103rd ANNIVERSARY OF ESTONIAN INDEPENDENCE
Commemoration Speech by Sulev Kalamäe, Honorary Consul of Estonia
27 February 2021, at Sydney Estonian House,141 Campbell Street, Surry Hills NSW
I pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation on whose land this Estonian House stands, and to their elders past, present and future.
Her Excellency the Estonian Ambassador to Australia – Kersti Eesmaa, President of the Estonian Society of Sydney – Tiina Tamm, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen!
Whilst it is important to honour Estonia by speaking it’s language, I do recognise that here in Australia many of our younger generation genuinely struggle with Estonian, and so as not to alienate them, and to help them better understand their ancestry, I will give my speech in English.
Today we recognise the 103rd Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of Estonia, which was proclaimed on the eve of February 24, 1918.
Today we also remember those who fought and gave their lives for Estonia’s freedom in the War of Independence, which began 9 months later on November 28, 1918. We respect those young men, women, students, farmers, workers – who all responded to the needs of the situation – and risked their lives to turn a long-held dream into reality.
Last year I gave an overview of the events leading up to the end of the War of Independence and the signing of the Tartu Peace Treaty, which came into effect in February 1920.
If you will indulge me, today I would like to give an overview of the subsequent political developments in that first phase of Estonian independence during the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Having now won the war, the new challenge facing the Estonian people in early 1920 was how to win the peace, so to speak. They had a nation to build.
The manifesto of independence of February 1918 simply declared that Estonia would be a democratic republic. But there was no detailed instruction book available on how to construct a democratic republic. Each country needed to develop it’s own path.
At this stage I would like to bring into the picture Konstatin Päts. He is a figure that looms large in the political history of Estonia. Päts was one of the three original members of the Estonian Salvation Committee that wrote and issued the Estonian Declaration of Independence. Konstantin Päts also headed the Estonian Provisional Government that operated between 1918–1919.
Despite the ongoing War of Independence, Päts and the Provisional Government still managed to organise a general national election and on 23 April 1919 the newly elected Constituent Assembly took over running the country. Because Estonian society at that stage was generally left-leaning, the biggest group in the Constituent Assembly consisted of socialists, who then in turn chose the first chairman of the Assembly – August Rei.
The first main task of the new Assembly was to write the Constitution of the Republic, a task which was finally completed some four months after the end of the war, in June 1920. The constitution was considered one of the most democratic of the time, guaranteeing fundamental rights and complete equality of all citizens.
However, in practice the nation was still under martial law in many parts of the country, especially near the eastern border with the Soviet Union, and people’s rights were generally restricted.
As the new Constitution was shaped by the views of the leftist parties, the interesting result was that there was no President or Head of State. There were just too many bad memories of past Kings or past Csars! Instead the duties and functions of a President were carried out by the head of the government (called a riigivanem or State Elder) – who was basically a Prime Minister – but unlike a President – would have to resign & leave office whenever the government changed.
Under the Constitution the Riigikogu (or State Assembly, or parliament) could dismiss a government at any time, without incurring sanctions. Consequently a problem for the new nation was that there were far too many political parties on the scene – 14 different parties were elected into the first parliament of 1923.
These many political parties specialised in representing the views of farm owners, tenant farmers, landlords, former soldiers and so on. They typically formed short-term alliances with one or another, resulting in factionalism and ultimately much political instability. As a result from 1924 to 1934 – there were a total of 16 different governments in power in Estonia, each lasting no more than 10 months on average.
In that respect the early Estonian Republic was not necessarily that different from the current Estonian Republic – since re-independence in 1991, some 23 different governments have held power. Just recently the coalition government of Jüri Ratas resigned and a new coalition led by prime minister Kaja Kallas has taken charge.
(I am reminded by all this of the old saying, that if you put two Estonians together in a room, you are guaranteed that within the hour they will have formed three political parties!)
However back in 1924 the nation’s biggest political challenge soon came in the shape of an attempted communist coup in Tallinn, on the night of 1 December. In the depths of the post-war economic gloom that affected the young nation, the leaders of the Estonian Communist Party – with support and instructions from their leaders in Moscow – believed the time was ripe for a worker’s revolution. The coup attempt failed, and society having previously been somewhat tolerant towards Communists, now turned it’s back on these agents of Moscow who had exposed their true intentions.
By the early 1930s Estonia was hit hard by the Great Depression, which rapidly lowered living standards and caused much dissatisfaction in society. Many blamed the constantly quarrelling politicians and the parties for their predicament, and thus support for the Riigikogu and the Government fell to unprecedented levels. This unrest eventually led to the birth of new political forces in Estonia, particularly the proto-fascist League of Veterans of the War of Independence (or otherwise known as the Vaps Movement). Amongst many desired social changes, this group wanted to rewrite the Constitution, create the post of President and cut back the powers of the Riigikogu which in their eyes had demonstrated itself to be unworthy of rule.
In these feelings they were not alone. In the referendum of October 1933, 73% of the Estonian population –including your possibly grandparents or great-grandparents – supported the adoption of a new draft constitution that had been proposed by the Vapsid, and indeed it was widely expected the Vapsid (led by retired General Andres Larka) may win the forthcoming Presidential election, scheduled to be held in April 1934.
Now greatly alarmed by the prospect of the right-wing Vapsid coming into power, the State Elder (Konstantin Päts) together with two of the other candidates for President (being former General Johan Laidoner & the socialist August Rei) agreed to stage a pre-emptive coup – on 12 March 1934. The main objective was to eliminate the Vaps Movement. Martial law was declared for six months, later extended to 12 months. The League of Veterans as a political organisation was banned and hundreds of their active members arrested. Päts also suspended the Riigikogu and all other political parties. In concert with the army, Päts as acting State Elder began a rule by decree that endured, virtually without interruption until 1940.
This period (commonly known as the ‘Era of Silence’) was initially generally supported by the Estonian society. The people wanted stability and a return to normality. After the threat from the Vapsid was neutralised, however, calls for a return to parliamentary democracy gradually resurfaced. By 1936 Päts had allowed the election of a new National Assembly and the adoption of a new Constitution, which came into effect on 1 January 1938.
On 24 April 1938 the new parliament elected Päts as the first President of Estonia.
However Estonia had only limited time to try out this new form of governance, as within the next two years Estonia had been occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union, Riigikogu closed down (replaced by a new People’s Assembly) and President Konstantin Päts arrested and sent to exile in Russia. He was later placed in a mental asylum (on account he still insisted he was the President of Estonia), and where he died in early 1956. Sadly so ended the life of the man who helped write the Declaration of Independence back in 1918.
Riigikogu and the office of President of Estonia would not be reconstituted until 1992 when Lennart Meri became the next President, 52 years after Päts had been arrested by the Russians.
So whilst this time 100 years back, in 1921, the newly independent Estonia was finally able to see the dream nationhood come to reality, the Estonian people soon discovered, that reality does not necessarily turn out exactly the way they dreamt. In fact, they could never have anticipated the horrendous sequence of events that transpired after 1939.
But that is the hard lesson of life learnt by all young nations. And that experience gives nations a stronger purpose. I do think Estonia has now rightfully earned it’s place amongst the European and world community, and today we are fully entitled to celebrate the 103rd anniversary of it’s achievement of nationhood.
Long Live the Estonian people! Long Live the Estonian Republic!
Honorary Consul of Estonia,