The region was mostly inhabited by Russian speaking people who had arrived during the Soviet period. Needless to say that very few of them spoke Estonian or were part of the Estonian culture.
The referendum in Narva and Sillamae (cities in Northeastern Estonia) was initiated after the Estonian Parliament had passed the Aliens Act in the summer of 1993. The new Act declared all non-citizens aliens and regulated their life in Estonia. The Russian-speakers who were either stateless persons or citizens of the Russian Federation took it as a violation of their rights and felt their status in Narva and Sillamae threatened.
In addition, as could be expected, the Narva City Council and Sillamдe City Council were supported by Russia who lambasted the Estonian authorities on every occasion. Despite the fact that the Estonian Parliament amended the Aliens Act after consultations with international organisations and politicians the attacks continued. The Estonian press reported of the concentration of Russian troops just across the border. In 1993, there were about 7,000 Russian soldiers based in Estonia even though none of them were situated in the northeast region.
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By mid-July, it was clear that the Estonian government could not stop the referendum from happening. Many analysts pointed out that from the very beginning of the crisis, Estonian authorities never contemplated using force. Instead, the plan was to discredit the referendum and its results.
On July 16-17, 1993, the referendum was carried out both in Narva and Sillamдe. According to the city councils, more than of 50% of the inhabitants participated in the referendum. 98% of the votes in Sillamдe and 97.2% in Narva supported territorial autonomy. Nevertheless, international observers noted that less than 50% of Narva inhabitants cast their ballots. In addition, the Estonian press reported on the absence of a common electoral list which allowed one person to vote several times.
The Estonian Legal Chancellor had declared the referendum unconstitutional before it even took place. This created an aura of failure around the referendum from the beginning. At the same time, it should be noted that the Estonian government was not prepared to handle a crisis of this scale, meaning that many issues were left to improvisation and the skills of the political leaders.
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So the work on winning the hearts and minds of the Narva and Sillamдe people began. A representative of the Estonian government, Indrek Tarand, current MEP, had an opportunity to speak on the local radio. He explained to the people in Narva that the choice was actually very simple – either they secede from Estonia and switch back to the Russian rouble, or life continues with the Estonian kroon (Estonia’s freshly introduced stable currency) within the state of Estonia. The Narva people could thus compare their current situation to the daily life in Russia since across the Narva river lied Ivangorod where the rouble time still continued. The people in Narva decided that they would not want to go back to those times.
The final nail in the coffin of the referendum supporters was hammered on July 23 when Prime Minister Mart Laar visited Narva. He ignored the local political leaders and went to meet the local entrepreneurs in the Baltiyets factory. Laar’s bodyguards simply forced the main organiser of the referendum, Vladimir Chuikin, out of the meeting room. This was a language the local entrepreneurs understood well. The referendum failed. In autumn 1993, the first municipal elections were held also in Narva.
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The vigorous action of the Estonian leaders certainly saved the northeast region for Estonia, but international support also played its role. The Estonian government never tried to handle the issue bilaterally with Russia but took it to the international level immediately. This is definitely one of the reasons why the Abkhazia and Transnistria scenarios never materialized in Estonia. Nor were there any Russian troops.
After the referendum had failed, the West started to take Estonia more seriously since the government had succeeded in avoiding violence and had been able to show that Estonia was part of the solution. The calls for Russia to withdraw her forces from Estonia intensified after the referendum (the troops were finally withdrawn in 1994). Estonia remained a unitary state without any autonomous regions.