23 August 1989

In Estonia, Momentum is Building Up

Today, 23 August 1989, marks the 50th anniversary of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939. In its secret protocol, the parties agreed to spheres of influence in certain areas of Eastern Europe. The independent states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania fell within the Soviet sphere. Beginning on this 23 August, and throughout 8 August 1990--fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Soviet's "acceptance" of the then Baltic states' "request" to join the USSR--a series of emotional fiftieth anniversaries is coming up. Preparations for massive demonstrations and other types of action to mark them have been meticulously carried out for months by the Popular Fronts, mass organizations which looks more and more like full-fledged political parties.

Today, amidst waves of resurgent nationalism throughout the country, the Baltic republics are likely to cause the greatest problems for Moscow. They have been among the most vociferous and certainly the most articulated in their claims, and their leaders enjoy greater support and more popular participation in their initiatives than those of any other republic.

Estonia is the most active of the three. The year 1939 is indeed the most pervasive obsession in the minds of Estonians today. It is nothing less than astounding for the foreign observer to note the degree of unanimity and excitement which exists on this score. Cooperation with the Latvian and Lithuanian Popular Fronts is comprehensive.

The fundamental demand which is being floated is that the Soviet government declares the 1939 secret protocol null and void, because it violated the rights of third parties.Incidentally, is also contravened Lenin's denunciation of secret diplomacy. Unlike what is often said, Estonians are not seeking to "leave" or "secede from" the USSR. Thus, they are not seeking to make use of the provisions which exist to that effect in the Soviet Constitution. If the annexation of 1940 is declared illegitimate, which all have always known it is, they can no longer "secede" from the USSR because they never lawfully "joined". Their relations with Moscow would then go back to being regulated by the 1922 Peace Treaty of Tarttu, signed by the Soviets after Estonia's first bid for independence.

Unlike in 1988, today Estonians are no longer asking "only" for increased economic or legislative autonomy, but for full political independence. Their avowed goal is to retain friendly relations with Moscow but on the basis of mutual respect for each other's sovereignty, "something like the relations between Eastern Europe and the USSR", one often hears in Tallinn.

The only aspects of sovereignty they are willing to coordinate with Moscow are foreign and defence policies, for which Estonians offer to pay a fixed annual fee to the all-Union government, to be re-negotiated with every five-year plan. This would guarantee that Estonia would contribute its fair share to the common interests of the Union--as long as it is a part of it. This would prevent any wealth produced above and beyond that fee from being diverted to other poorer or less reform-inclined republics.

But even in these two spheres the boundaries of Estonian claims are rather murky. For example, they insist that there should be Estonian trade missions and (yes!) full embassies abroad and that Estonians, and only Estonians, should only serve military duty in Estonian territory.

"Self-Managing Estonia" is the name of the project for economic autonomy which has been developed by Estonian economists. It is based on the assumption that the Baltic republics are the economically most advanced in the Union, and that for this reason it would be both unfair and counterproductive to brake their reforms. Perestrojka has a better chance of success in Estonia, they argue, where everything is on a smaller scale and is more amenable to change. Estonia could serve as a laboratory for experiments which could later be exported elsewhere.

Estonians are of course aware of the fact that about 40% of the population is ethnically non-Estonian--mainly Russian. They believe that these people can be co-opted to the Estonian cause on economic grounds: they, too, would enjoy a better standard of living if Estonia were economically more independent. That line, much to the surprise of very few, does not go down well at all with the ethnic Russians, who are most of all worried with becoming foreigners at home. Russian nationalists, as the recent strikes confirm, have already coalesced around the conservative "International Movement" to counter the independentist demand.

Nor are these ideas popular in Moscow ministries which control over 90% of Estonian industry. The prevailing view there is still that reforms should proceed in parallel in all Republics if at all possible, since this would be a precondition for the continuation of a pivotal role of the all-Union ministries in the allocation of resources. In addition, Moscow argues that the "rich" Baltic republics are net debtors to the rest of the Union because of large investment channeled there in the past.

Estonians counter that this is misleading since they would be better off if they were not obliged to export their products to other republics at artificially low prices. They acknowledge having received subsidies, but in worthless Rubles. Incidentally, monetary independence from the USSR is on top of the list of Estonian requests. It is primarily intended to stop the flow of fellow Soviets coming to fill their bags with merchandise they can not find at home and leaving behind useless bank notes, but it has a political overtone as well. At a talk I gave at the Tallinn Polytechnic I pointed out that the Estonian government could address this problem by allowing Estonians to hold hard currency and opening hard currency stores to anybody who walks in. Scarce goods could then be sold there and would be exported out of Estonia only to the extent that hard currency would be brought in, by whoever. One professor replied that they had not thought of it, but that in any case this would not help solve the sovereignty question like a national currency--for which the name, the pre-war "Crown", has already been agreed upon--would. All others attending agreed.

Thus the bottom line is clear: Estonians are seeking nothing less than the restoration of statehood. They feel the time to act is now, and that they must act as fast as possible, before glasnost and perestrojka might give way to other, less favorable circumstances. On that, they are probably right. Gorbachev may soon be in a no-win situation, where if he cracks down he risks discrediting his "new thinking", and if he does not he risks his losing job. In any case, hardly anybody in Moscow takes the possibility of granting independence seriously, quite aside from the legal details of whether it would be a "secession" or an "annulment" of the 1940 entry.

By all accounts in Moscow, there would be a crack-down if all other ways to prevent a show-down should fail. That their going too fast might precipitate just that eventuality does not seem to concern Estonians. What is most frightening is that there is little the West can do to imbue moderation into the atmosphere of excitement which prevails in Tallinn. We should at least avoid fuelling false expectations.

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