February 16, 2018

Turning Points in 100 Years of Estonian Diplomacy

Our external actions must ensure national independence

Our external actions must ensure national independence

The history of Estonian diplomacy began, somewhat paradoxically, before independence, with the establishment of the Estonian Foreign Delegation in the autumn of 1917. The Germans had reached Riga and the Estonian Provincial Assembly (Maapäev) believed that Estonia’s interests and potential independence should be promoted abroad. From there, the situation developed by leaps and bounds—in the spring of the same year, Estonia obtained autonomy from the Provisional Government and the area settled by Estonians had been transformed into an integrated whole. Autumn saw the establishment of the Foreign Delegation, with independence in its wake.
In passing, one might even entertain a thought for the part Aleksander Kesküla played in smuggling the chief Bolshevik, Vladimir Lenin, through Germany to Russia, paving the way for Estonian independence. It was Lenin’s rise to power and his opening of the gates to the Germans (“neither peace nor war”) that left Estonia with no other option but to declare independence on 24 February 1918. However, since Kesküla himself fell out with the Foreign Delegation, he cannot be considered an official part of Estonian diplomacy.
The Foreign Delegation and the Estonian Salvation Committee’s independence manifesto demonstrate the flexible nature of Estonian diplomacy. The international situation was changing every couple of weeks, if not every few days. One had to be prepared for nearly everything—at the time, Estonians were not like Ukrainians, who soon lost the ability to decide whose picture to hang on the wall because of frequent changes of power, but people could still sense that the old world—that they had perhaps even come to view as safe—was about to collapse.
It is all the more surprising that Estonia did not demonstrate its flexibility in 1939, especially when we consider that the republic was run by almost the same people who were at the helm in 1918. Looking back at statements made in early September 1939, it seems as if the Estonian leadership believed they could avoid the war that had just broken out. Why? In 1917–18, they were aware that the war might very soon reach Estonia and that something had to be done. No foreign delegation was formed in 1939, let alone a government-in-exile in 1940. On the contrary, Konstantin Päts signed all kinds of documents issued by the Soviet Union. (The possibility of a government-in-exile is also discussed by historian Magnus Ilmjärv in this issue of Diplomaatia.)
Naturally, the pre-war republic can be said to have established itself more firmly in the world than the Provincial Assembly in 1917, and embassies looked after representing Estonia abroad. However, if we look at the occupation and surrender of Estonia, we can see that the reaction was minimal, i.e. the flexibility displayed in 1917 and 1918 had been replaced by lethargy.
Where this government-in-exile would have been located and what its tasks might have been are questions in themselves. A government-in-exile would certainly have been a sign of Estonia’s forced surrender and—together with other governments-in-exile—would have highlighted the need to restore the situation that had prevailed before World War II. But, if the government-in-exile’s presumed location had been London, which was home to the exiled governments of many other occupied countries, Estonia would have faced a myriad of unpleasant questions.
The first, of course, is the notion that the government-in-exile that was to be established in London in 1940 should have changed sides, or at least its tone. In 1940, when the UK was alone in fighting Nazi Germany while Berlin and Moscow were almost allies, it would have been easy for the government-in-exile to point out the injustice towards Estonia. Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 would have made things more complicated. To provide a point of comparison, let us recall the Czechoslovak government-in-exile—it has been speculated that the assassination of the Acting Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, in 1942 was fuelled by London’s dissatisfaction with the Czechoslovak government-in-exile and its passive resistance movement. The government-in-exile, eager to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of London, thus organised Heydrich’s demise. Let us now place Estonia in this context. It did not stand up to the Germans until September 1944—it has been noted that Estonia was the only German-occupied country without an active resistance movement against the Nazis. The reason for this was that life under communism was still fresh in everyone’s minds.
The outbreak of the Cold War brought along another change in attitude—the government-in-exile’s work would have been made easier and, in reality, it was done by embassies. A government-in-exile was indeed formed, but it came too late. Moreover, the embassies and the government-in-exile did not get along. Instead, Estonia’s legal continuity was ensured by the embassies, but Ernst Jaakson drew attention in his memoirs to a problem that occurs in the case of long-term occupation—embassies must employ citizens of their home nation, but the number of Estonians abroad began to decrease after the war, and were not replaced. Those expatriate Estonians who lived in the West were usually citizens of their country of residence, which gave them political rights there and helped them to climb the career ladder. Still, Jaakson lived to see the rebirth of the Republic of Estonia.
In reality, Estonia’s independence has naturally depended on Russia and has been realised through mutual agreements. The first of these was the Treaty of Tartu, signed on 2 February 1920. Both parties needed the agreement—Estonia had lost several thousand men on the front and no longer had the strength to continue, while Soviet Russia saw peace with Estonia as its first window to the West. The Western Allies were averse to the treaty, because they were still hoping to punish Russia for cancelling debts and signing a separate peace agreement with Germany.
Unlike in 1920, Western pressure on Russia had a rather decisive role in the agreements of July 1994. The memoirs of the then US President Bill Clinton and his Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, provide valuable insights into the extent of the role of the White House in influencing the Kremlin to withdraw its troops from Eastern Europe.
Nonetheless, the Treaty of Tartu and the July 1994 agreements are similar in that Russia had been cornered. Naturally, it was evident from the beginning that the Soviets regarded the Treaty of Tartu as just a temporary manoeuvre, but Soviet Russia had lost in this specific section of the front. Moscow kept to the terms of the agreement until 1940, but this peace treaty could perhaps have met a relatively quick end if Soviet Russia had won the Polish–Soviet War. The miracle on the Vistula may have saved the Treaty of Tartu.
By 1994 it was clear that Russia had lost the Cold War, but it had already begun to show its new authoritarian face—in 1993, President Boris Yeltsin had attacked the Russian parliament, and his action only met with brave facesfrom Western countries. The forces had to be withdrawn from Eastern Europe. It is absolutely certain that Estonia would not have made it into the European Union or NATO if Russia had not withdrawn its troops in 1994. The previous year had seen a referendum on autonomy in Narva and Sillamäe, but it came to nothing, so the forces could be withdrawn. After all, Russians in Estonia did not suffer the same fate as ethnic minorities in the Balkans. Nevertheless, the case of Narva is far from being closed, as Katri Raik clearly shows in this issue.
The diplomacy surrounding the restoration of independence, however, demonstrates that Estonia had somehow regained its flexibility. This should not be confused with opportunism, but the fact that Estonia responded to the attempted coup in Moscow in August 1991 by having the Estonian Supreme Soviet declare independence and foreign minister Lennart Meri’s activities in Helsinki showed that we had woken up from lethargy. In truth, this outcome was not unexpected, as decades of the policy of non-recognition had provided us with a springboard.
Accession to the European Union and NATO was akin to an endgame. Or so it seemed. But, as the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia approaches, it has become clear that history did not end. History, including diplomacy, continues.
What could the new horizons for Estonian diplomacy be? Our presidency of the Council of the European Union certainly created a historically unfamiliar situation for Estonia, having us manage the activities of a large international organisation. Perhaps this is comparable in historical terms to Johan Laidoner’s mission as a representative of the League of Nations in resolving the border dispute between Iraq and Turkey in 1925. Estonia is currently working to achieve a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
However, looking back over these 100 years, we can see that Estonian diplomacy must concentrate on ensuring our independence. It has to be dynamic. These are the keywords by which we should live, even in the 21st century.