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Toomas Hendrik Ilves' speech “The owl of Minerva takes flight only at dusk” at the ceremony dedicated to the anniversary of the Republic of Estonia

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves' speech at the ceremony dedicated to the 106th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia on 23 February 2024.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves:

The end of an era 

Honored academic family of the University of Tartu,

More than three decades ago, Francis Fukuyama's occasionally mistranslated and misinterpreted, yet epoch-making title about the end of history took its seemingly eternal flight. Misinterpreted, because the English word "end" in the book actually meant the goal towards which humanity strives and moves. Fukuyama argued that the ultimate goal of human history is what we, as Estonians, understand in all its possible meanings as freedom.

No, history does not end. But eras certainly do.

One historical phase, one era, is ending in the world, Europe, and Estonia.

In his book The Philosophy of Right, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote: "The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk." He spoke about understanding history, claiming that the owl, Minerva, or the symbol of Athenian wisdom, that is, the understanding of history, must wait until daylight begins to fade. Only then can we understand the day and say something wise about it.

In other words: understanding comes only when the era surrounding our everyday life begins to end. Then we see that things are no longer as they used to be.

Nor do we see at the same time in which era we are currently living.

This statement contains a seldom-understood truth. When we look around and perceive what is happening in the world, we see how gradually we are approaching the twilight of an otherwise familiar and quite comfortable era. What we only glimpse the contours of, but are increasingly approaching, is the end of an era.

This era has lasted about 35 years, encompassing our entire period of restored independence. In fact, it began a couple of years earlier, when Poland in 1989 started the process that led to the so-called socialist bloc, including Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, breaking away from the Eastern Bloc.

For lack of a better term, we have started to call this era the post-Cold War world. It consists of smartphones and fast internet, European support and NATO soldiers in Tapa, historically low interest rates, and life getting better all the time. We have not been able to give our era a better name because it was not understood what would happen next. Perhaps this increasingly rear-view mirror-bound period deserves the name "era of prosperity"?

But let the naming be left to the historians of tomorrow. It is important, yet depressing for us to acknowledge that this era is ending. True, we, along with some of our Eastern European compatriots, foresaw this sunset years earlier. Not that the novelty of democracy added any special abilities to us. We simply had what is called muscle memory, or direct experiences, that others had forgotten or never saw due to their wishful thinking. These others have still not fully understood and are rebelling for a return to the good old days or for their continuation.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The East-West confrontation began at the end of World War II when it became clear that Stalin was not satisfied with the spoils collected under the guise of liberating Europe. A series of coups, which violently overthrew democratically elected governments in Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, along with the Berlin blockade, finally nudged the West out of its illusions about its former ally, the USSR. Thus, within a couple of years, the perception of an aggressive Soviet Union threatening Europe was formed.

The response of US President Truman, as we know, was the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in 1948. The following year a powerful alliance was born, which lasts to this day and guarantees the security and prosperity of Western Europe through deterrence and containment.

Considering our own history, it was expected that we, like the other liberated countries in Central and Eastern Europe, would do everything possible to join both the European Union and NATO. Some did not strive as much, they did not know how, did not want to, or could not: Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, and several Balkan countries, as well.

Estonia was driven by sober calculation that the joy of liberation, which came from the catastrophic weakening of the Soviet Union, might not last forever. Something in us knew that they long to return here. Therefore, we made an extra effort, more so than many others.

Western countries, lacking direct experience of Russia's systematic brutality, thought instead that communism alone was to blame for everything. In their view, the disappearance of communism brought Kantian perpetual peace to our continent, at least.

Hence the misinterpretation and misinterpretation of Fukuyama's statement that in the ideological battle of one and a half centuries between authoritarianism and liberal democracy, the latter had achieved final victory. Many believed this. It was thought that since communism had lost, there was no more confrontation. A weak Russia, drastically reduced defense spending, and exceptionally low interest rates allowed the West, now including us here in Estonia, to catch our breath and draw a line under the post-World War II era of fear.

Western countries continued to believe that the failure of Marx's theories would make Russia a liberal state that respects human rights and international law. But we saw something else here. Quite early on, we saw a pathological longing for the restoration of the empire, we saw a corrupt state whose misery outside the imperial metropolis exceeds the imagination of anyone who has not been in the Gulag.

Dear friends,

Our part of Europe – my term would be die Zwischenländer, "the in-between lands" – has been disputed territories, or die umkämpften Ländereien, for more than a millennium. Or to use Professor Timothy Snyder's bleak but all too apt name: Bloodlands. 

We are smaller than the countries to our east or west. For a thousand years, like Odysseus, we have navigated between Scylla and Charybdis. We have barely survived and finally reached our Penelope, our coveted goal, freedom.

Or let's take another take from ancient Greece, from Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War." There, Thucydides talks about a small island called Melos, threatened by the Athenians. The Melians argued that treaties, law, and justice did not allow the Athenians to conquer their state.

The Athenians laughed at this, killed all the men, enslaved the women and children. Thucydides summarized this with a foreign and security policy maxim:

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Using the ancient parallel, we can consider Central and Eastern Europe to be an archipelago of Melians. We are a group of relatively small and weak states that have had to submit and often suffered terrible destruction from Scylla in the west or Charybdis in the east. Indeed, as modern-day Melians, we have had to do too much and too often what we must, as our neighbors do what they want.

Therefore, in the decades of our restored independence, we have placed at the center of our policy the desire never again to endure the harsh fate of our mothers, fathers, and ancestors over a thousand years.

This is also why we take what too many consider just a cliché – a rules-based international order – much more seriously. Yes, we know the fate of the Melians and what came from their belief in treaties and agreements. As we know from our own history and the last ten years from the fate of Ukraine.

But what else can we appeal to? We are small. For too many in the West, this is also a cute cliché; a cliché that falls victim to the self-interested so-called realism or realpolitik. And that's why the rules-based European Union and NATO are so crucial for us.

I certainly believed that once we became members of Europe and NATO, we would be taken as equals at least. I even published a lengthy op-ed on the day of joining the European Union, May 1, 2004, whose main thesis was that from that date, the isolation we had experienced would disappear.

A naive opinion. Twenty years later, the security policy editor of the same Hesari writes that the biggest threat to Finland in NATO is being taken as a Baltic country.

Ladies and gentlemen,

If the wider West has finally begun to realize that they have been wrong about Russia and Putin for twenty-five years, then the solutions and actions have still been half-hearted. In the US if you've been following what's happening in the US Congress right now, the situation is even worse. It seems that because of domestic politics, support for Ukraine may be stopped and leave the Ukrainians at the mercy of the Russian military.

The West has not yet come to understand that if they continue to support Ukraine with hesitant and evasive help, then a large part of those thirty-five million will not wait for their death, torture, and rape. They will come here as refugees.

Only now have many NATO countries started to move to fulfill the obligation to spend two percent of their GDP on defense.

But to blame others alone would also be unfair. Let's look in the mirror and ask: do we understand the seriousness of the situation related to the end of the era? Do we understand enough about our surroundings?

Fortunately, we are smarter than in 1939 when Estonian diplomats knew nothing about the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact because the US refused to inform us. We are smarter than those leaders who probably sincerely believed that by declaring neutrality, the war going on in Finland and Poland would pass us by.

But what we should fear most is provincialization.

In our politics, in our media. When I read what we focus on, I sometimes get the feeling that many do not understand the seriousness of the situation at all. Now, when things are not yet at their worst.

We are like the pre-war intellectuals of Tartu across the street in Werner's café. Betti Alver wrote lines about a bull turning the mill of the mind. She wrote about the government of Konstantin Päts. Not the Soviet political officers who sent her husband Heiti Talvik to die in Siberia.

I have once called us a project nation. The first song festival in 1869, the Alexander School, The Estonia Theatre and Charles' Church. Not to mention the War of Independence.

Then the phosphorite war, the Baltic Way, the Singing Revolution and the restoration of independence.

As a goal, a purpose, as a project.

The same goes for joining the European Union and NATO.

Now, as the old era ends and a new, presumably darker era arrives, let our perpetual project be securing and defending our future, that is, our freedom.

No, this does not mean that the Estonian people must join the defense forces in corpore. But it does mean that each of us must ask: what is important and what is not. This is always the most important question for a nation. How important is a car tax at the moment, how important is Estonia's freedom.

If it has become clear that defense spending must be increased, then the government must explain that we cannot do this without raising taxes. It is our duty to understand that the situation around us has really changed, that our very existence requires more effort and everyone's contribution after a long time.

This means a significantly greater sense of responsibility on the part of politicians, journalists, and us, the citizens. A government elected by an overwhelming majority bears a heavy responsibility to explain its decisions. The opposition must critically correct the government, not block decision-making. And the media must be able to distinguish what is important and what is not.

In our era of prosperity, we have forgotten those feelings and fears that haunted us when Estonia was already independent, but we were miserably poor, when Russian troops were here and organized crime pervaded our everyday life. We have started to take independence for granted again and, including myself, complain about why things are not even better.

The situation forces us to appreciate what we have, and how incredibly much we have achieved in the last 33 years. Even more, however, we must appreciate what would have become of Estonia and the Estonian people if, 106 years ago, our forefathers and mothers had not come together as a nation and fought for their independence, whose ideal allowed us to survive the occupation.

That ideal – to be free – lives and flies through every era as long as we exist as Estonians.

Therefore, it is worth thinking about today. In our thoughts, thank those who gave us our freedom, and make it clear to ourselves that if we come together and focus on what's important, then we are no worse than them.

Long live the Republic of Estonia, 

Long live Estonia.

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