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Address by the President of the Republic of Estonia Mr. Arnold Rüütel at the Forum of the Heads of State of the Baltic-Black Sea Region Vilnius, Lithuania 4 May 2006

''Small and Dynamic: the Estonian Experience''

Honourable Chairman,
Dear friends,

I am truly pleased to be participating in today's forum. I consider close intercommunication between the countries of different regions to be of the utmost importance since it enhances regional and interregional cooperation and contributes to the strengthening of democracy in the world.

Talking about Estonia’s experiences, I would like to stress that in the modern world, success requires more flexibility than ever before. One of the factors that ensured our success has been the ability to quickly implement extensive changes in our society.

Estonia’s experience shows that despite the limitations posed by the smallness of a country, it also opens up opportunities for success if we have the skills and courage to use them. At the beginning of the 1990s, the leadership of our country, which had just regained its independence, had to implement many radical legal, administrative and economic reforms. These laid the groundwork for a thorough re-organization of our society. Especially important was a reform of the principles of ownership, particularly land reform. The ability of our state institutions to cope with the implementation of new legislation, as well as that of the courts to solve legal disputes, also played an important role.

Estonia needed comprehensive reforms in order to restore democratic social order and to improve the lives of its people. All new democracies should establish this primary goal as their starting point. Keeping in mind a clear goal makes it possible to even look beyond the progress being made towards the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, to some countries, might seem too slow. But the EU and NATO are only means for achieving the main goal of enhancing the security and increasing the welfare of the people.

At the same time, Estonia’s development has also shown that simultaneously with the carrying out of reforms, certain social compensation mechanisms must be implemented. And I would like to emphasize that these measures must be very precisely addressed. In this process, local governments too have an important role to play.

In today’s rapidly changing world, keeping abreast of the times requires constant effort since standing still unavoidably leads to a setback. The same is true for the further development of the structures of the state, of local governments and of the principles of good governance. We have realised that the credibility of the state, in the eyes of its citizens and entrepreneurs, to a large extent depends on its administrative capacity.

For Estonia, innovation and modernity as well as simplicity, play an important role. We have tried to make public services readily accessible for all. We are guided by the principle that the state must serve the people, and not the other way round.

Therefore, we have developed a number of Internet-based public services, which make it considerably more convenient for our citizens and enterprises to communicate with the state and vice versa. For example, laws as well as the legislative process itself are easily accessible through the Internet. In today’s Estonia, approximately 80% of all tax declarations are submitted via the Internet, thus saving time and expense for both the taxpayer and the collector. Also, obligatory radical disclosure in the Internet makes it possible to reduce corruption.

For the first time, anywhere in the world, it was possible in Estonia to vote nationwide in local elections via the Internet in the autumn of 2005. This constitutes a new phase in the history of democratic elections, the full potential of which will perhaps not be fully realised until a couple of decades from now. And many of you probably know that the Estonian Government has been holding its sessions electronically for a number of years already thus saving time and money and enabling ministers who are not physically present to participate via a computer.

As an innovative and dynamic country, we cannot avoid the risks which may accompany the use of modern technical innovations. These developments may create new gaps in society and create unequal opportunities for those who have neither access to nor the necessary skills to use the possibilities of today.

To a large extent, the progress of a society as a whole depends on development not only in the capital city and its surrounding areas, but also in the most remote regions of the country. The availability of Internet-based solutions provides the possibility for communicating with the state directly from home. At the same time, the state must provide to all sectors of society the opportunity to benefit from the rapid development of technology. If, in various parts of the world, there is often concern over the danger that rural areas cannot catch up with rapidly developing cities, then Estonian’s experience demonstrates that, along with other reforms, there is a need for a determined regional policy and for the strengthening of local governments.

Our experience shows that openness to and integration with the world are essential for a small country, in both an economic as well as a political sense. Membership in strong international organizations like the EU and NATO provides considerably better possibilities to stand up for one’s values and interests.

By being a part of the European Union, our market has expanded, and many new opportunities have opened up for our entrepreneurs. NATO membership has ensured Estonia’s security in a manner unprecedented in our history. In a way, both organizations are like magnets, which, by increasing stability and welfare, draw countries towards them. On the basis of our own experience, we, in principle, support the enlargement of these organizations – provided that the necessary conditions are fulfilled.

Dear friends,

Estonia has followed events in the Black Sea region with interest, and has joyfully greeted democratic developments there. Your concerns with the building up of your countries are in many ways familiar to us. During the past fifteen years, we have acquired a number of useful experiences with the building up of a democratic country as well as with taking it into the EU and NATO. We are ready to gladly share these experiences with others.

The anchoring of democracy is possible only when the people have the conviction and a serious will to work for it. A democratic society cannot be achieved overnight, and it cannot be imported from elsewhere. But other countries can play a supportive role and offer concrete assistance where needed. I believe that in one or another way, all the countries in the Baltic Sea area can provide assistance to the Black Sea region.

To conclude, I would like to wish us all determination, strength of purpose and patience in developing democracy as well as in enhancing the welfare of our states and our people. And moreover – let us not underestimate the significance of dialogue with our people.

Thank you for your attention.

© 2006 Office of the President l tel: + 372 631 6202 l fax: + 372 631 6250 l