May 13, 2016

The President of the Republic of Estonia on the Security Policy of Estonia at the St Gallen Forum on Security Policy, 25 January 1995


This presentation is about aspects of Estonian security policy. Hundreds of such presentations are made each year. A special brand of academic cockroach has emerged in welfare states—they scuttle from one political kitchen to another, repeating texts with only the name of the state changed at best. They spend more money than the UN peacekeepers, their metalanguage is full of meaning but untranslatable to mere mortals, and they have created an effective circle of solidary defence for themselves. At a time when international organisations melt away before our eyes like margarine under the Saharan sun; when the noise of rockets drowns out the upbeat singing heard from seedy bars; when heads torn from bodies roll on the pavement like footballs on stadium turf, the honourable academic cockroaches have created a mirage of a world in which security, stability and human rights are growing stronger with each day. Often, their most convincing arguments are that, on average, one truce is concluded per week, and even more often we witness blithe declarations in which the explosion of an artillery shell or rocket is hailed as the last one ever, and humankind is ennobled in the Beethovenesque apotheosis of the imminent brotherhood of man.

In this context, small states have recently begun to play the part of game spoilers. Small states—a little larger or a bit smaller than Switzerland or Estonia, the majority of the UN’s 183 member states—are showing signs of sobering up. CNN’s illusory land has become uncomfortable for them, since today’s world is more insecure for a sensitive small nation than ever before. Delusion is dangerous for small states. They sense more keenly than large ones that our world has shrunk into a global village where distances, the protecting Alps and even oceans no longer separate anyone and where cottages have fire-hazard thatched roofs. Consequently, we are all interested in turning away from illusions and euphemisms and describing the actual situation soberly, constructively and accurately.

Security is a process that must guarantee, philosophically speaking, the eternity of a state. There are no examples in history that I know of when a state defined itself as a temporary phenomenon. This would lead to psychological collapse. An individual knows that one’s death is a characteristic of human life and the Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Shamanist balance is based on this understanding. But humans live within their population, culture, language and traditions, which existed before them and will endure long after they are gone. In contrast to the ephemeralness of an individual life, a person perceives the state of which they are a citizen as a lasting structure. The purpose of security policy is to guarantee that a state lasts forever. The preconditions for this are, first, independence, second, stability and third, realistic opportunities to prevent or deter external threats.

To move on with our discussion, let us agree that analysing the possibility of a realistic security system means abandoning euphemisms. Overly frequent talk about peace betrays the threat of war. Germany and the Soviet Union promoted the fight for peace most intensively just before the beginning of World War II. The renewal, democratisation and peace partnership of the Soviet Union was discussed most intensively right after the Potsdam Conference turned out to be the grounds for the establishment of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In our century, liberation has generally meant conquering; free elections meant the lack of choices; ensuring peace meant increasing armies and modernising arms; guaranteeing human rights and democratic fundamental rights meant denying them; and guaranteeing the right to self-determination, which was specified in President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, meant denying the right. Norbert Wiener, the centenary of whose birth we recently celebrated—or, rather, failed to celebrate—pointed out a paradox in his testament, a small book titled Cybernetics and Society: structures are able to maintain themselves on the condition that they constantly adapt. This universal law—simultaneously a law of nature and of society—also applies to states. Politicians do not read Norbert Wiener’s works. They only read what other politicians write, and count the votes every four or five years. They oppose Norbert Wiener with the statement “Stability is supreme”.

There would be few problems in the field of security policy if small states were located next to small states and large states next to large states. This is, unfortunately, impossible to achieve. Potential danger zones where security-policy complications may arise are areas where large states share a border with small states and, even more so, where a superstate with questionable democratic values shares a border with a democratic dwarf state.

The former statement embodies Estonia’s and Switzerland’s common interests, which I have so movingly witnessed during this visit, as well as our differences caused by our geopolitical locations. Switzerland is the heart of Western Europe, protected by the ribcage of the Alps. Estonia, on the other hand, is the skin of Western Europe, and an innocuous-looking scratch may lead to the entire organism of Western Europe becoming fatally infected. Simply put: Estonia has always seen itself as a part of Western Europe, owing to which the eastern border of Estonia is the de facto eastern border of Western Europe, just as Finland’s eastern border is, de jure (albeit qualitatively differently), the border between the European Union and Russian Federation as of 1 January. This has not created tensions in relations between Finland and the Russian Federation, and thus we can hope that the de facto eastern border of Western Europe will not create tensions in relations between Estonia and Russia.

A state and its security start with a clearly defined national border. A state’s credibility starts with its people’s morale, and its ability to control and defend the border in a crisis. This task seems to be more difficult for small states than for superstates. I want to emphasise that small states actually have an advantage over large ones in this and they also have a predisposition to cope with this task: a small state’s border is smaller than that of a large state by a factor of tens, hundreds or thousands. It is not a hopeless cause, as people have become accustomed to think. We also need to consider motivation, which is always greater for the defender than the assailant. Thirdly, I hesitate to add international cooperation and security guarantees to the equation. We have learnt from history and everyday cooperation that a spark may kindle an explosive fire that torches the thatched roofs of the global village in a matter of minutes. It is easier to prevent the spark than to put out a fire. But the level of efficiency of international organisations’ preventive diplomacy has been low, and the diplomacy itself cynical despite ceremonial delegations.
The Soviet Union’s attack on Finland in 1939 triggered an avalanche of declarations in the League of Nations—this did not stop the war, but it did destroy the League of Nations. The recent Gulf War, however, has been an example of efficient international cooperation in smothering a conflict, but the example would have been even more convincing if Kuwait’s ground had been as devoid of oil as, for example, Estonia or Arkansas. International law, based on the fundamental values of democracy and security guarantees, must be in place to protect human rights, which are expressed through a state’s sovereignty and not to defend deposits beneath its land. Security is indivisible in the democratic world as democratic states have a common foundation—shared democratic principles—and a building that has a shared foundation also has a shared roof.

This is the objective sought by democratic states, but they move at different speeds and, alas, apply different moral values. It is sorely tempting to sell one’s principles and postpone inconvenient political decisions so that the next parliament or generation has to deal with them. An unseen Louis XV is following us and luring us with his adage “Après moi, le déluge.” In realpolitik, this temptation is twice as dangerous because in today’s fast-changing, dynamic world the deluge may come upon Louis XV himself.

Following these statements, which cannot be considered overly pessimistic, I now turn to aspects of Estonia’s security policy.

The attitude of the Republic of Estonia is quite realistic and recognises that the international community is not prepared to guarantee Estonia’s security in the near future. We are currently in a grey, undefined security vacuum, which is not comfortable. As we have no better options, we have created a formula for guaranteeing Estonian security in this transitional period—security equals integration plus normalising the situation.

By “integration” we mean the requirement to create and develop the maximum number of connections between Estonia’s restructured economic, political, social, cultural and defence organisations and their Western European counterparts. The main axis of development is Estonia’s future accession to the European Union. Our free trade agreement with the EU entered into force on 1 January. We are currently holding intensive negotiations about finalising and signing the association agreement, probably in the first half of this year. This cannot be viewed separately from the political dialogue over our objectives in security policy. Estonia will not agree to expanding the security area using the borders of geographical areas. We proceed from the position that equal criteria must be applied to all states, the most important of these being the aforementioned democracy and principles of a state based on the rule of law. The first prerequisite of expanding the security area is the will of Europe to remain Europe—in other words, political will.

Secondly, Europe has always been characterised by Eurocentrism. In questions of security, this phenomenon is manifested in a somewhat feudal attitude—the main issue discussed is whether NATO and the EU agree to expand towards the east. Estonia sees this communication as a two-way street, i.e. Estonia is not a geographical object but a constitutional subject. At the same time, the negotiations are about an individual state’s desire to join organisations that guarantee its security. This is not the court of Louis XV, where only the select few are welcome.

For Estonia, “normalisation” means normalising its relations with Russia—a long-term, but not entirely hopeless, process. I find it especially important to emphasise this in the context of the crisis in Chechnya, which has shaken awake public opinion in Western Europe. It is, of course, a tragic and, moreover, dangerous event, but Europe must be ready to face up to its shared responsibility. Europe was too flippantly and childishly ready to believe that the democratisation of Russia was as easy as one owner selling property to another, a transaction that a notary public can certify with his signature and seal. Bearing in mind the brutal war in Chechnya, it is crucial to underline that Russia’s only hope is also the democratisation of its society and ownership relations. The illusion that this can be achieved as easily as transactions in a notary public’s office was created due to the naiveté of Western politicians. In Russia, where only a handful of intellectuals have understood democratic ideals—and defended them with their lives while being trivialised by the oppressive majority of politicians who have not even read their work—democratisation is a painful process with many setbacks that will probably last for two generations. The fact that Mercedes cars have appeared on the streets of Moscow means only that beautifying changes, not democratic breakthroughs, have taken place. Rather, hope springs due to the fact that never before have so many Russian children been educated in English public schools. But the first results of this process can be expected to appear only after several generations—a bit earlier at best, a bit later if setbacks like Chechnya are to happen repeatedly.

In this difficult situation, Estonia still has a realistic programme of security policy that has already helped to achieve positive objectives. Relations with the Russian Federation have basically acquired a new quality after Russian armed forces left the territory under Estonian jurisdiction on 31 August 1994. When I mentioned the need to guarantee total control over the border, I did not mean treating the border between Estonia and Russia as the Great Wall of China but, rather, as a filter that blocks trade in arms, drugs and nuclear weapons, and organised crime, but does not restrict legitimate trade, cultural contacts and tourism. The successful restructuring of the Estonian economy, guaranteeing of human rights and, especially, the remarkably higher standard of living compared to Russia has created a markedly different social climate in Estonia. Petitions to restore the Soviet Union by imperially-minded pro-Moscow parties find no support among the majority of the Russian population.

The war between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic has thus far hindered positive development but not stopped it. The crisis has had a direct influence on the internal stability of Russia, and the situation may get worse before it gets better. Unpredictability is a serious problem for Estonia, whose capital is only 300 km from the Russian border.

In this context, the meaning behind the expansion of stable regions is especially well understood. Thanks to events in Chechnya, the world has had the chance to experience what instability is—that even a conflict in a distant region is capable of creating tension in relations between the major large countries, which may have a negative impact on the security situation in Europe. If our objective is a more secure Europe, international organisations funded by European taxpayers’ money must continue to work for peace even over Christmas, a time of peaceful festivities. It seems like a bad joke that the OSCE was not available at a time when there was still hope that the Chechen crisis could be resolved through negotiation, rather than on the battlefield, because the entire organisation was closed for the Christmas holidays.

Peace, stability and human rights are too important to only warrant attention in between sharing a Christmas turkey.


Jüri Luik, Ambassador, Director of ICDS
Many have praised Lennart Meri’s skills as an orator, and this speech is one of his finest. The reader gets an understanding of his style and fascinating choice of words. Back then, he wrote most of his speeches himself; later, when his reputation meant the demand for his speeches became overwhelming, he also sought others’ help but he never simply read out texts written by someone else—he added examples and thoughts that made the speech personal.
This speech seems a little eclectic when read, as it was intended to be performed, a series of mental images, let’s say. Take, for example, the reference to Switzerland being protected by the “ribcage of the Alps”. Several important driving forces in Estonian foreign policy were brought together in the speech, primarily worries about Russia and the wish to integrate with the West. This speech, given at the St Gallen Forum, vividly demonstrated Meri’s skill in taking his listeners on a mental journey as well as guiding their thoughts in a direction necessary for Estonia. The speech began with the need of small states to rationally evaluate the threatening tendencies in European security policy, and symbolically connected two small states, Switzerland and Estonia.
Meri captivated the listener and smoothly continued with Estonia’s problems, referring to the fact that points of contact between large and small states are potential danger zones. It is important to note here that, although the forum was international, most of the listeners were Swiss (the forum is organised by a university). Given Switzerland’s geopolitical position in the past, especially next to Germany during World War II, but also its precarious location during the Cold War (only the neutral and unstable Austria stood between Switzerland and the Warsaw Pact states), the audience could easily relate to the topic of large and small states.
Meri destroyed an illusion that was very widespread in 1995, and not only in Switzerland. Everyone was waiting for a new democratic renaissance in Russia; the West was inordinately optimistic about the country. Meri warned that Mercedes cars on the streets of Moscow did not mean there had been a change in mentality. All nations can see today that the Estonian head of state’s warnings in 1995 were not meant to create hostility towards Russia but to draw attention to the actual situation. At the time, in the heady days of Boris Yeltsin’s first term of office, when it seemed democracy would be arriving in Russia quite soon, this was an original thought.
Meri did not consider the pretty words of peace and stability security guarantees—instead, he underlined the importance of integrating with the West, which he discussed by using Finland as an example. He saw Finland’s border with Russia, which is also the border between the European Union and Russia, as protection and a factor that facilitated Fenno–Russian cooperation. He desired a similar EU membership for Estonia.
Some sections of the speech are actually quite pointed if we take into account the importance of Switzerland’s UN membership in its self-image (including the fact that one of the UN’s headquarters is in Geneva). The UN’s rhetoric is, naturally, full of peace, and Meri stated acidly that “Overly frequent talk about peace betrays the threat of war”. Towards the end of the speech he had a jab at the OSCE, also an important organisation for the Swiss, which had gone on holiday for Christmas despite the conflict in Chechnya. The organisation dealt with serious subjects “in between sharing a Christmas turkey”, as Meri stated acidly. He was referring to the First Chechen War—there would be several more—but it was clear even then that international organisations had no power over Russia. Meri made it absolutely clear to the audience; anyone who takes an interest in the news knows it today.
Estonian politicians acted as mine canaries in 1995—they warned that we must be wary of Russia and that the Baltic States need to be anchored in the West. President Meri expressed these statements most elegantly, and his opinions were influential in Europe both at the time and later.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.