Independence Reclaimed, August 1991-October 1992

Estonia Table of Contents

On the night of August 19, 1991, Estonia was caught up in the uncertainty generated by the attempted coup in Moscow. A column of Soviet light tanks and troop carriers had already started to move on Tallinn as the commander of Soviet forces in the Baltics announced his support of the coup. Fearing a total crackdown by the Soviet army, the Estonian parliament met in emergency session on August 20. At 11:00 P.M., the Supreme Council, as the legislature was now known, passed a final resolution declaring full independence and requesting de facto international recognition. Volunteers were mustered to defend key government buildings and communications centers; there was no bloodshed, however. As Heinz Valk, an artist and a member of parliament, later declared, "The coup in Moscow [gave] us a chance comparable to that in 1918."

Once the coup finally collapsed, Estonia resumed its efforts to gain international recognition and otherwise reestablish itself as an independent state. Iceland was the first to acknowledge Estonian independence, on August 22; Yeltsin's Russia was quick to follow, on August 24. The United States hesitated until September 2. The Soviet Union recognized Estonia on September 6. The process of state building also began soon after the coup. In contrast to Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia, in its August 20 independence declaration, took the additional step of convening a constitutional assembly immediately to draft a new basic law for the country. The assembly drew thirty members each from the Supreme Council and the Congress of Estonia, thus defusing rivalries between the two organizations. In mid-October the assembly settled on a working draft focused on a generally parliamentary form of government. Deliberations then slowed as the country got caught up in debates over citizenship.

In Estonia's fight to regain independence, the overall strategy of asserting the country's legal continuity as a state clearly had paid off. Yet, in terms of offering a path for the future, this strategy had many complications. One of these was the question of what to do with the 500,000 mostly Russian, Soviet-era immigrants living in Estonia. In 1990 the Congress of Estonia had been the first representative body to lay down the principle that because these people had settled in Estonia under Soviet rule, they were not automatically citizens of the legally restored Estonian state. Rather, under independence they would have to be "naturalized" on the basis of specific language and residency criteria. This position was also argued as a means of better integrating the mostly Russian noncitizen population, the majority of whom did not speak Estonian. In mid-1991, as the independence struggle seemed to languish, the Estonian government, led by Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar, showed signs of readiness to compromise on the citizenship issue in order to gain more local Russian support. However, after the failed August coup and the immediate onset of full independence, the Congress and other radical groups were emboldened to insist on the principle of restricted citizenship. Thus, the Supreme Council decided on November 11, 1991, to require the naturalization of all Soviet-era immigrants to Estonia while automatically renewing the citizenship of all prewar citizens and their descendants. In February 1992, the parliament set naturalization terms, which included a two-year residency requirement, the ability to speak conversational Estonian, and a one-year waiting period after applying.

Although these terms were relatively mild, the implications in Estonia's particular situation remained less than clear. Most Soviet-era immigrants had already fulfilled the residency requirement, but at best only 20 percent were prepared to meet the language requirement. Most Russians living in Estonia had not bothered to learn the rudiments of the national language, forcing Estonians to speak Russian to them instead. It would take time for many to begin learning. In any case, the naturalization procedures would delay nationalization for at least the one-year waiting period. This outcome had serious implications because the resident Russians would then be ineligible to vote in the September 1992 elections for a new parliament. As the only consolation to noncitizens, the Constitu-tional Assembly later accorded them the right to vote in local elections under the terms of the new constitution.

The citizenship issue generally heightened tensions between Estonians and Russians. The more nationalistic Estonian deputies in parliament began to accuse the moderate government of Savisaar of foot-dragging. In January 1992, in the midst of a severe economic crisis and problems securing heating oil, Savisaar asked parliament for emergency powers. When the vote on emergency powers was taken on January 16, Savisaar won, thanks only to the votes of several Russian deputies. This narrow margin revealed the extent of Savisaar's unpopularity among the Estonian deputies, and a week later he resigned. Savisaar's transportation minister, Tiit Vähi, was charged with forming a new government, which was billed as one of technocrats and caretakers in advance of parliamentary elections in the fall.

As Vähi formed his regime, several major issues remained outstanding. The new prime minister's first task was to oversee the passage of the naturalization requirements for citizenship, which occurred in late February. Then, the language and residency requirements were put into effect. Thereafter, the draft constitution drawn up by the Constitutional Assembly neared completion and required approval by popular referendum. This referendum was set for June 28, 1992, with only citizens allowed to participate. Alongside the proposed constitution, a second question asked the people whether to allow the earliest applicants for citizenship to vote on an exceptional basis in the upcoming nationwide elections. Because these applicants numbered just over 5,000, the gesture would be largely symbolic. However, a strong campaign by nationalist Estonian parties led to the defeat of the measure, 53 percent to 46 percent. The constitution was passed by a 91 percent majority.

On June 20, one week before the referendum, the Vähi government completed its third remaining task: currency reform. On that day, Estonian residents proudly cashed in their old, worn Russian rubles for crisp, new Estonian kroons (for value of the kroon--see Glossary). The kroon, pegged to the stable deutsche mark, would soon bring inflation tumbling down and serve as the basis for a new economy (see Economy, this ch.).

With the constitution approved and a new state structure in place, the campaign began for Estonia's first post-Soviet elections. The election of a new legislature, the Riigikogu, on September 20 would mark the full restoration of the legal Republic of Estonia. On October 5, 1992, in its first session, the Riigikogu, which replaced the transitional Supreme Council, issued a declaration establishing its legal continuity with the prewar republic and declaring an official end to the transition to independence announced two-and-one-half years earlier.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress