now security is no longer the main threat to freedom. Now it is leaders who have no sense of responsibility and understanding of the rule of law, whose ethics are buried by their desire for power, whose concept of power is slandering and humiliating, whose political purpose is not to govern but to destroy opponents.

Konstantin Päts (first President of Estonia, 1938-1940-ed.) was once asked how he could be a socialist and later a conservative [nation]. Päts answered: "because now we have something to hold one."

This is conservatism in the most genuine form. It has nothing to do with "neo-boorism", disguising itself as pseudo-conservative populism, which sows hatred and takes us ever further away from the ideal we want to free Estonia to be.

And so my hope sits with the young people of Estonia, who were born and raised in freedom and who understand what we have achieved and what we have to lose. Hope is placed on those who, for a generation and a half, have enjoyed what was taken from their parents — freedom. For those who, like 21-year-old poet Laura Kell, feel that they will not let everything that is sacred turn into isolationism, hate, and hostility:

"don't even try

to take from me

the country where I was born

don't even try

so dress your values of hate

in the noble uniform of "national romanticism"

As long as there are young people who think like this, there is hope that future Marie Unders will never have to write again — somewhere in Canada where the Minister of Government of the Republic of Estonia advised emigrants who do not like the government's hate speech :

"Now in mourning, let us stand, our heads bowed:

What was taken from us, let us remember, and what was left to us."

My hope rests with the young. I hope rests on those Estonians who are aware of what our country's historic desire for freedom means. Let us not sink into the swamp of decay; let no one, neither strangers nor those amongst us, spoil what for so many years we have created together.

Long live Estonia. Stay free.

© Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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