President Alar Karis: It’s easy to split and divide, but hard to listen and speak calmly

The Estonian president, Alar Karis, said in his Independence Day speech on 24 February that it is easy to split and divide, but hard to listen and speak calmly so that different parties may come together and find common ground; all of us must improve this skill time and again and accept the fact that opinions often differ.

Estonian World publishes the speech in full.

Dear people of Estonia, both near and far.

I would have liked to begin with something pleasant on Estonia’s birthday. It is a marvelous occasion. We have our own state, Estonia is doing well, and our tricolor flag flies proudly.

However…

The world has fallen out of love for democracy.
The world has begun to turn to dictatorship.
The dictatorships have secured access to violence.

Where were those words spoken? At the Nobel Prize award ceremony in Oslo on December 10th of last year. The speaker was a Russian journalist: Nobel laureate Dmitri Muratov.

Unfortunately, he was right. This morning, we witnessed Russia choose violence and aggression once again: discarding the UN Charter, ripping up international law, and launching missiles at Ukraine. War is unfolding in the heart of Europe.

For months, we watched Russian forces gather on Ukraine’s border. Without a shred of doubt, it was the most large-scale military encirclement of a democratic country since the Second World War. But all the while, they said to the whole world: no, don’t worry, Russia is not preparing to attack anyone, these are just ordinary drills.

We did not believe them, but we hoped that President Putin would turn back at the last minute or step on the brake.

He did not. Putin had already made his decision. He decided to destroy the democratic country of Ukraine.

The war Russia has begun is a crime that will take the lives of many Ukrainians and Russians. President Putin had the chance to let them live, but he chose a different path.

These victims will weigh upon his soul and his conscience.

Russia wants to draw a new curtain through Europe

The intention of Russia’s leadership is obvious: to draw a new curtain through Europe that divides states into some that may freely decide their futures, and others that may not, because they are forced to behave according to Russia’s arbitrary understanding of its security interests.

This must not, and should not, happen.

Two days ago in Kiev, I promised President Zelenskyy that Europe will not abandon Ukraine. That we will not tire or lose hope. That we will do everything in our power to stop the aggressor. Ukraine has many friends around the world. Together, we will put in place new and more forceful sanctions on Russia. Together, we will support Ukraine in every way we can. Together, we must offer Ukraine a clear perspective to join the European Union.

By protecting Ukraine’s freedom and the path that Ukrainians themselves have chosen, we are also protecting what we have helped Ukrainians to build. We are protecting the freedom of EU Member States, NATO allies, and our partners to decide how and with which partners to conduct their affairs.

We will not negotiate with the aggressor. We would only be weakened if we abandoned or neglected our principles. Only one country can end the war: Russia.

As Estonia’s head of state, I am proud that our diplomats are continuing their work in wartime, even in Kiev. Diplomats stand on the front line, precisely where their task is located and in every situation.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has a massive impact on the security situation in our region. I trust that no one has any doubts about the necessity of Estonia’s membership in the European Union and NATO. These decisions were made with the support of the majority of our population and were correct, for they give our country economic certainty and military security. Day-to-day politics cannot crush or undermine these choices.

Tension in Estonia

As the supreme commander of Estonian national defence, I assure you that Estonia has the courage to stick to our principles, our defense capabilities are solid, our will to defend is steadfast, and our alliances are strong and safe. Thus, the Estonian state is safe as well.

Dear listeners.

We’ve electricity galore,
and not just out in Narva.
Electricity fills our lives
like static in a black cat’s fur.

Electricity surrounds us,
there’s tension in every nerve.
Two terrible electrical poles
reside in every soul.

With this excerpt from Hando Runnel’s poem “Electricity”, I invite you all to take a candid look at Estonia. The lines neatly summarize the situation in which we find ourselves today: one filled with tension and apprehension, concern and hope. It is a situation that is the same for all of us, regardless of nationality, gender, location, or worldview.

Tension can short-circuit society, the relationships between and within countries, and those within and between people themselves. Presently, tension is being generated and amplified by the virus, energy prices, and our eastern neighbor as well.

Like a ticking time bomb

All the electricity that surrounds us cannot be contained in a single speech. But there is certainly room for a concern that lies beneath and above these fields of tension: one that adults often overlook, though it cuts cruelly. It echoes from the thoughts and words of our youth when I read their essays written on the topic of: “What Kind of Estonia Do We Really Want?”.

“Every day that this topic is not addressed is like a ticking time bomb,” wrote Mehis Rannaveer, an 11th-grade student at Järva-Jaani Gymnasium.

Mehis’s peer Robin Sepma wrote about what it means for society to be dominated by uncertainty, discord, loneliness, polarization, and seclusion: “Things are genuinely bleak because every single day, all around me, I see classmates who suffer from panic attacks, depression, apathy, attention deficit, and often, all of them at once.”

Thus, we must speak about mental health. About the mental health of our youth.

The data being collected paint a dark picture. One school headmaster confided in me that their school experienced five student suicide attempts in just half a year.

Those youths might have become part of the grimmest statistic of all.

Young people are reaching their breaking point ever more frequently, and for each one who does, there are thousands more who still need counseling and support.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problem: distance learning, diminishing face-to-face social contact, limited extracurricular activities. Even so, many more factors are accumulating behind the increase of mental health problems being experienced by youth and adults alike. We often fail to tend to our relationships with loved ones; we lack those to whom we can turn to for help. Young people are frequently reluctant to seek help, and then find themselves alone. But above all, we do not discuss the issue enough. We don’t comprehend the gravity of the problems or notice others in distress, but rather tend to interpret their concerns as a sign of weakness.

Young people of Estonia, I’m speaking to you. Your concerns are not weakness. They are real problems and if you feel that you are in trouble, then you can find the support you need from a friend, a caring relative, a teacher, a school- or community psychologist, an informational website, or the child help hotline at 116111.

Currently, the path to professional help is complex and fraught with long queues. There are many more steps that the state and local self-governments must take. Yet, each of us must also look within.

Am I able to notice and show compassion?

Might I also behave in a way that only exacerbates the problems of those around me?

Am I capable of giving first-aid for mental health?

Do I, as a public figure, realize when our children and youth start to believe that adults engaging in insults and rude behavior is normal?

Can we read the signs and do something, or will they be nothing more than storm warnings written on the wind?

I agree with those who argue that we need a long-term, impactful, and well-funded national action plan. Of course we do. But we must also learn to be better parents, better companions to those around us, and better colleagues. Let us join together to help mitigate these polar tensions so they do not devour us from within. Let us pay attention to others’ concerns and take immediate action so that everyone can manage.

A web of uncertainty through society

My dear friends.

People have the right to protest a democratic country, even against government policy, because our citizens may form their own opinions on how the state should be governed. I would never stay silent if the state were to try to stifle the voices of opponents.

However, it is also reprehensible when opponents shout insults and set up mock gallows for those in the other camp. Any attack on cashiers, doctors, police officers, and journalists for simply doing their jobs is just as shameful. I will never understand or support such protests, and the same is true for most of the country. We teach different manners here.

Yet, we realize that although dissent is ostensibly against Covid rules, it is actually a broader expression of exhaustion, distress, and dissatisfaction. The corona crisis and its restrictions, the healthcare crisis and delays of non-emergency medical procedures, skyrocketing energy bills and difficulties to make ends meet, Europe’s security crisis and the concerns it spawns, jostling in the government coalition and sensitivity over party ratings a year before the next elections: this cluster of crises weaves a web of uncertainty through society.

It is easy to split and divide, but hard to listen and speak calmly so that different parties may come together and find common ground. All of us, myself included, must improve this skill time and again. And accept the fact that opinions often differ.

All of us who reside here in Estonia are one nation. Only we know how it feels to visit parents in a small town or the outskirts of a village, where the first midsummer bonfires have been lit on a bright summer night. Only we know how it feels to stand at the Song Festival and sing “Mu Isamaa on Minu Arm”, “My Fatherland is My Love”. Only we know how it feels for Estonia to regain and keep its lasting freedom.

Altogether, these feelings and emotions should resonate as harmonious notes in which one can hear Arvo Pärt’s Ukuaru Waltz, Nublu and Gameboy Tetris’ “Für Oksana”, Tõnis Mägi’s “Dawn”, and Rasmus Puur’s “The Land That I Love”. Wound together, they form a thread that weaves a web of one nation’s success and self-assurance, even when it is cold and slippery outside and there are many crises happening simultaneously. 

Estonia has always found its way through difficult times, both as a state and as a people.

Freedom and coercion are not opposites

Dear friends, let us also speak about the relationship between freedom and coercion, for at the core of democratic freedom lies the ability to make decisions that are binding for all.

I sincerely doubt that any of us enjoy wearing a mask or the obligation to constantly carry around, or ask for, a vaccine passport. This requirement was not made on a whim, but with the aim of stopping a virus that endangers many, albeit not all. It threatens those who have the very same right to protection as the rest of us.

Freedom and coercion are not opposites here. Honoring the decisions made democratically in a free country does not equate to shameful submission. It doesn’t mean giving up one’s freedom. It is an acknowledgement that we cannot force our personal opinions of what is right and fair onto others. It is an understanding that we, as a society, must coexist and carry the moral obligation to care for one another.

The large number of unvaccinated persons shows just how many of our fellow citizens are confused. They may feel like no one has taken the side of regular people in the pandemic; that people are being divided into some who matter and others who don’t. That is false, a dead end. All of us matter.

I am a former scientist who has been vaccinated three times who has trust in vaccines. But how can we convince someone who is afraid of possible complications or is simply combative against the government? I can offer explanations and try to change their mind, but if that doesn’t do the trick, then all that’s left is to hope they understand the possible risks they’re posing to themselves and to others – particularly to others.

Tens of thousands of people, including some who belong to risk groups, may endlessly weigh whether or not to vaccinate and whether or not to trust science. Yet, we cannot allow this freedom to the politicians we’ve chosen to lead Estonia, for the government’s job is to govern and make decisions. There is no alternative path. In a coalition government, all members share this responsibility. If one tries to force another into a corner with ultimatums or make them slip up, then the entire government will be cornered and fail, not just one party.

I’ve considered this over the last month when political decisions that are no longer based on science or scientific opinion have been made, regardless of rising hospitalizations. True, there is one year left until the next parliamentary elections, and we all know the saying: “Votes are a politician’s only capital”. To me, that belittles the politician and insults the voter. It does not lead Estonia forward. A politician’s main capital should be their credibility, trustworthiness, expertise.

Transition to green energy

This also applies, for example, when explaining what the transition to green energy is and why it must be made. The transition to green energy does not mean abandoning the welfare and market economy we’ve benefited from to date. However, we must develop our state and economy in a way that prevents the pointless consumption of natural resources still needed by the coming generations, and for ourselves.

Like a farmer passing his land down to his son so that their handiwork might last for centuries, so must we take a conservational approach to our state, nature, and environment more broadly.

We certainly aren’t ready to turn off every polluting factory and machine overnight just yet. Vehicles with internal combustion engines and electricity produced by oil shale will be around for some years still. However, their replacements and how quickly the change takes place is ours to decide, and there are many more opportunities than risks. We must simply know how to seize them. Time is just as precious as electricity in this endeavor.

The transition to green energy will create new markets and areas of business. We can make Estonia’s extensive digital experience serve environmental needs, such as by developing smart energy systems. This will give our scientists and entrepreneurs the opportunity to be trailblazers in innovative fields where big actors from other states have not yet pulled ahead.

We don’t need the transition to green energy to be an empty slogan. We need sensible, forward-looking, job-creating solutions that have our health and well-being in mind – from efficiently insulated buildings to buses that don’t spread fumes. It all will not mean the loss of jobs, but entirely new positions.

We are capable of this because we have clever and hard-working minds in abundance.

Let us take lessons from culture

Dear listeners.

We need clever ideas and smart solutions. Next year’s parliamentary elections present an opportunity to give this deep consideration.

Should the state pay special attention to education in the coming years? For education is an integrated whole from preschool through university.

What is the future of secondary education in less-populated areas?

Why can’t a timber company in a municipality of 5,000 people find just two reliable workers?

How can we locate the thousands of so-called ‘lost youths’ and guide them back into schools or jobs?

What could be a reasonable system of taxation for Estonia’s shrinking and aging population?

Is it right for regional police service offices to be open only a couple days each week, and just how thin can the state be made?

How can we train more psychologists, psychiatrists, schoolteachers, engineers, nurses, and so many other professions that are crucial to the country?

How can we find what will lead us forward as a united, more integrated society?

As we seek answers to these questions, may we always keep in mind that people are not the state’s customers, but its lungs, circulatory system, brain, heart, and conscience.

Let us be just as tenacious and unflagging as Kelly Sildaru, Marten Liiv, and Kristjan Ilves, who competed among the world’s very best athletes at the Winter Olympics.

And let us take lessons from culture, which operates on a sense of truth, trust, and coming together for a common goal, even when those participating in the creative process have conflicting opinions and fight passionately for their own interpretation.

Culture defines our independent existence. It is our spirit. It is the Estonian idea. Culture shapes our nation’s intellect; it offers a foothold in difficult times; it brings minds together; it gives everything meaning.

My dear people.

To close, let us borrow an observation by Lea Tormis: spring comes around every year, no matter what kind of a year it is. No matter what catastrophes unfold in nature or between human beings. Spring simply arrives. It is always new, never identical, and yet, it recurs from year to year, ad infinitum.

It is as everlasting as our country. We have always overcome our worries as one, in spite of the frigid winds that buffet us. Yet to succeed, we must voice our hopes and concerns honestly, and then take action as one people.

Yes, we might sometimes argue over the right paths to take, but it is with pride that we declare: this is the land that I love.

Happy Independence Day, my dear Estonia!

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