Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 25

On February 2, Estonia observed the eightieth anniversary of the Russian-Estonian treaty of Tartu, which marked the defeat of Soviet Russia’s effort to seize Estonia by force and enshrined Moscow’s recognition of the independent Estonian state and its borders. Although torn to shreds by the USSR when it occupied Estonia in 1940 and 1944, the Tartu Treaty was never formally abrogated and formed the cornerstone of the legal continuity of Estonia’s independence throughout the occupation period. Abroad, the continuity thesis enabled the United States and other Western nations to maintain their recognition of Estonia’s–and, for analogous reasons, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s–independence; at home, it facilitated the restoration of that independence in 1991. The treaty’s stipulations have been incorporated into the constitution of the restored state.

The treaty, moreover, may be seen as a reinsurance policy for the future, as long as the new Russia officially refuses to admit to the illegality of the Soviet occupation and declines to sign legally valid bilateral treaties which would enshrine Estonia’s independence and borders. Estonia considers the Tartu Treaty–in the words of Prime Minister Mart Laar (a trained history teacher), at the anniversary ceremony–as “Estonia’s weightiest foreign policy document.”

On the eve of the anniversary, Russia’s ambassador to Estonia, Aleksei Glukhov, issued a special statement urging that Estonia no longer officially observe the anniversary. Glukhov termed the Tartu Treaty “positive in its time” insofar as it ended military hostilities, but did not explicitly mention the treaty’s recognition of Estonia’s independence. The ambassador’s statement, however, alluded to that recognition only to claim that the treaty “became obsolete, legally and in practice, when Estonia joined the Soviet Union in 1940.” This claim expresses Moscow’s position that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania somehow decided to become parts of the USSR–a position designed to spare Russia from acknowledging and repudiating the Soviet occupation and its consequences.

Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, in a February 2 declaration, not only supported Glukhov’s statement as “fully corresponding to the Ministry’s position,” but went even further–declaring, unilaterally and retroactively, that the treaty had “lost its validity de jure and de facto” in 1940–that is, with the Soviet occupation of Estonia. The declaration referred to that event as “the admission of Estonia into the Soviet Union”–a phrase traditionally used by Soviet historiography to suggest that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had “requested” to be annexed. The ministry’s declaration asserted, furthermore, that Moscow’s recognition of Estonian independence rests on the USSR State Council’s Decision of September 6, 1991, which “proceeded from the fact that Estonia had up to that point formed a constituent part of the USSR as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.” This part of the ministry’s declaration implies: that Estonian independence had been granted rather than restored; that it stems from an authority which has lapsed in the meantime; and that the recognition is not unqualified, but linked to the thesis that the state of affairs from 1940/44 to 1991 had been legal and legitimate.

Speaking in Tartu on anniversary day, Laar underscored not only that treaty’s importance and uninterrupted validity as “the foundation of our continuity, of our state edifice and of contemporary Estonia’s international relations.” He also pointed to an unintended, baneful psychological by-product of the treaty in lulling Estonia into a false sense of security and a notion that mere goodwill and neutrality would earn immunity from invasion–assumptions which the other two Baltic states shared. “That tragic blindness,” Laar observed, “helped pave the way toward occupation and annexation.” Mindful of that history lesson, “[Estonia strives] to join NATO as a full partner in the common defense.” In lieu of detailed comment on Glukhov’s statement, Laar sent him a copy of the fifth grade textbook of Estonian history, specially inscribed for the Russian ambassador by Laar, who in fact is its author (BNS, Eesti Paevaleht, Itar-Tass, February 1-3).