Global Estonian | Alar Karis: Our courage gives us certainty that Estonia remains Estonia
Alar Karis: vähim, mis me saame teha enda ja teiste heaks, on endid hoida

Alar Karis: Our courage gives us certainty that Estonia remains Estonia

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At the Independence Day Presidential Reception, Alar Karis said that while we can't control everything, there are many things we can: family relationships, a bullying-free school, the availability of help, courtesy, our own ability to win and to lose. "We need strongholds to be safe. Loved ones who support us. A government that defends us. Friends who understand. We must not live in fear."

My dear people in your homes and here in the Estonia Theater Hall,

Happy Estonian Independence Day to us all!

The Estonian state connects us all, no matter the

depth of our everyday disagreements. We are all in it together and, to borrow the words of Toomas Kiho, whether Estonia remains Estonia depends on each of us. It is not a forced duty, but an inherent one. Just like a swallow's duty to build a nest and raise its offspring to fly.

That is the point of our country – for Estonia to remain Estonia.

Today, I will speak on three topics: education, national defense, and the economy. Not that the environment, healthcare, and culture are less important. No. But I feel that without education, there is no understanding the issues that concern the environment, healthcare, or culture. Without national defense, the country has no future – only souls broken by fear. And without the economy, there are no social guarantees or the will to defend, as the daily struggle to make ends meet overshadows many people's horizons.

From shepherd to engineer 

We all know the saying "from paperboy to millionaire." Although no one has expressed the Estonian Dream in the same manner, I believe it exists in our national consciousness and can be summarized with the phrase "from shepherd to writer, teacher, engineer."

It contains three important ideas.

We create and nurture rich intellect and our national essence. We wish to and are capable of appreciating the jobs that generate and carry them. And we believe that anything is possible for anyone thanks to education.

Education is our might.

This is affirmed by the history of the Estonian state and the people who shaped it, beginning with the Estonian national awakening and through the creation of our own country and its subsequent restoration. Every metaphorical shepherd who has carried a teacher's pointer in their satchel created an opportunity for the next ones in turn. The dedication to quality education that springs from this way of thinking matters not because it allows us to boast about rankings, but because it is driven by the vital need for the state and the nation to endure.

A high place in international rankings is something to be proud of, of course, but zealously comparing ourselves to our neighbors cannot turn into a provincial ranking obsession.

We know from much earlier that Estonia's top position isn't the result of having more star pupils than other countries. Rather, Estonia's achievement comes from having far fewer students who merely step over a low bar.

However, one of the most significant changes highlighted by a comparison of primary-school students is the increasing connection between test scores and a family's socioeconomic background. Youth who come from a humble home life – today's shepherds – are falling behind, and that means the Estonian Dream is unsteady. There's no way the youth themselves have become any less capable. Rather, it might be the first sign of what happens when you have a teacher shortage – particularly subject teachers, which places a greater burden on the rest.

I often hear teachers saying, "I have the best job in the world, but..." These "buts," which are tied to workload and extra tasks, only feed a vicious circle, taking away the teacher's time and energy and doing so at the expense of their primary responsibility – teaching. The "buts" enervate young teachers and cause them to shun schools. As one said to me: I want my students to be taught by a "real teacher," not a substitute educator from another field or a guest on temporary contract. 

If hidden burdens become an inherent aspect of the teaching profession, then endurance could start to matter more than skills in front of a classroom. It's the same as how requirements for being a Member of the Riigikogu could include the ability to endure long nights in session or the habit of spending time on meaningless inquiries. If that happens, then citizens with strengths in legislating and constructive debate will no longer run for office.

The result is a waste of human resources. Something that we as a small country cannot afford ourselves.

The teacher shortage

It's no secret that there are Estonian schools where the number of teachers who lack necessary qualifications or subject competency is continuously rising, and the number of students is continually decreasing. The teacher shortage has resulted in not every school being able to offer the type of education, including extracurricular education, that its pupils deserve. Particularly on the secondary level.

Yet, we shouldn't close a single school purely because of its size or to cut costs. Many small schools may also be viable if they're able to attract young families and teachers or preserve the community's unique traditions. True, we must have a discussion when a school is no longer able to provide education at a necessary level. We should consider choices that result in a greater number of pupils receiving a better education. Could one of these possible choices be the state administering all gymnasiums? Or adopting more technology-supported forms of learning?

Over the last 20 years, 2,300 Estonians studied to be educators but gave up the profession for various reasons. Many would be fantastic teachers and would probably consider returning to the chalkboard. Likewise, there are thousands who could bring their experiences to schools in a career change after an introductory teacher training.

I imagine some are closely watching the negotiations over educators' career model and workload assessment, which began just this week. The agreements made will determine whether we can shed the "buts" of teaching.

It is my firm belief that the standardized school, a cornerstone of Estonian educational policy and our future and intellect, must remain in place. So far, our educational system has helped all young people – regardless of their family's economic status or place of living – to receive a quality education and open doors that would otherwise have remained shut.

The state and local self-governments have a continuing obligation to maintain the standardized school principle.

It is just as important as giving Russian-speaking youth a sturdier anchor in the Estonian environment. We must get used to the fact that we study and work with people whose Estonian contains a nuance of the language they speak at home. It makes us stronger as a state and a society. We must feel confident in our own culture and appreciate it in order to exercise one of the guiding principles of the Estonian Declaration of Independence – every people living in their own culture.

The transition to full Estonian-language education in all schools – difficult, but inevitable – will grant every young person similar opportunities after graduation that depend not on their language proficiency, but their knowledge.

Let the tiger take flight

The internet delivers all the world's information directly to us. Now, artificial brains have read through the entire digital space as well. They perform routine operations both night and day, fast and unflagging. In just a few years, we will all have a metaphorical "wise man in our pocket," to use an Estonian saying.

That wise man is already here in our phones and computers – we just haven't paid it enough attention yet. I recommend we familiarize with it as swiftly as possible. That we learn – students and teachers alike – to use them to help life run more smoothly and create advantageous solutions together. You don't need to be an IT specialist to make it happen – a curious spirit is enough at first. Pupils should be guaranteed access to these new helpers just as they have to athletic fields, as in a way, the former also boost our strength and agility. If we possess the necessary knowledge and ideas, then technology will give them wings. Let's give today's "Tiger Leap" enough momentum for it to take flight.

Similarly, we as a state must offer every possible type of beneficial cooperation to the developers of these new technologies. We must tell them they are welcome in Estonia. That they can test their new products here because we are their best opportunity. These technologies don't require complex infrastructure or zoning conditions. The work is done primarily in the developers' head, where the future is born. Estonia's future, also.

Let's glance into that future: instead of worrying about artificial intelligence taking away jobs, we can start implementing it faster than our competitors – or even in collaboration with them. By doing so, we will boost productivity and enterprises' competitiveness while growing the Estonian economy. We only need to make sure that bureaucracy and legal gaps don't get in the way. Little bureaucracy and favorable legislation were precisely what enabled us to build our e-state. Even despite the fact that we ourselves did not write the base software but used widely available, well-tested solutions.

Estonia's advantage can be its flexibility. If we dawdle, then we will lose jobs and our competitors will adopt the innovations faster.

Also, it is important for all new technologies – including AI systems – to have a sufficient grasp of the Estonian language, culture and history. We must develop language technology and digitalize our culture and traditions, as the Estonian language's perseverance depends on it. Estonia remaining Estonia depends on it.

Readiness gives peace a chance

"Living in Estonia [...] requires having, at all times, cold-bloodiness, a lack of fear, and a particular sense of humor that helps to cope in dangerous moments and provides the strength to survive and endure. Living in Estonia requires the qualities of a good surgeon or a trained soldier. Wars are not won and bones not patched without those qualities."

These are the words of Viivi Luik in the cultural journal Akadeemia.

Ukraine must be helped to win its war, and Estonia's bones must be kept whole in this slippery and uncertain time. Alas, Estonia is presently short on cold-bloodiness, a lack of fear, and a healthy sense of humor that isn't mean, spiteful, or cruel. Twenty years after entering the protective dome of the European Union and NATO, our society's mood is anxious.

We all know the causes. War in Europe. A cooling economy. Jostling in domestic politics. The compounding of superficiality and arrogance in place of understanding. Burgeoning word salads that hide missing thought. A sense of abandonment.

Fear and anxiety cannot be our guides. We have no reason to fear anyone or anything.

I'm referring to the rising fear of war recently and the claims that Russia could attack NATO's eastern flank in three, five, or eight years. It might. But Russia will not attack if we are prepared for it. To quote Hamlet: "the readiness is all."

Today is the third anniversary of Russia's war in Ukraine, which the Kremlin hoped to wrap up in three days. Attacking Ukraine for a third year, Russia is attacking us all.

Here, Estonia is a compelling example that a small country can defend the Free World's principles. By assisting Ukraine, we are defending freedom and international law as values of principle. And we must allow Ukraine the opportunity to defend itself the same way that NATO Allies would defend themselves in the event of an attack. All our Allies can afford the 0.25 percent of GDP that Estonia contributes annually towards Ukrainian defense. The total amount would be €120 billion each year. Ukraine needs it, just as it needs weapons and ammunition, to persevere through Russia's aggression.

Supporting Ukraine against Russia's attacks is not only the concern of politicians, officials, or members of the military. It is in the interests of the Estonian state. And if Ukraine can win with our assistance, then it will be our victory as well.

Ukraine's struggle is keeping Russia's military away from the borders of the European Union and NATO, but sooner or later it will want to restore its army's earlier presence, and perhaps even increase it. Buffer zones and spheres of influence continue to characterize the Kremlin's worldview – attacking Ukraine was merely confirmation. In the coming years, Russia will pose an even graver threat to democratic Europe than it did before 2022.

Our westernmost Allies have also come to understand this. They understand that the dangers stalking Europe are in our very backyard. Therefore, NATO has made collective defense from the Russian threat priority number one.

Again, the readiness is all. With it, we show our adversary how difficult an attack on us would be. So difficult that it would lose everything. Our sound readiness protects, deters, and blocks. The more seriously we take it, the greater the chance of peace. As I remarked in my speech given in Finland in memory of former President Ahtisaari: our strength will deliver peace, while weakness only feeds war.

One of Estonia's aims is to calmly and consistently guarantee that all Allies develop their military forces and weaponry in a volume that meets the Russian threat. In doing so, NATO will remain the world's strongest military force, the borders of which Russia does not dare to violate. These last 75 years can be taken as proof.

The admission of Finland, and soon also Sweden, into the Alliance is the greatest sign of our political and military strength. NATO's Baltic corner has now swelled into a single security zone, the largest in the transatlantic Alliance. Allied cooperation in support of the security of the Nordic and Baltic countries, Poland, Germany, and all our regions helps to lay a mat that protects our own and repels intruders.

I believe in Estonians' will to defend. It brought us together in the Estonian War of Independence and the Singing Revolution, and is doing so now as we assist Ukraine. Ukrainians have also demonstrated that a smaller nation with a tenacious will to defend itself can stop a much more powerful military force. Estonians' will to defend is strong – stronger than we even believe.

If Estonia and our Allies are prepared, then war will not cross our threshold. 

Society's foundations

I'm aware that some remain unconvinced it is necessary to pay such a high price for military defense. It is necessary, yes, though defense costs must not whittle other critical areas down to nothing. Education. Regional policy. The economy. Social guarantees. Culture.

Roman Demtšenko, Estonian Cultural Organizer of the Year, saliently reminded us that culture is nothing out of the ordinary like a genius' blinding revelation. It encompasses our relationships and mindset, too. Estonia's cultural foundation depends on the will to contribute to the state or, if the worst were to happen, even defend it.

Thank you, Roman, for the comparison of culture to a glue that brings us together and binds us.

The same can be said about education, the environment, social guarantees, the economy, and even agriculture. They all constitute our society's foundation – both as elements that establish a sense of security and everything that is worth defending.

I can't help but add something here. Often, the necessity of art is the first to be called into question in difficult times. Yet, it is especially in such difficult times that art, and culture more broadly, is essential.

Many artists painted the horrors of the Second World War, and those works still remind us that it must not be allowed to happen again. Other artists painted spring scenes in gardens or cafés that helped their contemporaries survive the horrors. Culture is a place where our humanity stands out most strikingly – whenever observing, reading, or listening to art, we are simultaneously looking into a mirror.

And where else should we look when our destiny and those of our loved ones, our homes, and the entire world still lie firmly in our own hands?

How can optimism be found?

Lately, negative news about Estonia's economy stands out the most: GDP is falling, banks are worried that rising unemployment could result in difficulties repaying loans, and people are increasingly anxious about tomorrow. It is the anxiety I mentioned earlier.

How can we overcome it? Anxiety's magnitude isn't determined solely by troubles and uncertainty, but above all by whether or not we feel like we can manage. Confidence that one will get by. Knowing that you aren't alone, but are part of a common effort. And together, we will certainly manage.

 What I perceive as the top issue Estonia's economy faces today is how to find the optimism that prevents anxious paralysis, as a consequence of which decisions are either wrong or absent in the first place. Many of us are driven by dreams and hopes for a future more certain than the present. Pessimists may be right, but they do not lead life forward. The past shows us that crises come and go, but long-term development will continue.

Twenty years ago, we dreamed of becoming a digital state, and we did. The digital state doesn't merely reflect in the way we do things – it is our economy. Of Estonia's ten "unicorns," at least half are now among the country's top 25 payroll taxpayers. Just as the optimists dreamed two decades ago.

We must take the knowledge we've gained from our startup companies' development and use it in other fields to establish new enterprises. One pertinent question is how to foster closer ties between startups and "traditional" industry. We have a fantastic launching point for economic development. Estonia has Europe's best pupils in addition to a bounty of entrepreneurship, audacity, and good experience in how to run businesses. Our point of departure for economic development is quite strong.

Right here one year ago, I said to you that one of our greatest tasks in the coming decade must be getting Estonia's energy sector in order, as it will otherwise become a detriment to our development. Now is the right time to ask whether the decisions made meanwhile brought us closer to that goal, and if development is fast enough.

A severed natural gas pipeline and electrical connection demonstrate that although such connections are crucial to us, we cannot place all our hopes on them. Estonia needs diverse local production and different technologies, including energy-storing capabilities and flexible industry. We will then be better prepared not only for the future, but to guarantee our citizens and businesses energy prices that are comparable to those of our neighbors.

Energy-sector investments are long-term and require substantial legal certainty. The same goes for our state budget. It was strange to read late last year that promises written into the state budgetary strategy were discarded just a few months later. Strategies aren't simple fancies, but play an important role in governance and shaping expectations. They matter to our businesses and foreign investors – to anyone with a deeper interest in Estonia and its economy. Estonia's capability, credibility, and stable development reflect not in keeping track of budgetary balance or national debt, but in the quality of our strategies and our ability to adhere to them.

Estonia's national debt is currently the lowest in the European Union. But is that any cause for celebration? An analysis of our budgetary policy published by the Ministry of Finance six months ago paints a bleak future: if we continue along this path, then Estonia's national debt will reach 60 percent of GDP in just 13 years and nearly 160 percent by 2070. Although the children born today will be in their prime working years, our birth rate is much lower than what is needed for sustainable development. And they will be the ones who must repay that debt.

The latter is not an economic problem, of course. Estonia ranks 5th among OECD countries in contributions to family policy. We pay 3.3 percent of our GDP towards it. And yet, fewer and fewer children are being born. It is a problem that society needs to address. How? We must cease our political struggles and not make birthrate an issue on which political parties compete, nor daunt families with cutbacks to assistance, closing local schools, or warning that war is on the doorstep. Rather, we must offer a sense of security and social support.

The future of one primary school or gymnasium somewhere on Estonia's periphery may seem minuscule, but such small and personal things have a much broader effect on people's attitudes.

Their sense of security and trust in the state suffer a blow. As do the comprehension and continuity of politics.

Is the budgetary strategy's unexplained revenue that will cover expenses, one that hints at a tax increase, a solution to improve the situation? What is it, exactly? An income tax increase? A temporary national defense tax? Delaying the rollout of a uniform income tax rate? Cutbacks to social assistance? Doing away with free higher-level education? Increasing deductibles in healthcare and social insurance?

I would like to know, too. As well as what one decision or another might solve and what it will mean for Estonia.

When meeting entrepreneurs, I frequently hear the complaint that Estonian politics lacks continuity – rules can change abruptly, making investments too risky. We can curb this uncertainty if we speak openly about the obligations that Estonia has taken, explain their impact, and give citizens enough time to adapt.

Maintaining clear rules is a part of overall political culture.

Dreaming of a compassionate Estonia

Young people often see the good in things more than adults do. So it is with Paide pupil Anna Miia Weidebach, who submitted an essay to this year's presidential contest titled "Dreaming of a compassionate Estonia."

"To me, simple things are beautiful. Like when someone checking out at the grocery store says: 'Thank you for your friendly service, dear Merike.' You bring golden apples, freshly gathered from your garden, to your neighbor; hug your loved ones and remind them how precious they are; or scoop up a stray kitten and take it home to warm up."

If we dream of a compassionate Estonia, then it is possible for us to create it. I invite everyone to treasure the ability to be joyful over the good that surrounds us. I call on everyone to be self-confident, but in a way that doesn't swell into self-adulation.

There are things we cannot change. But there are also things we can. Family relationships. A bullying-free school. Available help. Politeness. Lifestyle choices. The ability to win, and the ability to lose.

When the world is spinning more and more off-kilter, it is all the more necessary to have strongholds where we can feel safe. Loved ones who support us. A state that defends us. Friends who understand.

The least we can do for ourselves and for others is to take care of ourselves. When we are broken, we also break those around us. This is true in one's family, school, workplace, and country. By caring for ourselves, we ensure that we are also there for others and will find a common way through troubles. And perhaps we'll even change this world out of joint.

We mustn't fear. Do you remember the angry downpour during last summer's Youth Song and Dance Festival? And the lyrics of Mari Kalkun's song that so appropriately followed? "Fall, fall, little rain – I'm not afraid of you."

Our courage gives us certainty that Estonia will remain Estonia.

Happy Independence Day, dear Estonia! 



Veebilehte haldab Integratsiooni Sihtasutus.
Sihtasutuse asutaja on Eesti Vabariik, kelle nimel teostab asutajaõigusi Kultuuriministeerium.