July 1, 2020

Finland’s Slow-motion Recognition of Estonian Independence

How diplomatic relations were established 100 years ago.

In November 1918, imperial Germany collapsed and began to move its occupying forces out of the Baltic states. Estonia had been seeking support from the West even during the occupation and Berlin-friendly Finland started to direct its foreign policy towards the victorious states after Germany’s defeat. The Estonian War for Independence began when Soviet Russia’s Red Army launched its attack in late November 1918. It was emphasised in Finland that protecting Estonia also meant protecting Finland, which was why some 3,700 volunteers were sent to Estonia, starting at the turn of 191819.

Oskar Kallas submitted a recognition request to Finland before getting official authorisation to do so from Tallinn. ERA/Parikas

The countries also began to build a political relationship. The Estonian provisional government appointed Oskar Kallas, who knew Finnish society well, as its ambassador to Helsinki on 16 December 1918, with August Hanko as the head of the press bureau there. For its part, the Finnish government appointed Yrjö Putkinen as its consul in Tallinn on 17 December 1918 and on 8 March 1919 the Regent of Finland, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, sent senator Alfred Oswald Kairamo to Tallinn to “gauge Estonia’s political position”, although no specific information was published about his status. It was only on 19 September 1919 that Kairamo was discharged from his duties and Erkki Reijonen was appointed Finland’s provisional representative (délégué) in Estonia.

As de facto diplomatic connections had been established between the countries, Estonia thought that Finland should also recognise Estonian independence. On 18 February 1919 Kallas contacted the Finnish foreign minister, Rudolf Holsti, and asked that the Finnish government discuss the recognition of the Republic of Estonia at the earliest opportunity. However, a reply was not swift. Finnish press outlets did explore the question of recognising Estonian independence, but for a long time the government did nothing official.

The foreign ministry in Helsinki did not reply to Kallas’s request for almost six months. Nevertheless, the matter was not dead, simply dormant. On 23 July 1919 Finland decided that it would officially recognise Estonian independence two days later, and would recommend other countries to follow its example.

Before this important step was taken, Holsti had been establishing the position of the big powers; it seems Finland did not dare to go it alone. The replies from London, Paris and Washington were ambiguous. As a result, the position of Rafael Erich, a Finnish expert and professor of international law, became decisive.

In his extensive and well-informed assessment, Erich proposed that, by sending a diplomatic representative (Kairamo) to Estonia and receiving Estonia’s diplomatic representative (Kallas), in addition to several other factors, the Finnish government had “actually considered Estonia an independent fully fledged state”. According to Erich, Finland had therefore de facto recognised Estonia’s independence.

Erich also emphasised that there was no cause to differentiate between de facto and de jure recognition. It would not have benefited Estonia if Finland were to provide separate de facto recognition. As the larger countries effectively decided what happened in Europe, Erich thought it reasonable that Finland should not provide recognition for Estonian independence alone, but only together with others.

Foreign minister Holsti deliberated on the issue based on this somewhat non-committal expert opinion. The subject had unexpectedly turned into a problem. Since by that time diplomatic relations between the countries were as extensive as the connections that arise from de jure recognition, Holsti considered it natural that Finland should fully acknowledge Estonian independence. This would provide moral support for the Estonian people at a difficult time.

However, principles and practice proved to be quite different. Holsti thought that Finnish acknowledgement would not help Estonia at that moment. Finland needed to consider the reservations of the big powers and the half-suspicion about how “fully realisable” Estonian independence would be.

Holsti decided that Estonia should receive a reply formulated according to Erlich’s assessment. Thus, it was announced that Finland treated Estonia as a plenipotentiary independent state. Based on Holsti’s understanding, the recognition of the Republic of Estonia was intended to be unconditional and final; this would have the same formal status as de jure acknowledgement.

Finnish Caution

On 2 August professor Erich submitted to Holsti additional, amended proposals to substantiate the de facto recognition of Estonia. Holsti finally took these to president Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg on 7 August, who approved the wording of the recognition statement. The following day, the state council officially approved Erich’s amended formula that Holsti supported. This states that, by having entered into a diplomatic relationship, Finland had de facto recognised Estonia, which actually meant the same as de jure recognition. The latter was to be provided as soon as the international situation allowed. Santeri Alkio, a minister from the Agrarian League, still thought that Finland should have had provided immediate de jure recognition, and encouraged larger countries to do the same.

Holsti sent Finland’s completely non-committal reply to Kallas, and, through him, the Estonian foreign ministry in Tallinn. Formulating a response to the request Kallas had submitted to Finland six months earlier was hard and unpleasant, especially for Holsti. When the Estonian government had been notified of his roundabout reply, which alluded to the matter being already settled as things stood through Kallas, Tallinn sent an affectedly polite, but probably disappointed, response. Foreign minister Jaan Poska forwarded the Estonian people’s deeply grateful and deferential compliments to their Finnish brethren on 18 August 1919.

Thus, delaying Estonia’s recognition for half a year had achieved nothing. For example, the paper Suomen Sosialidemokraatti was not happy with the de facto recognition. The organ considered it Helsinki’s obligation to acknowledge Estonian independence de jure, this being also in Finland’s interests. Kai Donner, who represented independence activists, also demanded Finnish recognition in his writing.

The slow process of acknowledging Estonia had therefore reached a milestone in early August 1919. However, the recognition Estonia longed for was still a year away. During that time, Estonia entered into a peace treaty with Soviet Russia and cooperation with neighbouring countries was consolidated through a framework of policies on border states.

Finland got a new, right-wing government in mid-March 1920. Rafael Erich became prime minister, while Holsti retained his position as foreign minister. The issue of recognition, which had been in hibernation, started to become topical again in April 1920 when two Finnish professors began to explore the matter.

A newspaper article by A.R. Cederberg, a professor of history at the University of Tartu, was published on 17 April. He said that both Estonians and Finnish Estophiles were disappointed that Finland still had not officially, or de jure, acknowledged Estonian independence. “Recognition should be granted right away,” he wrote. “It is inconceivable that the Scandinavian states or Italy might do so before us. That would be a great shame indeed.”

Two days later, another professor had his say. Lauri Kettunen, the University of Tartu’s professor of Fenno-Ugric languages, asked in Helsingin Sanomat why Finnish recognition of Estonia had been delayed. He wondered what the Finnish people would say if Sweden, Denmark, Italy, or some other country recognised “our brethren” before Finland did.

Oskar Kallas’s Precarious Position

Kallas did not allow the situation to cool down, either. On 19 April 1920 he met prime minister Rafael Erich, who claimed that Helsinki had not yet given de jure recognition of Estonia because Finland’s position was weak and the acknowledgement had no particular significance. Kallas did not believe such an arbitrary explanation and wrote in his report: “The reasons lie, naturally, somewhere else: Estonia’s alleged communist sympathies etc.”. Erich promised to bring the question to the attention of the state council again, but pointed out that, before this, difficult political issues in Finnish-Estonian relations needed to be resolved.

These complex questions included Estonian confiscation of estates that were in Finnish ownership, Estonia’s debt to Finland and some trade issues. The parties turned their attention to clarifying these matters. This was quite complicated. In mid-May 1920, Kallas wrote to Tallinn that the issue of estates owned by Finnish citizens was “making a splash” in Finland.

Kallas was caught between a rock and a hard place. He could not provide accurate information to the Finns on the points of discussion, because he had none; and the Estonian foreign ministry did not respond to Kallas’s letters on the subject. Describing the unpleasant situation, he wrote to Tallinn: “Your silence is making it difficult to deal with our de jure question here and making it impossible to extend the deadline of our state loan”.

At the time Kallas sent his indignant report, on 14 May 1920, the Estonian government finally adopted a clear position on the issues that were exacerbating Finnish-Estonian relations. The government believed the expropriation of Finnish-owned estates should be dealt with under the same regulations that applied to other foreigners; negotiations over the Finnish-Estonian customs union were to be accelerated; and efforts would be made to get an extension for the repayment of Estonia’s loan. These decisions cleared the air.

Kallas continued his active lobbying of Finnish ministers, party leaders and journalists. He thought no one was against recognising Estonia, but that decision-making was hindered by “characteristically Finnish” sluggishness.

When Kallas spoke to prime minister Erich and foreign minister Holsti on 21 May 1920 and asked whether there was any hope of Finland de jure recognising Estonia, when it might happen and what was interfering with the process, the ministers provided some surprising advice: they asked the Estonian government to send a recognition request, which they were sure would be heeded and positively received by the Finnish public. Holsti was almost certain that the Entente would not be opposed if Finland wanted to be the first state to recognise Estonia de jure.

Around this time, something occurred due to which Finland became much more amenable to acknowledging Estonia: Helsinki was to launch peace negotiations with Soviet Russia at Tartu. They naturally needed to have permission to use Estonian territory for the talks; the Estonian government gave its approval on 26 May.

Understandably, Kallas began to push his agenda, as the conditions were highly favourable at the time. On 2 June, Holsti recommended that Kallas submit the recognition request the next day. When the tortured Kallas did not receive authorisation to do so despite repeated pleas, he marched into the Finnish foreign ministry on 3 June anyway and submitted the request, supported by Holsti.

Kallas indicated that Estonia’s position was firm by that point and that Western public opinion was favourable to Estonian independence. He asked whether the situation allowed for Finland to announce that it supported Estonia de jure, which was so important to the latter aspect. Kallas justified taking quick action without waiting for authorisation from Tallinn by stating: “I am forced to take this rushed step since the sentiments here, as I have written to you before, are in favour of de jure recognition, and this opportunity should not be allowed to go to waste”.

Thus, Kallas had already presented the recognition request to Finland when he finally received a reply from Tallinn on 5 June. It was suggested he submit the appeal if it appeared Finland would agree to it. Kallas was certain of this, since Holsti had advised him to take action.

Recognition At Last

The matter was due to be discussed by Finland’s state council on Friday, 4 June, but the prime minister needed to visit the Åland Islands—the issue of whose ownership was the government’s most pressing problem at the time—and the decision on recognising Estonia was postponed until 7 June. During that time, several Finnish newspapers demanded that Estonia be swiftly granted official recognition.

When Holsti finally proposed in the state council on 7 June that Finland acknowledge Estonia, the minister of education (and former prime minister) Lauri Ingman, who belonged to the National Coalition Party, made the following careful statement, which was recorded in the minutes: “As I am not aware of any other states planning to recognise Estonian independence in the near future, I think the Finnish government has no reason to do so”. Two ministers from the Swedish People’s Party agreed with this position. However, president Ståhlberg approved Holsti’s recognition proposal.

Holsti told Kallas that three ministers, while not exactly against Finnish de jure recognition, thought the matter needed more discussion and supported postponing the issue.

Kallas telegraphed to Tallinn immediately on 7 June 1920: “Today at half past two the Finnish government recognised Estonia de jure. I’ll get the papers tomorrow at 12. … Min. Holsti kindly offered me a Finnish pilot to deliver the papers to the E. government as soon as possible.”

It was an important day for Estonia, but also for president Ståhlberg: the widower was to get married again on the very same day.

The Estonian prime minister, Jaan Tõnisson, and foreign minister Ado Birk sent a thank-you telegram on 8 June, which Kallas delivered to foreign minister Holsti the next day. “The Finnish foreign minister’s statement that his president has conclusively acknowledged the Republic of Estonia as an independent state fills the heart of the entire Estonian nation with the sincerest joy … Free Estonia will never forget the support of our Finnish kin and brothers during the historic days of establishing our state.”

Tõnisson addressed the Constituent Assembly on 8 June and thanked Finland for recognising and supporting Estonia in gaining statehood and during the War for Independence. Finnish recognition had been a long time in the making, much longer than Estonia had believed it would take. However, when it was finally granted, the Estonian press gratefully accepted it.

Tallinna Teataja said that “the de jure recognition by the Finnish government is the most important event in our foreign policy since the peace treaty … We wish to continue the cooperation between Estonia and our older Finnish brother to create the friendliest and best of relationships and build the ‘Finnish bridge’.”

Tõnisson wrote in Postimees on 11 June that: “The Finnish de jure recognition of Estonia primarily speaks of the benign wishes our great kin nation has for us. … Now that Finland has acknowledged our full independence, we may well consider that the great Western European states will grant us a certificate of political maturity.”

Helsingin Sanomat thought that Finland’s action proved the nation’s cordial affection for its “Estonian kin and their brave aspirations for independence”. Suomen Sosialidemokraatti wrote that it had called for the government to acknowledge Estonia de jure several times, but the requests had fallen on deaf ears.

The Finnish delegation to the peace talks with Soviet Russia in Tartu arrived in Tallinn on 9 June 1920. This explained why Finland, which had long delayed acknowledging Estonia, finally acted quickly and recommended that Kallas submit a recognition request.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.