The late Estonian president, Lennart Meri, once delivered a remarkable address in Hamburg, Germany, that caused the then-deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, to stomp out of the hall.
Even Western leaders, who are distinguished by the boldness of their statements on other issues, appear reluctant to speak directly to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, about his lies and crimes, apparently fearful that he will turn the tables on them, use their words to reinforce his power at home, and attack them for undermining the possibility of reasonable relations.
But there have been some happy exceptions when Western leaders have not been afraid to speak the truth to Putin directly even though the Russian’s bad behaviour only underscores how right they are to do so. One such event is now attracting a great deal of attention in both Russia and Germany. It deserves to be known even more widely.
Because the G-20 summit took place in Hamburg this year and because it featured a meeting between Putin and Donald Trump, German and Russian commentators have recalled an earlier meeting in Hamburg, in 1994, when the Estonian president, Lennart Meri, delivered a remarkable address that caused Vladimir Putin to stomp out of the hall.
That action, as German officials have pointed out, was unprecedented in the centuries during which this dinner has been held and raises questions to this day about Putin and more generally about Russia and its relationship to Europe.
That event occurred on 25 February 1994 at the Matthiae-Supper of Hansa cities and their representatives. Among the honoured guests that day were Meri and a relatively junior Russian official, the deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, who shocked those in attendance by his boorish behaviour.
Russian outlets have published excerpts from Lennart Meri’s speech, which are remarkable not only in their description of what was taking place in Europe and Eurasia in the mid-1990s but also in their predictions about the ways in which Moscow even then was threatening the West.
Below is the full text of Meri’s remarks from the portal of the Office of the Estonian President. They merit the closest attention both for their analysis of the situation and for the guidance they should be providing other leaders who have to interact with Putin now and in the future.
Address by H.E. Lennart Meri, President of the Republic of Estonia, at the Matthiae-Supper in Hamburg on 25 February 1994:
Dear Mayor, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen!
I am the President of the Republic of Estonia. When I see before me the pointed steeples of the Free and Hanseatic city of Hamburg, I might as well think I am at home, in the old Hanseatic city of Reval/Tallinn on the Gulf of Finland. However, I have an honourable duty to fulfil here today – a duty which I consider particularly important: I have to give you a message from my country which is situated quite near to Hamburg.
The Hanseatic spirit, with which even today, a number of towns in Estonia, besides Tallinn, still feel a rapport, has always been an open-minded spirit. Yet it has also been an enterprising spirit, even a combative one, when freedom and its protection has been at stake.
Fear God, tell the truth, do justice, and be afraid of nobody
Back home, on the Tallinn Town Hall there is a sentence in German which illustrates this Hanseatic spirit: “Fürchte Gott, rede die Wahrheit, tue Recht und scheue niemand” /Fear God, tell the truth, do justice, and be afraid of nobody/ – I would like to abide by this centuries-old command and openly tell you the truth as it currently appears to my people and myself.
The freedom of every individual, the freedom of the economy and trade, as well as the freedom of the mind, of culture and science are inseparably interconnected. They form the prerequisite of a viable democracy.
The Estonian people never abandoned their faith in this freedom during the decades of totalitarian oppression. This freedom, the notion of freedom has developed in our country over many centuries, from the relations that we have had and cultivated with the rest of Europe. Without being immodest, I dare say there is hardly any other nation in the eastern part of Central Europe that was, and is, more closely connected with Europe than the Estonian people. Today one can still behold it in the lifestyle of even the most unpretentious of my fellow countrymen.
Because we are a people belonging to Western European society and since, unfortunately, we live in a land which is geostrategically very vulnerable, we have developed a stronger instinct than many a European for discerning the problems and threats that loom in our vicinity. This discernment has been largely lost in our modern world. To illustrate it graphically, it is much like with epidemic germs: they know man all right, whereas the ordinary man cannot recognise them, he is just afraid of them.
Who was it, but the small Baltic nations whom the world had already forgotten, that actually caused the big and mighty Soviet State to collapse – and peacefully, mind you, without a single shot fired or a single drop of blood shed. We acted according to our sound common sense – indeed oftentimes in defiance of not quite selfless, conformist warnings.
I would like to tell you quite openly, as the old maxim on our Town Hall requires me to do, that my people and I watch with a certain concern how little the West realises what is currently brewing in the expanses of Russia.
A risk of wishful thinking
From a subjective point of view, it is understandable that the breakdown of the Soviet Union caused the West to feel a kind of triumph; it is also understandable, subjectively, that the West concentrated all its hopes and empathies on the true or ostensible forces of reform in Russia. This attitude, however, has brought the West to a risk of wishful thinking.
All of us, including the Estonian people and other peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, wish as much as the West economically and socially stable Russia. Yet when we track the achievements of the latter years, we should be overtaken by an uneasy feeling that we have been moving farther away from our goal.
What is it that worries Estonians, and not only them, in the present development of Europe? We were astounded to see that the West invited Russian troops and tanks to Sarajevo. Ever since Bismarck and the 1878 Berlin Congress, it has been the West’s policy, for the sake of peace, to keep Russians as far away from the Balkans as possible. Since World War II the United States and the West have invested over $80 billion to keep Titoism alive and the Soviets away from the Adriatic.
Let us ask ourselves: Is it possible, that a state, which itself is grappling with the hardest unsettled ethnic and ethical problems should be trusted to act as an arbitrator and peacemaker in other states that also have ethnic problems? The unease will be growing when one examines one of the recent documents issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It states there that the problem of ethnic Russian groups in the neighbouring countries cannot be solved by Russia by diplomatic means alone. Those ethnic Russian groups, however, have oftentimes settled down in the wake of occupants and mass deportations of the native population.
One can only conclude from this Moscow memorandum that, if necessary, other measures may also be taken. As to what these measures could be, we Estonians – along with other smaller nations – have had bitter experiences in our recent history.
So, I am worried that once again irrationalism is getting out of hand in Russian foreign policy and Russian political philosophy. Years ago, Solzhenitsyn called on Russians to bid farewell to the empire and instead concentrate on themselves. He used the word “self-restriction” and demanded that the Russians should solve their own economic, social, and also intellectual problems.
Neglecting this imperative of their great compatriot’s, responsible Russian politicians have suddenly, once again, begun to speak openly about the purported “special role” of Russia, about a “peacekeeper” function that the new Russia has to fulfil throughout the whole territory of the former USSR. Mr Karaganov, one of President Yeltsin’s closest advisors, recently expressed this in seemingly unobtrusive form but, in fact quite harshly, when he said that Russia was to play the role of “primus inter pares” – the first among equals – in the entire area of the former Soviet empire. This reminds me of a phrase once coined by George Orwell about Soviet communism: “All are equal, but some are more equal than others!”
Why does the new, post-communist Russia, which claims to have broken with the evil traditions of the USSR, stubbornly refuse to admit that the Baltic nations – Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians – were occupied and annexed against their will and contrary to international law, in 1940, and once again in 1944, and subsequently brought to the limit of their national existence through five decades of sovietisation and russification? Even today a deputy Moscow foreign minister, Mr Krylov, officially declared in his reply to the Baltic states that, in 1940, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had joined the Soviet Union “voluntarily”. This is little short of the statement that tens of thousands of Estonians, including my family and myself, had “voluntarily” let themselves be deported to Siberia by the Soviets.
Ladies and gentlemen, how do we fathom all of this calmly and earnestly? Naturally, it is the more or less familiar kind of irrationalism that is born in Russia and that makes Russian politics look unpredictable. However, there is also another equally alarming tendency, which out of convenience is passed off as Realpolitik in the democratic West. That is a proclivity for an approach that can be labelled as “appeasement”. With this approach, one unwittingly becomes an accomplice of imperialist forces in Russia who believe that they can solve their country’s immense problems by outward expansion and by threatening their neighbours.
All of the free West is outraged and appalled at the well-known statements made by Zhirinovski. But, astonishingly, hardly anyone has taken note of, and no one has protested against, what the Russian foreign minister Kozyrev declared the other day: the government in Moscow regards the continued presence of Russian troops in the former Soviet republics as desirable.
Our consistent approach to the issue of the actual political situation in Europe proceeds from our historical experience and our sense of responsibility: behind our back there is no barren fallow land, there are other free European states.
The social-political or economic processes in Russia, which even today is still more like a supercontinent than a state, cannot be controlled from the outside, as much as one would like to do so. This has been clearly demonstrated by the experience of the recent years: the wide-spread inclination of the free West to regard any leader who happens to be in office in Moscow – be it Khrushchov, Brezhnev, Gorbachov or Yeltsin – as irreplaceable has led to tremendously bad investments and misjudgements. Whoever really wants to help Russia and the Russian people today must make it emphatically clear to the Russian leadership that another imperialist expansion will not stand a chance. Whoever fails to do so will actually help the enemies of democracy in Russia and other post-communist states.
Warning to the West
As I said, ladies and gentlemen: Estonia is situated very near to Germany and Hamburg. Western, and above all German policy, has to make a fateful choice. Either the neo-imperialist policy of a great eastern power will be tolerated, financed, and in the short term, possibly even profited from; that, dear listeners, would be a policy unable to see an inch further than one’s nose. Or the notions of democracy, freedom, responsibility and peace will be helped on the road to success across the whole gigantic area between the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Ocean; if one wants to do that, the democratic West should resolutely contribute to the stability and security of the medium and smaller-sized states to the east of the German border. Here I mean the whole area of Central Europe, which in my view reaches from the Estonian border town of Narva, on the Baltic Sea, to the Adriatic, also including Ukraine.
If we manage to integrate this zone of states into the democratic world, then the model effect of these countries will be felt in the Russian area. We want to, I should say we have to, be safely anchored in the West. From such a safe position, rather than from some kind of twilight zone, we will be able to assume our function of as a bridge between East and West and, at the same time, assist the democratic forces of Russia. Then it will be possible, progressing from west to east, to help democracy, free enterprise, private property, and not least of all the rule of law, on the road to success.
If, however, those states, including Estonia, are left to their own devices and exposed to the potential neo-imperialist appetites of Moscow, the price for it would be too high, even for all Europe, to pay.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have told you about some of the gravest concerns from which it follows that the Baltic states have in fact become the touchstone of the European idea. But if we unite our wills to do away with the reasons for these concerns, we shall have a promising vision of a peaceful future before us. This is based on convincing facts.
We can see common interests between Estonia, Northwestern Russia and the entire Baltic and North Sea area. We shall then be able to speak of a natural gas pipeline which will convey Norwegian gas through the Kola Peninsula and the free Baltic states up to Hamburg. We can see a motorway running all the way from St. Petersburg through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Berlin and further – the “Via Baltica”. We can see quite a few free trade zones and development areas for new initiatives. Much like in the past, Reval/Tallinn would then act as an agent between Hamburg and other Hansa cities in the West on the one hand, and Novgorod, that is the Russian area, on the other. Hansa-like cooperation is a natural outlook for the future for all the states lying on the Baltic and the neighbouring North Sea.
The Republic of Estonia, which for its domestic, economic and social policies is among the most stable states of the region, could offer you, ladies and gentlemen, good services, solidarity and friendship.
We try hard to understand your situation. My request is: please try to understand our situation too. It is in the interests of all of Europe and hence, in your interests here in Germany and in Hamburg, that Estonia should remain democratic and free.
Cover: Lennart Meri with a copy of Estonian institution (the image is illustrative.) The article was originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Subheadings to the Meri’s speech added by Estonian World.