The Restoration of Estonian Independence

The Estonian struggle for independence and nationhood has been
not only political but also existential. Situated in a
strategic corner of Europe, vulnerable to the geopolitical
ambitions of their larger neighbors, Estonians have seen
statehood as their only guarantee of survival as a people.

Dominated since the 13th century by Danes, Germans, Poles,
Swedes and Russians, Estonia was established as a modern
nation-state on February 24, 1918. However, from the very
beginning Estonians had to fight for their independence
against the imperialist ambitions of both Germany and
Bolshevist Russia. The war of independence ended with the
signing of the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty, in which Soviet Russia
recognized Estonia's independence unconditionally and for all
time. This treaty remains the cornerstone of Estonia-Russian
relations today. In quick order, Estonia became a member of
the League of Nations and other international organizations;
the young nation developed a parliamentary democracy. Rapid
economic growth soon brought Estonia to a par with

Under the secret protocols of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact,
Estonia was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union on June
17, 1940. A reign of terror ensued: thousands of Estonians
were arrested and killed, while tens of thousands were
deported. The entire Estonian political and social
infrastructure was destroyed and replaced with Soviet

After Hitler's Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Estonia was
occupied by German armed forces from 1941 to 1944 when the
Soviets again took over.

For the next fifty years, the Soviet regime conducted a
campaign of demographic genocide to colonize Estonia, to
russify and assimilate the people. Even so, guerilla-style
resistance was not crushed until the early fifties. The
vehemently anti-Communist Estonian refugee community in the
West continued to demand an end to the Soviet occupation of
their homeland. The de jure continuity of the Republic of
Estonia was recognized by Western powers, who refused to view
occupied Estonia as being legally part of the Soviet Union.

Despite the all-pervasive Communist ideology which tried to
stamp out independent thinking and national identity,
Estonians continued to resist, shifting to the preservation of
cultural identity and family values. Traditional song
festivals, organized every five years, offered an opportunity
to express national unity. Various underground political
activists and groups appealed for the implementation of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Helsinki
Accords. In 1974 two groups addressed a memorandum to the UN,
asking for free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
In 1979, 45 persons from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia signed
the "Baltic Appeal" bringing attention to the illegal
incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union.

When, after the end of the more moderate Khruschev era, the
repression of human rights activists became harsher
in the seventies, many were arrested. Some ended up
serving consecutive long terms of imprisonment in the Soviet
gulag, while Tartu University professor Ju"ri Kukk met a
martyr's death in 1981. In the West, the Estonian diaspora
worked with human rights organizations to free the prisoners
of conscience, simultaneously keeping alive the idea of
Estonian independence. Despite rigid political control by the
Soviet authorities, contacts on various levels developed
between Estonia and the outside world. Western broadcasts such
as BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe gained a wide
listening audience. In the seventies and eighties a window to
the West was offered by Finnish TV. At the same time, the
Soviet authorities intensified their russification policies,
which in turn brought about unrest among students and then
intellectuals. By the early eighties, people were ready for a
change to take place.

Having reached a total economic and political impasse, the
Soviet leadership was forced to look for new ways to keep the
empire together. Despite the official aims of Mikhail
Gorbachev's restructuring of the Soviet political system
(perestroika), glasnost offered an opportunity for various
democratic forces to begin voicing protests against
environmental damage, forced industrialization, russification
and the repression of national culture.

In May of 1987, students and intellectuals initiated a
successful protest movement against Moscow's plans for large-
scale, ecologically disastrous mining of phosphorites in
northeastern Estonia. Out of this effort grew the Estonian
Greens Movement. The release of a number of political
prisoners from the Gulag beginning in the mid-eighties
resulted in a new level of activity. In the summer of 1987,
the MRP-AEG, a group demanding the disclosure and publication
of the secret protocols of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop (Nazi-
Soviet) Pact was formed. On the anniversary of this Pact,
August 23, 1987, the MRP-AEG leaders Tiit Madisson, Lagle
Parek, Heiki Ahonen, Arvo Pesti and others organized the first
open mass demonstration against Soviet rule in Estonia.
Despite threats from Moscow,this pivotal demonstration, which
coincided with similar ones in Riga and Vilnius, brought
several thousand people to Hirve Park in Tallinn. The
resulting world-wide publicity also reflected the supportive
role played by the Baltic refugee community in the West in
informing the media and in encouraging Western government
leaders to issue statements of support for the peaceful

The Estonian IME program for economic autonomy associated with
Edgar Savisaar, Mikk Titma, Siim Kallas and Tiit Made won
wide-spread acclaim in September 1987 as an attempt to solve
national problems by making the Estonian contribution to
progressive economic reforms in the Soviet Union.

The Estonian Heritage Society (Eesti Muinsuskaitse Selts),
organized near the end of 1987 by Trivimi Velliste, Mart Laar,
Illar Hallaste, et al and supported by a wide-spread network
of local clubs worked to revive Estonian national history and
cultural traditions as well as to combat Soviet propaganda by
restoring churches and monuments destroyed by the communist
regime. It served as an important conduit for the general
political mobilization of national sentiments. Under pressure
from the Heritage Society and similar unofficial
organizations, various national anniversaries began to be
celebrated publicly. At the same time, the Lutheran Church
became more active and other religious movements gained

The confrontation between the national-democratic opposition
and Soviet authorities culminated in February 1988. In Tartu,
the demonstration commemorating the Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920
was broken up by militia using clubs and dogs.
Nevertheless,just three weeks later, thousands gathered in
Tallinn to mark Estonian Independence Day. Realizing that the
use of force was no longer a viable option, the authorities
offered a dialogue, inviting the demonstrators into the
Estonia Concert Hall and other locations. But it was already
too late to turn the tide.

The events of February 24 marked the beginning of a new
approach by the authorities to control growing popular
moderates dissent by raising hopes that many grievances could
be diverge redressed within the framework of the existing
system. Partly due to maneuvering on the part of the
authorities, partly due to tactical differences supported by
different segments of society, two general approaches began to
develop which continue to be felt even today -one on hand a
radical, uncompromising stand, on the other, a moderate, step-
by-step path.

The independence movement became ever more organized in the
spring of 1988. April 1 -2, 1988, the representatives of the
creative unions, meeting in Joint Plenary Session, discussed
historical and current problems in Estonia. Topics receiving
the most attention were the right of Estonians to use their
mother tongue, the limiting of immigration, and the disclosure
of Soviet crimes. There was, in effect, an expression of no
confidence in the Estonian political leadership, which was
dominated by empire-minded thinking. The speeches and
statements of the Plenum circulated widely in Estonia. During
a live TV discussion on April 13, 1988,the idea to form an
Estonian movement in support of perestroika was first
mentioned. The initiators of the Popular Front of Estonia
(Eestimaa Rahvarinne) concept, Edgar Savisaar, Marju
Lauristin, Viktor Palm and others, at first advocated Estonian
sovereignty within a redefined Soviet confederation under a
new treaty of union. With the successive development of a
loose network of Popular Front support groups throughout the
country, the average Estonian found a way to express his
political sentiments without risking overtly dangerous
consequences via this legal mass movement.

Throughout spring 1988, the long forbidden blue-black-white
national colours began appearing at various public gatherings.
The days of national culture in Tartu, organized by the
Heritage Society in April can be viewed as a turning point in
this development.

The Communist authorities could no longer ignore growing
popular pressure. In June 1988 the devoutly pro-empire local
Communist Party chief Karl Vaino was replaced by the reform-
minded Soviet Ambassador to Nicaragua Vaino Va"ljas, the
former ideological secretary of the Estonian CP. Gorbachev
needed someone who could avert a Nagorno-Karabahk type of
bloodbath as well as prevent the tearing off of Estonia from
the Soviet Union. The removal of Vaino initially alleviated
the crisis. Before the Communist Party Congress in Moscow, the
Popular Front leaders staged a mass pro-perestroika rally in
Tallinn to send off delegates to the Communist Party Congress
in Moscow and to demonstrate confidence in the Estonian
Communist Party's new leadership. But the Party itself began
to fall apart quickly. Some of the Estonian members declared
that they were fighting for Estonian national interests and
tried to contribute to the solving of Estonian problems.
Others (mostly Russians) openly sided with imperial-minded
forces in Moscow. Yet others used the opportunity to leave the
Party without facing repressions. The disintegration of the
local Communist Party culminated in the spring of 1990.

As a counter-weight to the growing pro-independence movement,
leaders of the Soviet military-industrial complex organized an
Interfront movement to preserve the Soviet Empire and their
own privileged position. From the beginning, Interfront
assumed an aggressive attitude, to the extent of openly
calling upon the Russian-speaking population to take up arms.

June 1988 marked the beginning of what became known as the
"singing revolution". An annual Tallinn city festival turned
into several all-night songfests in which thousands of people
of all ages waved national flags and sang along to patriotic
rock songs composed by Alo Mattiesen and others. Throughout
the summer, MRP-AEG activists pushed for the release of well-
known political prisoners Mart Niklus and Enn Tarto by
organizing daily picketing in front of the Supreme Court
building. These vigils became a rallying point for building up
a more organized radical opposition. Already in January 1988,
14 individuals had signed a daring initiative to form a
political opposition party.
On August 20, the Estonian National Independence Party (ENIP)
was founded in the Pilistvere church by former political
prisoners, human rights activists, representatives of
independent youth groups and intellectuals. ENIP declared as
its objective the unconditional restoration of Estonian
independence based on the legal continuity of the pre-war
Republic of Estonia. Having no illusions about perestroika,
ENIP counted upon the imminent disintegration of the Soviet
Union. From this point on, the radical approach was
spearheaded by a political party.

The reformist direction also took on a more stable structure.
On October 1,1988, the Popular Front was formally established
with the participation of many well-known intellectuals,
artists and scientists. As a quasi-official movement, the
Popular Front had already displayed a high level of
organizational skills at home and had gained substantial media
attention abroad. Despite not having a formal membership, the
movement achieved great popularity among the Estonians, many
of whom formed local support groups. Among the largest events
its leaders staged was the rally "Estonian Song" (Eestimaa
Laul) held at the end of the "hot summer" on September 11,
1988. 300,000 people, or nearly a third of the Estonian
population, gathered at the traditional songfest site in
Tallinn. Here the head of the Heritage Society, Trivimi
Velliste, expressed for the first time in front of such a
large gathering the demand for the complete restoration of
Estonian independence. At the time, this demand seemed to many
to be too bold and even dangerous. The Popular Front did not
support the so-called radicals. Instead it set out to take
advantage of the opportunities offered by perestroika by
trying to democratize the existing Soviet institutions. On
November 16, 1988, the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR
adopted a declaration of national sovereignty under which
Estonian laws were to have precedence over the all-Union ones.
This sent a signal of rebellion throughout the structures of
the Soviet empire, bringing about the beginning of its
eventual collapse.

The progress achieved by the Estonian national movement in one
year was highlighted by the celebration of the national
independence day, February 24, 1989. In contrast to the events
of the previous year, this time Estonian official leaders
(Arnold Ru"u"tel, Indrek Toome) and Popular Front
representatives hoisted the blue-black-and-white national flag
to the tower of Toompea Castle, the ancient seat of Estonian

The same day, at the Estonia Concert Hall, the Estonian
Heritage Society, ENIP and the Estonian Christian-Democratic
League (founded at the end of 1988) launched the Citizens'
Committees Movement with the objective of registering all pre-
war citizens of the Republic of Estonia and their descendants
in order to convene a Congress of Estonia. The emphasis was
clearly put on the illegal nature of the Soviet system. People
were reminded that Estonia had never joined the Soviet Union
freely but was occupied and annexed by force. There was a
sudden awakening to the truth that hundreds of thousands
inhabitants of Estonia had not ceased to be citizens of
Estonian Republic which still existed de jure, recognized by
the majority of Western nations. Despite the hostility of the
official press and intimidation by Soviet Estonian
authorities, dozens of local citizens' committees were elected
by popular initiative all over the country. These quickly
organized into a nationwide structure and by the beginning of
1990, over 900,000 persons had registered themselves as
citizens of the Republic of Estonia. Many thousands of
Estonian refugees living abroad also registered, making this
the legal and political basis for reunifying a nation torn
apart by foreign occupation. Estonian refugee organizations
and the new independent movements at home had joined forces.

By late summer of 1989, different segments of the Estonian
population had been politically mobilized by different and
competing actors. Popular opinion was rapidly shifting to the
goal of full independence. The Popular Front's new proposal,
to declare the independence of Estonia, as a new, so-called
third republic whose citizens would be all those living there
at the moment, found little support, however. As the political
situation became more confrontational, strikes staged by
Interfront threatened to cripple the entire Estonian economy.

On August 23, the 50th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, a
600 kilometre human chain reaching from Tallinn to Vilnius
focused international attention on the aspirations of the
Baltic nations. Over a million people participated in what was
probably the largest demonstration organized in postwar
Europe. The Baltic question grew ever more international in
scope, becoming a topic of negotiations between Gorbachev and
the western world. Further impetus for Baltic developments was
provided by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and events
throughout Eastern Europe.

As 1989 drew to a close, the disintegration of the Estonian
Communist Party quietly started, culminating in the spring of
1990. Thus, at the beginning of 1990, the scene was set for
vigorous confirmation of the goals of national independence
and democracy but also for more dramatic rivalry between the
reformists operating through the established Soviet
institutions and radicals striving to set up an alternative
basis for the restoration of independent statehood.

Elections to the Congress of Estonia were held February 24,
with nearly 90 per cent of the eligible voters participating.
Twelve hundred candidates representing thirty political
parties and factions contested 464 seats in 110 multi-seat
districts. Thirty-five delegates were elected from the refugee
communities abroad. In addition, 35,000 applicants for
Estonian citizenship elected 43 representatives. The Popular
Front, which had decided at the eleventh hour to run
candidates for the Congress, won 25% of the seats.

The Congress of Estonia convened for the first time in Tallinn
March 11-12, 1990, passing 14 declarations and resolutions. A
70 member standing committee (Eesti Komitee) was elected with
Tunne Kelam as its chairman. Clearly, at that moment among
Estonians, the Congress of Estonia enjoyed a high degree of
legitimacy as a political institution. In fact, a number of
delegates even called for the proclamation of the restoration
of the Republic of Estonia on the basis of legal continuity as
well as the transfer of all power to the Congress of Estonia
then and there. The majority, however, held such a move to be
unrealistic or premature.

Just as the Congress of Estonia convened for the first time,
the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet declared the restoration of
independence of Lithuania. This act had the added effect of
increasing the institutional prestige of the Estonian Supreme
Soviet which was scheduled to have its elections a week later.
While more nearly democratic than previous such elections,
members of ENIP and some other pro-independence groups did not
participate in what they considered still Soviet, not
Estonian, elections.

Candidates endorsed by the Peoples' Front won the largest bloc
of seats in the Supreme Soviet. Some pro-independence
candidates were elected and formed a national-democratic
opposition. The leader of the Popular Front, Edgar Savisaar,
became Chairman of the Council of Ministers. U"lo Nugis,
formerly head of the Union of Work Collectives, became Speaker
of the Supreme Soviet. A sizable percentage of the seats were
won by empire-minded supporters of Interfront because the
elections were carried out under Soviet laws and procedures
with the participation of all residents of Estonia including
the Soviet occupation troops.

When it first convened on March 30, 1990, the Estonian Supreme
Soviet decided to begin to restore the independence of
Estonia, but not to follow the Lithuanian model of proclaiming
independence. A resolution, "On the State Status of Estonia,"
passed the same day proclaimed a period of transition from
unlawful Soviet rule "to terminate with the formation of
constitutional organs of state power." During the first
several days of the session, the Supreme Soviet passed several
resolutions in the spirit of cooperation with the Congress of
Estonia. It recognized the Congress of Estonia as "the
restorer of the state power of the Republic of Estonia" and
declared willingness to cooperate in restoring the Republic of
Estonia on the basis of continuity.

However, due to differing constituencies, ambitions and goals,
the relationship between the Supreme Soviet and the Congress
of Estonia became strained almost immediately and remained so
throughout the transition period. Nevertheless, the political
and moral pressure generated by the Congress had a marked
effect on the decisions passed by the Supreme Soviet as well
as on public opinion. As shown by various polls as well as the
special referendum of March 1991, the majority of Estonians
came to favor full independence, not a renewed status within
the Soviet Union. But the political struggle between those
favoring restoration of Estonian independence on the basis of
legal and historic continuity and those advocating the
declaration of a new independent Estonia lasted until August

Interfront became increasingly active, organizing a
demonstration on Toompea May 15 which turned violent with an
attempt to take over the seat of government and tear down the
national flag. Responding to the Prime Minister's radio appeal
for help, hundreds of Estonians rushed to the scene and forced
the demonstrators to disband peacefully, averting a communist

1990 was marked by increasing hostility and confrontation
between the Baltic States and Moscow. The economic blockade
imposed by the central authorities caused great hardship for

The political crisis in the Baltics culminated in January
1991. Bloody crackdowns by Soviet authorities in Lithuania and
Latvia shocked the world and stimulated the Estonian leaders
who invited Russian leader Boris Yeltsin to Estonia. In an
atmosphere made increasingly tense by the economic blockade
and Interfront provocations, the signing of the "Treaty on the
Federal Socialist Republic and the republic of Estonia" was
viewed as a form of protection.

Throughout the period, the Baltic diaspora actively and
intensively lobbied and demonstrated for the restoration of
Baltic independence and greater support from western

Dramatic developments in the Soviet Union itself resulted in
the three Baltic countries finally regaining their
independence. The attempted coup of August 19, 1991, toppled
Gorbachev from power and threatened the Baltics with military
intervention and removal of their elected officials. At this
fateful moment, various political forces in Estonia united to
defend independence. The Chairmen of the Estonian Supreme
Soviet and the Congress of Estonia issued a joint appeal to
the Estonian people and leaders of both parliamentary-type
bodies met and worked out a consensus on national

Thus, on August 20, 1991, Estonia did not issue a declaration
of independence but a decision on the reestablishment of
independence on the basis of historical continuity of
statehood. The compromise agreement of August 1991 also called
for a Constitutional Assembly (Pohiseaduse Assamblee) to be
formed on the basis of parity between the Supreme Soviet and
the Congress of Estonia. Western nations began reinstating
diplomatic ties with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Iceland
led the way (August 22), Russia and Hungary followed (August
24). On September 6, 1991, the Soviet Union recognized the
independence of all three Baltic States. There followed a
virtual avalanche of nations recognizing or reinstating
diplomatic ties with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In
September, these three former members of the League of Nations
became members of the United Nations.

With these historic events, Estonian independence could be
considered restored. Now began the painstaking work of
ensuring and securing this fragile independence and
eliminating the Soviet legacy in Estonia by restoring
statehood and the rule of law, and building up legal state
structures. The most significant mileposts were: leaving the
ruble zone through monetary reform (June 20, 1992), the
approval of a democratic new constitution by national
referendum (June 28, 1992), and the carrying out of the first
fully free and democratic national parliamentary and
presidential elections (September 20, 1992) since the Soviet

For further information on these and other topics, please see
other issues of Estonia in Facts.

September 1993

Printed in Estonia
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