On 20 August 1991, Estonia declared formal independence during the Soviet military coup attempt in Moscow, reconstituting the pre-1940 state. Every year, 20 August is celebrated as the day of Restoration of Independence.
Courtesy of Einar Vära/Estonica.
On the evening of 20 August 1991, Estonian politicians declared the nation’s independence – even as Soviet tanks were rolling through the countryside to quell the independence movement, and the Soviet paratroopers were taking charge of the Tallinn’s TV tower, preparing to cut off the communication channels. The fate of Estonia was on peril. Yet, most Estonian politicians and the greater part of the public showed great resolve in the face of this danger. Estonian volunteers surrounded the TV tower and wouldn’t let themselves to be intimidated by the Soviet troops. Members of the Estonian Defence League – the unified paramilitary armed forces of Estonia – were ready to protect the strategically important buildings, such as the Toompea and the Estonian Public Broadcasting’s facilities. Luckily for Estonia, the attempted coup d’état in Moscow failed and the more liberal forces, led by the chairman of the Russian SFSR Supreme Soviet, Boris Yeltsin, prevailed – thus starting the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Estonia was free again. The first country to diplomatically recognise Estonia’s reclaimed independence was Iceland, on 22 August. The Soviet Union finally recognised the independence of Estonia on 6 September 1991.
This is the brief look back at the history of Estonia’s independence movement, culminating with the events of 20 August 1991.
The crisis in the Soviet Union opens a window of opportunity for Estonia
By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union’s economy was in a critical situation, largely caused by a lack of technological development compared to the West, the inefficient socialist planned economy based on extensive production, and preferred development of military industries. In the arms race with the main enemy, the USA, the Soviet Union turned out to be the loser, having exhausted its potential. The Soviet export of oil and gas suffered seriously after fuel prices fell on the world market. At the same time, the Soviet Union increasingly depended on imported grain, which was unable to meet the demands of the domestic market. The increasing lack of food products and basic necessities (footwear, clothes etc.), plus escalating prices, caused bitter resentment among the population. Soviet foreign policy had reached a dead-end as well, as it had been expansionist for decades, trying to extend Soviet power throughout the world. The war against Afghanistan started in 1979 and proved much more complicated than initially estimated. This brought about foreign policy complications and further strained the country’s economy.
The Soviet leadership did not publicly acknowledge the crisis. Therefore, many people, including most Estonians, were initially cautious of Mikhail Gorbachev, the new leader of the Soviet Union, who started his innovative policies in 1985. The key words glasnost and perestroika (openness and reconstruction) seemed like empty slogans, and it was not clear what kind of reforms and changes the new Soviet leader was actually pursuing. In 1986, the situation began to change. On 26 April 1986, a nuclear reactor accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, which became the test of the new policy of openness. The attempts of the central powers to suppress or minimise information about the disaster in a densely populated area caused indignation in the population.
The first signs of radical changes in society emerged in Estonia in spring 1987, when the Soviet plans to establish phosphorite mines in northern Estonia were revealed. This unleashed an extensive protest campaign, the ‘phosphorite war’. This also marked the kick-off of the process of regaining Estonian independence, as the environmental issues were soon supplemented by political topics. In August 1987, the Estonian Group on Publication of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was founded (Estonian abbreviation: MRP–AEG). The group organised a mass meeting in Hirvepark in Tallinn the same month, where people demanded that the secret protocol of the 1939 pact be made public. The meeting was not forcefully disbanded, as would have happened before, which showed that civil rights had expanded and the regime had softened – the authorities even granted permission to hold the demonstration.
Simultaneously with the increasing political freedom in society, Estonians started demanding economic reforms and the right to make their own decisions. In autumn 1987, the idea of self-managing Estonia (Estonian acronym IME) was enthusiastically discussed in Estonian society. The plan was to make Estonia economically independent (adopt a market economy, and establish Estonia’s own currency, tax system etc.). Although formally it was no more than a suggestion to grant the republic greater decision-making power to better manage the economy, many people nevertheless hoped that Estonia would gradually manage to separate itself from the Soviet Union, or at least achieve greater autonomy. The proposal failed to get a positive reply from Moscow, although the Soviet Union now allowed private enterprise.
Estonian society awakens
Estonian society became politically active in 1988. A joint plenum of the creative unions (writers, artists, architects, and theatre and film people), which focused on Estonian national culture and the threat of intensifying Russification, expressed dissatisfaction with the activity of the Soviet Estonian leadership. In mid-April, the Estonian Popular Front in Support of Perestroika was founded. This moderate, but clearly innovative movement wanted to make the Soviet Union more democratic, and demanded political and economic autonomy for Estonia within the Soviet Union. The moderate aims of the Popular Front were enthusiastically supported by the Estonian population and it quickly became a powerful mass organisation. The early summer of the same year witnessed a series of concerts and joint singing, soon to turn into a large-scale popular movement, and later called the Singing Revolution. Besides the moderate course, a more radical national movement emerged in 1988, which was clearly directed at restoring Estonia’s independence. The Estonian Heritage Society, established at the end of 1987, used totally un-Soviet rhetoric. In August 1988, the first Estonian political party was founded: the Estonian National Independence Party (Estonian abbreviation ERSP). Its core was made up of the MRP–AEG members.
In summer 1988, under public pressure and in order to avoid the popular movement getting out of control, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev replaced Karl Vaino, the conservative head of the Estonian Communist Party who was extremely unpopular among the Estonians. However, the new leadership under Vaino Väljas, perceiving the support and pressure of the mass popular movement, began making increasingly radical decisions in the interests of Estonia, and defending them in the Moscow corridors of power. In summer, the Supreme Soviet of Estonia adopted the blue-black-white flag of the Republic of Estonia once again as the Estonian national flag. On 16 November the Estonian Supreme Soviet passed the Declaration of Sovereignty, which confirmed the supremacy of laws passed by the Soviet in the Estonian SSR. The document also declared that the basis of the relations between the central authorities of the Soviet Union and a Union republic must be an agreement that would establish the rights and duties of both sides, achieved by negotiations. Moscow declared the declaration null and void, but was unable to halt the process of restoring independence.
In opposition to the Estonian national mass movement, forces mainly representing the Russian-speaking population began rallying in 1988, regarding the Estonians’ aspirations for freedom to be illegal. In summer, the heads of the huge Soviet factories in Estonia formed the International Movement of Soviet Estonian Workers and, in autumn, the Council of Working Collectives, both with the aim of defending the united and inseparable Soviet Union. They protested against the Language Act passed in January 1989, which declared the Estonian language to be the only official language in the territory of the Estonian SSR. They were also against replacing the flag of the Estonian SSR with the blue-black-white flag on the tower of Tall Hermann, a symbol of local power.
A special mass undertaking by independence-seeking forces in the Baltic countries was the Baltic Chain, which attracted keen interest in the foreign press. On 23 August 1989, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, about two million people formed a living chain from Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius, thus eloquently demonstrating their wish for independence.
By 1989, two trends had emerged within the Estonian independence movement. In February 1989, people united around the Estonian National Independence Party and the Heritage Society started the movement of Estonian citizens’ committees. The main aim was to restore the Republic of Estonia on the basis of legal continuity. In 1990, the Estonian citizens who were registered by the committees elected the Estonian Congress. On 11 March 1990, the Congress approved a manifesto that announced the wish of the Estonian people to restore the Republic of Estonia on the basis of legal continuity and the Tartu Peace Treaty (1920). The other trend was represented by the Popular Front, which became the strongest political power in Estonia at a time when the Communist Party was falling apart and losing its monopoly on power. In March 1989, the Popular Front was successful in the elections of the Congress of Representatives of the Soviet Union – the first multi-candidate elections. As a result of elections in March 1990, the Popular Front had the largest number of representatives in the Supreme Soviet of Soviet Estonia. By that time, the Front had already abandoned the idea of a union agreement and supported full independence for Estonia, not on the basis of legal continuity, but relying on the principle of declaring a new Estonian state (the ‘third republic’).
Estonia regains its independence
The two trends came together in spring 1990, when the Estonian SSR Supreme Soviet declared the authority of the Soviet Union in Estonia illegal. A transition period was announced, which in cooperation with the Estonian Congress, would lead to the restoration of the Republic of Estonia. In May, the name Estonian SSR was abolished and replaced by the Republic of Estonia. However, independence had not yet been achieved. The Soviet Union still considered Estonia and the other Baltic republics to be Union republics subordinated to Moscow, and was prepared to use extreme force to maintain its power, as seen in the violent events in January 1991 in Vilnius and Riga. In both capitals, Soviet special troops tried to seize the media centres controlled by national forces, and dozens of people were killed. Estonia was spared violence. An important role in the January events was the support of the central Soviet Union republic, the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, for the Baltic states. On 13 January, the chairman of the Russian SFSR Supreme Soviet, Boris Yeltsin, arrived in Tallinn, and with the leaders of the Baltic countries he signed a joint declaration, recognising one another’s sovereignty.
After the January crisis, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to keep the Baltic countries in the Soviet Union. Moscow planned a referendum to preserve the Soviet Union. Estonia refused to take part. In an independence referendum in Estonia, 77.8% voted in favour of Estonian independence.
The restoration of Estonian independence was de facto boosted by the attempted coup d’état (the ‘August putsch’) in Moscow in August 1991. On 20 August 1991 the Estonian Supreme Soviet, in agreement with the Estonian Committee (the executive organ of the Estonian Congress) proclaimed Estonian independence, thus restoring the Republic of Estonia, which had been legally established in 1918 and illegally occupied in 1940 by the Soviet Union. This decision was quickly followed by the restoration of diplomatic relations and recognition of the Republic of Estonia by many countries. Russia and the Soviet Union recognised Estonia as a new country within the Estonian SSR borders, which differed from the borders established by the Tartu Peace Treaty in 1920. This border issue has ever since caused constant disagreement between Estonia and Russia.
Responding to the failure of the August putsch, all Soviet Union republics achieved independence. The Soviet Union essentially ceased to exist, and at the end of the year, this became official. Earlier that year, the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Pact Organisation, had been disbanded. Thus ended the fifty-year struggle in Eastern Europe and in the world – and Estonia was free again.