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Flowers bloom from ashes

"‘Something wonderful has happened here. A miracle, really.” We read those words on a giant screen during a music festival marking 20 years of Estonian independence. They are an understatement.

During the last 800 years, this tiny nation on the shores of the Baltic Sea has been independent for only 40. Yet today, Estonia is an astounding success story. It has the highest growth rate in Europe (8.4 percent in the second quarter). It is producing some of the world’s most innovative technology. (Skype, the pioneer in Internet phone calls, started here.) Five years ago, it was named the freest country on Earth. (The United States ranked ninth.)

There is plenty of bad news in the world today. The global economic turmoil agitates everyone. (Even here, the unemployment rate has hit double digits.) Russia, Estonia’s neighbor to the east, has relapsed into authoritarian rule. Iraq and Afghanistan have yet to prove they can govern themselves, despite massive investments of American lives and dollars.

So it is worth celebrating the Estonian story, a story with a simple but stirring message: The yearning for human freedom is unquenchable. As a popular patriotic song puts it, “Flowers will bloom from my ashes.”

With revolution sweeping the Arab world, it is also worth examining what has happened here over the last 20 years. As the BBC suggested in a recent report, “The example of Estonia after 1991 may serve as an inspiration to show Arabic democracy activists just what is possible.”

The first lesson is the critical importance of education. Estonia has only 1.34 million people (roughly the population of San Antonio), and its territory, slightly smaller than New Hampshire and Vermont combined, makes it the 133rd largest country in the world. Estonia’s literacy rate is virtually 100 percent, however, a major factor in the country’s high-tech boom.

After Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5 billion last spring, Internet guru Marc Andreessen told The New York Times: “The secret sauce of Skype is its engineering team (based mainly here in Tallinn). These are world-class guys, every bit as good as anyone in Silicon Valley.”

To talent, add location. Estonia’s greatest asset has always been its greatest curse, a seaport strategically located on major east-west commercial routes. That made it a tempting target over the centuries for rich and ruthless enemies — Poles, Danes, Swedes and especially Germans and Russians. But once the Soviet Union collapsed, Estonia abandoned its state-controlled economy and was able to expand trade and tourism with Europe.

As parliamentarian Tunne Kelam told the BBC, Estonia’s prosperity is based on “opening up from the very beginning to the outside world, and opening up to the free market society.”

Estonia is still one-quarter Russian, but it is largely free from the tribal and religious rivalries that continue to fracture countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, there is a sense of shared values and common purpose here that lubricates the machinery of democracy.

In an interview with the BBC, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves stressed this point: “If you look at what has worked, it all seems to be pretty much the same: Rule of law is probably the important thing, which means that you are always guaranteed that you will have a fair and impartial hearing.”

Confidence in the “rule of law” is rooted in a civic culture that managed to survive under a series of repressive occupations. Even when Estonians did not control their own government or their economy, they came together to sing and dance and preserve their national identity.

This led to the “Singing Revolution,” spontaneous outbursts of nationalistic feeling that started in 1987. Then, in a massive gathering in September 1988, 300,000 people waved long-buried flags and sang long-forbidden anthems. Our guide took us to the site of that momentous event, a vast, open-air amphitheater she described as “sacred ground.”

On that September night, she recalled, the air was filled with a combustible mixture of dread and daring. Although everyone feared what the Soviets would do, the army never moved to disperse the crowd.

“We never slept,” she recalled. “We just kept singing, and nothing happened.” It took three more years, but the singing never really stopped, and the Soviets finally left.

We returned to that “sacred ground” for the anniversary concert, and as we entered, we were handed paper flags in the Estonian colors of blue, black and white. We did not understand the words of the songs, but we understood their spirit. And we waved our little flags to honor a miracle.

Email at Steve and Cokie Roberts at stevecokie@gmail.com.