February 20, 2020

The Tartu Peace Treaty and Estonia’s Eastern Border

In terms of foreign policy, it would benefit Estonia to have a border agreement with Russia

When Estonia regained independence in August 1991, it was not within the borders in which it was born in February 1920 as a subject of international law under the Tartu Peace Treaty, and in which it was occupied and unlawfully annexed by the Soviet Union in June 1940.

The Stalinist Soviet Union considered the border between Estonia and Russia an administrative line that the Kremlin “adjusted”, assigning 75% of the Pechory area (1,251 square kilometres) to the territory of the Pskov Oblast in August 1944, and the municipalities east of Narva (375 km2) to the Leningrad Oblast in January 1945. Estonia lost territory almost equivalent in size to the current county of Põlva.

The area east of Narva was outside the historical boundaries of Estonia, encompassing Ivangorod (Jaanilinn) and the Russian-built fortress or kremlin. It was a trophy of the War of Independence and a buffer zone that was to guarantee the security of the city of Narva. The local population consisted mainly of Russians (nearly 77%), a little more than 11% Estonians, and various other Finno-Ugric peoples.

Russians were also in the majority (65%) in the Pechory region before World War II, but the proportion of Estonians was much greater compared to the area east of Narva (almost 33%). Pechory Monastery, a very important place for Orthodox Christians (including the Seto people), is said to have been the motive behind “reassigning” the Pechory area in 1944, but in reality Joseph Stalin probably wanted to erase the border specified under the Tartu Peace Treaty, which was considered “shameful” for Russia, and to execute the Kremlin’s universal policy of shifting borders that was applied almost everywhere throughout the Evil Empire.

For example, in 1921 Stalin decided to give the regions of Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Nikita Khrushchev ordered the Crimea to be incorporated into the territory of the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. The current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, took it back by force in 2014, although the borders of the so-called republics that came into existence after the Soviet Union collapsed (which became national borders) were supposed to remain. In addition, Russia de facto annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia and Transnistria from Moldova and occupied the “separatist” areas of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine.

Russia’s approach to border issues on the territory of the former Soviet Union is clearly selective and the Kremlin’s logic (historical right) does not extend to other contexts that do not cast a favourable light on Moscow (such as Pechory). It is worth bearing in mind that, since Alaska was sold to the United States, Russia has not surrendered or returned even the tiniest plot of land without a war. The only exception is the almost peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, which Vladimir Putin calls the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century”.

Border negotiations between Estonia and Russia started in the first half of the 1990s, but for Estonia the most pressing question back then was the withdrawal of Russian troops so that we wouldn’t miss the deadline of 1994 (the year Russian forces left eastern Germany and other former Warsaw Pact states).

The Estonian-Russian demarcation line at Luhamaa and the plank road on the border strip. Õhtuleht/Scanpix

It was clear to Russia that Estonia, which had regained independence on the basis of legal continuity, would request the reinstatement of the national border specified under the Tartu Peace Treaty, which is why the Kremlin made a pre-emptive move. In 1993, the State Duma passed a law that established the former Soviet administrative border (the so-called demarcation or check line) as the national border between Russia and Estonia. President Boris Yeltsin soon visited Pskov Oblast and the new “national border” and said that Russia would not surrender (that is, give back) an inch of “its” land.

Estonia was told that a border different from the so-called demarcation line would be out of the question. The first treaty draft produced during the border negotiations included both a political preamble and a description of the border, naturally in two completely different wordings. References to the Tartu Peace Treaty and the border specified under it, as well as to the agreement between the Russian SFSR and Republic of Estonia signed in 1991 and the description of the “demarcation line”, were placed in square brackets by both parties.

There is no reason to doubt that Estonia was a  state (albeit an occupied one) at the beginning of 1991, but the Russian SFSR was never a subject of international law that would have had the right to act as an independent state. The agreement signed in Tallinn couldn’t have been more than a mutual act of support for the restoration or attainment of independence at that time and under those circumstances. Bilateral relations between the countries began in February 1920 but Moscow is displeased with this fact for several reasons, not only the border issue. If proof were needed, I can reveal that President Putin has prepared an in-depth article on the historical “truth” of World War II and the period that preceded it.

No progress was made and the border negotiations ground to a halt in 1995. Estonia was faced with several fundamental questions. It has historical and legal rights, but is it actually possible to reach a compromise with Russia and retrieve even some of the land that was taken away from Estonia? Russia has taken land from nearly all of its neighbours, from Finland to Japan. As can be seen, it has not stopped doing so and is not planning on returning anything.

In current circumstances, returning the Pechory district to Estonia would be a generous move on Moscow’s part, but Russia would certainly want a favour in return or compensation, which Estonia most probably wouldn’t be able to afford (compared to, for example, Japan’s financial means in respect of the disputed Kurile Islands). The request might be financial as well as political (for example Estonia’s “neutrality”—i.e. leaving NATO).

We understood in the mid-1990s that we would create a precedent under which other countries could demand territory back from Russia, which is why the Kremlin would remain unyielding (cf. the example of Japan again). Another important question was securing Estonia’s orientation towards the West, i.e. the prospect of NATO and EU membership, since Russian forces had left Estonia. There was no doubt that Russia was trying to exploit the border issue to prevent Estonia from approaching the West. Estonia needed to show to its Western partners, including the US, that it would do its best in signing the border agreement and resolving the border issue.

Active members of the Seto people protested against giving up the border line specified in the Tartu Peace Treaty and legitimising the “demarcation line”. The Setos’ land has been split in twain for good, people cannot visit the graves of their ancestors on the other side of the border and so on, things with which we can naturally sympathise on a human level. This is the harsh reality that we needed to consider and still must. Estonia’s south-eastern border could not be moved east but we achieved a simplified border-crossing procedure for those local people entitled to it. Another thing is that the whole Estonian state might have remained hostage to the border issue and missed the train of joining the Western world.

In the autumn of 1995, the Estonian government approved a so-called “technical” border treaty that did not include a political preamble. This agreement was based on the so-called demarcation line, which Estonia and Russia agreed to straighten in the south (on land) to shorten the border and improve its guarding/monitoring. In the course of the straightening process, Russia demanded that uninhabited areas be reassigned on maps and in border descriptions to a precision of 1,000 square metres.

Of course, Estonia needed to make sure that the border treaty corresponded to the Constitution, including Section 122, which specifies, inter alia, that: “The land border of Estonia is determined by the Tartu Peace Treaty of 2 February 1920 and by other international border agreements. The sea and air borders of Estonia are determined on the basis of relevant international conventions.” The then Attorney General and government agreed that there was no need to amend the Constitution and there would be no conflict if the new border line partly overlapped the border specified in the Tartu Peace Treaty (owing to the wording “… and by other international border agreements”), which was true for a section of the border located along Lake Lämmijärv.

The two foreign ministers, Siim Kallas and Yevgeny Primakov, approved the final draft of the border treaty in November 1995 at Petrozavodsk, but Russia stalled and insisted the negotiations continue (with a view of changing the names of villages on maps, etc.). It was only when Estonia acceded to the EU and joined NATO that Moscow sought to end the border treaty saga; nevertheless, Russia has not ratified it and the treaty has not been brought into force by either side.

The Kremlin claims that the preamble to the ratification act adopted by the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu) in June 2005 amends the bilateral border treaty. This is clearly an excuse to show that Estonia has an unconstructive attitude and is presenting territorial demands to Russia, although the ratification of the border treaty in the Riigikogu proved the exact opposite.

The latest version of the border treaty, signed by foreign ministers Urmas Paet and Sergey Lavrov in February 2014, differs from the previous drafts by a small paragraph that affirms Estonia has no territorial claims. Events in Ukraine postponed a decision on the fate of the treaty until the distant future. Presidents Kersti Kaljulaid and Vladimir Putin did not mention the treaty when they met in Moscow in April 2019, although it would have been appropriate if the countries wanted to improve their bilateral relations.

Estonians still haven’t reached a political consensus on the treaty signed in 2014. Some political parties demand that the border specified in the Tartu Peace Treaty be honoured, appealing to historical and legal rights, thereby ignoring the actual situation as well as potential and probable consequences.

Today, about 35,000 people live in Pechory (the Russian district) and the areas east of Narva, two-thirds of them as residents of Pechory and Ivangorod, towns about the size of Haapsalu. There are only 300 Estonians, accounting for less than 1% of the population. Do we want to import 35,000 Russian citizens to Estonia in addition to the existing numbers (nearly 100,000)—especially if we consider that most of them don’t want and can’t get Estonian citizenship and are not that favourably disposed towards the Estonian state?

Estonian territories that have unlawfully remained under Russia are unfortunately some of the poorest, even among the Russian periphery. Who will pay for developing these regions until they reach the average level acceptable in Estonia? Is it the EU, which is regarded with hostility or scepticism by those who demand the Tartu Peace Treaty be honoured?

Estonia is the last of Russia’s neighbours with which it does not have a border treaty besides Japan. Will a valid border treaty change anything, when agreements with neighbours are nothing but pieces of paper to Russia (as with Ukraine) if they don’t coincide with Moscow’s interests? I would argue that a working border treaty is better than no treaty. This opinion is shared by our allies (do we know better to disagree?) Breaching the treaty would add to Russia’s list of sins and provide a solid legal basis for potential countermeasures by our allies.

Finally, Estonia’s legal continuity (based on Section 2 of the Tartu Peace Treaty) would not disappear when the border treaty enters into force. The peace treaty is valid based on and within the scope of that section and will remain so, but it seems that Russia is trying to muddy the waters. Foreign minister Lavrov claimed at a press conference on 17 January 2020 that Estonia didn’t want to enforce the border treaty since the Tartu Peace Treaty would become null and void as a result. This means that the peace treaty is still in force, and we should remind Russia of this—even if the old border line changes.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.