Tallinn, 27 January 2023
It is a great pleasure for me to be in Tallinn today.
The eyes of the world are looking towards the East again. I remember in 1968, when I was growing up in the communist Czech Republic, I saw the Soviet tanks coming from the East. Today, Ukraine sees tanks, bombs, rockets and soldiers coming from the same place.
Russia is challenging not only the independence of Ukraine, not only the rule-based order and post-cold war security arrangement in Europe. Kremlin decided to challenge everything you, Estonians, and other Central and Eastern European countries fought for only a generation ago: peace, democracy and the rule of law.
Today, I want to talk to you about us, about Europe and what are the consequences for all of us of this brutal war.
To understand the present, it’s helpful to know the history. Just look at the walls of the building we are in. Today, this is the democratic ministry of foreign affairs. Yet, until 1989 this was the headquarter of the Estonian communist party. Everywhere in the Central and Eastern Europe, from Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw, Prague, and all the way to the Black Sea, the Soviet Union held its authoritarian grip on power. Some of you still remember, like I do, a few features of the Soviet system. It made critical thinking a crime, a treason. It aimed at killing hope that better life is possible. It wanted to spread fear, so we subdue and obey.
Luckily for our region, history has given us a chance to rebel and regain our freedom and independence.
Here, in Estonia, you sang the “your Songs” to demonstrate your courage. You created the Baltic Way, from here to Vilnius, just a year later. The power of music and holding hands was greater than a power of guns.
I am recalling that, because I see a certain tendency today. Those of us who felt the footprints of the Soviet boots on our land knew full well what Putin’s Russia is capable of. Those of us who rebelled against what seemed like an all-mighty Soviet Union also have had the courage to act in the most decisive way when it comes to the recent Russian aggression on Ukraine.
I am a Czech national, from the Velvet Revolution generation. And even though the distance to drive from Tallinn to Berlin is shorter than to Prague, history has bound us and other Central and Eastern European nations together. We used to be a Soviet sphere of influence, and later on called post-Communist countries or new democracies, and then finally, new Member States of the European Union.
Today, standing in front of you, I feel history wants to remind us of our common legacy. So, let me be blunt in my diagnosis: Estonia was right about Russia. Latvia, Lithuania and Poland were right about Russia. Some others were not.
I recall that until the invasion almost a year ago, every time I warned about the threat from Putin’s regime, there were those who called me a Russophobe. Yet, because I spoke the truth, the Kremlin banned me from ever visiting Russia. I wear this sanction as a badge of honour.
I don’t mention this to say “we told you so”. I am saying this, because today, the debate is still ongoing how to best react, how to help Ukraine, what arms and when to deliver it. And I want to say to those who hesitate: the Central and Eastern European nations told you what Putin is capable of and what he was going to do. So now, when in doubt, listen to their advice and follow their lead. Every minute of hesitation is costing lives.
There cannot be a talk about European sovereignty, if we cannot be decisive about security just behind our Eastern border. We, Europeans, should be leading these efforts.
Chancellor Scholz in Prague, in the grand hall of the Charles University, admitted that the “centre of gravity is moving eastwards”. I agree.
Today, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe have a historical and moral obligation to remove the mental label of the new Member States. We are sitting at the biggest democratic table in the world – the European Union. We must learn to speak in a way that others listen. We must get better in promoting our ideas and our vision of Europe on security, on defence, on economy and on enlargement.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I have looked briefly to the West of Tallinn. Now I want to look again to the East. The Kremlin is fighting its war not only with bombs, but also with words. Since the war started, the Kremlin has unleashed a tsunami of Propaganda.
But it has been engaged in disinformation and foreign influence long before that. They have never underestimated the power of free speech in the democratic world. This is why they forbid it at home. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the first thing the Soviet troops did after Estonia proclaimed its independence on 20th of August 1991 was to attack the Tallina teletorn, the Tallinn TV Tower.
They knew back then, and they know full well today that information can be a powerful tool.
Estonian first president after regaining independence, Lennart Meri recognised this power in a speech he gave in Belgium in 1992. He said: “We, Estonians, lived in the broadcast range of Finnish television and so were able to recognize Lech Walesa by his moustache. In the Soviet Union this fact was a state secret, just as the fact that the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe were fighting for their human and civil rights”.
In fact, he thought this ability to speak and listen to the news from behind the Curtain made Estonians a nation of dissidents. I think he was right.
Russian state has engaged in the war of ideas to pollute our information space with half-truth and lies to create a false image that democracy is no better than autocracy.
Today, this is a multi-million euro weapon of mass manipulation aimed both internally at the Russians as well as at Europeans and the rest of the world.
We must say stop to this. We cannot close an eye to this. We have to fight back.
I want to pause for a minute about a difficult issue of the information war the Kremlin is waging on its own citizens.
I know there are voices, especially now, that say we should give up on all the Russians. They support the Kremlin, it is their choice.
I reject this argument, not because I am expert on Russian society, but because I have heard this argument before. This is what was said about the nations of Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. We were part of the price to pay for the so-called ‘stability’. Yet, there were those that did not give up on us. I remember to this day, when my parents were gathering around our radio to search and listen to the Radio Free Europe or Voice of America. I still feel the unspoken anxiety of these moments.
And I believe we should not give up on the Russian society as well, regardless of how few or how many want to hear the real news, not Kremlin propaganda.
My friend Andrus Ansip always quotes Carl Popper by saying that optimism is our moral duty.
I am convinced we have a moral obligation to support democratic ideals also in Russia. Not with weapons, but with words.
We must support those who want to fight against the tide and believe the Russian people ought to have a choice.
This is why I want to launch a Radio Free Russia project. This does not mean establishing a brand new radio station. The times are completely different than at the beginning of cold war when Radio Free Europe was created.
I want to support those who are doing a lot already, help them to create economy of scale and fill the gaps so they can produce more content and distribute it more widely without any editorial interference. I want to support the idea of people to have choice.
We have a unique opportunity now because many independent Russian journalists were expelled. The new Novaya Gazeta gets published in Riga. The hubs of Russian journalists and activists are now in the EU. We need to create the conditions for them to work and tell the story of the EU they see and experience to their Russian audiences. It is not only a moral duty, it is in our self-interest.
In the last part of the speech, I want to look at ourselves. We can only be credible in promoting democracy if our own house is in order.
We have to make our democracies more resilient and stronger, because unfortunately they are also under threat. And the threat level is rising.
A key aspect of democracy are free and fair elections the balance of powers. The idea is simple, that no one power, be it the government, the parliament or the courts, is too powerful, that they all balance each other.
This is why we are so determined to uphold the rule of law and react when we see systemic risks to the independence of judiciary.
This is why I proposed the European Democracy Action Plan only three years ago with its key pillars such as strengthening election integrity, fighting disinformation and promoting media freedom and pluralism.
This is why I want online platforms to become more transparent and accountable.
Fighting disinformation and promoting media freedom are two side of the same coin. We have proposed the Media Freedom Act that will enshrine, for the first time in EU law, common safeguards to protect media pluralism and the editorial independence of the media.
We have proposed the so-called anti-SLAPP directive to protect journalists and other human rights defenders from abusive lawsuits. And many other legislative and non-legislative initiatives.
All of these actions have one common goal: to strengthen those that mean well against those who want to abuse the power.
I count on Estonia and its government to support us in all the attempts to strengthen democracy in the EU as a whole and in each and every Member State.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I started this speech by saying that, to understand the present, it’s helpful to know the history. This sentence resonates strongly in this important day when we remember the millions of Jewish women, men and children, and all other victims, among them hundreds of thousands of Roma, murdered during the Holocaust.
Antisemitism led to the Holocaust but did not end with it. Antisemitism is again on the rise in Europe. So we need to continue the fight against it.
Peace, and democracy are not granted once at for all. Democracy needs defenders and it needs constant nurturing.
Our democracies are not perfect. We have to continue to fix the problems of the people.
But those of us who lived behind the Iron Curtain, those of us who understand the authoritarian playbook also used by Putin today, know that democracy is precious. Mainly because it offers rights to individuals and makes people equal before the law.
It offers us tools to control those in power and replace them if we are not satisfied.
Our objective is clear: make our democracies stronger and restore faith in those who start doubting it.
There is a saying that only those who lose something can know the real value of it. I realised this even more when I talked to young Ukrainians in Lviv last September, witnessing their hunger for being part of the European Union. The Ukrainians remind us that democracy is appealing. And that the EU, as a peace project, is probably the best guarantor of rights and freedoms humans have ever created.
Despite the risks, we will succeed, because our Union will be united not only by the value of the single market, but also with our values.
In short, we need to channel in our democracies the spirits of Lennart Meri and Václav Havel. They were both statesmen with a capital S. They both are founding fathers of Estonian and Czech democracies, respectively. They projected charisma and respect, also to their political opponents. They knew democracy is about building trust among each and every citizen, rather than sowing hate and undermining institutions.
I think we owe to these two gentlemen a greater attempt at being better democrats.
Source – EU Commission