Republic of Estonia 1918 -200890 years of Legal Independence, Only 39 Years of Freedom and Democracy

Posted in Europe | 26-Feb-08 | Author: Tunne Kelam

The Estonian Republic was proclaimed on February 24, 1918. This historic act of self-determination was immediately followed by the occupation of the German Army, then by the invasion of Communist Russia in November 1918. Lenin viewed the independence of the Baltic States as an obstacle to spreading his extremist brand of revolution to Germany and other countries of Europe. Despite the heavy odds against them, the members of the Estonian Government of National Unity succeeded in organising armed resistance and finally winning the War of Independence. Grateful Estonians still recall the help of the British Navy and Finnish volunteers. Soviet Russia recognized the independence of the Estonian Republic “unconditionally and for all times” under the Tartu Peace Treaty signed on February 2, 1920. Estonia became a member of the League of Nations in 1922.

Pursuant to the Hitler-Stalin Pact on August 23. 1939, the Soviet Union moved its troops and military bases into Estonia, disbanded the legal Government and replaced it with a Communist puppet regime and then annexed Estonia by force in August 1940. The United States and most Western democracies refused to recognize this annexation. The policy of non-recognition was continued until the restoration of freedom in 1991. Estonia’s legal diplomatic representation in the United States functioned during all the years of the Soviet occupation.

The first year of Soviet totalitarian rule brought the total demolition of Estonian state structures and civil society. Private property was confiscated, all non-Communist parties and NGOs disbanded, most of the members of parliament and government ministers as well as many former members were arrested and executed, together with several thousands of civil servants, policemen, lawyers, entrepreneurs, religious leaders of all faiths and intellectuals. The regime of terror culminated with the deportation of about 10,000 "anti-Soviet" civilians to Siberia on June 14, 1941.

Estonia was subsequently occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941. A ruthless regime that suppressed any initiatives to restore independence was implemented. In a dramatic development, however, on the eve of the withdrawal of the German Army in 1944, a temporary Estonian Government was formed which appealed to Western Allies to implement the Atlantic Charter for Estonia. In September 1944 Estonia was reoccupied by the Soviet Army. Ten years of mass terror followed. Thousands of people were arrested as "nationalists", many were condemned to death. Private farms were denied the right of existence and 22,000 farmers were deported to Siberia in 1949. At least 100,000 Soviet troops were permanently stationed in a country of less than 1.5 million. Centrally planned and implemented Russification resulted in dramatic demographic changes. Estonian was degraded to the status of second official language.

Partisan resistance by thousands of "forest brothers" was crushed by the Communist regime at the beginning of the 1950s. In the 1960s, basing their hopes on international law including the non-recognition policies of Western democracies, underground political groups began to voice opposition to the totalitarian regime. Beginning in the 1970s various human and civil rights groups formed and began to work underground. They found justification for their activities in the Soviet formal commitments to human rights, signed in Helsinki in 1975. As a rule, these groups were suppressed and their representatives sentenced to long prison terms.

The deepening crisis of the Soviet Union resulted in more opportunities for independent political initiatives. The first open air political demonstration in Tallinn on August 23, 1987 asked for the truth about the occupation of Estonia and set the stage for the next political moves – the legalization of the forbidden Estonian national flag, the founding of the first non-Communist political party in 1988 (Estonian National Independence Party), the organization of the Popular Front, registration of the legal citizens of the Estonian Republic in 1989, and the elections to the Congress of Estonia - a democratic alternative to the local Supreme Soviet - in February 1990. These developments - termed popularly as the Singing Revolution - culminated in the reaching of a national agreement among different political entities to restore the independence of the Estonian Republic on the basis of legal continuity on August 20, 1991. On this the 90th anniversary of its declaration of independence, Estonia can be proud and grateful that independence was restored without bloodshed and hatred, in a peaceful and democratic way.