Dear people of Estonia!
I am deeply sorry that I cannot meet you face to face today. 18 times before me, the Prime Minister of Estonia has given a speech before you in Tartu on the eve of the anniversary of the Republic, but I have to do so via video. We all know why. So, I am addressing you all from the green hall of Stenbock House, with the Declaration of Independence behind me. This was the document that formed the basis for our nationhood.
This year, we are celebrating the anniversary of the Republic of Estonia a little differently and in a smaller circle, which is why I am the first prime minister to give the anniversary speech at half its usual length, all without seeing my audience.
However, I believe that you can be close to someone without being actually near them. For me, Tartu is the heart of Estonia’s conscience. Tartu is where the national awakening of Estonians began, where the Estonian language, culture, and faith in a better future have been preserved, and from where people went to battle for Estonian freedom.
However, these have not been just battles of men. We are also indebted for our independent country to the thousands of Estonian women who contributed to the victorious War of Independence by providing medical service or sewing clothes and knitting scarves, socks, and gloves for soldiers night and day. Sadly, we do not know much about these women. There has also been little talk of the fact that as early as in May 1917, the first Estonian Women’s Congress took place in Tartu, adopting a statement supporting Estonia’s independence. Do we know that in the War of Independence, brave Finnish and Danish women, including the later Finnish Minister of Social Affairs Kylliki Pohjala, came to the aid of Estonians as nurses?
We must rely on ourselves, but we must never abandon or insult our friends and allies – this wisdom has allowed us to make it here today. This wisdom will also take us further. The limited experience of being the prime minister has already shown me how important personal relations are in building trust between countries.
When I took office as prime minister a month ago, I said that the priority of this government was to fight the coronavirus pandemic. In a way, we are in the middle of a war of independence again. As always, there are winners and, unfortunately, losers in this war: at the level of individuals, families, companies, and countries.
I admit that we do not have a scale yet to measure the correctness of one decision or another. No one has solutions that will satisfy everyone involved. I commend the previous government, which generally made sensible decisions and avoided panicked overreactions. The previous government did not manage to put a stop to the virus, but during the second wave, life in Estonia was also not put to a complete standstill. We have tried to do the same, because this crisis has victims who we do not see every day and who are not reflected in the statistics. Since the beginning of the crisis, our unemployment has risen to 8.8%. Unfortunately, it will rise further. In some areas, such as Ida-Viru County, unemployment is jumped to 14.6%. Mental health disorders are more difficult to measure, but fatigue and stress in society have increased. This is accompanied by increased aggression and cases of domestic violence. We will not become fully aware of the gaps in children’s education until years later.
What put the new government in a difficult position in the first weeks was the inadequacy of the vaccination plan. As you probably know, the previous government’s plan did not provide for vaccination of teachers as a matter of priority. Our plan does. It was probably inevitable that the rapid organisation of teacher vaccination would initially lead to the unfortunate lack of coordination. However, I am convinced that our decision to start vaccinating teachers was the right one. Especially due to the goal of maintaining contact learning for at least primary school children.
In my speech before the Riigikogu as a candidate for prime minister, I emphasised that we must inform every person in Estonia as soon as possible when it will be their time to get the vaccination. They need to know when, where, and how the procedure will take place. The complete recovery of normal life in Estonia depends first and foremost on how we can organise the vaccination of the population.
I am sure that obtaining the necessary quantities of vaccine will no longer be a major problem in the near future. Still, delays by pharmaceutical companies in performing the joint procurements of the European Union have consequences. It has a painful effect on the health of millions of people and, of course, on national economies. That is why we must all work harder than expected to comply with the restrictions of the pandemic, so that we do not fall on the last day of the war, so to speak.
There are probably no political parties or economists left in Estonia who do not think that taking a loan in the current situation was the only possible step to alleviate the economic crisis. All the more so because, thanks in large part to the fact that Estonia’s previous debt was very small, the loan conditions were favourable for us. If we add the resources from the European Union recovery instrument and the new government’s desire to strongly support the digital revolution and green transition and thereby make Estonia a more attractive country for investors, we can conclude that there does not seem to be any reason to think our economic future as bleak.
Still, there is cause for concern. Especially because of the poor state of public finances. Even before the coronavirus crisis, in the years of economic growth, the government lost the will to balance costs and revenues. In this sense, the coronavirus crisis, with its support of a billion euros, acted like a fig leaf that obscured an already dominant style of governance – living beyond its means.
It is clear that no one can depend on loan money forever. It is more than a question of finance – it is a question of state independence. At the same time, we realise that moving back to having a balanced budget is a long-term process. This is a process that must begin with changing our attitude, valuing a sense of responsibility, and understanding that the state wallet is not the personal wallet of any politician – it is the money of the Estonian people.
Auditor General Janar Holm has said, “Unclear goals and a lot of money should never come together.” This was a warning about secretive administration in alleviating the coronavirus crisis with state aid. Someone with a lot of money has a lot of impact. Cases of corruption that have come to light confirm the extent and danger of the underwater part of icebergs.
I am pleased to say that the Republic of Estonia, as a state governed by the rule of law, has never crumbled despite these cases. Courts and law enforcement authorities have done their job independently of political parties. In addition, the eye of the media has always been on the right things. All this confirms the belief in our democratic way of life, which obliges the state to take responsibility and protects the rights of citizens.
No matter how different our understandings may be, we can all find joy in one thing – in 1993, the average life expectancy in Estonia was 68 years. 25 years later, it was almost 79 years. In other words: we now live more than ten years longer! In no other country of the European Union has people’s life expectancy increased so rapidly. Not a single one.
We can also be proud that our country’s GDP, i.e. the volume of the economy, has grown 19 times in nominal terms since 1993, while the GDP of the euro area as a whole has only increased 2.4 times. A European standard of living is no longer a dream. At the same time, however, we must acknowledge that many Estonians live in poverty. Unfortunately, there is no better strategy for reducing poverty than economic growth.
Another fact. Certain politicians have tried to denigrate our country with lies, as if a hundred thousand people had left Estonia as a result of the last economic crisis. In reality, in the period 2008–2019, Estonia’s migration balance was on the plus side with 8,000 people. Conclusion: Estonia has been and is a country where people want to live. We must do everything we can to keep it that way.
I have quoted Tammsaare before and I must do it again today. This shows that our most respected writer had many ideas that can be related to the present. Tammsaare has written,
“In politics, we love fairy tales more than facts. That is why we believe most easily in those who have the scariest stories of fear and horror. /.../ We all want someone to give us goosebumps. That is why it is no wonder we finally get to where we get those goosebumps.”
Today’s populists want to give people goosebumps mainly with foreigners. However, we do not have many of these foreigners here. That is why fear and anger – which often go hand in hand – are directed at the European Union.
The European Union is not perfect. Professor Jan Zielonka writes in his book Counter-Revolution that Europe has not adapted to recent geopolitical, economic, and technological changes and needs to review its model of integration to oppose those seeking to dismantle a common Europe with intelligence and reconciliation.
Estonia wants to be an active participant in the discussions that shape the future of the European Union. Folk wisdom says that silence goes unnoticed and shouting is ignored. We do not want to be voiceless or the ones to shout. We want to be innovative, serious, reliable partners. Only in this way will the government fulfil its obligation to its own people, the vast majority of whom continue to see Estonia in the common space of values of Europe and especially the Nordic countries. At the same time, we should not underestimate the importance of nation states. No union can protect democracy, the state governed by the rule of law, or individual freedoms without the protection of the nation state itself.
Dear people in Tartu and all over Estonia!
Hannah Arendt, one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century, has written that the only perfect link between truth and politics is a role model.
It is not enough to talk about serving the people when in reality, we are only thinking about how to make the people serve our own interests. Statesmanship takes more than just a state and a man.
I am still an idealist enough to believe in the possibilities of honest and polite politics. However, nothing comes easily. Nothing comes without arguments. It has always been this way – Jannsen and Jakobson, Päts and Tõnisson....
Thirty years ago, Estonia’s re-independence was also debated. I was a teenager then, but I still remember the discussions between the Popular Front of Estonia and the Estonian Citizens’ Committees on how to proceed.
Still, they have moved on. There have always been attempts to find a realistic path for the present between the two poles, nostalgia for the past and a future utopia. New bridges have been built.
Professor Marju Lauristin has said, “When politics becomes history, it also becomes culture.”
I think that politics is a part of culture at its birth; it is an expression of Estonian culture. I would very much like it if history was not ashamed of our expression today.
Finally – the best gift we can give to Estonia is to stop the spread of the virus together and thereby protect our daily freedoms! This year, let us celebrate the anniversary of the Republic differently!
I wish for all of you – all the people of Estonia – to be safe and healthy!
Congratulations, dear Estonia!