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Estonia: Analysis From Washington -- The Passing Of A Giant

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 14 September 1998 (RFE/RL) --Estonian Ambassador Ernst Jaakson will be buried in New York today in a ceremony certain to be like the man himself: modest, dignified, and symbolic of issues larger than any individual.

Following his death on September 5, Mr. Jaakson -- as he was universally known -- garnered tributes from around the world centering on his remarkable diplomatic career, one extending from 1919 until his death.

That record of unbroken service -- first as a translator for Estonia's ambassador in Riga, then as an Estonian consul in the U.S. before and during the Soviet occupation, and finally as Estonian ambassador to Washington and the United Nations -- will never be equaled.

But in many ways, Mr. Jaakson's length of service -- some 79 years -- is far less significant than the way in which he filled it.

A man of genuine modesty, Mr. Jaakson never confused himself with the cause he represented and he never placed his own interests above those of his country.

Indeed, when he published his memoirs a few years ago, many readers were disappointed that he had included so few details about himself, focusing instead on the great events through which he lived.

But as Mr. Jaakson would have told them, that was precisely the point of his life. He represented Estonia when it was a small country far away from the United States.

He represented it during the long years when it was occupied by the Soviet Union and when few thought it would ever be free again. And Mr. Jaakson lived to represent it once Estonia recovered its independence in 1991.

Consequently, for many in both Estonia and the West, Mr. Jaakson to an important degree was Estonia precisely because he invariably subordinated himself to its cause.

A man of enormous dignity, Mr. Jaakson performed all the duties he was given with integrity, good manners, and charm.

During the long years of the Soviet occupation when Baltic representatives in the West were often the object of curiosity or humorous dismissal, Mr. Jaakson commanded respect not preemptorily but by his very nature.

He behaved with such calm personal authority that even those inclined to dismiss the Baltic cause often went away from meetings with him convinced that indeed Estonia and her Baltic neighbors would be free again.

And when Estonia and her neighbors were working together to recover their independence, Mr. Jaakson's personal authority was such that presidents, prime ministers, and secretaries of state always listened to him.

Compared to his two Baltic colleagues in Washington, Mr. Jaakson said relatively little in public or private. But when he spoke, often after all the others, his interlocutors knew that they had heard the voice of someone special.

Mr. Jaakson helped guide the Estonian people and their leaders toward regaining independence and he helped to provide them, always gently but firmly, in learning how to interact with the rest of the world once they achieved it.

Finally, Mr. Jaakson was a symbol. Throughout his career and especially during the darkest days of Soviet occupation, he was called Mr. Estonia.

More recently, as Estonia moved to recover its independence, many referred to him as "the conscience of Estonia," the man who kept the Estonian dream alive at a time when so many gave up.

Indeed and in recognition of this special status, he is the only Estonian official other than the pre-war presidents to have a bust in the Estonian presidential palace at Kadriorg.

And most recently, he has been characterized as the "legendary" diplomat because of his unparalleled length of service.

But Mr. Jaakson was more than that.

He was a symbol of another age, a time when personal integrity was paramount, when self-sacrifice to a greater cause was the ideal, and when diplomats made their mark by long years of work rather than by flashy media plays.

As all those who knew him will confirm, Mr. Jaakson was a giant not only among diplomats or among Estonians. He was a giant among human beings.

Those who knew him were privileged; they know how rare a man Mr. Jaakson was.