Prime Minister of Estonia

Speech made to the Assembly

Monday, 27 January 1997

Madam President, honourable members of the Assembly, it is today a special pleasure and an honour to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the oldest, the most comprehensive and the most prestigious forum for political dialogue in Europe.

It is a pleasure because it gives me the opportunity to reiterate the gratitude of the Estonian nation to the Council of Europe, to an Organisation and to an Assembly that did not forget Estonia during the half century of Soviet domination.

Since the re-establishment of Estonian independence, the assistance of the Council has been enormous. The central core of Estonian legislation, the very foundations of our state, have been co-ordinated with the Council of Europe. Our constitution, our citizenship laws of 1992 and 1995, were submitted to the Council’s expertise and its advice was followed. The law on aliens, the law on language and the law on local government elections, as well as the regulations on language tests for acquiring Estonian citizenship, all bear the stamp of approval of this Organisation.

It is an honour for me to stand before this distinguished Assembly to address the question of how we see present and future relations between Estonia and Europe and, in this context, briefly to reflect on some achievements connected with our chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers last year.

It was with some apprehension, but also with determination, that we faced this challenge, which would be important for any country, but particularly so for one that had so recently regained its independence.

We wished first of all to demonstrate our attachment to a form of society that fully reflects the norms, values and standards of the Council of Europe. We wished to make it clear that we accept and will implement all the Council’s major and important achievements.

In recent months, we have therefore ratified not only the European Convention on Human Rights, but the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. We have submitted to parliament for ratification Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights abolishing the death penalty and we have also presented to parliament draft legislation on refugees, which in fact has already passed the first reading. The same can be said about the conventions on penal law.

Herewith, I am glad to note that, tomorrow, my government is going to submit to parliament for ratification the Geneva Convention on Refugees and Territorial Asylum. I am confident that parliament will act positively on all the above-mentioned government proposals.

In this same spirit, during the months to come we shall pursue our examination of important Council of Europe texts such as the revised European Social Charter and that on data protection. I hope that our ambassador, a former member of this Assembly whom you all know, will soon be able to present the instruments of ratification of these conventions.

Our progressive integration into the network of co-operation based on the Council’s legal tests is, and will remain, a major element of our European policy. We wish also to assure the Council that we take most seriously the monitoring procedures established by the Organisation. We entirely agree that commitments entered into should be honoured. The very credibility of the accession procedure is at stake.

At this point, I wish to express our sincere appreciation to Mr Bindig, the rapporteur and author of the report on Estonia’s commitments. We deeply value the spirit of co-operation, understanding and justice in which Mr Bindig accomplished this task. Monitoring should not necessarily be endless and when a country achieves its goals, it should be concluded. This does not mean that monitoring could not be restarted, if the need were to arise again. We are satisfied that the monitoring exercise will be brought to a successful close as far as Estonia is concerned. I can assure you that my government will continue to do its utmost to strengthen and develop the ideals of the Council of Europe.

During our chairmanship, we were instrumental in setting the framework of the Committee of Ministers’ own monitoring procedure and I am happy to stress that, also in that forum, emphasis was laid on co-operation, on mutual assistance and on solidarity, rather than on negative criticism.

A third feature of our chairmanship was our wish to extend our collaboration with the Caucasian region. Indeed, we entirely share the opinion of the Assembly that Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia belong to Europe. By history and culture, they are closely linked to our common heritage. I hope that the Assembly will examine the applications for membership of the three Caucasian republics in the nearest future.

I shall now dwell on the progress that Estonia has made since 1991. We have stable political structures. Our GDP has been growing since 1994. We have a stable currency, a balanced budget and low unemployment, and we have been quite successful in lowering the annual inflation rate. We are not far from qualifying under the Maastricht criteria, but I will say more about the European Union later.

The Estonian Government has promised to help all permanent residents to integrate into Estonian society. An important and rather unique law allows resident non-citizens to vote in local government elections, thus enabling people to have a real voice in resolving issues that affect their daily lives. I am confident that, in the spirit of close co-operation with all those people who see their future in Estonia, we shall overcome all the problems that the Soviet period has left us.

Our aim is an Estonia for all Estonians, whatever their ethnic, religious, or historical background. To achieve that aim, we are making a determined effort to provide positive incentives for all those people to adapt to the new situation, to help them integrate, not assimilate, into our Estonian society. They are encouraged to learn our language and to participate in our cultural traditions without neglecting their own. We shall expand those efforts. Understanding the importance of a stable and secure population, the Estonian Government is actively promoting dialogue and tolerance among the many peoples living in Estonia.

Since regaining its independence in 1991, Estonia has been unique in making the potentially explosive change from more than fifty years of totalitarian rule to democratic society. Having a long tradition of tolerance and respect for the individual and recognising the human dimension in overcoming the Soviet legacy, Estonia has often shown flexibility and the ability to compromise in solving problems. However, a sustained effort is required, materially and psychologically.

It is an effort to be made by all of us. We are deeply grateful to all organisations and foreign governments that assist us – financially and with help, advice and encouragement – to achieve that aim.

We intend, at the national level and at the level of our participation in the activities of this Assembly and this Organisation, to contribute to, and to achieve for ourselves and for the region in which we live, the democratic security that is the hallmark of the Council. Our close links with the Nordic states and the excellent co-operation with our two southern neighbours are indispensable features of that democratic security.

As part of our re-integration into European economic structures, one of Estonia’s main foreign policy goals is joining the European Union. I am proud to report that Estonia was the only applicant country to negotiate associated status without the need for a transition period. Through our liberal trade regime, we have already opened our markets to the world.

Estonia has free trade agreements with the European Union, with the European Free Trade Association and some Central European Free Trade Agreement countries, with Latvia, Lithuania and the Ukraine. Our liberal policies include the elimination of all export and import tariffs, the elimination of state subsidies and the right of foreigners to buy land. Our rapid privatisation programme, which has left Estonia with perhaps the largest private sector in central and eastern Europe, is entering its final phase, in which the focus is on the privatisation of infrastructures and utilities.

Estonia has become the most open economy in Europe, with economic growth of 5% to 6% per year. Estonia’s rapid free market reforms have raised our competitiveness in the global market and increased foreign investments. Now we seek the opportunity to further liberate the movement of our citizens and their capital through membership of the European Union. We have already progressed through several stages of the accession preparation process, including replying to the Commission’s questionnaire this past summer. In some areas of our Euro-harmonisation, we have some distance yet to go. In that context, I would also like to note Estonia’s readiness to sign the Estonian-Russian border agreement. The Estonian side is looking forward to both parties signing the agreement at the earliest opportunity and hoping that the Russian side will correspond to this by showing her good will.

At the same time, Estonia is seeking to co-operate in upholding European security through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. We share the democratic values upheld by Nato members and feel it natural that we should participate in the creation of the new European defence arrangement. To that end, we have participated in the Partnership for Peace programme, already the most extensive military co-operation in European history. We realise that protecting security can be costly and Estonia is willing to shoulder her share of the burden. Estonian troops have already served as peacekeepers in Croatia, and in IFOR and SFOR in Bosnia under Danish command, and are currently on assignment under Norwegian command in Lebanon. We stand ready to participate in future missions should the need arise.

The enlargement of the Council of Europe has been one of the symbols of the reshaping of Europe and I pay tribute to the open and objective manner in which it came about. During the coming months the European Union and Nato will both be expanding and the lessons learned here must not be forgotten. Today we are living in an era which offers some specific possibilities: stability in the new Europe will be dependent upon our consideration and forethought.

Estonia may be one of the smaller states in the Council of Europe. Our territorial size, our 1.5 million inhabitants and the size of our economy will never allow us to be one of the major providers to this Organisation in terms of budget and financial contributions, but we can contribute in many other ways to the challenging task of building a Europe for the next century.

We have learnt from our history the importance of determination and will-power, which may sometimes be seen as stubbornness. We have shown what a small country can do when it puts its mind to it. Our minds are now put to Europe. Estonia is confident that her future lies in a fully integrated Europe – and the sooner, the better.

Thank you, Madam President.


Thank you very much Mr Vàhi, for your most interesting statement. Members of the Assembly have expressed a wish to put questions to you.

I remind them that questions must be limited to thirty seconds and no more. Colleagues should be asking questions, not making speeches.

In order to ensure that as many colleagues as possible are able to put their questions, I do not propose to allow supplementary questions. The first question is from Mr Sinka.

Mr SINKA (Latvia)

Mr Prime Minister, how do you see present and future co-operation between the three Baltic states on their way to the European Union and Nato?

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

First, I should like to stress that there is close co-operation between the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – which we want to deepen. In their progress towards integration in the European Union and Nato, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are not competitors. We should support each other.

Mr SHISHLOV (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

asked what steps were being taken on naturalisation of people in Estonia.

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

In an attempt to speed up the process of naturalisation, the Estonian Government applied for, and received from the European Union Phare programme, a grant of 1.4 million ecus for language training for non-Estonians. My government is also working to grant permanent residence permits to Estonian residents who have been granted temporary residence permits. I stress that all non-Estonians in Estonia have been granted residence and work permits and that the government intend to start changing temporary residence permits to permanent ones this year.

Mr ZHIRINOVSKY (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

asked the Prime Minister of Estonia to confirm that the position of non-Estonians in Estonia was now worse than that of the Jews in nazi Germany as they were denied the means to live. Furthermore, Estonia was not recognised in international law.

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

First, I stress that Estonia is an independent state and that we have quite friendly relations between nationalities and groups of nationalities. The latest opinion polls show that the Russian speaking population of Estonia has the same level of support for the state, president, government and parliament of Estonia as does the Estonian population. We want to establish a friendly family in Estonia. Of course, our history has left us with some problems, but in a very short time we have tried to solve them.

Mr GLOTOV (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

said that 400 000 residents of Estonia had been deprived of citizenship. Some 200 000 had still not been recognised. They were being openly discriminated against. How was that in accordance with European laws?

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

Estonian citizenship law has been drafted in close co-operation with Council of Europe experts and therefore corresponds to its standards and those of European and international humanitarian law.

Mr SUDARENKOV (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

asked why non-Estonians who paid taxes in Estonia were not allowed to privatise their own land.

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

I am sorry to say that you have the wrong information. Non-Estonian citizens resident in Estonia have an equal right to privatised flats and houses. That applies not only to residents in Estonia but to Russian military pensioners and their families.

Mr KHARITONOV (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

said that the authorities in Estonia were deliberately worsening relations with the Russian Federation in order to exaggerate the threat posed by that country in the eyes of organisations such as Nato.

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

One of our main foreign policy goals is the normalisation and improvement of relations between Estonia and the Russian Federation. Of course, relations depend on both sides, but Estonia wants to do its best to improve them in all areas – economic, cultural and between people and families. I look forward to improving our relations in the very near future.

Mr AVERCHEV (Russian Federation)

Recently, the OSCE secretariat made available the exchange of correspondence between its high commissioner on national minorities and the Estonian foreign minister concerning the reservations made by Estonia in connection with the ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The Commissioner, Mr Van der Stool, concluded that its restrictive interpretation of national minorities, that is, its refusal to apply national minority status to noncitizens, runs counter to Article 6 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and to the OSCE Copenhagen document on the human dimension. Will you comment on that?

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

There is no universally accepted definition of a national minority, although a definition is contained in the law of cultural autonomy for national minorities. Two days ago, High Commissioner Max Van der Stool gave an interview to an Estonian newspaper in which he stressed that, since 1993, he has found no violation of human rights in Estonia. Different nationalities live happily in Estonia. Our problems are based on history, but we want to establish a friendly Estonia for all nationalities.

Mr EÖRSI (Hungary)

In your excellent speech, you said that you would like to agree on a border treaty with Russia. As far as I am aware, the Russian Government was prepared to proceed with a border plan in line with your expectations. What prevents you from reaching an agreement? Will you share your problems with the Assembly?

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

We started negotiations between Estonia and Russia five years ago. In 1996, both sides agreed on a border line and on a draft text of an agreement. We are ready to sign this agreement at any time, but Russia may have some technical problems. If Russia solves those problems, we can sign this very important agreement.

Mr HEGYI (Hungary)

Both Estonia and Hungary want closer ties with the European Union, but that does not mean that we should forget our traditionally good cultural, personal and economic contacts, which date from our well-known tragic past. How do you see the future of cultural and economic contacts between Estonia and Hungary, and between Estonia and the other central European countries?

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

We established diplomatic relations between Estonia and Hungary in 1991. In May 1996, the President of Hungary, Mr Arpad Goncz, visited Estonia, and the President of Estonia will pay an official visit to Hungary in May of this year. We have good co-operation between our states and we have reached some bilateral agreements on cultural matters, the economy and other areas. We plan also to conclude agreements on double taxation, investment protection and free trade. Estonia and, I am sure, Hungary want to deepen relations, not only on the economy but in culture. We are close as nations and we both support co-operation.

Mr KORKEAOJA (Finland)

During the past few years, several co-operation organisations have emerged in the Baltic Sea area, such as the Coupcil of the Baltic Sea Area and the Nordic Council. How do you see the role of, and the co-ordination between, those organisations progressing? Do you think that the Council of Europe should have a special role in this context?

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

Estonia is a small country and we want to co-operate with all the other countries in the world. However, we want our deepest co-operation to be with our neighbouring countries – the Baltic and Nordic states. We have established a great deal of co-operation, and Estonia is an active participant in all the organisations. For example, the latest initiative from the Swedish side has been that the Swedish Prime Minister, Mr Goran Persson, has proposed the establishment in Stockholm of a special board to co-operate in the fight against organised crime. Estonia and the other Baltic states see that as a useful step. We have close political and economic relations with those countries, and we see only benefits from these continuing.

Mr ELO (Finland)

It is a well-known fact that Estonia has ambitions to become a member of Nato and a member of the European Union. If it is not possible to do both, which is the priority for Estonia?

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

Integration with the European Union and Nato is a parallel process, but they are not tied directly to each other. We in Estonia have two priorities – to integrate with the EU and to co-operate with Nato. We have associated member status at the EU and we are co-operating in the Nato programme Partnership for Peace.

Mr GJELLEROD (Denmark)

Do you envisage your country fulfilling the commitments emphasised in Recommendation 1201 of the Council of Europe, especially Article 11?

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

The Estonian law on cultural autonomy provides the right for national minorities to participate in cultural activities and to form institutions for cultural self-government.

Mr ONAINDIA (Spain) (interpretation)

welcomed Mr Vahi to the Assembly, and asked him whether Estonia would be able to develop higher levels of regional administration, so as to enhance citizens’ rights.

Mr Vähi, Prime Minister of Estonia

Estonia is a democratic country and we solve problems on a state level in government. Estonia has very strong self-government at a local level. Of course, if we are speaking about co-operation and regional activities, such a proposal could be good, but we should discuss it further. I support the proposal. Thank you.


Thank you. That brings to an end the questions to Prime Minister Vàhi. I thank him most warmly on behalf of the Assembly for his statement and for the remarks that he has made in the course of answering questions. Once again, thank you very much Prime Minister.