Statement by H. E. Mr. Margus Kolga, Permanent Representative of Estonia at the celebration of the Independence Day of the Republic of Estonia
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Two days ago, on the 24th of February, the Republic of Estonia became 95 years old. This is not much, only about a lifetime of a contemporary man or woman, but in such a long time almost anything could happen – peace and war, justice and injustice, joy and sorrow, happiness and pain. And Estonia’s journey has been just like that: from the ruins brought by the WW I Estonians decided to take their future in their own hands and create their own state, to take responsibility for their future. They were ready to fight for it in the War of Independence and after signing the Tartu Peace Treaty with the Soviet Russia, start to build their own statehood. The subsequent path has not been an easy one but we have survived, and in the last 20 years, even flourished. And here we are today, celebrating this day as one of the members of the United Nations.
In today’s remarks I would rather not ponder on our priorities and on where we would like to have our fingers in the pie in the United Nations. I believe that most of you have heard that our attention is on human rights, especially on gender rights, and on humanitarian assistance; that we support the rule of law and that we like democracy; that we have faith in the international justice, that we believe in the freedom of the internet and that we think the Security Council should be reformed. Last fall we were elected to the Human Rights Council and our ultimate mid-term goal is to become a non-permanent member of the Security Council in 2020. But you know that already. And of course I am counting on your support in those endeavors.
But today, on the birthday of my country I would like to tell you a bit more personal story. Most Estonians have a strong bond with their country and I would like to share mine with you through some snapshots of my life. There will be six scenes in my story. I was born on the 1st of May 1966. The Republic of Estonia was 48 years old but since the beginning of the II World War Estonians had been forced to live under foreign rule. My parents, just as the rest of the Estonian people, were not allowed to remember the Republic of Estonia - our national colors were banned, singing of our National Anthem was forbidden. New rulers worked systematically to wipe those things out of the minds and memories of the people. I did not know anything about that yet.
Scene 1. The 15th of April, 1975. The Republic of Estonia is 57 years old, still not free. I am at a movie theatre. I am 9 years old. For some reason, there’s a screening of British cartoons in Tallinn. The British Council had done a good job in order to reach behind the Iron Curtain, I presume. I am still too young to understand the context. There are four funny men on the screen making a fuss around a submarine, a yellow one. Just two hours ago I had been punished by my teacher at school because I had dared to contradict her statement that the Soviets had sent a man on the Moon. I knew that they had not, my father had told me so. I am confused – I’m not sure who is lying, whom to believe. Then the Blue Meanies on the screen start to attack and those four funny guys save the world, singing “All You Need is Love”. I remember the word “love” and the feeling that somewhere else the world might be more colorful than mine. Three months later, on the other side of the Gulf of Finland, the CSCE’s Helsinki Final Act was signed. Bit by bit, the Cold War had started to crumble. Only later did I understand the meaning of that to my own life.
Scene 2. The 27th of May, 1983. I am in high school, I’m 18 years old. Together with two of my classmates I am standing in front of the school board. We have staged a play at school. The question under discussion is our expulsion because someone has grasped the hidden meaning between the lines, our intention to belittle the system. We are mainly accused of wearing inappropriate clothes and thereby sending a questionable message. I learn a lesson on the freedom of expression in a totalitarian system and I know now how suppression feels. The Republic of Estonia is 65 years old. Although the Soviet rulers have tried to erase the memories of this state, they have not been very successful - the memories are still there. The older generation, our grandparents, have told us the stories about the good old times but also about the not so good ones. Usually such memoirs were kept in the family circle and told almost secretly. In this way, we learned the history which was somewhat different from the official one taught at school. We got to know that there has been independent Estonia, there has been an Estonian President, our own Parliament, also currency, the butter was more yellow, the lard was more salty, as we Estonians describe a better but inaccessible life. Through those stories I also learned that there was a big exodus during the war with about 70000 Estonians leaving the country to the West, while tens of thousands were killed in battlefields and thousands of those 30000 who were forcefully mobilized in 1941 and sent to the East had died in the Soviet labour camps. All together about 10% of the Nation was forced to leave the country during the war. But deportations continued even after the war: on the 25th of March 1949, over 20000 people, many of them women and children, were forced in railcars meant for transporting the livestock and deported to the Siberia. Officially, none of this happened and only as much as hinting to these events could be punished. But there were people who didn’t forget the injustice that had been done and told about it to the younger generations.
Thanks to the Finns, our neighbors and kins, we had a certain privilege – because of our geographical proximity we could see their TV broadcasts and because of the closeness of our languages we were able to understand what was being forwarded. The Finnish TV was our window to the outer world through which we were able to see how that world looked like and also to receive uncensored news, thus becoming aware of how much our own system lied to us. There is another thing about the Finns I have to tell you: our National Anthems have exactly the same melody. As we on the Eastern coast of the Gulf of Finland were not allowed to sing or play this melody, we listened to it with a certain pride when a Finn happened to win an Olympic title or when they celebrated their National Day. On those occasions I remember my grandparents singing it with tears in their eyes.
Scene 3. The 23rd of August 1989. I am standing in a human chain, I’m 23 years old. The chain is called the Baltic Chain and the 23rd of August is the date when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its Secret Protocol were signed 50 years ago, letting Stalin and Hitler divide Eastern Europe and leading to the occupation of the Baltic States. The chain is formed of ordinary Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians. There are a million of us, standing hand in hand from Tallinn to Vilnius, the whole 600 kilometers. It’s is a protest of these three nations, with the aim of drawing global attention by demonstrating their longing for their lost independence. The chain presents to us an opportunity to draw attention to the illegal Soviet occupation and position the question of Baltic independence not merely as a political matter but also as a moral issue. I am learning a lesson about the power of the people. The Republic of Estonia is 71 years old. 78 days later, on the 9th of November, the Berlin Wall is torn down, and 696 days later, on the 20th of August 1991, Estonia regains its independence. It takes 28 another days to become a member of the United Nations.
Scene 4. The 12th of May, 1996. I am 30, Estonia is 78 years old. I am a civil servant, already for four years. I am in the Estonian Parliament witnessing the approval of the first post-war Estonian security strategy. I am one of the authors of the document. I have joined the newly founded Ministry of Defence right after its establishment, discontinuing my studies at the University for the time being. The new state needed new people, fresh and innocent, not yet entirely spoilt by the previous system. Under the slogan Jeunesse oblige, young people took over the key positions in the young state. Our first Prime Minister was 33, our Foreign Minister 26, the Defense Minister 27. It was a bold and courageous, maybe even a dangerous or risky move, as we understand now, not then. Those young lads were ready to take responsibility for the nation, carry the burden and make difficult decisions that formed the foundation for the future. That was the lesson of the braveness of the youth. Estonia decided to become a part of the democratic world and adhere to the rule of law, to join European institutions. Our flag – blue, black and white – could fly freely again, our national currency was reestablished, and we did not need the Finns to win the Olympics anymore in order to hear our National Anthem. Year by year, we became more stable, more confident.
Scene 5. The 1st of May 2004. I am 38, it’s my birthday again, but not just that. I am standing in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Estonia has become a member of the European Union. This is a flag raising ceremony. One of our historic obsessions has come true. At the beginning of the 20thcentury, in fact already in 1905, a literary group called The Young Estonians set a slogan – “let’s be Estonians but let’s also become Europeans”. Back then, it was understood as a cultural aim, now it had become a political reality. The last 12 years have been incredibly busy. The accession processes to the Union and our urge to become members as quickly as possible channeled our efforts, showed the importance of good governance, the rule of law, transparency and openness, made us receptive to prompt changes and reforms, as well as innovative applications. For instance, our Government started to work paperless already in 2000. There were a lot of friends around who helped us in our efforts with their advice, their financial support and training, transferring to us their knowledge and expertise, so to say. But most importantly we ourselves understood soon enough that all this help and also our own efforts could become meaningless if we are not ready to take responsibility for our own future. If we are to change our country, we have to change ourselves. Growing apart from the Soviet past required a kind of mentality shift, a change in the thinking. Had we not been able to do that, we would not be in the place we are today.
And the last scene. The 26th of February, 2013. Two days ago, the Republic of Estonia became 95 years old. I am in New York, at the age of 46. Strangely enough, I have become the Permanent Representative of Estonia to the United Nations. I am giving a speech at the celebration of the Anniversary of the Republic of Estonia. I know that my family and friends, actually all my compatriots live in a free and democratic state, that my kids grow up in a free country, that they have a future. I am happy.