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30 August, 2012

Estonia: the Importance of Being Re-Independent

20 August 1991 is the Estonian Re-Independence Day. Namely, on that day just a few minutes before midnight, the Supreme Council of Estonia declared Estonia independent and some days later the international recognitions began to pour in. The way Estonian independence was declared and what was written in the Supreme Council’s declaration continue to influence Estonian society today.

The big question remaining is why it took so long for the Supreme Council to declare Estonia independent, given that the coup in Moscow started on 19 August 1991. The answer may lie in the fact that by 19 August 1991 there were two centres of power in Estonia which both claimed to be legitimate – the Supreme Council and the Estonian Congress. The latter had been created in order to coordinate the action by which the Estonian citizenry was to be founded. This meant that every Estonian could obtain a card from the Congress to prove that they themselves or their parents or grandparents had been living in Estonia before 17 June 1940 (the day the Red Army entered Baltic state).

Thus, before independence was to be proclaimed, a settlement had to be reached between the Supreme Council and the Estonian Congress. The latter was afraid that the Supreme Council would declare Estonia independent from scratch, e.g. without mentioning the republic’s legal continuity. However, the situation was not comparable to the dual powers in Russia after the February Revolution in 1917 when the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet fought bitterly against each other. In Estonia, many members of the Supreme Council also belonged to the Estonian Congress, and no blood was shed.

All in all, the negotiations were held quickly (it has to be remembered that the final result of the coup was unknown and Tallinn was full of Soviet tanks) and finally the declaration included a reference to the legal continuity as well as to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations.

The word ‘re-establishment’ was not an accidental choice. It gave many countries a smoother option to recognize Estonian independence, Finland being notably one of the best examples. By way of a tradition from the Cold War era, Finland was trying to keep good relations with the Soviet Union until the very end, but the coup forced Finland to take sides. Still, a blunt recognition of Estonia’s independence would probably have evoked a stronger reaction from Moscow than the re-establishment of diplomatic relations.

Legal continuity also meant Estonia could reclaim assets the nation had before 17 June 1940 in foreign countries (mainly embassy buildings and gold). Estonia did not have to apply for membership in many international organisations (like the IOC) since its status there was simply renewed. All in all, the reference to legal continuity gave rise to many favours for Estonia in terms of foreign policy.

However, in terms of integration, legal continuity meant trouble. If Estonia had declared itself independent as a new country, she should have granted citizenship to all her inhabitants, not only those who had roots in Estonia before 17 June 1940. By 1991, about one third of the population was Russian-speaking and as subsequent events showed, they were left without any citizenship on the grounds that neither they nor their parents or grandparents lived in Estonia before 17 June 1940. A huge majority of them had arrived in Estonia during the Soviet era, perhaps the only exception being the Russian Old Believers who had settled in the country at the end of the 17th century.

The concept of legal continuity also brought along the opportunity to claim that the Soviet Union had occupied Estonia. Thus, immigration from other parts of the Union was against the Geneva Convention which forbids bringing in civilians under occupation. As a result, a majority of Russian-speaking people in Estonia found themselves illegal.

This controversy haunts Estonia even today, although many Russian speaking people have obtained Estonian citizenship. Accusations of being forcibly assimilated into Estonian society and of being discriminated against still continue to come from the Russian government. This is the price Estonia pays for adhering to the concept of legal continuity.

Last year, Estonia celebrated its 20th anniversary of re-independence. Some people are counting the years still to pass before Estonia will exceed the 22 years (1918-40) it was independent before the war. This will take place in 2014. By then, Estonia will have been independent for a total of 45 years.

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