Riigikogu speaker: Treaty of Tartu laid statehood foundation 101 years ago

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The original Treaty of Tartu briefly on public display at the National Archives of Estonia. February 2, 2017. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

The Tartu Peace Treaty was the birth certificate of the Republic of Estonia, and laid the foundation for the sovereignty of Estonia, Riigikogu speaker Henn Põlluaas (EKRE) said Tuesday, on the 101st anniversary of the signing of a treaty between the new republic and the fledgling Soviet Russian state.

Põlluaas said that the treaty was: "… a confirmation of the legal continuity of our state, but not only that. The Tartu Peace Treaty is also a political and moral victory of our country, which laid the foundation for our statehood."

The speaker noted that although the Peace Treaty had not had an easy birth, it nonetheless became the basis for the independence and integrity of Estonia.

Treaty followed two years of independence war

While Estonia declared independence in February 1918, amid the ashes of World War One – which for the Russian Empire had ended through the course of 1917 – it had to wait another two years, and another long and destructive war of independence for that to become a reality.

Riigikogu speaker Henn Põlluaas (EKRE). Source: Riigikogu

"After the harsh War of Independence, it was important that the security of our people was ensured, and that no sacrifice made during the war or no fight fought for homeland were in vain," Põlluaas said, via a press release.

Flag day

February 2 sees the national flag hoisted no later than 8 a.m. by all state and local government authorities, legal persons governed by public law, as well as many private households and individuals.

Henn Põlluaas is to attend a commemoration ceremony in Tartu's Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats) at 6.30 p.m. Tuesday.

The speaker also stressed that the treaty was no mere historical document, given that Estonia's independence was interrupted by nearly half-a-century of Soviet Occupation beginning in World War Two, adding that any attempts to distort its provisions only confirm Estonia's success both at the negotiating table and on the battlefield.

The negotiations ended the War of Independence, established Estonia's eastern border, and saw Soviet Russia recognizing the independence of the Republic of Estonia in perpetuity.

Treaty of Tartu had implications beyond Estonia

The treaty was also internationally significant in that it was the first international act to mention the right of peoples to decide their own destiny, coming in the wake of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and making it an important way-stage towards enshrining nations' rights to self-determination in international law. 

At the time the treaty was signed, 101 years ago, the country's first foreign minister and one of the treaty's signatories Jaan Poska said: "Today is the most important day of the past 700 years for Estonia, because today, for the first time, Estonia alone will determine the future fate of its people."

The periods of history Poska was referring to saw Estonia come first under the orbit of Danish crusaders (in the case of northern Estonia) and crusaders from the northern German Livionian and Teutonic orders, in the case of southern Estonia and Latvia, later followed by a period when much was under Swedish rule from the mid-sixteenth century, only to fall under the Russian Empire's sphere of influence following Sweden's defeat in the Great Northern War of the early 18th century, a rule which lasted until the events leading up to the treaty.

The treaty entered into force on March 30 1920.

William Tomingas, secretary of the Estonian delegation, described the solemn reception the delegation of the Treaty of Tartu received when returning to the capital, Tallinn. Many people who had come to the streets to greet them took off their hats despite the bitter cold, he wrote, while Jaan Poska later recalled that for him, the greatest recognition of his work came from a woman bystander, who crossed herself and told him: "You saved our sons". 

Signing of the Treaty of Tartu on February 2, 1920. Source: EFA

Treaty later filed with the League of Nations

Written in both Estonian and Russian, with English and French translations filed with the League of Nations – the world's first global inter-governmental organization and in many ways the forerunner of the present-day UN – from 1922, the treaty comprises 20 articles ending the independence war, recognizing the Estonian state, and covering border, security, economic, social and traffic policies. Soviet Russia recognized Estonian independence de jure, and bilateral relations between the two new states began.

The negotiations had continued after a cease-fire was signed on the last day of 1919, while the guns actually fell silent on January 3 1920, itself set up as a day of remembrance for the War of Independence.

Other details and outcomes included the return of property seized from Estonia and the provision of gold reserves from Russia, while ethnic Estonians living on Russian territory were given the right to return to Estonia and take citizenship – which close to 40,000 did.

Estonian signatories were Ants Piip, Julius Seljamaa, Mait Püüman and Major-General Jaan Soots, as well as Jaan Poska, while Adolph Joffe, member of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workmen, Peasants, Soldiers of the Red Army and Cossacks, and Isidore Gukovsky, member of the College of the Popular Commissariat of State Control, represented the Soviet state.

Multi-faceted War of Independence

Forces from several other countries had taken part on Estonia's side during the War of Independence, including those of Finland, Denmark and the U.K., and even White Russian forces – temporary allies working towards reestablishing Imperial Russia and defeating the Bolsheviks. Estonia's foes also were not confined to Red Russian forces; Estonian troops joined Latvian freedom fighters in a campaign against the German Baltische Landeswehr, the unified armed forces of the Couronian (Latvia) and Livonian (Latvia and South Estonia) aristocracy which had been preeminent for centuries and now saw its hegemony dissolving. A key battle in this theater took place in Cesis, Latvia (Estonian: Võnnu) in June 1919 and saw the Estonian-Latvian forces defeat the Landeswehr and German Freikorps allies.

Last year saw the centennial of the treaty's signing and was as such marked by a procession of different events.

Similar treaties were signed during the same year between Lithuania (July) and Latvia (August) and the Soviet Russian state.

More information on the Treaty of Tartu is available here and (same text as a PDF file) here

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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