February 2, 2020

The Tartu Peace Treaty and Estonia’s Eastern Border

The original of the Tartu Peace Treaty.
The original of the Tartu Peace Treaty.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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 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.


The full version of the article is available in this year’s first issue of Diplomaatia.