On 20 August 1991, Estonia declared formal independence during the Soviet military coup attempt in Moscow, reconstituting the pre-1940 state; in 2021, the country celebrates the 30th anniversary of the restoration of independence.
In 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 TV tower, preparing to cut off 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 parliament at Toompea and the Estonian Public Broadcasting facilities in Gonsiori street.
Luckily for Estonia, the attempted coup d’état in Moscow failed and the more liberal forces, led by the leader of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, 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 recognised the independence of Estonia on 6 September 1991.
This is the brief look back at the history of Estonia’s independence movement during the late 1980s, 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 with the West, the inefficient socialist planned economy based on extensive production and preferred development of military industries. In the arms race with its main enemy, the US, 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.
The 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 the 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. 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 the 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 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.
The Estonian society awakens
The 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 anti-Soviet rhetoric. In August 1988, the first Estonian political party was founded: the Estonian National Independence Party (Estonian abbreviation ERSP).
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.
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.
On 20 October, the Supreme Soviet of Estonia (then the legislative assembly in the country, made up entirely of the local Communist Party members) recognised the blue-black-white tricolour as the Estonian national flag (however, the Soviet-imposed red flag remained the official state flag).
On 16 November, the Estonian Supreme Soviet passed the Declaration of Sovereignty, which said the laws passed by the assembly had supremacy over those passed in Moscow. The document also declared the basis of the relations between the central authorities of the Soviet Union and Estonia 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 some of the local Russian-speaking population began rallying in 1988, regarding the Estonians’ aspirations for freedom to be illegal.
In the summer, the heads of the huge Soviet factories in Estonia formed the International Movement of Soviet Estonian Workers and, in the autumn, the Council of Working Collectives, both with the aim of defending the united and inseparable Soviet Union.
The movements 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 Soviet Socialist Republic. They were also against replacing the Soviet-imposed red flag with the Estonian blue-black-white national flag on the tower of Tall Hermann, a symbol of local power.
Unstoppable independence movement
A special mass undertaking by the 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, led by Tunne Kelam, 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 – based on the free and independent state of 1918-1940.
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, led by Edgar Savisaar, 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 election of the Congress of Representatives of the Soviet Union (based in Moscow, the Congress had delegates from each of the 15 Soviet states) – the first multi-party candidate election.
As a result of the first multi-party candidate general election in Estonia since the Soviet occupation, in March 1990, the Popular Front had the largest number of representatives in the Supreme Soviet of Soviet Estonia (and Edgar Savisaar was appointed the Chairman of the Council of Ministers).
By that time, the Popular Front had already abandoned the idea of a union agreement with the Soviet Union 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”.
The two trends came together in spring 1990, when the Estonian 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.
On 8 May 1990, the country’s name, the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, was abolished and replaced by the Republic of Estonia. On 1 November, Estonia’s own border guard was refounded and 27 border checkpoints were established. 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 the Lithuanian and Latvian national forces, respectively, and dozens of people were killed.
Estonia was spared violent deaths, but only just. On 19 May 1991, a group of members of the OMON – a special militia unit of the Soviet Union – attacked the border checkpoint in Luhamaa, on the Estonia-Russia border, destroying its furnishing. On 8 June, they attacked the same installation again, this time also destroying the bus used by the Estonian border control.
On 14 June, the OMON attacked even more viciously the border checkpoint in Ikla, on the Estonia-Latvia border. This time, they opened fire on the checkpoint, threw incendiary bombs to set fire to the border guards’ living quarters and threw an explosive into the main building. Luckily, no Estonian border guards was killed.
An important role in solidarity was the support of the central Soviet Union republic, the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, for the Baltic states. Russia itself, led by Boris Yeltsin, declared its sovereignty on 12 June 1990 and thereafter limited the application of Soviet laws, in particular the laws concerning finance and the economy, on Russian territory.
On 13 January 1991, Yeltsin arrived in Tallinn, and with the leaders of the Baltic countries he signed a joint declaration, recognising one another’s sovereignty.
But the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried to keep the Baltic countries in the Soviet Union. Moscow planned a referendum to preserve the Soviet Union. However, the Estonian authorities refused to take part.
Instead, a referendum on the country’s independence was organised in Estonia on 3 March 1991 – 77.8% of the participants voted in favour of the Estonian independence.
Soviet coup d’état attempt creates a window of opportunity
On 19 August 1991, eight Soviet hardliners, including the head of the KGB, made an attempt to take control of the country from Mikhail Gorbachev, who was on holiday in his dacha in Crimea. Gorbachev was placed under house arrest, the hardliners announced a state of emergency and tanks were rolled on the streets of Moscow.
The putschists in Moscow also sent more Soviet troops and armoured vehicles to Estonia.
The Estonian authorities realised that this was a “now or never moment” for the country – however risky, the decided to act swiftly and proclaim independence from the Soviet Union. Under the pressure, the different political powers in Estonia managed to reach consensus – on the evening of 19 August, the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Estonia and the delegation of the Estonian Committee (the executive organ of the Estonian Congress) began talks about declaring Estonian independence.
The main issue of dispute was the choice between two options – whether to declare a new independent Republic of Estonia or, on the basis of legal continuity, restore the previous Republic of Estonia that was declared in 1918 and occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940.
At 23.02 on 20 August, the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Estonia approved the declaration of Estonian National Independence, coordinated with the Estonian Committee – after lengthy discussions, the version of legal continuity was chosen. In addition, a Constitutional Assembly was formed to work out the draft bill for a new constitution of the Republic of Estonia.
Another nerve-racking day followed. On the morning of 21 August, Soviet troops occupied the Tallinn TV Tower and transmission was temporarily disrupted. However, the national radio remained free and continued to broadcast news about events in Estonia.
But by the afternoon of 21 August it was clear that the coup d’état in Moscow had failed – to a great degree thanks to the resolve of Boris Yeltsin – and after talks with the Estonian leadership, Soviet troops abandoned the TV Tower and left Estonia.
On 22 August, Iceland became the first country to establish diplomatic relations with the Republic of Estonia, followed by Lithuania, Latvia and Russia. France was the first major Western power to recognise the Estonian independence, on 30 August.
On 6 September, the Soviet Union officially recognised the Estonian independence and on 17 September, Estonia was admitted to the United Nations. Estonia was free again.
Responding to the failure of the August coup d’état, all Soviet Union republics achieved independence. The Soviet Union essentially ceased to exist and on 26 December 1991, it was officially dissolved.
Text by Einar Vära/Estonica and Estonian World. * This is the amended and enhanced version of the article originally published on 20 August 2014.