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The Baltic States turn 100, Wall Street Journal

09.02.2018

A century ago, amid the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, three independent Baltic states were born. For half of the subsequent 100 years, starting during World War II, the Baltic nations were occupied by the Soviet Union. After that experience, we are fortunate now to celebrate our centennials having been free countries again for 27 years and to reflect on what we have learned from our history—and what we can teach others, President Kersti Kaljulaid writes.

The U.S., together with trans-Atlantic allies, never recognized the occupation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union. Moscow faced pressure or retaliation every time it tried to move toward official recognition, or at least acceptance, of its claim that the Baltic states were Soviet republics.

This meant a lot to the people of the Baltics. In 1980, the year of the Moscow Olympics, I was 10. Even at that age, an Estonian could see that the West had not given up on us. The sailing competition was held in Tallinn Bay, off the coast of occupied Estonia. Nobody came. Although the boycott was a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the meaning for us was broader. A generation of Western sportsmen gave up their chance of becoming Olympic heroes to protest the regime that also was occupying our land.

By 1991, the Baltic states were free again, able to join the Western world. But merely joining has never been our aim. Small nations have no time for small goals—they have to think big in order to become contributors.

All three Baltic states are members of the United Nations, NATO and the European Union. We contribute, and contribute actively. Lithuania has served as a U.N. Security Council member. Estonia is aspiring to do so. All three countries dispatched soldiers to their first international peacekeeping missions shortly after regaining their independence. In NATO, none have shied away from the challenges we have faced together with our allies. Estonia spends 2% of its gross domestic product on defense, and Latvia and Lithuania are on track to hit that target in 2018.

Estonia has transformed itself into a digital leader, creating the only digital society in the world fully supported and protected in the cybersphere by the state. The world first heard of the digital Estonia in 2007, when the state came under cyberattack and had to fight back—a situation that could not have occurred in other countries at that point simply because there was not enough to disrupt. This started the process of creating the NATO Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn and the Tallinn Manual process, establishing how International law should be understood in the cyber context.

Estonia has remained an incubator for all things digital. It has a permissive legal environment for other technological developments—from the laws on handling Estonians' genetic information to a traffic code that is able to regulate for accidents between cars and robots.

Throughout our development we have retained a sense of both gratitude and obligation. I want to thank all those American and Western sportsmen who gave up their chance of Olympic gold for maintenance of our rules-based world. I want to thank all those people, including our own Baltic diaspora in Western countries, who used their freedom of speech to speak up for us when we could not. I want to thank the international community for insisting on value-based rules through those painful years, but also afterward, during the most hopeful years of Baltic development, inviting us to join NATO and the EU.

We also have an obligation to remind the rest of the world of the importance of the democratic values that are the base for international security and the rules-based international order. Every country must have the right to decide its own destiny.

One lesson we have learned is that the benefits of freedom can be wide-ranging and unpredictable. Would anyone in Western leadership, from Ronald Reagan to Carl Bildt, from Jon Baldvin Hannibalsson to Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, have imagined that in supporting the freedom of the Baltic States, they also were working toward creating a society capable of being the digital technology and cybersecurity test site for their own fellow citizens' companies, helping their own governments to understand what benefits could be reaped from digitally run state services?

Now, how do we know where the next big innovation comes from? Maybe from Georgia? Or Ukraine? Every state aspiring to be part of the free world, able to decide its own destiny, deserves its chance. They may, in a not too distant future, contribute to all of us in ways we cannot imagine today.

We need to sustain this free world, based on our liberal democratic values, human rights and self-determination. We need to muster the strength and patience to stick to these values, even if sometimes it seems that overlooking them would deliver somewhat quicker on some of our interests. Gaining temporary advantages at the expense of our values isn't worth it.

Article can be found here.