The theory about small states does not hold when using the example of the Baltic States in international relations.
There has been surprisingly little research on the restoration of Estonia’s independence from the viewpoint of international relations, and this has been done almost exclusively without making any major generalisations. Nevertheless, it played a vital role in the establishment of the current balance of power in the world and gives vital clues about countries’ behaviour and the importance of international law, not to mention the natural desire to have a better overview of the histories of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Disintegration of the Soviet Union
It is evident that the restoration of independence in the Baltic countries happened as a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Then again, Estonians who were active in Moscow during the final years of the USSR have emphasised that the independence aspirations in the Baltics had a large part to play in bringing the empire to an end. Indeed, our part in its downfall is easier to underestimate than exaggerate. Firstly, the sovereignty movement in the Baltics inspired Boris Yeltsin, who delivered the death blow to the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Mikhail Gorbachev’s lack of leadership qualities and his inability to resolve the Baltic issue played a significant part in the marginalisation of his supporters and undoubtedly influenced the disintegration of the USSR.
In his clash with the Soviet leader Gorbachev, Yeltsin stressed the sovereignty of Union republics. Their aspirations for independence and their increasing importance as a result tempted Yeltsin to run for president of Russia, as well as to claim that Russia would be better off without the Soviet Union and funding other Union republics. Supporting the independence aspirations of the Baltic countries was one of the few opportunities for Yeltsin to undermine Gorbachev’s reputation in the West and form new ties with the leaders in Western countries, especially leading politicians in the US, who generally saw Gorbachev’s rule as the best possible scenario. Naturally, developments in the Baltics supported and inspired other democracy-oriented politicians in the Soviet Union—for instance, the Estonian Viktor Palm, who was chosen as one of the four co-chairmen of the Interregional Group of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union.
By the beginning of 1990, the sudden drop in oil prices and unfinished reforms had dragged the Soviet Union’s economy into an unforeseen slump. In this situation, Gorbachev’s only undisputed achievement was the improvement of relations with the West, where people had bestowed upon him major honours, including the Nobel Peace Prize. As domestic support was declining, Gorbachev naturally enjoyed the sympathy he received from the West, especially Gorbimania in Germany, and was afraid of losing it by taking a stronger stance on the Baltics. For that reason, he could not find support from imperialists, who criticised the weak response to independence aspirations in the Baltic states and arranged a coup d’état in August 1991 with the main goal of suppressing all independence movements within the USSR. The Soviet Union’s advocates had been divided into conservative communists and proponents of change, not counting those who tried to find a middle path, but they all lacked an agreed leader.
This is confirmed by the repeated discussions on the Baltic issue between Gorbachev and US president George H.W. Bush. On the one hand, the United States abstained from strong support for the independence movements in the Baltic countries in 1990–1, so as not to undermine Gorbachev’s foothold. The US saw the conservative communists as the alternative to Gorbachev, while the strength and power of those supporting change was probably underestimated, or perhaps the US simply did not want to take any risks by changing the already satisfactory status quo. However, Jack Matlock, the US ambassador in Moscow at the time, as well as foreign-policy analysts Michael Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, insist that after the Malta Summit in 1989 Bush warned Gorbachev directly that the United States could not stand idly by following the bloodshed in the Baltics. In fact, the support for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania was slightly stronger in Western Europe, and even more so in the Nordic countries, as well as Eastern Europe.
The Soviet Union’s final exit from the world stage only a few months after the restoration of independence in the Baltic states led to a new balance of power in Europe, where the Kremlin could not support any of its potential allies (e.g. Serbia) in terms of security or control the situation in former Union republics, including Belarus, let alone Ukraine.
The Theory of Small States
In the aftermath of World War II, the theory of small states became popular in the interpretation of international relations. The theory states that:
1) in their foreign policies, small states are dependent on a dominant large state and follow in its footsteps
2) by so doing, they increasingly tilt the balance of power in favour of the dominant state, while the other large states strive to restore the balance by acting against the dominant state
3) the closer [geographically] the small state is to the dominant large state, the more likely it is to take the interests of the dominant state into consideration
4) the ability to analyse international relations is clearly not as effective in small states as it is in large ones.
The restoration of Estonia’s independence, however, casts doubt on all these classic small states theories. In 1991, Iceland was the first to recognise the restoration of independence in the Baltic States (Estonia and Latvia on 22 August, following Lithuania on 11 February), announced its willingness to establish diplomatic relations with them, and was not following in the steps of any other country. (How nice that the location of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has, as a charming exception, been named Islandi väljak [Iceland Square—Tr.], despite the fact that Estonians are generally not very fond of commemorating foreigners in their street names.) Other small states were also at the forefront of the process of regaining independence for the Baltic States, while the United States, for instance, took longer than any other Western country to recognise their independence—although, unlike China and Japan, it did not wait for the Soviet Union to finally recognise the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on 6 September 1991.
From 1990 onwards, the most adamant criticism against the Kremlin and statements in support of the Baltics, which went beyond diplomacy, came from the Nordic countries, where the Baltics were able to open semi-diplomatic “information exchange offices”, although support also came from Eastern European countries. This is completely different from the perspective of the small states theory, according to which states closer to the Soviet Union should have been (in fear of the empire) less supportive of the restoration of independence.
The only exception was Finland. Its policies were observed by well-known Danish international relations professor, Hans Mouritzen, who came to the conclusion that the small state theory also applied during the restoration period in the Baltic States. When it comes to Finland, however, it is also worth noting the deep contradiction between the people’s active sympathy and enormous practical support on the one hand and political declarations on the other.
The most probable reason for this is incorrect prognosis of developments. The Finnish leadership simply did not see the Baltics’ independence as being very likely. Interestingly enough, in his infamous statement on 10 January 1991, Finnish president Mauno Koivisto not only emphasised that Finland recognised the Baltics as part of the Soviet Union, but also emphasised that there were “no indications that bloodshed was to be expected in the Baltic countries” (this was only a few days before the Soviet Union’s bloody attacks in Vilnius and Riga).
Meanwhile, Steingrímur Hermannsson, the then prime minister of Iceland, wrote on 24 January 1991 to Vytautas Landsbergis, the chairman of the Supreme Council of Lithuania that “There is no doubt in my mind that Lithuania shall become fully independent. It is only a matter of time.” A similar optimism was repeatedly and publicly expressed by Danish diplomats, who were more accurate in their prognoses than the representatives of the US. True, the different risks must also be taken into account; the main US concern was to avoid a nuclear conflict. It was also obvious that the support the Baltics received from traditionally neutral Sweden or other small states was received differently from the potential support from the US, which could have been interpreted as an attack. This was also clearly hinted at by Bush on 26 August 1991, when he had to explain why he was taking longer to recognise the Baltics’ independence than European countries or indeed Canada, which was also among the first countries to do so. “We have special obligations,” said the president. Estonians living in the US criticised Bush’s passivity and preferred Clinton in the president elections of 1992, but it is difficult to tell how greater pressure on Moscow might have led to a better outcome.
When studying the restoration of independence in the Baltics in my doctorate for the University of Tartu, the problem was that the department of political science preferred a global approach to a regional one; in other words, similar behaviour of defying a large neighbour, as happened during the restoration of Estonia’s independence, should also have occurred in other parts of the world. At that time no good parallels were found, but later events help us to see certain similarities with Latin America. Abkhazia’s independence was recognised by Nicaragua in 2008 and a year later by Venezuela. Besides those nations, Abkhazia has been recognised only by Russia and Nauru. The UN General Assembly resolution in March 2014 on the territorial integrity of Ukraine is also noteworthy; adopted by 100 votes in favour, with 11 against and 58 abstentions, most Latin American countries did not vote for the resolution and four voted against it.
But why? In their statements they spoke of international law, but were their factual information or handbooks on international law somehow different? Clearly, the issue was not about differing theoretical perspectives; a more important role was played by defiance against US foreign policy. In the 1950s the US had, so to speak, pocketed all of the Latin American votes because they had behaved just how the small state theory argues—in support of the dominant large state. The similarity with the restoration of independence in the Baltics is that the behaviour of small states is likely to change when the regional power no longer poses a threat to them, as it had done, for instance, just before and after World War II. When they no longer fear the collapse of their country, small states can be active and independent in foreign affairs. In fact, it is quite logical for them to undermine the dominant power in the region to reduce further its political influence over them.
On 27 August 1991, Estonian foreign minister Lennart Meri was in Oslo when several countries, most of all his Finnish and Swedish colleagues Paave Väyrynen and Sten Andersson, wanted to meet him as quickly as possible to re-establish bilateral diplomatic relations and to show their active participation in the new national security situation shaped by the August putsch in Moscow.
Andersson offered that Sweden would once again recognise the independence of the Baltic States, but Meri and his Latvian and Lithuanian colleagues said this was not necessary and that Sweden should just re-establish diplomatic relations. That is indeed what happened with all the Nordic and European countries, without anyone thinking it was necessary to recognise Estonia’s independence again.
Curiously, years later the Finnish media debated whether it would have been more honest in August 1991 to follow Sweden’s lead and re-recognise Estonian independence, having previously recognised Estonia as part of the Soviet Union. But Finnish journalists were not aware that Sweden had simply changed its mind at the last moment. This little episode about re-establishing diplomatic relations between Sweden and Estonia shows that, during restoration, politics were much more important than legal concerns. Legal considerations clearly took a back seat and it was quickly decided to opt for a more politically acceptable approach.
Sweden’s assessment of its Estonian policy during restoration also deserves to be seen in the context of a longer period of time because it demonstrates the most expressive ways of interpreting international law, not to say its dependence on timing.
In the aftermath of World War II, all the Nordic countries had more or less recognised the Baltics as part of the Soviet Union. Sweden, which had traditionally favoured an ethical foreign policy, was the country that had been most in the wrong during the golden age of the Soviet Union. At the Kremlin’s behest, it had not only given up all the gold secured by the Baltic countries, but also extradited the Baltic citizens who had served in the German army, thereby effectively recognising them as the citizens of the Soviet Union.
In November 1989, Sten Andersson claimed while visiting Tallinn that Estonia was not occupied and that “only a few radicals are pursuing independence”. A few weeks later, under pressure from public opinion and the opposition, the Swedish parliament finally reached the conclusion that the Baltic countries had been incorporated into the Soviet Union by force and even foreign minister Andersson noted that, although the Baltic States were not occupied, they were indeed annexed. Swedish politicians then also alluded to the fact that the government in power during World War II had recognised the Baltics as part of the Soviet Union. However, a new nuance suddenly emerged in March 1990, when the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee emphasised in a statement that the Baltic countries had never been recognised de jure as part of the Soviet Union. Regardless, in 1986, the Swedish parliament had rejected a bill under which the annexing of the Baltic countries did not mean that they belonged de jure to the Soviet Union.
The evolution of Sweden’s position is noteworthy from several viewpoints. In the early 1990s Swedish politicians could not find any new facts about the post-World War II Baltic policy, so the facts were simply interpreted according to the attitudes of the time and public opinion.
There has been a lot of talk about the importance of legal consistency in Estonia, but neither during the re-establishment of diplomatic relations in August 1991 nor afterwards did the implementation of international law and recognising national perseverance demonstrate any differences in comparison to Lithuania, where the restoration of independence took place purely due to the country’s Supreme Council and with significantly changed borders.
In relation to international law in the context of the Baltic States regaining their independence, Donald Trump recently stated that [under his presidency] NATO’s mutual assistance clause would not be automatically implemented. In response, the Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, did not argue that international agreements were meant to be followed, full stop. Instead, he emphasised in a Twitter message that Estonia was seriously committed to its military capability (spending 2% of GDP on defence), meaning that Estonia thereby fulfilled Trump’s conditions. Here I am reminded that Hugo Grotius [17th-century Dutch jurist—Ed.], who played an active role in the establishment of international law, did not emphasise pacta sunt servanda because that was how things were done, but because this principle was generally not followed during his lifetime.
It is also worth remembering the history of Estonia in the Middle Ages. Arnold Süvalep, who studied the history of the town of Narva, stated that in the decades following the battle of Grunwald in the 15th century the border between Livonia and the Grand Duchy of Moscow gradually shifted to the west, but old Russian chroniclers always wrote that “the border was agreed upon as per tradition, according to old Christian historical records”. No one would ever admit to going against a law or a tradition or point out its changes, but the real balance of power is often the decisive factor when interpreting a law. As one renowned lawyer has said, he dedicated himself to European Union law because it was something between extremely flexible international law and strictly regulated domestic law.
However, the importance of international law still cannot be played down indefinitely as it acted as a moral compass throughout the occupation period and helped to keep the Baltics question on the agenda, giving hope to Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. Certainly the fact that we had been occupied illegally enhanced friendly attitudes towards the Baltics in the Western media and public opinion, influencing politics as well. President Lennart Meri’s statement that “international law is the atom bomb of small states” nevertheless reflects an ideal situation, not the reality. The only country able to pursue policies in recognising the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and not recognising the occupation most consistently and decidedly was the US, because of its size and strength. It was the small states that, after World War II, did not have the courage to engage in international law for fear of the Soviet Union’s dominance.
The United Kingdom, which might have felt somewhat secure from the Soviet threat, was one of the few countries alongside the US that did not hand the Baltic embassies over to the Soviet Union, but it still acquiesced when it came to other possessions, including using Baltic gold for settling accounts with Moscow. Unlike the US, the UK also did not regard as valid the agreements made with the Baltic States during the period between the two world wars. However, in 1986 even the US was ready for an international television discussion, but the Soviet Union was represented by an audience in Jūrmala—hardly consistent with not recognising the occupation, and occasioning an appropriate explanation.
In conclusion, when reviewing international relations during the independence period, I would recommend that Estonian state institutions follow the example of Lithuania, whose parliament has published a chronology of the re-recognition of Lithuania and the related correspondence, organised by country (www3.lrs.lt/pls/inter/w5_show?p_r=4729&p_k=1). However, the correspondence published by the Lithuanians is not complete and Estonia could go one better than its fellow-traveller by giving a more complete overview.
The opinions in this article are the author’s own.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.