Estonian Defence Forces
Speech by the Commander in Chief of the Estonian Defence Forces, Major General Riho Terras at the Estonian Independece Day Parade, Freedom Square, Tallinn.
Honourable President of the Republic, Madame Speaker of the Parliament, Mr. Prime Minister, Your Excellencies, Members of the Defence Forces and Defence League, My dear fellow Estonians,
Independence Day in Estonia is a time for reflecting upon freedom and independence. What does it mean to us, and how high price are we prepared to pay for it?
Today, everything that seemed new and exciting a quarter century ago seems self-evident. An entire generation has come of age in a free Estonia – free to make their own choices, to become who they want to be.
There are many facets of freedom and all of them are equally important. Today we enjoy the opportunity to engage in a free and unfettered discussion about our people’s history and the present day. But it is important to realize that this does not exempt us from remembering the past.
Freedom has a greater meaning for those who have had to make sacrifices for it. We are gathered here today on Freedom Square to remember those who built the foundation for our statehood and those who took up arms to defend it.
The men and women who went to the front lines in the War of Independence are no longer among us. But their memory is not gone, and it must be kept alive and passed on from generation to generation.
We stand as one on Freedom Square today in a reaffirmation of the fact that the War of Independence was not just a ripple of the First World War somewhere on the periphery of Europe, but a real war. It was a sore fight, one an ultimately victorious struggle that vindicated the right of the Estonian nation to independence. Witnesses to this feat included our friends and allies – the British, Finns, Swedes, Danes, French and Americans who gave us material aid and stood with us as comrades-in-arms.
In the War of Independence, the Estonian Defence Forces were a people’s army, meaning that the nation’s sons and daughters took part in defending their country; the Defence Forces are of and for the people. The primary function of the Defence Forces and Defence League is to defend and protect the Estonian state, in cooperation with our allies.
The Estonian national defence rests on three pillars: a conscription-based reserve; a high-calibre, well-trained and experienced professional members of the Defence Forces; and members of the Defence League who participate on a voluntary basis as a home guard.
The Defence League is the manifestation of the Estonian people’s own will to defend their country and it is a secure bond of our independence.
History is full of examples of free individuals who joined together to defend their homes and people. An excellent example is the courageous uprising of citizens of Tallinn against the Muscovite incursions in the days of the Livonian War, on 11 September 1560.
The “Battle behind Jerusalem Hill”, as it was called, was waged a few kilometres from here, in a place where the Tallinn Ühisgümnaasium now stands. The city’s noblemen, aldermen, merchants, ordinary citizens and members of the Brotherhood of Blackheads guild fought side by side. The battle is memorialized today by Tallinn’s oldest monument, which stands on the street Marta tänav. It is a memorial cross to the merchant Blasius Hochgreve, who gave his life along with many others to defend the city.
This chapter in Tallinn’s history is also a fitting description of today’s Defence League, where people from many different walks of life have come together, bringing their skills and energies. The common idea that knits them is defence of their home and their lawful government.
In the coming years, the Defence League will take on a greater responsibility in fulfilling the function of territorial defence. This is an important step toward the home guard becoming a more influential force in our national defence. Being responsible for Estonian territorial defence will mean that the Defence League will receive more effective training and add more personnel to its ranks. It is also a clear token of the trust the Estonian state places in its people and their free will.
The Defence League district units and district detachments are already a force to be reckoned with – a valuable partner for our counties, cities and rural municipalities.
The Defence League is developing true to the words of Admiral Pitka, the War of Independence era military hero: the power of an earnest spirit and initiative must be maintained. A patriotic spirit and self-initiative have been important values throughout the history of the Defence League.
One of the central institutions of Estonian national defence is the reserve army and compulsory military service, which keeps it sustainable. More and more young men and women are willing to voluntarily enter military service. This is sincerely commendable.
The task facing the Estonian government and the Defence Forces is to do everything possible to provide the best possible military training opportunities and conditions for those in military service. We will also do our best to bring living conditions for conscripts completely up to modern standards.
It is gratifying to see that a majority of parents are sending their sons and daughters off to serve their country knowing full well that the knowledge, skills and ethos they acquire there will remain lifelong values. As a father who is preparing to send his own son to complete his compulsory military service, I hope with all my heart that he will draw on the best of that experience in the rest of his life.
The training and skills gained in compulsory military service lay the groundwork for a strong reserve military. Serving in the reserve is a natural part of national defence and service in the Defence Forces. This is the place where Estonians can make their contribution for the defence of their country and people knowing that each time they gather for reserve training, their country becomes better poised to defend itself in a time of crisis. Employers, co-workers and family members can also do their part in this process – being supportive when co-workers and family members take part in reserve training.
Estonia’s Defence Forces have won recognition everywhere they have had to serve. Estonians are recognized as good, trustworthy soldiers and brothers in arms. For ten years, our units have served with our allies on the military mission in Afghanistan. On numerous occasions, I have heard compliments on our officers and NCOs’ high morale and world-class skills.
The job of professional Defence Forces member must be held in high esteem, and singled out for praise. It is important that experienced NCOs and officers do not leave the Defence Forces while in their prime. It is the responsibility of the state to make sure society appreciates and pays tribute to the contribution of these men and women.
Our participation on missions in various hotspots and conflict zones serves the paramount goal of bolstering the security of the Estonian state and nation. By fulfilling our international obligations, we have become a committed partner for NATO and the European Union. Our word is trusted. We can be counted on.
As an independent country, we have taken part in fostering and guaranteeing security in various conflict zones abroad since 1995. We have close to 2,500 people who have served their country far form home. They include a number of our brothers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in their service. Over 130 have been wounded. All of them are our veterans and we owe them a debt of honour.
Our veterans and their families need more support and greater attention from all of society. Two months from now – on St. George’s Day in April – we welcome everyone here to Freedom Square to observe Veterans’ Day for the first time. Nor will we forget the Estonian citizens who gave their lives or sustained injuries in 20th century conflicts.
Estonia considers strong, effective relations with allies to be important. Besides experiences and the cooperation we gain on missions, it is becoming increasingly important to refine, in joint exercises, the skills and knowledge needed for providing collective defence.
It is clear that Estonia’s defence must be based on thoroughly considered decisions, which through a combination of initial defensive capability and NATO allied contribution ensure the security of our state and people.
We must remind ourselves time and again that our independence and freedom have never been something to be taken for granted, and never will be. The Estonian state was established to protect our nation and our freedom.
Long live the Republic of Estonia!
Terras to Allies: You can count on Estonia