PHOTO: Raigo Pajula
Citizens of Latvia,
Members of Parliament,
Latvia and Estonia tread the same path.
Arguably it is no exaggeration to say that the pattern of Estonia’s history is shared with no other country more closely than it is with that of Latvia.
“The Balts and the peoples of Finland
lived in peace for hundreds of years:
borrowing one another’s words and women,
appropriating pottery techniques.
Who will find whose bones,
whose shards of clay pots?”
Those were the words of Riga-born Estonian writer, translator and poet Ivar Ivask who, along with his Latvian wife Astride Ivask, was forced to flee to America in World War II. But they kept Estonia and Latvia, indeed the Baltics as a whole, very much in their hearts.
Many Estonians have at least one story they can tell about Latvia, and there must be very few who have never visited your country, whether it be to play basketball in Ogre, to search for traces of the Ludza people in Latgale, to support their favourite band at the Positivus festival, to catch a glimpse of the famous Siberian tiger at Riga Zoo, to admire the Art Nouveau architecture on Alberta iela or to ride the cable car in Sigulda.
Estonia and Latvia have the same story to tell. We are friends and neighbours. We make good-hearted jokes at each other’s expense; we argue, but always work it out. We are always there to help each other when we truly need it.
Our cultural, geopolitical, economic, ecological and climatic environs not only overlap, but in certain places are identical. That was the case hundreds of years ago, and it remains the case today.
Estonian and Latvian statesmen, poets, scientists, entrepreneurs and many others before me have spoken so many times of the fact that our two countries belong together and need each other. In 2009, in a speech at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Estonia, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers summarised our relationship by saying that even while everything around us changes, the friendship between us remains unchanging.
Unfortunately, existing within the same geopolitical environment also means that Estonia and Latvia have had to live next to an antagonistic neighbour for centuries. We know only too well what that means: the scars that Russia’s imperialistic world view and actions have left on our societies.
Our lives have been turned upside down by the aggression that has come at us from the east. But for all that we have been hectored, we are still here. Our message has never resounded more loudly or more clearly within the European Union and NATO, and indeed in public discourse around the world.
The world at present is faced with Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. It is not only the fate of one beleaguered country that is at stake in this war, but the future of global security. The kind of world in which we will be living in the years to come is what will be decided in this conflict.
We are acting as one to push back against the evil that is assailing Ukraine. We are working to ensure that our societies and partners continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Ukrainians, and that sceptical countries realise their own fates hang in the balance because of Russia’s aggression.
But as long as the totalitarian regime in power in Russia continues to live in an alternate reality and to convince its own people – and sadly many others beyond its borders – that black is white, that telling the truth is treason, a relationship with Russia built on cooperation is impossible.
In my view we have an opportunity we must take, indeed a responsibility we must fulfil, to talk about what Russia truly is and what it has done. We must impress this not only upon our closest friends, but also upon those much less close to us all over the world. We must also try to impress this upon the people of Russia themselves: they have the right to know how the people running their country are destroying it, and them with it.
Encountering as we are the most complex security situation since our countries regained their independence, we have both taken decisive action to reinforce our national defence. We have done this bilaterally, shoulder to shoulder, but in particular within the framework of Baltic defence cooperation. Estonia and Latvia are two links in the unbreakable chain of European security, and as each country’s defensive capabilities grow more robust, so they support one another.
As such, Latvia’s recent decision to restore compulsory military service can only be welcomed. No doubt it will further reinforce your national defence by forming a larger army reserve and involving more of your citizens. Estonia is prepared to help you in every way in this regard.
In the coming months and the coming years we will be united in our continued efforts to bolster the NATO presence in the Baltic region, including through the approval of a regional defence plan which will designate the allied units in our region. Latvia has stood out and should be praised for its actions in underscoring the importance of strategic communication.
The NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga has clipped the wings of falsehood and imbued the dynamics and content of information operations with real meaning for both experts and the general public.
Latvian politicians and diplomats in major capital cities around the world are doing excellent work to alert the public to the malicious spreading of lies and half-truths and to stop them from gaining ground. To paraphrase Latvian poet Liepa Rūce, Latvia has done a great deal to raise the international community’s awareness of the need to look both ways even when crossing a one-way street.
The killings, arbitrary imprisonment, deportations, torture, abuse and sexual violence perpetrated in Ukraine by the Russian regime have been confirmed with precision and in detail. Bucha and Izium have become symbols of Russian genocide which bring no one glory or honour in today’s world.
I would like to hope that a Russia with a flourishing economy and culture remains possible. A Russia which deals with major global problems like climate change and biodiversity would be good for the world. A Russia of this kind would earn our trust and our respect. But before any of that can happen, Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine must cease.
We can only look to a future with Russia once the heinous war crimes it has committed have been brought to justice. One of the main things all of our actions are aimed at is ensuring that it is possible to bring to trial the Russian leaders who have unleashed their genocidal terror on Ukraine.
The arrest warrants recently issued by the International Criminal Court are a strong and much-needed step in this direction. Our task is to demand their enforcement by all member countries of the International Criminal Court, because a global order based on rules, and on those rules being followed, is the foundation of world peace.
To us it is unimaginable that the perpetrators of these war crimes, after everything that has been done, could walk away unpunished without the international community – one which values justice and fairness – doing something about it. This would equate to moral and legal bankruptcy.
Every war comes to an end, eventually. Russia’s war against Ukraine, which the Estonian parliament has declared to be an act of terrorism and attempted genocide, will also end at some point. But we must be attentive and remind our partners in Europe and further afield that the white doves which have taken to the sky in another part of the world will not necessarily bring peace.
We must define very clearly what sort of peace we are striving for. There are six key elements here.
The first is sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The second is preventing the possibility of aggression as a policy in future.
The third is rebuffing the politics of spheres of influence.
The fourth is erasing grey zones within Europe. Every country has the right to choose how it organises its own security.
The fifth is the continuation of a security and values space based on the European Union and NATO.
And the sixth is continued relations with Russia depending on trust being restored.
These six aspects form the foundations of future peace. Therein we will only succeed if the free world remains united, if justice prevails and if we are resolute and indefatigable in guaranteeing it.
As resolute and indefatigable, indeed, as Professor Boris Meissner – a legal scholar with Baltic-German roots who was born in Pärnu and studied in Tartu. He was repatriated to Germany in the Second World War, but for the rest of his life the Baltics remained very close to his heart.
Meissner played a key role in raising the awareness of people around the world of the legal continuity of the Baltic States and the basis in law of their attempts to regain independence.
He did much to make Western politicians realise that the Baltic States had not abandoned their statehood as subjects of international law during the Cold War.
During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Baltic politicians were able to refer to Meissner’s writings, draw strength from them and prove that international right was on their side.
Now, faced with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, what Meissner did teaches us that the truth will rise and lies shall fall. But our sights must be very clearly set. We must be courageous, and yes, resolute and indefatigable. The voices of the Baltic States today play the same role in supporting Ukraine as Boris Meissner’s did in his day in supporting the Baltic States in the West.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We may be united by our shared experiences and history, but there remains too little infrastructure to quickly unite us in the present day.
It has been instilled in us that we look to either the east or the west, but events in the last year have shown that we must turn much more of our attention to the north and the south. Working with trustworthy partners, we must establish connections that expand the Three Seas initiative, linking all of the bodies of water which are important to us, from the Arctic to the Black Sea. This is of particular significance now that binding Ukraine to Europe is so important to everyone and with NATO’s eastern border extending northwards.
But did you know that 2024 is an anniversary year of sorts? It will mark 30 years since a conference of Baltic Sea countries saw a decision taken, in principle, to launch a project for the construction of a high-speed railway passing through all three Baltic States.
I have no need to remind you that the likes of Rail Baltic, Via Baltica and the Baltic Sea energy network will not complete themselves. They will be completed by people, our people, from Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania. As one of my predecessors, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, said: “Successful cooperation projects and the euros invested in them are the measurable result of Baltic cooperation today.”
We are all aware that Russia has long been attempting to weaponise everything it can use in its own interests. It has established networks of dependence which have allowed the criminal regime running the country to expand its scope of activity and to silence more than one critical voice.
Since the start of all-out war in Ukraine the EU has moved ever more assuredly towards eliminating its dependence on Russian gas, oil and coal. The war has exacerbated the energy crisis, as reflected all too painfully in our national budgets and in people’s wallets. We are having to pay a higher price for goods and services. But we must always remember that the alternative would be far more costly.
Paradoxically, Russia’s aggression has pushed us to finally move towards adopting renewable energy sources more quickly and on a much wider basis. It has become a great deal more apparent to us that renewables and the green transition as a whole can form the foundations of our national defence, economic security and security of supply.
The latest report of the IPCC, which was issued last month, showed once again, and only too clearly, the need to reduce emissions and ensure prompt and resolute action in the fight against climate change, in the form of greater funding, global decision-making and the implementation of those policy decisions.
Latvia and Estonia have already taken their first few steps in the right direction in regard to the production of renewable energy. Together we are developing the ELWIND offshore wind farms, which form part of a broader network of such farms. The aim of the project is to establish an energy network to which offshore wind farms can be connected, which would also function as additional electricity connections between countries.
These wind farms have enormous potential. In the long term we will be able to generate more power than we ourselves need, and unused electricity will be able to be stored as green hydrogen and exported. How precisely we achieve this is something we must start thinking about now.
I am convinced that those of us here on the easternmost shores of the Baltic Sea on the Gulf of Riga and the Gulf of Finland can be the driving force in green energy globally, in exactly the same way that we have made our voices heard in regard to standing up to Russia’s aggression and in carrying out the digital transition in our societies. As small, flexible nations, Latvia and Estonia have the potential to gain a great deal from green growth and innovation. With a smart approach – something for which we are both known – we can be pioneers in sustainable practices and set an example to the rest of the world.
A moment ago I mentioned green hydrogen. I am happy to be able to say that neither Estonia nor Latvia is twiddling its thumbs in this regard: our cooperation is already bearing fruit. Last December marked the start of work in the Tartu region of Southern Estonia and the Vidzeme region of Northern Latvia on the first inter-regional value chain for green hydrogen. Nine partners from Estonia, Latvia and the Netherlands launched this project, which is named ‘H2Value’.
Put simply, Estonia and Latvia want to provide the impetus needed for the launch of the hydrogen economy in the Tartu and Vidzeme regions. As such, within the next few years historical Livonia will become a place in which drivers can fill their tanks at green hydrogen stations and ride on buses powered by hydrogen fuel. Those buses could traverse a route between our countries – say, from Puhja to Ruhja (or as you call it, Rūjiena).
In terms of the links that exist between us, Estonia and Latvia have long been connected through education. Over the centuries, life in my country has been shaped by Estonians who studied in Latvian institutions like the Theological Seminary and what is now the Technical University in Riga.
The former was the educational abode of Estonia’s President Konstantin Päts, Foreign Minister and key figure in the Tartu Peace Treaty Jaan Poska, and Bishop Platon, who was the first Estonian to be named a Christian saint.
The Estonian parliament – the Riigikogu – was designed by Herbert Johanson and Eugen Habermann, both graduates of today’s Technical University in Riga. In its former incarnation as the Riga Polytechnicum it served as a growth platform for creators of Estonian-language technology, and since then quite a number of Estonian researchers in the fields of informatics, the natural sciences and philosophy have earned their doctorates in Latvia.
In much the same way, chapters in the history of Latvia have been and continue to be written by people educated at the University of Tartu. Great figures from the Latvian national awakening in the 19th century like Krišjanis Barons, Krišjanis Valdemars and Juris Alunāns are the first who spring to mind.
Elsewhere, 100 young Estonian men were educated at Jānis Cimze’s school in Valka, including one of the great figures of Estonia’s own national awakening, Carl Robert Jakobson. Cimze also laid the foundations for the Baltic choral singing tradition and was one of the leaders of Estonia’s first national song festival in 1869. And since we are on the topic, I am delighted to note that a jubilee song festival will be celebrated in Latvia this year. Songs bring us together, whatever form they take.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is also true that the physical links between our two countries should be faster and smoother. The latest Estonian-Latvian cooperation report draws a significant amount of attention to this. Walking is always an option, but by train is a better one.
Anyone looking to travel by train from Riga to Tallinn tomorrow would have to set aside at least 10 hours to do so, if not an entire day. You might be thinking: surely it can’t take that long to cover a distance of just over 300 km. But based on current timetables, the shortest trip between Riga and Tallinn would take 10 hours and 5 minutes, and the shortest trip from Tallinn to Riga 9 hours and 49 minutes.
When Estonian statesman Jüri Jaakson made his first official visit to Latvia in 1925, the same trip took five-and-a-half hours. As unbelievable as it seems, some connections in the olden days were much faster than they are today. Of course, at the time, passengers travelling between our two countries did not have to get off one train in our shared border town of Valga/Valka and then wait for another one, which was not even guaranteed to show up.
Rail Baltic is far from being a luxury that is completely divorced from everyday life, but a much-needed service that will link the entire region from Poland to Finland. It will have the effect of saving us both time and money.
The Krišjanis Baronses and Carl Robert Jakobsons of today will start travelling between Estonia and Latvia by train – perhaps even one powered by green hydrogen.
For many years now the need for the construction of Rail Baltic has been confirmed by representatives of the Baltic States at various levels. I urge those in charge of the project to choose the optimum solution that will ensure the fastest pace in moving ahead with it. This may mean, for example, constructing the railway in stages so as to enable the efficient and flexible use of labour and materials and setting of deadlines.
In this same way, step by step, Latvia and Estonia have built up their digital societies over time. This has made us more efficient and brought our citizens tangible benefits inasmuch as it saves us time and money. Therein our similar worldviews are reflected. Because first and foremost, the prerequisite for successful digital transitions is the right frame of mind. We are open to all things new and improved. It is important not to rest on our laurels, but to continually forge ahead.
Resting on one’s laurels means falling behind as technology, the world at large and people’s demands charge ahead. Our two countries must aim for streamlined data exchange between our systems. The groundwork has been laid for this, especially since the software systems in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all support one another’s ID cards and digital signatures.
At the same time, we undoubtedly have much to learn from each other’s success and experience – for example, what Latvia has achieved in developing and implementing next-generation wireless technology on Europe’s first 5G training field at the Ādaži military base is very impressive. Also, right here in the Saeima, Latvia became one of the first countries in the world to develop a secure remote work e-environment during the pandemic.
I am of the view that Estonia and Latvia could form an economic area marked out by its synergy and by the bold decisions and innovation driving it forward. We have a wealth of opportunities for research cooperation to promote a knowledge-based economy and new technologies in different fields that would be environmentally friendly and supportive of sustainable development.
Our flexibility (if not to say our compact size) in combination with the success stories we have chalked up on both sides of the border is what will guarantee well-being for both of us in the future. And in that way we can inspire our other partners and Europe as a whole: we can show that something unique is coming into its own here.
Efficient, quick connections, alongside healthy competition with integrated economies, will bring benefits and well-being to both sides of the Koiva River.
Together we can be much more than the sum of our parts, but we have no reason to be critical or ashamed of our modest stature. One of the aspects that Estonia and Latvia’s stories share is a desire for intellectual greatness. We have always kept and will always keep that common intellectual space in all its diversity deep within our hearts.
With 2023 being the Year of Livonian Culture, it is worth recalling the belief once held by people in these parts that migratory birds did not fly south for the winter, but slumbered through it in local bodies of water, to be awoken with a spell once again in spring. We too, Estonia and Latvia, need a reminder or wake-up call from time to time that we are here, right next to each other, as friends and neighbours.
We have had the strength and the esprit to wake up our birds.
Ever since the 19th century, when Kristjan Jaak Peterson, the son of the bell-ringer for the Estonian congregation in Riga, walked from the Latvian capital to Tartu, a European Capital of Culture in 2024, our societies have come a long way – but there remains a lot further for us to go.
Latvia is one of very few countries to have such a similar past to Estonia and which is likely to have such a similar future. What the pattern of that future turns out to be like is for us to decide. It is ours for the making.