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Estonia, History

Mart Laar, Riigikogu, Estonian independence, century peasants, Russian claims

The ancestors of Estonians most likely settled on the Baltic shores around 3500 bc and were organized in loosely federated small states by the 1st century ad. They spoke a Finnic language. After Germans began to attack southern Estonia in 1208, King Waldemar II of Denmark invaded northern Estonia, built the Tallinn-Reval castle in 1219, and established the episcopal see, or seat, of Reval. After an uprising from 1343 to 1345, the Danish king sold his territories in northern Estonia to the Livonian Order of Teutonic Knights, who were already in control of the southern region (Livonia). The knights and Hanseatic merchants, who established trading centers along the coast, dominated the country until 1561, when the Livonian Order was dissolved. Tallinn and the nobility of northern Estonia then submitted to the protection of the Swedish crown, and Poland temporarily retained the southern part of Estonia, including Tartu. By 1645 all of Estonia was in Swedish hands. In the 1670s and 1680s Sweden introduced reforms that improved the lot of the people but embittered the nobility.

Sweden ruled Estonia until 1721, when it was ceded to Russia by the Peace of Nystadt. Russian emperor Peter the Great restored former privileges of the nobility. Between 1816 and 1819 Russian emperor Alexander I abolished serfdom in Estonia. After the middle of the century peasants were granted the right to purchase land, and the system of forced labor was suppressed. At the same time, Estonian national consciousness was aroused. Vigorous cooperative and educational movements sprang up after the revolution that took place in Russia in 1905 after the Russo-Japanese War, and national feeling in Estonia was further developed by the press and modern literature.

The February phase of the Russian Revolution of 1917 (in which the monarchy was toppled and a democratic provisional government took power) brought self-government to the Estonians, and on February 24, 1918, an independent democratic republic was proclaimed. The new government was unable to assume power until the end of World War I in November, when German forces withdrew from Estonia. After a period of armed conflict between Estonian troops and the invading Red Army of the Bolsheviks (militant socialist revolutionaries who seized power in Russia in October 1917) a peace treaty was signed at Tartu between Russia and Estonia on February 2, 1920, and all Russian claims to sovereignty over Estonia were dropped. In January 1921 legal recognition was accorded the new republic by the major Western powers, and Estonia became a member of the League of Nations. The republic continued to have a democratic political system until March 1934, when the prime minister, Konstantin Pats, led a bloodless coup and established authoritarian rule. In 1938, however, a new constitution was put into effect that provided for a presidential system of government with a bicameral legislature, and Pats became president (there was no election because electoral rules prevented nomination of competing candidates).

A week before the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, Estonia was placed under the Soviet sphere of influence by the secret terms of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. In June 1940 Soviet forces occupied Estonia and the other Baltic republics, Latvia and Lithuania. Elections were then organized in which only Soviet-supported candidates were permitted to participate. On August 6, 1940, Estonia was officially incorporated into the USSR as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). All non-Communist political and social organizations in the country were banned and many leaders arrested. Germany attacked the USSR in June 1941, however, and Nazi troops occupied Estonia in July. An estimated 90,000 Estonians died during the war, about 60,000 during the Soviet occupation, and 30,000 during the Nazi occupation. In September 1944, when the Germans retreated from the country and the Soviet army returned, more than 60,000 Estonians fled to Sweden and Germany.

Patriotic groups made a short-lived attempt to reinstate Estonian independence, but the Soviet army prevailed and Estonia was reincorporated into the USSR. Cultural and political institutions immediately began to be reorganized to conform to Soviet models. Estonian language and culture were suppressed, and all organizations other than the Communist Party were banned. The Estonian national elite was imprisoned, executed, or exiled. Tens of thousands of Estonians suspected of opposing the regime were deported to the gulags (Soviet concentration camps) in Siberia and Central Asia until the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953. A patriotic guerrilla movement continued to agitate against the Soviet regime until the mid-1950s.

Soviet economic policies entailed the confiscation of property, and privately owned farms were forcibly merged into large state-run farms; the collectivization of agriculture was nearly complete by the end of 1949. Another pillar of the postwar Soviet economy was the rapid expansion of heavy industry. Many new factories were built in Estonia, primarily in the northern cities. Russians and other Soviet peoples immigrated to work in Estonia’s new industries, resulting in a more urbanized and Russified population. Before the 1940 annexation, ethnic Estonians made up about 90 percent of the population, whereas by 1989 they constituted only 61.5 percent.

Together with Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia was among the first Soviet republics to move toward independence in the late 1980s, in defiance of the central government. After Communist rule collapsed in the USSR in August 1991, the Soviet government formally recognized the independence of the Baltic republics in September, and all three were admitted to the United Nations later that month. The USSR itself collapsed in December.

Following independence, the continued presence of former Soviet troops (under Russia’s jurisdiction) on Estonian territory was a point of contention. In July 1994 Russia agreed to remove remaining troops by the end of August, and in return Estonia agreed to guarantee the civil rights of all retired Russian military personnel living in Estonia. All of the troops departed as scheduled. Estonian-Russian relations remained strained over a border dispute in which Estonia demanded the return of a segment of Estonian territory that the Soviet government had transferred to Russia in 1944. In 1996, however, Estonia dropped the demand, and in March 1999 the two countries initialed a border treaty.

In other foreign relations, the Estonian government has sought to strengthen political and economic ties with its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania. In September 1993 the countries signed a free-trade agreement that removes duties on imports and standardizes visa and customs regulations. However, in early 1995 Estonia’s relations with Latvia became heated over the demarcation of their maritime border. After extensive negotiations, the two countries reached a final sea border agreement in February 1997.

Estonia also has sought closer ties with the Western powers. In February 1994 the country joined the Partnership for Peace program, which allows for limited military cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In July 1995 Estonia became an associate member of the European Union (EU), the world’s largest trading bloc, with the goal of eventually attaining full membership. In December 1997 Estonia was one of five countries invited to participate in the first round of negotiations for full entry into the EU.

Meanwhile, in September 1994 the Riigikogu passed a vote of no confidence in the government of Mart Laar, a member of the reform-minded Fatherland Union. Laar stepped down, and an interim government took office until after legislative elections of 1995. In the March elections, the postindependence reform parties were ousted and replaced by a coalition of left-centrist parties. The coalition was headed by an alliance of the Estonian Coalition Party (ECP) and the Rural Union. Tiit Vahi, the head of the ECP, was named prime minister. The vote was seen as a protest against the fast pace of reform, which sharply reduced the living standards of retirees and rural people in particular. Vahi and his cabinet resigned in October 1996 after a scandal arose involving the interior minister. However, President Lennart Meri reappointed Vahi as prime minister and a new coalition government took office in November, only to collapse within a month, leaving Vahi with less than a majority in the legislature. In the August 1996 presidential elections, neither of two candidates won enough votes (cast by the members of the Riigikogu) to be elected. An electoral college subsequently elected President Meri to a second term in office.

Estonia’s GDP dropped during the early reforms but began to rise again in the mid-1990s as inefficient state enterprises shrunk or were privatized. A Baltic free trade area was established in January 1997. In February Prime Minister Vahi resigned for the second time in two years, this time under a cloud of corruption charges. He was replaced by Mart Siimann, who took power within the same shaky minority government.

In parliamentary elections held in March 1999, the ECP won the most seats, with 23.4 percent of the vote. However, it was excluded from the government (the prime minister and the cabinet) when the Fatherland Union led by Mart Laar, which won 16.1 percent of the vote, formed a governing coalition with the Estonian Reform Party (15.9 percent) and the Moderates (15.2 percent). Laar again became Estonia’s prime minister.

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