Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Estonian independence still matters

Today, 20 August 2014, marks the 23rd anniversary of the restoration of independence in Estonia. I use the term restoration deliberately since independence was originally declared back in 1918. History of course had other ideas. 

As many people know I have a love for Estonia and all things Estonian. It's a fascinating country with a rich and vibrant history, culture and language (not to mention difficult!) I loved living and studying in the Estonia and was fortunate to hear very personal stories from my Estonian friends who vividly remember those tense times of August 1991. On Facebook this morning I was struck by one post in particular, from Jarmo Siim, who wrote:

"23 years ago today, I was very afraid. I had seen tanks on TV, approaching Tallinn. This was following the events in Latvia and Lithuania months before where hundreds of people were injured or killed. It was a part of the Soviet coup. My family was scared as was the whole nation. 

But the decision had already been made earlier, in the heads of Estonians - there was no way back, it was either freedom or Siberia. Both would do. At 23:03 local time, the parliament re-established the independence of the Republic Of Estonia. We've never looked back. 

Now, Estonia is one of the most free and successful European countries that emerged from the Soviet Union. That is why we stand by with everyone who has not been that fortunate. And hope that one day they will also have the luck to tell a similar story.

Happy second birthday, my dear Estonia!"

My own memories are relatively vague, I remember my teacher at school telling me that the "map of the USSR is going to be out of date soon" and that's about it. Jarmo's status struck a chord with me - it must have been terrifying seeing scenes on TV of protestors being gunned down by an increasingly erratic army, desperate to maintain control. There is also a crucial point to be made - Estonia, and the other Baltic States, were occupied. They did not voluntarily join the Soviet Union. This was never forgotten and was arguably one of the main motivating factors in pushing for full independence that summer. The choice was stark - face a certain bleak future or rejoin the world of nations.

Estonia has made some truly remarkable strides over the past two decades and is evidence that small countries can flourish with independence. Something worth bearing in mind as the independence referendum gets underway in Scotland. Of course there have been tensions and difficulties along the way, and the road ahead may not be smooth, but Estonia is a peaceful European country which unlike others, respects human rights and international law. Whilst in the 1990s there were accusations that Russian speakers in Estonia were being persecuted, many of those people actually supported Estonian independence and have adapted to life after the Soviet Union.

People might laugh at Eurovision but for nations eager to be seen and heard on the world stage, such events are unique opportunities and one which Estonia used well. Estonian independence is an important event to mark, arguably more important now than ever. Estonia, and other countries, are nervously looking over their shoulders at events which are continuing to unfold in Ukraine. The context is different of course, but given the unpredictable and volatile world order of today, I'm sure many Estonians are celebrating the fact that they made a clean break from the past when they did.

In September I'm going on the so-called "Eurovision Cruise" from Helsinki to Tallinn and I'm so looking forward to returning to Estonia, a country which I have taken to my heart. Elagu Eesti - Ma armastan sind! 

 Eurovision 2009: Flying the Estonian flag in Moscow with Natalia from Russia

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