Minu kõne Lord Byroni auhinna tseremoonial

Oct 09, 2023, autor Kaja Kallas

Kalispera sas kyries kai kyrii!

I am very honoured to be here in Athens today to receive the International Lord Byron Prize.

This recognition not only builds closer friendship between Greece and Estonia – it also demonstrates the unity of purpose that we as democracies share.

Historically and symbolically, this city, Athens, knows it well. It is the birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy, and logic – and the birthplace of the legend of Europa.  I should also point out that the two figures who gave name to Europe and freedom – Europa and Elefteria respectively – were Greek goddesses and not gods.

With a large-scale conventional war behind our borders and a hybrid war ongoing on a larger scale, Europe is living through difficult times – times that require extra cooperation among Allies, partners and friends across the world. These are also times that require more joint action, discussions, as well as difficult decisions.

Greece and Estonia share truly excellent and close relations. Despite being located in opposite ends of Europe, we understand each other better than one may think. We are both small maritime nations with high defence budgets, located next to bigger neighbours. Greece gained independence 200 years ago, Estonia a century later. We both had to fight for freedom and independence and know what pain and loss it carries. We both also know that hard-won rights and freedom can be lost if not safeguarded.

This Prize is named after Lord Byron, a great friend of Greece. It was his voice as well as his financial contribution that played a crucial role in shifting the odds in Greece’s favour in its fight for freedom. Lord Byron knew that if you want freedom, you need to fight for it. In his great rallying cry for freedom, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron asks: “know ye not/ Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?“ Today, Ukrainians with their bravery are reminding us every day the importance of fighting tyranny.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Russia is fighting another colonial war in Europe. I grew up in one of Russia’s past colonies – Estonia was occupied by Soviet Russia for almost half a century. After the Second World War, Estonia lost everything – we lost our territory, freedom, and a fifth of our population to Soviet terror and repressions. And we felt we were forgotten and abandoned behind the Iron Curtain. The most important lesson we learnt: you need to stand up for your freedom, whatever the odds. And you need to find friends all over the world.  

Ukrainians and President Zelensky are proving the same thing to the entire world every single day. Ukraine has bravery, will and reason to fight, and it has a moral cause – its sovereign right to be free. It is our moral duty to do our utmost to help Ukraine because they also defend our values, principles and democracy. Without our help, Ukraine cannot win. Without victory of Ukraine, our values, freedoms and democracy will be lost.

Most aggressors of today are not threatened by arms, they are afraid of freedoms, ideas and values and democracy. If we let aggression pay off, we have accepted the end of Europe as we know it and the return of the age of Empires. So we all have „a skin in this game“. And that makes Ukraine’s fight for freedom a matter of global security. 

Greece and Estonia value multilateralism and strong alliances. We both know through our own experience that trans-Atlantic integration is an important pillar of European security and stability. And it is our joint experience that EU enlargement is the best policy for positive transformation.

Greece celebrated its 70th anniversary in NATO this year, it joined the European Union over 40 years ago. Next year, Estonia will be celebrating 20 years of membership in the European Union and NATO. We would be living through some really dark times now if we were not NATO and EU members right now. EU and NATO enlargements have bolstered trans-Atlantic defence and given economic prosperity to millions here in Europe.

Today, Estonia is fully committed to helping others in their journey towards the EU and NATO. Former President of Estonia Lennart Meri once said that – and I quote – „Europe has a binary choice, either the island of democracy will expand or it shall shrink. There is no third way.” End of quote. In June we marked the twenty-year anniversary of the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, where EU leaders committed to the eventual membership of all Western Balkan countries. Ukraine and Moldova are EU candidate countries now.  Our work is not done until our promises are fulfilled. Until all these countries are full-fledged members of the Euro-Atlantic community.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

History is by no means a linear progression towards more freedom and openness. The bottom line is that democracies and securing freedoms need constant care. Our liberal democracies need to deliver not only hope in a better future, but also tangible results to our people. That is why it is important that governments move where the people are – and in many ways, the people have moved online. 

When Estonia restored its independence from Soviet Russia in 1991, our country was in a poor state. We set out on a long journey of extensive and painful economic reforms. It was supported by early adoption of electronic identity and digitalisation of government services. Today, 99% of our government services – starting from paying taxes, electing the parliament to registering your new-born’s name – are offered online. Digital transformation has allowed us to achieve much greater transparency, efficiency and given citizens better access to government services. Also, foreign investors and entrepreneurs have found it easy to do business in Estonia.

As of today, Estonia is still the only country in the world with iVoting – our citizens can vote over the Internet at home or really anywhere in the world.

I am describing our approach because it illustrates a mindset that should form a basis for governance for the 21st century. We should not think of innovation purely in terms of innovative products or breakthrough technologies. Innovation needs to be put into the service of our own people and democratic governance.  Innovation can help to improve the standard of living for everyone while respecting their privacy and rights. Government that is digitally close to its citizens has also allowed us to achieve much greater transparency.

Ancient Athenians brought two powerful forces together – democratic will of people and the diversity of ideas. I wish that one day people will look back and say that Estonians managed to bring democracy and the digital world together the same way.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

For democracies to be relevant, we within governments must carefully listen to what people are most concerned about. Nowadays climate change is one of the top concerns among people in Europe and in the world. Sadly, Greece has been affected tremendously by climate change. I offer my deepest condolences to all who have suffered by the devastating wildfires and flooding this year. It’s clear we urgently need collective and global action on climate change.

As a result of dramatic changes in climate and the tragic loss of biodiversity, every next generation is experiencing less and less of the wonders of nature. As a result, every new generation also expects less and less from nature and becomes distanced from it. It is urgent that we shift the way we think about nature and how to protect it. His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomeus I, whom I met recently during his visit to Estonia, rightly said, and I quote – “It is unthinkable to destroy the natural environment and to claim that we care about people and vice versa.”

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Although there is no greater prize than freedom itself, there are no better words to express my feelings than those of Lord Byron: Battle for freedom wherever you can. And, if not shot or hang’d, you’ll get knighted. Or, shall we say – if not shot or hanged, you might get a prize with Byron’s name!

Thank you very much for this recognition. I am deeply grateful to the Society for Hellenism and Philhellenism for acknowledging my work and granting Estonia such an honour.

For prosperity and security in Europe, we need the same spirit that we saw in Lord Byron. That´s the spirit of personal and long-term commitment, sacrifice, and passion. His story is one that should inspire us also in our support to Ukraine today. Lord Byron donated his personal money to the emergency needs – notably financing a fleet to defend Missolonghi from besieging forces. I will donate this monetary prize to Ukrainians to help them win its fight for freedom.

Efharistoo polii!