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Estonia Table of Contents


The Pursuit of Independence, 1985-91

The dawning of glasnost (see Glossary) and perestroika (see Glossary) in the Soviet Union initiated a period of liberalization from which the dying superpower would never recover. Estonia seized on this opportunity in 1987, beginning with public protests against a phosphorus-mining project proposed by the central government that would have seriously damaged the country's environment. Pressure for economic reform became acute later in the year when a group of four Estonian liberals put forth a plan for economic autonomy for the republic. In 1988 Estonia's "singing revolution" took off, energized by the removal of Karl Vaino as Estonian Communist Party chief in June and his replacement by a native son, Vaino Väljas. In April the Estonian Popular Front was founded as the capstone to a summer of political activity unparalleled since 1940. This mobilization proved effective in November when Estonia opposed attempts by Gorbachev to strengthen central authority through changes in the Soviet Union's constitution. In an act of defiance, the Estonian parliament, then known as the Supreme Soviet, declared the republic's right to sovereignty on November 16. It also called for a new union treaty to be drawn up to govern the Soviet state.

By the spring of 1989, Estonia had thrown down the gauntlets of political sovereignty and economic autonomy. A two-year effort to force their acceptance by Moscow followed. On the political front, Estonia's strongest strategy was to invoke history. At the Soviet Union's first Congress of People's Deputies (see Glossary) in Moscow, in 1989, Estonian and other Baltic deputies battled with Gorbachev to have the Soviet Union reveal the true story of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the pact in August. Just days before the anniversary, a commission charged with studying the pact concluded that secret protocols dividing up Poland and the Baltic states had indeed existed. Armed with this finding, Estonia literally linked up with its Baltic neighbors on August 23 to form a 600-kilometer human chain from Tallinn to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, to draw worldwide attention to the anniversary of the pact and to their cause. An estimated 2 million Baltic residents participated in the show of unity, but the action also elicited a harsh rebuke from Moscow several days later. Tensions quickly mounted in Estonia, and the Estonian Popular Front decided to cancel a major song festival and rally planned for early September. In early August, Estonian nationalists had already been shaken by their first confrontation with Soviet loyalists. Members of the International Movement of Workers in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (Intermovement), primarily made up of ethnic Russians, had staged strikes in Tallinn and northeastern Estonia protesting a set of new electoral rules and a new language law requiring all service workers to speak both Estonian and Russian. Many Russians in Estonia, fearful of growing Estonian national feeling and of losing their privileges, looked to Moscow for help. But direct intervention would not come.

Throughout the fall, independence sentiment continued to mount. In October the Estonian Popular Front issued a campaign platform for upcoming municipal elections in which it publicly endorsed full independence. Meanwhile, more radical groups had begun organizing their own campaign to restore independence, completely bypassing the Soviet system. These groups, known as Estonian Citizens Committees, maintained that because their country had been illegally occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union and because the prewar republic still retained international recognition, it could not legitimate Soviet authority by negotiating "secession." Rather, Estonia had to insist on the continuing legal authority of the prewar republic as the only sure way to ward off Soviet attempts to keep it in the union. By invoking international law, Estonia could also enlist Western support and protection at a time when the Soviet Union needed good relations with the West to facilitate its own reforms. By the fall of 1989, it was clear that this argument and strategy would become essential to the independence movement and, indeed, to politics thereafter.

To raise popular awareness of the independence issue, the Estonian Citizens Committees mounted a year-long campaign to register all citizens of the prewar republic and their descendants. Of an estimated 1 million such citizens, the grassroots movement succeeded in registering about 700,000. It was this electorate that, according to the radical committees, possessed the sole right to decide the future of Soviet-occupied Estonia--not the Soviet-era Supreme Soviet, its government, or even the half-million Soviet-era immigrants to Estonia and their descendants, whom the committees claimed had taken up residence under the terms of the Soviet occupation and who would later be denied automatic citizenship. Rather, the committees asserted the need to elect a new representative body to lead the independence struggle and the restoration of the prewar republic. In February 1990, they organized nationwide elections for a Congress of Estonia, which held its first session the following month.

Although their campaign enabled the citizens committees and the Congress to gain a fair amount of popular support, most Estonians were not totally willing to forsake the Supreme Soviet because it, too, was up for election in March 1990. The more moderate Estonian Popular Front favored the Supreme Soviet as a more realistic path to independence. The Estonian Popular Front campaigned heavily in March and won about forty of the 101 seats. The Supreme Soviet elections also allowed all residents of Estonia to vote, including Soviet-era immigrants and their descendants. These were mostly Russians who, still led primarily by Estonian Communist Party functionaries, finally elected a total of twenty-seven pro-Soviet deputies. Although the two-thirds Estonian majority consequently was slim, it was enough for the Supreme Soviet to declare at its first full session, on March 30, the country's official intention to reestablish its independence.

Unlike Lithuania's declaration of independence, Estonia's declaration was not an outright break with the Soviet Union. Rather, it was an attempt to find a compromise between the radical Congress of Estonia and moderate Estonian Popular Front positions. Still, the message of asserting independence from Moscow was the same. The Kremlin's reaction was subdued; no economic sanctions were imposed on Estonia. Neither, however, was any recognition accorded Estonia's dec-laration, nor were any serious attempts made to begin talks with the new government in Tallinn. In the meantime, therefore, Estonia attempted to shore up its stance by finding new allies and initiating independent economic policies. In May 1990, the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania met formally in Tallinn to coordinate their strategy. In July representatives of the three countries met for the first time with Boris N. Yeltsin, who had just been elected chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet. Estonian politicians and government officials traveled in Western Europe and the United States to renew Western contacts.

Domestically, in the fall of 1990 the Estonian government, led by Estonian Popular Front leader Edgar Savisaar, began a series of moves to assert the republic's economic independence and begin market reforms. Financial contributions to the all-union budget were stopped, and wide-ranging price reform was initiated. Plans for a separate currency, begun in 1989, continued to be worked on. In October the government dispatched militia forces to patrol the republic's border with Russia and to control the movement of goods; control over western gateways remained under Soviet control.

Moscow's bloody military assault on civilians in Vilnius and Riga in January 1991 sent shock waves through Estonia as well. Although there were no violent incidents in Estonia, Soviet loyalists staged a noisy demonstration in Tallinn, and the government installed huge boulders in front of the parliament building for protection. On January 12, Tallinn was the site of a hastily organized summit meeting between the Baltic leaders and Yeltsin, who supported the sovereignty of the three republics against Gorbachev. Yeltsin and Estonian parliament chairman Arnold Rüütel signed a bilateral treaty recognizing the sovereignty of each other's republic. When, later in the month, Gorbachev announced a nationwide referendum on the issue of preserving the Soviet Union, Estonia decided to preempt the ballot with a referendum of its own on independence. The March 3 Estonian poll showed 78 percent in favor of independence and indicated significant support for independence among Russian residents--as much as 30 percent. Most Estonians boycotted the Soviet referendum held two weeks later. With public opinion clearly favoring independence, Gorbachev agreed to official talks with Estonia beginning on March 28. The talks continued through August and the Moscow coup, but no progress was made. Estonia refused to join negotiations for a new union treaty, while the Kremlin avoided any specifics on independence. The talks were further upset by several hit-and-run attacks on Estonia's border outposts during the summer of 1991. These were generally attributed to units of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs Special Forces Detachment (Otryad militsii osobogo naznacheniya--OMON), commonly known as the Black Berets, over which Gorbachev apparently had lost control.

Independence Reclaimed, August 1991-October 1992

On the night of August 19, 1991, Estonia was caught up in the uncertainty generated by the attempted coup in Moscow. A column of Soviet light tanks and troop carriers had already started to move on Tallinn as the commander of Soviet forces in the Baltics announced his support of the coup. Fearing a total crackdown by the Soviet army, the Estonian parliament met in emergency session on August 20. At 11:00 P.M., the Supreme Council, as the legislature was now known, passed a final resolution declaring full independence and requesting de facto international recognition. Volunteers were mustered to defend key government buildings and communications centers; there was no bloodshed, however. As Heinz Valk, an artist and a member of parliament, later declared, "The coup in Moscow [gave] us a chance comparable to that in 1918."

Once the coup finally collapsed, Estonia resumed its efforts to gain international recognition and otherwise reestablish itself as an independent state. Iceland was the first to acknowledge Estonian independence, on August 22; Yeltsin's Russia was quick to follow, on August 24. The United States hesitated until September 2. The Soviet Union recognized Estonia on September 6. The process of state building also began soon after the coup. In contrast to Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia, in its August 20 independence declaration, took the additional step of convening a constitutional assembly immediately to draft a new basic law for the country. The assembly drew thirty members each from the Supreme Council and the Congress of Estonia, thus defusing rivalries between the two organizations. In mid-October the assembly settled on a working draft focused on a generally parliamentary form of government. Deliberations then slowed as the country got caught up in debates over citizenship.

In Estonia's fight to regain independence, the overall strategy of asserting the country's legal continuity as a state clearly had paid off. Yet, in terms of offering a path for the future, this strategy had many complications. One of these was the question of what to do with the 500,000 mostly Russian, Soviet-era immigrants living in Estonia. In 1990 the Congress of Estonia had been the first representative body to lay down the principle that because these people had settled in Estonia under Soviet rule, they were not automatically citizens of the legally restored Estonian state. Rather, under independence they would have to be "naturalized" on the basis of specific language and residency criteria. This position was also argued as a means of better integrating the mostly Russian noncitizen population, the majority of whom did not speak Estonian. In mid-1991, as the independence struggle seemed to languish, the Estonian government, led by Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar, showed signs of readiness to compromise on the citizenship issue in order to gain more local Russian support. However, after the failed August coup and the immediate onset of full independence, the Congress and other radical groups were emboldened to insist on the principle of restricted citizenship. Thus, the Supreme Council decided on November 11, 1991, to require the naturalization of all Soviet-era immigrants to Estonia while automatically renewing the citizenship of all prewar citizens and their descendants. In February 1992, the parliament set naturalization terms, which included a two-year residency requirement, the ability to speak conversational Estonian, and a one-year waiting period after applying.

Although these terms were relatively mild, the implications in Estonia's particular situation remained less than clear. Most Soviet-era immigrants had already fulfilled the residency requirement, but at best only 20 percent were prepared to meet the language requirement. Most Russians living in Estonia had not bothered to learn the rudiments of the national language, forcing Estonians to speak Russian to them instead. It would take time for many to begin learning. In any case, the naturalization procedures would delay nationalization for at least the one-year waiting period. This outcome had serious implications because the resident Russians would then be ineligible to vote in the September 1992 elections for a new parliament. As the only consolation to noncitizens, the Constitu-tional Assembly later accorded them the right to vote in local elections under the terms of the new constitution.

The citizenship issue generally heightened tensions between Estonians and Russians. The more nationalistic Estonian deputies in parliament began to accuse the moderate government of Savisaar of foot-dragging. In January 1992, in the midst of a severe economic crisis and problems securing heating oil, Savisaar asked parliament for emergency powers. When the vote on emergency powers was taken on January 16, Savisaar won, thanks only to the votes of several Russian deputies. This narrow margin revealed the extent of Savisaar's unpopularity among the Estonian deputies, and a week later he resigned. Savisaar's transportation minister, Tiit Vähi, was charged with forming a new government, which was billed as one of technocrats and caretakers in advance of parliamentary elections in the fall.

As Vähi formed his regime, several major issues remained outstanding. The new prime minister's first task was to oversee the passage of the naturalization requirements for citizenship, which occurred in late February. Then, the language and residency requirements were put into effect. Thereafter, the draft constitution drawn up by the Constitutional Assembly neared completion and required approval by popular referendum. This referendum was set for June 28, 1992, with only citizens allowed to participate. Alongside the proposed constitution, a second question asked the people whether to allow the earliest applicants for citizenship to vote on an exceptional basis in the upcoming nationwide elections. Because these applicants numbered just over 5,000, the gesture would be largely symbolic. However, a strong campaign by nationalist Estonian parties led to the defeat of the measure, 53 percent to 46 percent. The constitution was passed by a 91 percent majority.

On June 20, one week before the referendum, the Vähi government completed its third remaining task: currency reform. On that day, Estonian residents proudly cashed in their old, worn Russian rubles for crisp, new Estonian kroons (for value of the kroon--see Glossary). The kroon, pegged to the stable deutsche mark, would soon bring inflation tumbling down and serve as the basis for a new economy (see Economy, this ch.).

With the constitution approved and a new state structure in place, the campaign began for Estonia's first post-Soviet elections. The election of a new legislature, the Riigikogu, on September 20 would mark the full restoration of the legal Republic of Estonia. On October 5, 1992, in its first session, the Riigikogu, which replaced the transitional Supreme Council, issued a declaration establishing its legal continuity with the prewar republic and declaring an official end to the transition to independence announced two-and-one-half years earlier.

Data as of January 1995

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