Lennart Meri in his presidential Mercedes.
Top 12 most outstanding Estonian statespeople
On the occasion of the day celebrating the restoration of independence, Estonian World has chosen 12 of Estonia’s most outstanding statespeople in recent times.*
In the evening of 20 August 1991, Estonian parliamentarians decided to take advantage of the chaos in Moscow – the conservative Soviet hardliners had gone on offensive against the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev and attempted a military coup – and declared the nation’s independence.
Luckily for Estonia, the attempted coup d’état in Moscow failed and the more liberal forces, led by the chairman of the Russian SFSR Supreme Soviet, Boris Yeltsin, prevailed – thus starting the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Estonia was free again. The first country to diplomatically recognise Estonia’s reclaimed independence was Iceland, on 22 August. The Soviet Union finally recognised the independence of Estonia on 6 September 1991.
A lot has happened since, both good and bad. All in all, Estonia has done well by most accounts, but not in everything.
The country stood out for brave economic reforms in the 1990s and has become one of the most advanced digital societies in the world today. Successive governments have followed strict budget discipline and Estonia is one of the few NATO members to fulfill an obligation to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. The number of startups and innovative companies – many of them started by high-school students on these days – is really impressive. In PISA tests, Estonian 15-year-olds – if not necessarily the happiest of chaps – are the best in Europe and third on the global scale.
On the other side of the coin, however, a whopping 21.3% of the Estonian population lives in relative poverty and 3.9% in absolute poverty. The country has also lost many of its bright minds and skilled workforce to Scandinavian countries, Germany, the UK and other countries. Salaries are still very low while the cost of life is rocketing. The gender pay gap is the largest in the European Union and the country has had only moderate success at best integrating its large Russian minority. Estonia has currently also the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Europe – and the issue is constantly brushed aside.
“Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation,” Henry Kissinger, the legendary former US secretary of state, once said. It’s an impossible task to figure out how many politicians in Estonia have had a genuine mission to make life better for everyone – and how many have acted merely for personal gain. It is fair to say that in a democratic society like Estonia, we – citizens, voters, members of parliament, state officials – are all responsible for Estonia’s wins and failures.
On the occasion of the day celebrating the restoration of independence, Estonian World highlights 12 of the country’s most outstanding statespeople of the last 26 years. Most of them have had their failures, too – but this publication believes they deserve a credit for various reasons: either for their hard work and resolve to make Estonia a better place during toughest of times, their grand vision, or for inspiring the nation.
* Please note that this article was originally published on 20 August 2017.