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25 June, 2012  ▪  Erkki Bahovski

Estonia's The New Constitution: A Normal Life Begins

The new Constitution brought Estonia back to the Western Hemisphere and constituted the backbone around which life in the new Republic would concentrate.

An event equal in importance to currency reform in Estonia was the nation's adoption of its new Constitution in 1992. On 28 June 1992, 407,867 out of 446,708 citizens eligible to vote voted for the document while 36,147 voted against it.

Despite of the large majority in favour, the basic question remains why was it so crucial to adopt the new Constitution? To be more exact, some politicians and intellectuals even proposed that Estonia could live without any new constitution and argued that only minor corrections to the Soviet Constitution would be necessary.

In addition, what the large majority of people in the former Soviet Union did not know, and with which the current international community is likewise unfamiliar, is the fact that Estonia faced serious problems with its pre-war Constitutions and had bitter experience with referenda on constitutions in the 1930s.

The Constitution of 1920 yielded too much power to the parliament and Estonia was left without a strong head of state. Consequently, attempts to introduce a stronger head of state in the 1930s initially failed and when the last draft of the Constitution, drawn up by the right-wing movement, finally succeeded via a referendum, the State Elder (Estonia then had no president) Konstantin Päts staged a coup d’état in 1934 and established himself as President later through the Constitution of 1938.

In light of this history, it is no wonder that some Estonian politicians were cautious about holding a referendum on the Constitution. However, pragmatic minds won and instead of faltering backward, Estonians looked forward into the future.

Just as currency reform had released Estonia from the ex-Soviet economic space, the new Constitution made a break with the Soviet past and the Soviet legal order.

After the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of the new democracies, it seemed that the main recipe for bolstering democracy was to hold free and fair elections which were to prove the strength of the state democracy. Only later did it become very clear that the rule of law proved an even more decisive factor in determining whether a country had really reached the level necessary for being called a democracy.

The adoption of the new Constitution in 1992 definitely laid the foundation for the rule of law in Estonia. The Constitution clearly separated the executive, legislative and judicial powers ensuring the independence of the courts. And this situation has continued to this day – the Estonian court system enjoys full independence and it is not a tool in the hands of the politicians. The best example of this comes perhaps from 2009 when the court dropped the charges against four Russian-speaking politicians accused of organising the so-called Bronze Night Riots which broke out after the government decided to remove the Soviet War Memorial from downtown Tallinn.

The Constitution of 1992 also re-introduced the name and form of the pre-war parliament, the Riigikogu, with 101 members, and the post of the President, which was subsequently filled by Lennart Meri. The abolition of the Soviet-era Supreme Council was inevitable since Estonia followed the concept of legal continuity from the pre-war Republic and thus Soviet institutions were to go.

Adopting the Constitution was also extremely important in terms of reliability. Tiny Estonia had to prove to the whole world that it was able to function as a normal state. Moreover, Russia considered Estonia too weak to be fully independent and the Constitution together with non-Soviet institutions gave the best opportunity to show this claim to be wrong. The sovereignty of a state is seen to depend on many factors like the ability to control its own territory, have its own money and pass its own laws. Having a Constitution is also a serious factor. Therefore the option to continue with a modified Soviet Constitution or to live without any Constitution, like the United Kingdom, was disregarded.

The Constitution has faced new challenges ever since. The first big challenge came in 2003 when Estonia had a referendum on the EU and amendments to the Constitution. Joining the EU posed a very serious question about Estonia’s sovereignty and European law. The Constitution was amended to allow Estonia to join the EU, but also left open the opportunity to begin consultations if the state’s sovereignty was threatened.

The latest challenge has come with developments in the euro-zone. The EU’s increasing control over its member states’ budgets and the creation of the European Stability Mechanism have sparked a debate in Estonia whether the Constitution should be changed in order to allow Estonia to be part of the ESM or does the Constitution already give the country's leaders the right to hand over more power to Brussels. As proceedings in Estonia and in the EU are still ongoing, it is difficult to say what the final outcome for the Constitution will be.

Still, overall it is clear that the Constitution brought Estonia back to the Western Hemisphere and constituted the backbone around which life in the new Republic would concentrate. There is no doubt that without the Constitution, Estonia would be much worse off.

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