Renewed: 24.12.2016, 14:10

08 December 2016 12:21

Estonia’s Most Influential 2016: Riho Terras

Article appeared in Eesti Päevaleht; December 8, 2016

By Otti Eylandt

In the annual ranking of Estonia´s most influential people, Estonian daily newspaper Eesti Päevaleht selected LTG Riho Terras as the second most influential Servant of the State in 2016 in Estonia.

Riho Terras: Declaration of Independence was to all peoples of Estonia and we should return to that point

  • Terras can say with relief that Estonia’s defence capacity has never been stronger than it is now.
  • The evil committed by communism and occupation has remained in the collective memory of Estonians and is impossible to underestimate.
  • “If I am interviewed on a weekly basis, it can create tension and a sense that perhaps something is wrong.”

As the most influential man of Estonia´s defence and security, the Commander of Estonian Defence Forces Riho Terras admits that we should let go of the evil created by occupation and do our best to make everyone who lives in Estonia feel that they are the people of Estonia.

When asked how he sees his own role in serving the state, the high-ranking lieutenant general is not prone to praising himself or to groundless bragging. “I have served the state since 1991 and have tried to do my best in every position I have held,” is the short and honest answer of the commander.

At the same time, Terras admits, people have lately started to disparage the state excessively – as if the state and its officials were the cause of all evil. “State officials are continuously being unfairly scolded. I believe that most state officials work daily to make the state function better. Be it good or bad but this is our state and we should take better care of it,” Terras admits.

In a time when we talk about changed security environment and Estonia contributes more money than ever to its national defence, Terras can say with relief that Estonia’s defence capacity has never been stronger than it is now. “Never before have we had so many strong allies as we have now. Estonia’s history has proved that it is hard to protect this country without allies but with allies it has been possible.”

The present time has generated a lot of predictions of a possible war. A whole regiment’s worth of foreign journalists have flocked to the Friendship Bridge in Narva to ask locals if this could be the launching pad of World War III.

Before going and demanding an explanation from those international journalists, we should have that dialogue among ourselves, Terras believes. “I think we should do all we can to ensure that the people who live in Estonia, including Russian-speakers, would be our people and that they would also identify as the people of Estonia. Not necessarily as Estonians but certainly as the people of Estonia. So that they would work for this country and love it while maintaining their ethnicity, beliefs and religious specificities,” he says. But this requires more dialogue and clarification, he adds.


You can’t make friends by force

For their part, the Estonian Defence Forces have made a few initiatives. One example was taking the parade to Narva. “Now we made a local boy from Narva the instructor of Alutaguse Defence League based in Narva. His aim is to show the locals that the Defence League is a part of society, a part of the town of Narva and its people,” Terras says. “Dialogue is important, you can’t make friends by force.”

But how to achieve this when Estonia’s narrative is largely based on ethnicity? Terras does not see it quite that way. “The roots of Estonian statehood lie in the first days of our independence, in our War of Independence, where this kind of antagonism didn’t exist. I remember transcribing Estonia’s Declaration of Independence by hand as a child and it said, “Declaration to all peoples of Estonia“. We should return to that starting point and not define ourselves only by language and culture, which are dear to us, but also by the fact that many different ethnicities have always co-existed in Estonia,“ Terras says.

National embitterment is inevitably fuelled by the burden of our history. The evil committed by communism and occupation has remained in the collective memory of Estonians and is impossible to underestimate. Terras finds that we should renounce this evil. “Those wounds are starting to heal and tearing them open again is not a wise thing to do. It is important to assure to ourselves that everything is better without conflict,” says Kohtla-Järve-born Terras. Born and raised in Ida-Virumaa, he knows local circumstances well.

There is one difficult question that many Estonians may come across in the Defence Forces: How to explain to Russian-speaking young men who is the enemy? To explain this Terras recalls the film “December Heat” [a film by Artur Talvik] where the same discussion was held between a Russian-speaking Estonian soldier and an Estonian-speaking officer. “Enemy is the one who tries to undermine our democratic establishment. This trait is not based on ethnicity but on actual attempts to undermine the independent decisions of our state,” he admits.

In the last couple of years when the presence of allies in Estonia has increased and more attention has been paid to drills and protection of society, elderly people who still remember the war have started to worry.

The Commander of the Defence Forces marks that his concern is for the opposite: there are increasingly fewer people who still remember the war, especially among decision-makers. “One of the grounds from which extremist movements are surfacing in Europe is the fact that people have forgotten the horrors of the Second World War,” he admits. “They play with nationalist ideas, set against one another and this can cause conflicts.”

Terras understands that the Defence Forces need to explain to the public what and how much they are doing. “We are not preparing for war but for keeping the peace. We must realise that Russia is watching for every opportunity and, if they feel that we and our allies are not prepared to defend this country, then they will use this opportunity.”


What´s positive?

“Estonia is seen in the world as an innovative small country. Our image in the world is better than we might think,” Terras says. “I happened to attend a lecture by a foreign ambassador who didn’t know that I was in the audience. He praised Estonia in superlatives and compared us to his huge homeland. We don’t acknowledge how good we are in certain things. Take the IT field or our tax collecting system, for example.”

“We could take advantage of that and make it profitable for Estonian people – this is the step that we are still missing. Of course I am delighted that our country is held in very high regard both by the EU and by NATO. Keeping it that way is hard and we must make an effort for this sake.”

Headquarters of the Estonian Defence Forces, 717 1900, mil[at], Juhkentali 58, EE15007, Tallinn, Estonia.

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