Estonian-Russian border dispute resurfaces after a Moscow diplomat denounces the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty

On 18 November, Sergey Belyayev, the head of the Russian foreign ministry’s second European department, reiterated Moscow’s view that the 1920 Treaty of Tartu, in which Moscow recognised Estonia’s independence and agreed to a border, became null and void when Estonia became part of the Soviet Union in 1940.

But because for Estonians, that treaty is a kind of birth certificate of their country – the Estonian parliament referred to it in its resolution ratifying a new border treaty with Moscow earlier, a document the Russian Federation has not ratified – Belyayev’s dismissal of Tartu brought an immediate and angry reaction from Tallinn.

Henn Põlluaas, the speaker of the Riigikogu and a member of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party, said on Facebook that the 1920 accord did remain in force and that Estonia wanted Russia to live up to its provisions, which would require Moscow to return land to the east of Narva and the south of Lake Peipus.

The speaker said Estonia did not have any territorial claims against Russia. “We only want that what is ours be returned. [During the Soviet occupation,] Russia annexed about five per cent of the territory of Estonia.” Põlluaas has raised this issue before, in May, and his words then were sharply criticised by the Russian foreign ministry.

Historian: conservatives are promoting “unrestrained Russophobia”

Now, in the wake of this exchange, the Moscow media has been filled with attacks on Estonia and its position. Two which Russia’s Svobodnaya Pressa portal includes are at least instructive as to Moscow’s thinking.

Vadim Trukhachev, an historian at the Russian State University for the Humanities, says that “until recently, Estonia had demanded at the official level that these districts, transferred in 1940 to the RSFSR be returned. But recently [since 2014], the Estonian authorities were prepared to drop these claims.” Now one party in the ruling coalition has revived them.

According to the Moscow historian, no one in Estonia or anywhere else thinks Moscow is going to return these lands. The whole issue, he says, has been promoted by the conservatives in Estonia in order to promote “unrestrained Russophobia”, the only theme that provides support for such parties.

It is better for neighbouring countries to have border accords, Trukhachev says; but Russia isn’t losing much by not having one with Estonia; and ratification of the accord the two countries have signed is unlikely as long as Tallinn insists in its ratification documents that the 1920 Treaty of Tartu is still valid.

Members of the Estonian delegation at the signing of the Treaty of Tartu in 1920: Jaan Poska, Jaan Soots and Victor Mutt. Photo by Armin Lomp.

Would Lithuania need to give land back to Russia?

Vladimir Kornilov, a political observer for Russia Today, adds everyone needs to remember that after Estonia became part of the Soviet Union, “borders inside the USSR were changed by decisions of its highest organs and Constitution.” If that is denied, he continues, then other republics, such as Lithuania, will have to give land back that the Soviets transferred to it.

He acknowledges that Estonia not only signed but ratified a new border agreement with the Russian Federation in the 1990s. Moscow refused to do so after the Estonians included language in the resolution approving the measure that nothing in it affects the status of the Treaty of Tartu.

Parliaments around the world use signing documents to express their positions, but the Russian commentator and indeed Russian officials more generally appear to believe that such declarations become part of the agreements as such. They don’t – they only express the views of the parliaments’ ratifying them – confusion on this point continues to cause trouble.

This article is a lightly edited version of the article originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Cover: The bold green line marks Estonia’s border according to the Treaty of Tartu. Read also: It is in Estonia’s national interest to enter into a border treaty with Russia.

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