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On the 29th anniversary of the Estonian restoration of independence in the Rose Garden of the Office of the President

On the 29th anniversary of the Estonian restoration of independence in the Rose Garden of the Office of the President © Mattias Tammet/Office of the President

20.08.2020

Dear guests! Dear people of Estonia!

You have no idea how happy I am that, we can be here altogether. Carefully, but still.

August 20th, 1991 is the day from which Estonians have lived in a world without fear.

Freedom came!

On September 10th, 1991 in Moscow, as Estonia was joining the OSCE, President Lennart Meri said: the former wielders of power were despised in Estonia, though that anger was not directed towards the Russian people or culture, but against totalitarian rule.

Such was our understanding of freedom – we would never again be subjected to the whims of those in power! Enthusiastically, we voted this principle into our Constitution: the state was to be a guarantor of fair treatment and equal opportunities.

Of course, may we also have a state that preserves and protects the Estonian language and culture, and is therefore dear to its citizens! We love our country in any event, uncoerced – free citizens of a free state!

Estonia started to blossom into a state based on rights and justice.

This year, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first Estonian constitution. To mark the event, we discussed in the Riigikogu which is most suited for our nation. Is it the state as an authority over citizens who yield to a great common goal determined by leaders, based upon the will of the majority, or at least claiming to be so?

Or is it the belief that freedom is like joy – sharing it does not ever leave you with less, but always with more.

This is an important and necessary debate. Looking back now, 28 years later, we can see how this Constitution has been fitting for the people of Estonia.

The state has not treated us differently, regardless of our individual worldview or personal choices. There have arisen needs to specify and elaborate upon the freedoms set forth in the Constitution, and we have done so consistently.

In Estonia, one can prevail over the state in court; the poor can win over the wealthy. The state does not shape its attitude towards citizens or other lawful residents based on what kind of a life that person desires to live. The bearers of state authority do not make decisions narrowly in the interests of those who elected them.

State aid and support is not reserved for companies that support the currently incumbent government in word or in action.

Now, on August 20th 2020, it’s time to be frank – this political culture may be changing. The impact of this change is no longer verbal, but affects decisions being made in the name of the state. Officials who reach their limits may resign, though going along with political will is another part of the job.

I do not wish to belittle the government’s good job in managing the crisis caused by the virus. I want to commend them for involving experts. I also want to commend medics for saving lives, and all Estonian people for this joint effort. But as the weeks pass, I keep getting more worried.

I am confident that the overwhelming majority of us do not want the state to make decisions based not on our rights, but by bullying; by supporting those, whom leaders think are right, and leaving those who are not out in the cold. If someone is somehow “righter” in the eyes of the state, then you can never know how long that favor will last. Every person, everyone with their own dreams and ambitions, may someday turn out to be “wrong”. Some today, others tomorrow.

When that is the case, then not even those who believe they will always be favored are free. The very need to maintain favorable status deprives them of that freedom.

 

***

 

My friends.

            You are wrong, if you think that I would not like to sound more carefree on this beautiful day. I feel a lot like the writer Lammas, created by author Kivirähk, whose pen only wrote text that ruined everyone’s mood. But what can you do.    

 

We simply have to talk seriously about the protection of our freedoms today, also because this year, the world changed as radically for young people as it did for our generation in 1991.

            But their world became more unstable and less free.

            It is crucial that young people – and all of us, of course – nevertheless feel that our freedoms are not limited by anything but necessity due to the virus.

            We cannot allow 2020 to be a year, of which in 30 years we’ll say: that was the point at which we began to lose our freedoms.

            The danger does exist. Confusion was rife at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s understandable. Yet during times of uncertainty, rapid decision-making, and subsequent revisions of those decisions, transparency and clarity in regard to the rationale for leaders’ choices are of the utmost importance.

            Otherwise, we will lose faith in the state based on rights and justice, and will be left uncertain of our rights.  And that is the end of true freedom.

            Whoever throws a noisy party knows: late at night, the noise has to stop; otherwise, the police show up. What do we know about the conditions under which non-compliance will lead to the Health Board knocking on our door, sometimes even accompanied by the police?

            Are fretful neighbors who hear someone speaking Spanish at a party enough for a government agency to show up and ruin the evening with an inspection?

            But what if it’s a several-day get-together organized by a group of friends, maybe even involving hippies or representatives of some other sub-culture? Is that allowed? What is still permitted in your own home, on your own land, and what is forbidden?

            What is the correct way to comply with quarantine requirements? Why could a popular blogger throw a fun garden-gate birthday party last spring, even when diagnosed, without attracting the interest of a single government agency afterward? Why was no one outraged when a doctor who had been infected with covid-19 acknowledged in a news article that they still walked their dog in the woods every evening?

            No one was, because they didn’t actually put anyone else in danger.

            But now, a foreign citizen who traveled to Estonia legally has been deprived of their right to stay in the country because they simply didn’t understand – all activity is forbidden in quarantine. Even fixing up your temporary housing. That’s illegal work.

            So, what is the “correct” way to spend quarantine? What about tomorrow? Could an Estonian who returns from abroad and decides that trimming brush all alone on their own land is an acceptable way to spend it, also be penalized for breaking the rules? Or is that kind of treatment meant solely for citizens of foreign states?

            When did this escalation of regulations occur?

            What’s more – when, during a raid, it turns out that some foreign workers are being made to live in inhuman conditions, is it righteous to punish and deport them? Those, who are actually the victims?

            Or is it now the case that every one of your rights and freedoms – the inviolability of property, personal freedoms, the right to entrepreneurial activity – exists only until it crosses someone’s mind to take it away from you?

 

***

 

This year has been a crash course in civics for our youth. Estonia’s prosperity has depended upon each and every one of us, and will continue to as well. Only much later in the ordinary course of history do we realize the role someone played in things not having gone differently.

            Right now, Estonia’s near future directly depends on all of us – our ability to show responsibility for the whole state and nation can be measured in two-week segments. The number of people in our country who have covid-19 a few weeks from now depends on every person’s individual choices, without exception.

            Our future, safe or otherwise, is the sum of our collective decisions.

            While standing united in the Baltic Way, our future was the sum of everyone’s choices, too. Yet back then, we were propelled by zeal and a sense of solidarity.

            Now, things are different. And, in a sense, much more difficult. Standing and holding the Estonian tricolor with tears of joy in your eyes is much more sublime than wearing a mask on the bus.

            Our youth have stood with us and borne that responsibility; one so unfit for their age. Such is the fate of the crisis-era generations. Crisis has united us – it’s been years since our communities and neighborhoods have come together in this way. The signs in our communal hallways – let me know if you need help. Behind a significant part of these community efforts are young people who, knowing that they themselves are in less danger, want to assist others.

            We must give to them in return the assurance that while making our decisions, we are guided by the Constitution and universal human rights. That the solution to this crisis does not lie in separating people into “us” and “them”, nor in an increasingly vicious struggle over dividing up finite resources.

            Today, we aren’t entirely certain of how much freedom we have. For instance, it’s unclear whether the rights of care-home residents are still just as important as those of everyone else. Or does the right of some to carry on with their lives matter more than the desire of others to be in regular contact with their loved ones in their twilight years?

            One gets the sense that all the undertakings supported by state, or even local powers, are better protected from cancellation than others. 

            In any other case, this might lead to “local individuals’ fear and worry” and outweigh all actors’ freedom to gather, the entrepreneurial freedom of organizers, the inviolability of private property, and much else that we have regarded as rights enshrined in our Constitution.

            Some of it inevitable, because unequal treatment can happen by accident in the fight against the virus. But when it does, the honest thing to do is to admit the mistake and resolve the situation in favor of the weaker party, which is never the state with its tools of coercion.

            Nevertheless, the majority of transgressions committed against the values written into the Constitution have stemmed from a desire to quickly and forcefully achieve one’s own political aims by exploiting the threat of the virus.

            I hope it will never be said that in order to protect us from covid-19, whether used as justification or as an excuse, they killed our freedom.

            We cannot eliminate this malicious virus, but we can preserve democratic freedoms and the state based on rights and justice for our young people.

            That matters. Freedom matters most. Our Constitution is the most beautiful of all. And it is in force in all of Estonia, to all who are here at home or visiting.

           

***

 

For 13 years, a piece of the boulder rolled onto Toompea in the tense days leading up to the restoration of Estonia’s independence has been given to a person on August 20th to commend them for outstanding efforts made in fighting for, defending, and preserving our freedom.

            The stone’s 2017 laureate once wrote:

 

That the springtime notion aged and was forgotten

Could likely lead one to infer

The idea was scientific:

That, which ages most rapidly today

Is science!

 

            The statement has never been truer than it is this year.

            That being said, the 2020 stone belongs to Estonia’s scientific community, and this for several reasons. Firstly, they are the ones in the fight against covid-19 who bear responsibility for making sure our political leaders are well-informed of what will truly help, and what will not.

            Thus, with their knowledge, they protect our freedom.

            Secondly – the young people who have matured in the spirit of our Constitution, academic youth included, are the future of our freedoms and will keep Estonia on the path we have walked for 30 years. Their international and open-minded way of thinking will counter the closed-mindedness and craving for the past that are present in our politics.

            In this way, Estonia’s young researchers contribute to our freedom, defying what Runnel remarks at the tail-end of his poem:

 

Thus, it may be more productive at times

To tell stories, fables, and myths

In place of science;

The very wisest, of course, only top that with – gossip.

 

            Furthermore, our young researchers have been canaries in a coal mine this year, protesting the state breaking its promises when other members of society have not been as keenly aware. Yes, I am talking about the Estonian Research Agreement.

            A state based on rights and justice, a state that keeps its word, a state that operates in the spirit of our Constitution – that is something our young researchers, and the entire generation which has grown up in the spirit of the Constitution, are prepared to defend.

            That is why this year’s piece of the boulder goes to the Estonian scientific community, represented here today by President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences Tarmo Soomere and President of the Estonian Academy of Young Scientists Mario Kadastik.