Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the presentation of the Walther Rathenau Award to Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia

19.03.2024 - Speech

I want to take you back to the year 1988. 36 years ago, an 11-year-old girl named Kaja Kallas visited Berlin for the first time together with her family.

Estonia was under Soviet occupation. East Germany was firmly rooted in the Warsaw Pact. Kaja, you have often told the story of how you and your family went as close to the Brandenburg Gate as the GDR border guards would allow.

And how your father told you “Breathe in deeply. That’s the air of freedom, coming from the other side.”

Today, you are being presented with the Walther Rathenau Award as Estonian Prime Minister, only a couple of hundred metres from where you once stood with your family.

You are receiving this award because you never took that air of freedom for granted.

Rather, time and again during your political career, you have reminded us all in Europe of what it takes to protect that freedom.

That it takes courage and determination.

When you walk the streets of Berlin today, is there a lot you still recognise? Probably not.

Because, shortly after your trip in 1988, the Wall fell. Germany was reunified. That air of freedom that your father had spoken about was blowing throughout all of Berlin.

Berlin again became one city.

The reunification of our country would not have been possible without -- and this is what we have to remember every day -- the support and also the inspiration we received from our friends and neighbours in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Three decades ago, the people in the Baltics peacefully and courageously opposed a totalitarian regime, and successfully so.

What would later be known as the Baltic Way of 1989 brought together two million people to form a 600-kilometre-long human chain. With courage and solidarity, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians stood up to the imperial oppressor to reclaim their freedom and their right to self-determination.

This was also inspiration for many brave women and men in East Germany, who reclaimed their freedom by taking to the streets in their own peaceful revolution.

In the years that followed, Europe grew closer together. In 2004, we welcomed ten new members to the European Union and seven to NATO, including your country, Estonia.

When tourists visit here today, they sometimes have to ask a local whether the Berlin borough they are in used to be in the east or west part of the city. One only has to think of your first visit in 1988 to see how lucky we in Germany can call ourselves.

But perhaps inadvertently, after reunification, we Germans began to take that air of freedom all around us for granted.

We began to think of threats to our European security as largely theoretical.

In Estonia, however, you couldn’t afford to take anything for granted.

Estonians know very well what occupation means. What it means to be treated as an integral part of the Soviet Union. For you, Prime Minister, dear Kaja, it’s part of your family history.

Your grandmother was deported to Siberia in 1949, together with your mother, a six-month-old baby at the time. The two shared the fate of 75,000 Estonians -- many of whom never returned to their home country.

We must not take our freedom for granted. Not when looking at the past, nor when looking at the here and now.

That’s what Estonians, that’s what you, Kaja, understood far earlier than many of us in the rest of Europe, including here in Germany. That freedom is as important as the air we breathe.

And it is a conviction that has stayed with you, from your first term as a member of the Estonian parliament some 13 years ago. In your time in the European Parliament, all the way through to becoming the leader of your party -- and acceding to the premiership in 2021.

Today, Russian attempts to undermine our European democracies are a well-known reality to all of us.

We see it in hacking attempts on the German Bundestag. In the flooding of our societies with fake news. In the bot armies that try to distort our online debates.

In the tapping of confidential phone calls, leaked by Russia in the hope of undermining our European cohesion.

Putin’s “shadow war”, as you have called it, is taking place at the very heart of our democracies.

But, for Estonia, that’s nothing new.

As early as 2007, Estonia faced what was then one of the largest cyber attacks in history, targeting half of Estonia’s news organisations, two of the country’s biggest banks – and almost all of Estonia’s government ministries. Your own party’s website, Kaja, was also affected.

And it just so happened that these attacks occurred just at a time when the people of Tallinn were planning to move a statue celebrating the Soviets’ liberation of the city, as they would call it, to a less prominent location.

Today Estonia is taking on a leading international role in digitisation and cyber defence. And you played a prominent role in that.

But that’s not just because of Estonian ingenuity in tech matters. It is because it’s necessary, as you have often said.

Because Estonia and its Prime Minister never took our European freedom for granted. You warned us not to take our European security for granted.

But, in Germany, we only realised very late that Russia’s revisionism was not going to be tamed by improving business ties.

And that there was nothing apolitical about a gas pipeline cementing Europe’s energy dependence on Russia.

We obviously cannot undo the mistakes of the past. But we can make sure that we don’t repeat them in the future.

My country, therefore, has launched the most momentous change in our security and defence policy since reunification. Our Zeitenwende.

We are strengthening the European pillar of NATO. We are permanently deploying a brigade to Lithuania, and we are protecting the Baltic skies together. Because we owe our life in freedom, in a reunited country at the heart of Europe, also to our allies and neighbours. We will be there for them now, just as you were there for us.

I reiterate what I said in Warsaw: the security of Eastern Europe, the security of the Baltics, is Germany’s security.

You, Kaja, could see how Russia was turning into what German analyst Sabine Fischer called a “chauvinist threat”.

That imperialism, nationalism and sexism are interconnected.

And it was no coincidence that the Kremlin effectively legalised domestic violence, prosecuting violent men only in cases where they landed a woman in hospital, a couple of years before the heavy oppression of its opposition.

You could see how the Russian regime was turning into a regime that was using ever more repressive means to quell internal dissent. And a regime that was also increasingly directing its aggressive behaviour to the outside. Telling, and again, no coincidence, a sovereign country like Ukraine “My beauty, like it or not, you have to put up with it.”

You warned us about them, as a woman. Because maybe many of the other leaders, male leaders, didn’t understand.

Given your geographical proximity to Russia, you had a front row seat to see the changes that were occurring in Russia.

And again, it’s no surprise that this country put you, Kaja Kallas, the Prime Minister of Estonia, on a so-called “wanted list” last month.

Because what autocrats across the world fear the most, what “triggers” them more than anything else, is plain-speaking, courageous leaders. Plain-speaking, courageous, female leaders.

Female leaders like you, Kaja.

A leader, a female leader, who doesn’t hide the fact that she is a woman.

Because she knows that being a woman is an undeniable power.

That being able to show empathy and compassion is not a weakness, but a strength.

A leader, a female leader, who has no illusions about what kind of actor Russia has become in the international arena.

A female leader who understands the connection between repressing women and legalising domestic violence, and an aggressive invasion.

A female leader who calmly reminds her European allies that any sign of weakness only spurs Russia’s aggression.

It is no coincidence that the Kremlin has made you a special target of its propaganda, of its fake news and of its lies.

And again, I would like to highlight something. If you look closely at the fake news and lies which the Prime Minister has to face, again, there’s no coincidence.

They are targeting her as a person, as a woman. And as a mother.

And I’m saying this because we need these female leaders. As women, but also as mothers.

Because if you look around politics, there are hardly any politicians who actually do have children who are not grown-ups yet. And those who do are almost always women leaders.

And therefore, this fake news is totally different than the fake news about others. Because it tries also to target the family.

We see it also in other autocratic regimes, like Iran, regimes that fight women, that want to turn back the clock and return both their countries and their women to a bygone era.

To them, the mere existence of female European leaders, like you, Kaja, is a provocation. Let alone a leader who is as effective and brave as you are.

I remember the first time we met at Stenbock House, in Tallinn, only a few weeks after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. You were bustling with energy, with positive energy, even given the horrible circumstances. We discussed escrow accounts for Russian gas revenues. How to reduce European energy dependence on Russia. The delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine.

And you told me in no uncertain terms that Germany would have to take a leading role if we wanted to stop the Russian aggression.

You have argued, and I will always remember, that Russian society is being held together only by fear. In our democracies, however, it is our freedom, as you said, that holds us together.

And fundamentally, I think your message is this: the power of freedom is much stronger than the power of fear.

And if you want to make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, we should not be afraid of our own power. That is what your call was at the Munich Security Conference this year.

Calm but incredibly precise.

Because it’s true: two years into this war of aggression, Russia shows no sign of relenting on its imperial war goals. Russia continues to cause unspeakable suffering in Ukraine. It continues to sacrifice the lives of its own people.

But the worst thing we could do is give in to fear or resignation.

Because this is not only about the defence of Ukraine. It’s about the defence of our own peace and freedom.

Because, and you said this two years ago, if our support to Ukraine decreases, the war comes closer to us.

This is what you’ve been telling us for the last two years, over and over again.

Because we live here in the middle, in the heart of Europe. But you, your country shares a 300-kilometre border with Russia. You know very well that it is not for you to decide whether your country will become a war party. But that it is only Putin’s decision.

What is at stake here is nothing less than the defence of our peace and freedom in Europe. Not just for today. But, like your father knew when he told you about your freedom some 36 years ago at the Brandenburg Gate, this is about the freedom of our children, about our common future on our common continent. That’s why we must not look at our support to Ukraine with a view to the next few months, or, worse, with a view to our own domestic election cycles.

We must look at Russia’s war of aggression with a view to the Europe we want our children to grow up in. Your children, my daughters, who still have their whole life in front of them.

That is why we will stand with our Ukrainian neighbours for as long as it takes. As you have said for the last two years, because it means standing up for our own joint security. For the freedom of our children.

And you, Kaja, have been a leading example of what that means. It also means strong and hard decisions in your own country. Because the budgetary challenges we are facing, we are all facing together in Europe.

Leading by example for Prime Minister Kaja Kallas means that Estonia is giving 3.6% of its GDP to support Ukraine.

More than everyone else in Europe, if you look at the GDP.

And this comes at a price, because obviously also in your country, there’s politics going on. And I really applaud you for that. Because you haven’t talked about it. You haven’t made a big fuss about it all over Europe. You just did it, calmly, but committedly.

You did that because of what you learned 36 years ago, because of what your country learned, decades ago.

Your warnings about Russia’s behaviour have been so astute that last year a German newspaper called you “Europe's Cassandra”.

Sometimes, if you think about it, you don’t know if it’s really a compliment. Naming women these kinds of words. I would say it is because of your strongness. But again, I wonder what the synonyms would be for men.

For me, this is a huge compliment, because through your strong commitment you instilled in us all that the power of freedom is stronger than the power of fear.

And it’s true -- like Cassandra, many of your predictions turned out to be correct. But there is one marked difference, at least, between the ancient Greek mythological figure and you: while Cassandra was cursed not to have her prediction believed by anyone, your warnings were finally heard by your European partners.

And you have made sure that the analysis was not only heard, but led to concrete actions. You rallied us to action, as European partners, driving our response to Russia’s aggression.

Today you’re receiving the Walther Rathenau Award for exactly this, for your clear analyses, but also for your persistence and your courage to act, even if the wind was blowing into your face.

You showed us that we must never take our air of freedom for granted. That it is in our hands to defend that air of freedom, if we stand together, and if we act with determination.

Because, as you said, the power of freedom is stronger than the power of fear.

Thank you, Prime Minister, thank you, Kaja. And congratulations.


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