Kersti Kaljulaid: Anyone who appreciates our language, customs and values can be an Estonian

In her first Independence Day speech as the Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid covered various topics, but spoke at length about the importance of preserving the Estonian language and culture as well as challenges facing the modern society. She also emphasised the opportunities a modern digital country like Estonia could make use of. Perhaps unexpectedly by some, Kaljulaid also brought up the issue of domestic violence in the country. Estonian World publishes a larger part of the president’s speech.

“…the land is thawing, the grass is sprouting, the trees are budding and in the shadow of a leaf, a bird is again singing its eternal spring song. It is the sentimental nightingale or the romantic bluebird s i u r u – what difference does it make! The main thing is it is proclaiming new life with new buds, blossoms and grain.”

The romantic who wrote this was Tuglas. A hundred years ago. Estonia would soon become an independent state and a hope existed that – year after year – things would slowly improve for future generations.

And that’s what has happened. We have our own state, which will never stand alone again. Our partners and allies are with us unconditionally. They respect our language and our culture, our traditions and wishes, just as we have respected them.

And in today’s world such allies are extremely important. The world may not be totally out of joint, but we see that things, which have been self-evident for decades, may no longer be absolute.

Important to be vigilant

This world requires countries like Estonia be especially vigilant. It requires the resolute observation of the values that form the basis of society, and especially international law. It requires that we act responsibly on the international stage and in its corridors. I stress this today when, in only 127 days and a little more than seven hours, Estonia will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Otto von Bismarck said, “No loss in domestic policy is forever. But in foreign policy there are times and opportunities that will never return.” For a small country, there is no better formula for survival. No matter what we do, we must always consider, or even more, prioritise our foreign policy interests, our international position.

During the last quarter century, our foreign and security policy has been successful. Our politicians have accepted international responsibilities and fulfilled them, sometimes at the cost of domestic popularity. Today we see how important this has been. We are being assured that, in turbulent times, we will not be abandoned.

I thank the governments of Estonia for having made the right decisions in complicated times.

In 25 years, we have created our dream Estonia. But this will not suffice for the future. We must now create our children’s and grandchildren’s dream Estonia. Our country is very different from others, clearly more creative and flexible. I see many opportunities for progress based on what has already been achieved.

“We must now create our children’s and grandchildren’s dream Estonia.”

The independent state of Estonia can only exist permanently in a space of democratic values. A small state cannot function in a geopolitically tense place such as ours if it is internally undemocratic.

Preserving the Estonian language and culture

An important role in democratic values is played by human rights, which all people are entitled to simply because they are born human. In addition, there are the values that have been agreed upon in our constitution, in order to preserve the Estonian language and culture, because otherwise, there would be no point to an independent Republic of Estonia.

Language and the arts create the cultural space. By adding customs and traditions, we get a behavioural space that is inherent to us. We get a cohesive environment, and we have the right to demand that anyone who comes here for a longer period, or for good, recognises this. Anyone who appreciates our language, customs and values can be an Estonian. Thus, they, as well as we, can consider them Estonian.

“Anyone who appreciates our language, customs and values can be an Estonian.”

We can write laws about how to become an Estonian citizen, but not on how to become a part of the Estonian nation. If we would attempt that, we would turn into a totalitarian society, and destroy our freedoms in the name of preserving our conduct.

We cannot prohibit everything that we don’t wish to see in our behavioural space; because, in the end, we would also destroy our own freedom. We cannot make Estonians of everyone who wants to live here. This should not be our goal. In this way we would destroy our Estonian identity.

At the same time, our functional platform is an Estonian platform. We have one official language. Speaking the official language at home or with one’s friends is not required. But the readiness to communicate in other languages, including the state’s readiness to respect the human rights of local residents or visitors who do speak Estonian, should never be seen a signal that we are ready to reduce the role of the Estonian language as the official language.

Even more – the fact that the Estonian language and culture is protected by our constitution does not mean that the Estonian language is actually protected. A language cannot be protected by commands and prohibitions. A language is only protected when it is successfully taught to the local people who do not know the language. And the more it is taught to greater numbers of people, the better.

“A language is only protected when it is successfully taught to the local people who do not know the language.”

I understand that most Estonians want to hold onto their behavioural space more jealously than many other West-European countries. The majority of us are ready to live in a multicultural society, where Estonian conduct would not be more important that of others.

The countries, which we believe are losing their identity to newcomers, have been more successful than us in creating a uniform linguistic space, even when they have been less committed to protecting their behavioural space. Integration into the linguistic environment starts in kindergarten and pre-school, through natural communications between adults and children, not through language instruction.

“Integration into the linguistic environment starts in kindergarten and pre-school, through natural communications between adults and children, not through language instruction.”

The customs of the other ethnic groups who live here do not differ very much from ours. There are people in the world whose understanding of society is radically different than ours. This does not mean that there is no place for them in Estonia, be they war refugees or labour migrants. However, we must be able to formulate what we expect of them in order to function together in Estonian society.

The preservation of the behavioural space cannot be limited to teaching people the language as well as a respect for the freedoms of our society, and not to restrict these freedoms at one’s own initiative. This is simply the precondition, the minimum. Our behavioural space is ensured by our constant readiness to remember the values that are important to us. A role in the protection of our behavioural space must also be played by the respect we show to the customs of others, but only if they do not start to infringe on our behavioural space.

“Since we are apparently not ready for a multicultural society, we must be able to formulate our own society, Estonia’s society.”

Describing the behavioural space is complicated; after all, we are not homogeneous robots attending to Estonian affairs. We also have different habits, different expectations of life, and different worldviews. But since we are apparently not ready for a multicultural society, we must be able to formulate our own society, Estonia’s society. We must be able to describe it as well as consistently and deftly teach it.

Society is like a river

Conservative in our habits, we are nevertheless one of the most innovative as a society. The promoters of Estonian life have a good understanding of the future.

We currently see that the expectations of our young people differ fundamentally from even those who are middle-aged. Young people do not know the meaning of structural unemployment or retraining. They switch employers, their own role in the labour market and fields of activity naturally and without hesitation. As their incomes increase, they prefer to reduce their working hours rather than save for the future. They live in the here and now. Traditional jobs are also changing – ever fewer people have to spend a certain number of hours at a definite location.

“We currently see that the expectations of our young people differ fundamentally from even those who are middle-aged.”

The situation seems strange. The new generations do not want to work for 30 years straight and then retire. They study, work, travel and have children in a rhythm that suits them. And this lifestyle does not seem to have been rebuked. However, the pension and health insurance models of no developed country can accommodate this rhythm. Today, young people are not interested in this; they just don’t contribute, because the risk of needing help is small or somewhere in the distant future.

We have to make the provision of our social support more flexible. We must consider the different kind of lives that our young people lead. The good news is that this does not require large investments. We must just pay more attention to these changes in a timely manner and have the will to see the value and not the problems therein.

Society is like a river, the flow rate of which is determined by the will of its members, the environment around the streambed, and the opportunities of history. Our history is movement – departure and arrival. Compared to the other countries of the world, we are much better prepared for this era, because we have a homeland that is available on the web, which is a fulcrum for its citizens and its e-residents.

“We have a homeland that is available on the web, which is a fulcrum for its citizens and its e-residents.”

Every person needs a country that provides the opportunity of existing as a member of the society. The more people function in different countries, the less the contract between people and states is related to a geographical location.

We must provide our travelling citizens a permanent relationship with the state; the opportunity to pay taxes and participate in the society’s security network regardless of their location on the globe. Those who are freely travelling the world today must be recognised by our society. If we are able to provide our e-residents with the same, in ten years, we will definitely be one of the most successful countries in the world.

“We must provide our travelling citizens a permanent relationship with the state; the opportunity to pay taxes and participate in the society’s security network regardless of their location on the globe.”

The common trait of labour migrants is that they are able-bodied, smart and can contribute to society. Let them contribute to our society!

Estonia can offer a portable environment with limited bureaucracy

If we recognise our young people’s urge to fly, but also create a landing area that is always open where they can be full-fledged members of our society, this will also attract other entrepreneurial and educated people from the world. Estonia can offer a portable environment with limited bureaucracy.

The portable state not only helps the IT and startup economies, but also the traditional players. The English entrepreneur who is afraid of Brexit can find shelter from the storm here. For instance, if could convince the world’s shipowners to conduct all their business electronically with their flag state, our flag could fly on many ships. It is easy for Estonia to provide this based on what already exists.

“The English entrepreneur who is afraid of Brexit can find shelter from the storm here.”

The state has already created the foundation. If entrepreneurs build a superstructure for e-residents that is as awesome as the one they have built for e-Estonians, then Estonia will be among the winners of this century.

We have only five years to accomplish this, because in that time, our own exporting IT companies will probably help some other countries catch up. We must not delay. Already one percent of our companies are owned by e-residents. Currently we can offer them limited bureaucracy, but few other services. The number of additional services must increase extremely fast and become unlimited. The key is in the hands of the entrepreneurs who understand the expectations of the e-residents and address them. In this process, the role of state, as always, will be, to time and again, quickly eliminate any bureaucratic obstacles without endangering the reliability of the system.

Estonian spirit

We must also speak about the state of the Estonian spirit. Together we must strive to reduce the iniquity in Estonia.

Today is a state holiday. The police know that the most fights between people occur during holidays. And it often happens in the place that should be the safest – at home. This is true of Christmas, and St. John’s Day. And it is also true today, on Independence Day.

The cycle of violence repeats itself from generation to generation, and it hard to break the cycle without the public attention that could cause a significant shift in attitudes. It is no enough to delegate this problem to the police and the social workers.

When was the last time you heard a pre-election political discussion, for example, about how a respected candidate would help to root out violence? Demand such a discussion. Don’t elect anyone who is only able to come up with a tasteless joke about the topic of domestic violence. Don’t laugh and don’t elect.

“Don’t elect anyone who is only able to come up with a tasteless joke about the topic of domestic violence.”

For myself, I promise not to stop talking about this before I feel that attitudes are changing. If people are protected in their homes, we are also better protected from road rage, random fights and unwarranted derision in the public space.

I hope that five years from now ignoring such incidents will no longer be thinkable. Undoubtedly, we also need investments to battle violence – primarily to provide the victims an opportunity for a new life, regardless of the nature of the violence and the age of the victim. However, such investments must come from public procurement.

“It’s the job of all of us to promote a culture of noticing.”

A culture of apathy will not create such procurement. It’s the job of all of us to promote a culture of noticing. For a start, let’s take a look at ourselves. On the web you will find the Action Meter, where starting today ideas will be collected for achieving a violence-free Estonia.

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The opinions in this article are those of the author. The full speech is available on the webpage of the Estonian president’s office. Cover image by Aron Urb (the image is illustrative.)

About the author: Estonian World

Estonian World is a global independent online magazine, founded in London in 2012 and headquartered in Tallinn, Estonia. The magazine has editorial representations in London, New York, Toronto and Tallinn, and contributors all over the world, on every continent.