Ladies and gentlemen,
Today, as we remember the Estonian War of Independence and the Treaty of Tartu that ended it, allow me to look at the past but also touch upon the present and what lies ahead.
It is symbolic that the centenary celebrations of Estonian statehood that began as early as a year and a half ago, will conclude in a year, a century after the treaty between the Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia was signed. Estonian statehood was not born in an instant and in a fully-fledged form. The path that led from November 1917 to February 1920 – from the idea of autonomy to fully realised independence – was an extremely challenging and complicated one, something that is quite hard to fully grasp today when giving these festive speeches. Likewise, the conclusion of this path, which now seems obvious and the only possible outcome, could not be considered certain back then, let alone taken for granted.
It is important to understand the global context of the events of that time and remember that statehood could have remained an unattainable dream if the twists and turns of world history had been different. If imperial Germany and Russia had emerged from the First World War as victors, then perhaps the nations that were striving for independence on the edges of these empires would not have been able to enforce their right to self-determination nor achieve its international recognition.
However, nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that freedom fell into Estonia’s lap like a present as empires collapsed. It was in the battles of the War of Independence where the mere idea of Estonian independence was transformed into a truly independent and confident state. A dream was turned into reality by the wisdom of Estonian leaders of the day and the blood spilled by the heroes of the War of Independence.
The outcome of the War of Independence could also have been different if we had been alone and without allies at a critical time. The squadron of the British Royal Navy that appeared at the Tallinn roadstead at a decisive moment, as well as volunteers from Finland, Denmark and Sweden who fought alongside our heroes injected us with confidence and a fighting spirit. They, too, have our eternal gratitude for their bravery and the sacrifices they made in the name of Estonian liberty, often paying the ultimate price.
Speaking about the Tartu peace treaty as a major diplomatic victory of the young Estonian state, it must be kept in mind that Estonian independence and its diplomatic recognition was achieved by navigating the conflicting interests of major powers. Success required nothing less than the very best diplomatic prowess. The uncompromising actions of Jaan Poska, Jaan Tõnisson, Ants Piip and other members of the Estonian delegation in foreign capitals, their skilful manoeuvring between the parties of the First World War as well as the White Guard and Bolsheviks of Russia, and their nimble actions behind the scenes at the Paris Peace Conference are without a doubt some of the most outstanding feats in the history of our diplomacy. This diplomatic struggle to reinforce Estonian statehood was later aptly described by Piip as a “little mouse” that “gnawed through the web of the policy of lions that was woven by the First World War allies”.
This year, 99 years have passed since this great “arrival” – the signing of the peace treaty between Estonia and Russia. This first tangible diplomatic victory of the young Estonian state, commemorated in gratitude today, not only formed the basis for Estonia’s relationship with Soviet Russia but also made it possible to recognise Estonia as an independent state and a member of the League of Nations. So it is perfectly fitting to recall and admire the professional skills and character of both those who fought for Estonian independence as well as those who represented the country as diplomats. We can also state that while Estonia grew out of the national awakening, took shape during the First World War and the Russian Revolution and was forged in the War of Independence, it was the peace treaty, signed 99 years ago, that ensured the existence and endurance of Estonian political and military capabilities. Estonia, which, according to popular belief was put on the map as a geographical concept as early as the 12th century by the Arab cartographer al-Idrisi, assumed its dignified position as an independent country on the political map of the world with the signing of the Treaty of Tartu.
Estonian diplomats of the day, the creators of the peace treaty, were fully aware of the fact that, in the words of Lenin, the Soviet government considered the treaty “a concession that was not made to last forever”. Soon after the signing of the treaty, Jaan Poska noted that things may change as soon as Germany and Russia have recovered from the shock of the First World War and the revolution; despite making peace, the need to “be prepared to take up arms again” remained.
As we know, the warning that more turbulent times may soon return turned out to be prophetic. Unfortunately, 20 years later, on the eve of the Second World War, Estonia could rely only on its neutral status, which was callously ignored by the major powers both publicly as well as in their secret pacts. Thus, the acceptance of the policy of spheres of influence and a lack of allies led to the loss of our independence.
During the subsequent decades under foreign occupation, the ideals of freedom kept the spirit of our people strong. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, our diplomats preserved the continuity of the independent Estonian state and thanks to their efforts, most of the democratic world never forgot the injustice that befell us, nor the illegal occupation and annexation of Estonia by the Soviet empire.
When restoring our freedom we had the benefit of learning from past successes as well as mistakes and had a much clearer vision of our freedom and what to do with it, as well as how to protect this delicate sapling from potential storms. Above all we realised that our reinforced independence could not rely on permanent neutrality and a country with a size and location like Estonia can never feel safe alone. Our experiences from history gave our aspirations a clear and singular direction. It was a political, economic and military alliance with people and states that, like us, believe in democracy and freedom, who respect international law and wish to develop and strengthen the system of international relations that is based on jointly agreed rules. Joining the EU and NATO was not a decision based on the needs of the moment, it was an existential choice.
Today we can note that as a member of NATO we are better protected than at any time in the history of our state. Achieving this took diplomatic efforts that rivalled those of Poska and his colleagues when they were pursuing the peace treaty.
As the War of Independence demonstrated, in addition to ideas and the power of persuasion, successful diplomacy also requires the existence of sufficient independent military capabilities. The purposeful rebuilding of our defence capabilities so that we have a combat-ready force fitting for a NATO member has been as important as our diplomatic activities in Brussels or Washington.
Estonia restored its independence at the end of the Cold War. Walls came down, the Iron Curtain was shattered and for a moment it seemed that freedom, liberal democracy and the right of the peoples who had lived under the totalitarian yoke to govern their fate had prevailed for good. And while Estonia founded the rebuilding of its state on these liberal values and a rules-based world order, we did not fall into a contented slumber, and instead continued future-proofing our state and society to make them more resilient and efficient in difficult and changing conditions.
We were right to do so because today the pillars of a foreign policy that respects values and rules are still robust but the order as a whole has become weaker and more vulnerable, while those wishing to overturn it have become bolder and more brazen. We must understand that if everyone is not equally obligated to follow the rules in international relations, the ties that bind the rules-based world order will break. This, in turn, will harm the ability of the international community to prevent conflicts and resolve them peacefully. We must also realise that if we ourselves begin casting doubt on the idea of the supremacy of freedom, rule of law and democracy, we will undermine the conviction of our allies that our independence is something that should be protected together.
We are prepared to cherish and protect our independence and statehood together. We owe it to the sacrifices of our ancestors, and their wisdom and experience will show us how to do it. I am convinced that the lessons of the 20th century and the supplies of democracy and values-based cooperation are sufficient to preserve all the beautiful things our people have created over the course of the century with their bravery, wisdom and hard work – despite hardship, wars and foreign rule. Let us preserve all this beauty that makes up the independent Republic of Estonia.
Finally, allow me to return to the Treaty of Tartu. Over the past 99 years, this document has been analysed and debated from a political, historical and obviously legal standpoint. I believe these debates will continue and hopefully even intensify as the centenary of its signing approaches. However, in addition to the specific words and paragraphs of the treaty we must not forget its spirit and importance for Estonia and the world.
It is worth remembering that Estonia’s peace treaty with Soviet Russia was the first international act to refer to the right of a small nation to decide its own destiny. The text of the Treaty of Tartu was later used as precedent when drawing up peace treaties between Russia and its other Western neighbours. This was a significant step towards enshrining the nations’ right to self-determination in international law, which is also one of the most widely recognised qualities of this treaty.
For us, too, this treaty is not merely a testimony of the bravery and wisdom of our ancestors. The Treaty of Tartu was and remains an encouraging landmark that should inspire us in the future, especially during changing and complicated times. By remembering the events from 100 years ago that led to the creation of this state, we are bringing them to life in our shared memory as a people. It helps us understand ourselves and our statehood better. In light of this, the celebration of the centenary of the Treaty of Tartu next year, which will symbolically conclude the celebrations of the centenary of the Republic of Estonia, could give a new significance to the next century of Estonia.
I wish you all a happy 99th anniversary of the Treaty of Tartu!