Argo Ideon: Estonia owes a debt of gratitude to George H.W. Bush

President George H.W. Bush, who passed away on 30 November at the age of 94, was the American head of state during the period when Estonia restored its independence, and Estonia owes a debt of gratitude for America’s consistent support, Estonian journalist Argo Ideon writes.

During the presidency of George Bush Sr, the United States restored its diplomatic representation in Tallinn (the US recognised the Republic of Estonia during the entire period after the Second World War), and the Estonian leaders of the time met him in Washington D.C. many times.

On 29 March 1991, president Bush met the chairman of the Supreme Council of Estonia, Arnold Rüütel, in the Oval Office of the White House. Rüütel was referred to as Estonia’s president in the official announcement, issued by the US.

“President Bush met this morning in the Oval Office with Arnold Rüütel, President of Estonia. President Bush began the meeting by reiterating the unequivocal support of the U.S. for Estonia’s right to self-determination. He expressed his outrage over the use of force in Vilnius and Riga in January, and he emphasized his conviction that the only solution to this situation was good-faith negotiations between the Baltic States and Moscow. He assured President Rüütel that he had personally made this point to [Soviet] President Gorbachev on many occasions.”

Five months earlier, in October 1990, Bush also met in the White House with the then-foreign minister of Estonia, Lennart Meri, and the then-prime minister, Edgar Savisaar. All these meetings happened, in large part, thanks to the Estonian consul general and the Estonian representative in the US throughout the Cold War, Ernst Jaakson.

An anecdotal story

In my book about the presidency of Toomas Hendrik Ilves, “THI”, I have mentioned an anecdotal story how Arnold Rüütel, as the later president of Estonia, sent a letter to George H.W. Bush through his son, the then-president of the United States, George W. Bush. That happened in Vilnius in November 2002 when the younger Bush was meeting the leaders of the Baltic states.

“That morning in the Lithuanian presidential castle, the Estonian president, Arnold Rüütel, walked straight to George W. Bush. He had a letter to the elder George Bush whom he had met already when Estonia was fighting for its freedom from the Soviet Union. The then-president of the US, George H.W. Bush, had impressed deeply the then-chairman of the Supreme Council. Rüütel asked the US president to give the letter to his father.

“Bush gave the envelope to his aides. Later, the Estonians heard that the US president had been somewhat surprised. Simply, because there are easier ways to send letters than to use the leader of a superpower as a homing pigeon.” (THI, page 70)

I have twice asked Arnold Rüütel to remember that letter – in August 2016 and in April 2018 – when interviewing him for Maaleht before his 90th birthday.

President Rüütel: “These were my word of thanks for the support I gained from Mr Bush during the period of restoration of our independence. The Soviet Union did everything to prevent Estonia from restoring our independence and acted the same way also in the international arena. America, to the extent of its Congress, had always supported us.

“President Bush met with me, I talked to him about our situation. The most important thing for us was the moral support of the United States and Bush had a huge part there. Largely thanks to his support of Estonia I also had other important meetings in the power structures of the US.”

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This article was first published in the Estonian-language newspaper, Maaleht. It has been translated and republished with the permission of the newspaper. Cover: President Bush rides in a Humvee with General H. Norman Schwarzkopf during his visit with troops in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving Day on 22 November 1990 (photo by David Valdez/Wikimedia Commons).

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About the author: Argo Ideon

Argo Ideon is a well-known Estonian journalist, currently working at Maaleht (Country Paper), a weekly newspaper. He has been a journalist since 1992 and has previously worked at many Estonian news outlets.