September 18, 2008

The European Lennart

Lennart Meri was a European of stature we much too seldom find.

Lennart Meri was a European of stature we much too seldom find.


Carl Bildt

The European Lennart

Lennart Meri was a European of stature we much too seldom find.

It is hardly surprising that the passing away of Lennart Meri has attracted attention in virtually all corners of the world. To say that he was better known than his country would probably be an exaggeration – but for many around the world, Lennart Meri was Estonia.
That he was first and foremost an Estonian is beyond doubt. But an equally important fact is that he was a European of stature we much too seldom find.
His European convictions had both obvious geopolitical and equally obvious cultural roots and dimensions.
The geopolitical ones need very little explanation. The fate of a small European nation is always linked to what happens beyond its borders, in Europe and in the world at large. No nation is an island.
And history has made this clearer to Estonia than to many other nations.
As a young boy, his family was one of those deported to Siberia when the Soviet Union occupied his country. In 1999 I asked him to come to Stockholm to speak about the crimes of communism – as well as Nazism – in our part of the world, and in that speech he vividly described the formative experience of his family being herded onto the waiting train for deportation.
“When I climbed into it wth my mother and my brother, it was full of women and children already. Space was made for us on a dark lower bunk. At times, I was allowed up to the wndow. The sparse chain of the Red Army soldiers stood wth their backs to the wagon, arms grounded wth the rods on. in the evening, a bucket full of water was handed into the wagon”
“I remembered my father’s last words: ‘Take care of your mother and brother, you are now the eldest man in the family.’ After that we had been separated. I was twelve years old.”
Estonia’s losses during the dark years of war and the Soviet occupation were staggering. He reminded our Swedish audience that if Sweden had lost the same proportion of its population, we would have lost 1,65 million people. That is a figure virtually beyond the comprehension of a modern Swede.
After returning from his years in Russia, and spending decades at the University of Tartu, Lennart Meri was at the forefront of the struggle to re-establish the independence of his country.
And it was during these dramatic years that I met him for the first time. He was the Foreign Minister, but his strength in that position was that he was very far from being a diplomat. It was not the careful duets of diplomacy that inspired him or gave his words credibility, but the moral strength that came from his deep convictions of what was right and what was wrong in our modern age.
He advocated what many Western diplomats during those years believed was unattainable – and most certainly unwise. But while Lennart might have known less than them about the short-lived manoeuvrings on the diplomatic stage, he knew far more than any of them about the broad lines of history and the enormity of the changes that we were in the midst of.
It was a critical period in which we met often, sometimes in rather tense circumstances. In early 1991, Soviet tanks tried to turn everything in the Baltic states back – there was no doubt that the intention was to install new pro-Moscow regimes in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius – and in August, reactionary forces tried to turn the clock back in all of the Soviet Union.
The failure of the Soviet reactionaries paved the way for Russian democrats. It was Boris Yeltsin who took the historic step of recognising the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
For most people it was a dream come true, but my feeling is that for Lennart, it was something he had taken for granted would happen sooner or later, although he was obviously happy to be in the midst of it. His young years in Siberia and his many subsequent travels throughout the eleven times zones of that vast country, meant that he perhaps knew Russia better even than many Russians.
When Estonia emerged as a free country again, it was obvious that Lennart Meri had to become its first real President. He was not a leftover from the past – he was the beginning of the new Estonia.
I believe that his experience and vision were instrumental in giving stability to the country during early years that were not without their challenges. He was deeply aware of the complexity of history and its reflection in the complexity of Estonian society. As he phrased it in his speech in Stockholm:
“Most of us today have some relative who died in Siberia; someone who was killed in the World War II on the German side and someone on the Soviet side; someone who belonged to the communist party and someone who fled to the West from the communist occupation.”
That is why the European vision became so important to him. It was a question of overcoming the past, but it was also a question of returning to the richness of European culture within which he wanted to be able to be proud of his Estonia.
During these years, Estonia had the oldest – and most certainly the wisest – president in Europe in combination with the youngest prime minister and government. This combination laid the ground for the extraordinary success story that his Estonia has been ever since. It was both historical continuity and radical departure.
These were years in which I had become the Prime Minister of Sweden. At the time, we saw the contribution that we could make to the stability of our neighbours just beyond the horizon on the Baltic Sea as one of the most important tasks of our foreign policy – it competed for attention only with our own talks to enter the European Union.
Much had to do with the Russia that Lennart knew so well. He could be firm in his generosity to the Russians who had been more or less forced to settle in Estonia during the Soviet years, hoping that many of them would over time become fully part of Estonia; he could recite his Pushkin better than most and he could demonstrate the full force of his moral conviction when going to the Kremlin to say that the troops had to go home.
Things could have gone wrong during those eventful years. The situation in and around Narva was sometimes extremely complex. There were nasty forces playing nasty games on the other side of the border. There was a natural worry among Russian soldiers and their families who felt abandoned by everything and everyone.
The contribution Lennart Meri made during these years was a service not only to his Estonia, but also to Europe as a whole. But these were also years of tragedy and sorrow.
On a dark September night, the ferry ‘Estonia’ sank in the stormy waters of the Baltic. Our two countries were united in sorrow by that deep tragedy. The most difficult speech I have ever had to make was the one I gave in the Great Church of Stockholm to the assembled relatives of the dead and missing Swedes. It is difficult to convey how appreciated it was that Lennart Meri flew directly from the service in Tallinn to our service in Stockholm.
For me, Lennart became a good and highly appreciated friend from whom so much could be learned. He was deeply rooted in the past – but deeply modern in his approach to the challenges of our days.
And after he had left the Presidency, he continued to live, write and discuss ideas with friends in the house he built on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. Most typically, it is located on the site of a Soviet guard post. Then, its purpose was to cut Estonia off from the rest of Europe. His house became a symbol of his having again made Estonia a part of Europe.
He was a great European. And foremost among Estonians.

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