Neither the Estonian nor the Russian legislative body is proceeding with the ratification of the border treaties
Estonian minister of defence Jüri Luik says in this interview with Diplomaatia that Moscow recognises the Tartu Peace Treaty as well as Estonia’s legal continuity with a comprehensive agreement specifying the basis for the two states’ relations.
Diplomaatia: How important has the Tartu Peace Treaty been in general for Estonian foreign policy in the past 100 years, compared to other foreign-policy achievements such as becoming a NATO and EU member state and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Estonia after it regained independence?
Luik: All the events you mentioned are highly important in either establishing or protecting Estonian independence, while the Tartu Peace Treaty is our birth certificate—our country wouldn’t exist without it. While the Tartu Peace Treaty is built on our nation’s gargantuan effort and was forged in the flames of war, more recent agreements were fortunately concluded without conflict, but the timing was definitely ideal. When the Russian troops withdrew from Estonia, the occupation was finally over. NATO and EU membership has helped to avoid war: I believe everyone can imagine how precarious our position would be without these memberships next door to an aggressive Russia.
How well does Russia understand that the Soviet Union got its first international recognition with the Tartu Peace Treaty, so the treaty shouldn’t be viewed as a total loss for Russia? Or is it still seen as a temporary measure?
Recognition was important, but Estonia wasn’t a de jure sovereign state back then, although our government was de facto recognised. Lenin’s priority was to defend Bolshevik power from the White Russian movement, which is why he was very interested in Article VII of the Tartu Peace Treaty. He achieved an important agreement with Estonians—Estonia wouldn’t allow General Yudenich’s North-western Army to use its territory. For the leaders of the Soviet Union, the Tartu Peace Treaty also ruled out the possibility of British forces attacking Petrograd from Estonian territory, which wasn’t far away. We might speculate over the possibility that, if the leaders of the White Russian movement had had enough imagination to recognise Estonian independence, the Bolsheviks might have been over and done with. But they totally lacked Lenin’s devious flexibility.
Today, the Tartu Peace Treaty is mainly mentioned in the context of border treaties, but less is said about border negotiations that have been held with Russia since Estonia regained independence. This must have been a tough challenge for juvenescent Estonian diplomacy. Were there moments in the negotiations when you felt there was no point in continuing?
The Tartu Peace Treaty is about so much more than the border. In today’s context, Article II is the most important, as Russia recognises our independence and relinquishes its sovereign rights forever. After Estonia regained independence, the Estonian-Russian border negotiations in 1992–4 focused on withdrawing the Russian troops, and both parties had definitive positions regarding the border. Things started to change in 1995 when Andres Tarand’s government proposed a potential compromise: the border line versus recognition of the Tartu Peace Treaty. That is, the validity of the Tartu Peace Treaty was no longer directly related to the placement of the border line. We started moving towards the EU and NATO step by step and membership of those organisations was an absolute priority. The unresolved border issue was in danger of becoming a serious problem. The conditions for NATO’s enlargement in 1995 clearly stated there could be no border disputes.
What did Estonian diplomacy learn from the border negotiations? Have we had the chance to using that experience elsewhere?
Definitely. In these negotiations, diplomats needed to consider not only international law and foreign-policy fault lines, but also the political debate in Estonia and overwhelming public interest more than they usually would.
What would stop Russia worrying about Estonian territorial demands and Estonia about the current border agreements invalidating the Tartu Peace Treaty?
The Tartu Peace Treaty is valid, and we naturally mustn’t waive anything. Article II—the recognition of Estonian independence—is of key importance. The acute issue here is actually with Article IV, since, although the Bolsheviks acknowledged Estonians moving to Estonia and adopting its citizenship, many people who had the proper paperwork remained in Russia due to the war and confusion. Do their successors have the right to Estonian citizenship? In terms of the border, there actually hasn’t been a direct relationship between the border line and the validity of the Tartu Peace Treaty since 1992. That was when a new Estonian constitution was adopted by a referendum, specifying that our border is determined under the Tartu Peace Treaty and other international border agreements.
This may be a naive question, but if the interpretation of the Tartu Peace Treaty causes so many problems, wouldn’t it be easier to sign a new comprehensive agreement with Russia?
It isn’t naive. We actually have a comprehensive agreement regulating the foundations of our entire relationship with Russia, signed in January 1991 and later ratified by the parliaments of both countries, and it is considered a valid treaty. With that agreement, Russia indirectly recognises the Tartu Peace Treaty as well as our legal continuity through our Supreme Council’s resolutions. The treaty specified that border issues would be resolved through negotiation; but it involves no actual solutions.
The Latvians ratified their border treaty with the Russians, and it hasn’t harmed their legal continuity. The agreement was contested in the Latvian Supreme Court, which found that it didn’t conflict with the Treaty of Riga, an analogue of the Tartu Peace Treaty.
I guess neither country’s parliament has come close to ratifying the border agreements?
That’s true, because Russia didn’t even initiate the ratification of the treaty, even though the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu) went through the first reading. All complicated agreements have a political window of time that is open for a short while. If you allow it to close, that’s it. The current members of the Estonian Parliament and the Russian State Duma are not prepared to move ahead with the treaty. Russia’s behaviour is becoming increasingly more brutal, and right now they’re trying to push their falsifications of history on their neighbours.
The Tartu Peace Treaty also included other clauses that Russia hasn’t implemented. For example, they haven’t returned all the assets of the University of Tartu currently located in Voronezh. Is this issue on the table?
Estonia’s position is clear. The assets stored at Voronezh must be returned. We got back some bits and pieces after the War for Independence, for example part of the library. But a lot of valuable items remain there. Some objects that are highly treasured by us fell into the Russians’ possession later, as well. After the occupation ended, Russia didn’t even return the Estonian president’s chain of office, which is insulting and serves to demonstrate how they’re still not accustomed to the idea that we are independent.
At the same time, Estonia has constructed a fence at the current border. If people want to follow the border line specified under the Tartu Peace Treaty, shouldn’t we build a fence there?
The decision to construct border facilities was reasonable and is supported by all Estonian political parties. For a long time, we couldn’t marry our legal positions and our practical needs. After Eston Kohver was kidnapped, everyone suddenly understood that we didn’t have a physical border with Russia besides a few rusty signs here and there. There has to be a serious incident to get people on the move.
As Minister of Defence, do you think that entering into border agreements with Russia would be beneficial for Estonia?
There are no plans for such treaties at the moment, but they would have a positive effect. There is an English saying that good fences make good neighbours. This is especially true for neighbours who don’t get along that well. A border agreement wouldn’t affect the validity of the Tartu Peace Treaty in any way.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.