President of the Republic of Estonia, Riigikogu, Government of the Republic, diplomatic corps.
For the last six months of its term, this Riigikogu will work in a radically changed world. A world where an empire has arrogantly embarked on broadening its sphere of influence by force. A world where tensions are fuelled by reviving the old North Korean practice of cross border abductions. A world where it has become clear that the end of the Cold War has been reversed. Behavioural norms that go back centuries no longer appeal, and new solutions are being sought.
The events in Ukraine only serve to remind us of more recent as well as of more ancient history. It feels like we are reading an old book: Chamberlain has brought peace, Danzig has been annexed, passenger aircraft Kaleva has been shot down. Estonia now forms part of the free world. We now get to participate in deciding the ending of the book.
For the last 25 years, the choices have been somehow self-evident for us – actually it has not really been a multiple choice. These were made by the strength of the majority of voters. Nevertheless I believe and know that many if not all of you have had to answer the clear and worried questions of voters over the past months: what will become of us? what will become of Ukraine?
The second question is much more difficult to answer than the first. Estonia has consistently supported and will continue to support the free and democratic development of Ukraine – we also do this in the parliament. After all, their choice is basically the same as ours. East or West, gulag or university. I am convinced that the Riigikogu will ratify the agreements signed in the framework of the EU Eastern Partnership with overwhelming support.
But the first question can be answered with full conviction and with our heads held high. Estonia is a member of the NATO collective defence. Article 5 of this is the very foundation of the Alliance and will exist as long as the NATO exists. Estonia’s army with its military bases and skills forms part of the NATO. Permanently not temporarily. Our situation is particular in that we find ourselves on the frontier of this opposition and we are therefore justifiably more worried about the situation. Yet a question beginning with “whether” really does not exist. And has not done so for at least ten years, if not longer.
Since 1992, the Riigikogu has consciously kept two fields away from the majority-minority tug-of-war. These are foreign and defence policy. We hope that the same line of action and understanding continues in the dramatically strained new situation. This requires two things. Firstly, a more open communication between the government and the Riigikogu than might be commonly expected. Both the government and the Riigikogu committees have repeatedly demonstrated it during these critical times as well, and we can be sure that this cooperation is permanent. And secondly, a constructive exchange of opinions. The competition between parties on “who is the most Estonian” is out of place here. Unfortunately, there are already signs of that. In the case of the violent abduction of an Estonian official across the border to Russia on Friday, the experts must sense which opinions could harm the official as well as the Republic of Estonia, if voiced. Let us avoid this. Seriously.
We have several Bills on our desk that aim to protect the weak and the minorities of the society. The open discussion with NGOs on the reform of the capacity for work legislation have borne fruit and by now the different views have come closer together. The readiness to cooperate of the Government has been a great help. After all, the idea to support the people who have lost their capacity to work is nice and just. However, reforms cannot be made on paper alone. A change of this magnitude must be believable and tangible, and understood by the stakeholders. I hope that we will continue with this reform in the same open and constructive vein. The discussion of the new Child Protection Act also requires constant cooperation with various interest groups. This new Act has indeed been long awaited.
The world where we think we belong is based on the multitude of opinions and democracy, negotiations and agreements, and respect for the agreements. On the consideration of the majority for the minority. The world which poisoned the minds of our people for 50 years, punished people with death penalties, imprisonment, exile or public contempt for all kinds of reasons. Everyone who was different, automatically became the enemy.
We have now been living in a free society with its multitude of opinions for over two decades. We should not hate minority rights but look at them with respect. And the minority does not need protection against the majority, just equal rights to live their lives. Nothing more.
Estonia does not need the Cohabitation Act for sticking up our noses and saying: look at us, we are not Soviets any more. Estonia needs this Act so that everyone living here could make sensible arrangements for cohabitation, Instead of living with the knowledge that their minority status makes them marginalised or somewhat below the others. And what does anyone have to lose here? Everyone can still go to the church or the registrar’s office, say “I do”, and be happy. Or they can not do this, and still live together and be happy.
The debate on the Cohabitation Act unleashed a never before seen dialogue in the Estonian society between the voters and the MPs. This avalanche of opinions included hate mail and insults, but also many well argued opinions. Although I did not agree with everyone who wrote to me, I am still very happy that people decided to justify their opinions and do so without hiding behind anonymity. I like to receive letters and opinions from people even concerning Bills which do not inspire protest movements.
In addition to the election day, the voters may and can express their opinions to MPs on a daily basis. The knowledge that I can communicate with politicians directly makes us as a nation stronger and less susceptible to manipulation. In order to stand together as a nation, we do not need to completely agree on everything, but we must have a mutual trust to discuss difficult subjects, and a preparedness to find a common ground.
Fully aware that the debate on the Cohabitation Act will be fierce, I have a request for you: even the opponents of the Bill should admit that the passing of this Act cannot change anyone’s preferences in choosing a partner. This is still determined by God or by nature, whichever you believe in.
One painful topic to have come to light in the society is “salaried poverty”. The words “salary” and “poverty” should not mix under any perceivable formula. In 2014, a salaried worker in a country that is among the most developed in the world should not live in poverty. Recourse to the Riigikogu is not a substitute for a dialogue between the employers and the employees. However, the parliament can take steps to develop the dialogue and to make it a regular part of our working lives.
A new Riigikogu will be elected in March 2015. Some unwritten rule requires me to urge you today to dedicate yourselves purely on legislative work and to keep the election campaign out of this Hall. It might be tempting to pretend to be simple minded enough to even believe in this call, but I will not pretend, if you don’t mind.
Estonian NGOs have developed the tradition of encouraging political parties to respect good election practices during the election campaign. Indeed, by far not all the parties have heeded this call. Despite this, I am encouraging you to start from the principles proposed by the NGOs also during the proceeding of draft legislation and discussions in the Riigikogu Plenary Assembly and the committees. For example, it is not difficult to praise or to criticise an idea itself instead of the individual or the party who came up with it. This is an encouragement, not a proposal. This is why we cannot vote on that and take out a ten minute recess before the vote. And let us also be brave in coming up with new ideas concerning the ability of the elected body to better react to the events in the society. The Riigikogu cannot fall behind the development in the context of open society. It must be clear what actions are taken here and why.
It is only natural that parties wish to set themselves apart during the time running up to the elections. At the same time, the troubled situation in Europe forces us to show the areas where we are ready to cooperate in the name of common interests. I sincerely hope that we manage to strike a balance here! I wish you all the success.
The Press Service
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