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Taking back what was theirs: Estonia's independence restored in August 1991

A copy of the fax Lennart Meri, then Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, sent from Helsinki to Tallinn two hours after Estonia declared the restoration of its independence in August 1991.
A copy of the fax Lennart Meri, then Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, sent from Helsinki to Tallinn two hours after Estonia declared the restoration of its independence in August 1991. Source: (Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

While the stage was set by years of demonstrative and legal actions by Estonians seeking the restoration of their country’s freedom after decades of Soviet occupation, including the Singing Revolution, a term coined by activist and artist Heinz Valk to describe the peaceful freedom movement that began to gather more serious steam in 1988, it was in 1991 that a series of events finally led directly to the long-awaited restoration of Estonia’s independence.

In January 1991, the Soviet Union decided to hold a Union-wide referendum on March 17 regarding the matter of the preservation of a reformed Soviet Union. Estonia was one of a handful of countries to boycott the referendum, instead deciding by the end of January to hold a referendum of their own first.

While the very proposal of a referendum incited political disagreements on issues such as the legal principle of continuity and the participation of non-citizens in the vote, Estonia’s referendum, in which all residents of Estonia, excluding active members of the Soviet Armed Forces located on Estonian territory, were allowed to participate, garnered a turnout of 82.86 percent.

The Estonian referendum, held on March 3, 1991, posed the question, "Do you want the restoration of the Republic of Estonia’s national independence and self-governance?" A total of 77.83 percent of voters voted in favor of the question posed, while 21.43 percent voted against it.

Amid a three-day coup d'état attempt in Moscow, known as the August Pustch, or August Coup, arranged by the State Committee on the State of Emergency and led by hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who were unhappy with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika- and glasnost-centered reforms and new union treaty set to reform and decentralize the existing USSR, the 76th Guards Air Assault Division based in Pskov was sent to Tallinn by coup leaders, ordered take over the Tallinn TV Tower in an attempt to cripple Estonian communications.

The Soviet soldiers arrived in Tallinn on the afternoon of August 20, where they were met by volunteers who had responded to a call to take up the defense of Toompea Hill as well as the city’s radio and television buildings. Despite — or perhaps movitaved by — the presence of Soviet forces in the capital, that night, on August 20, 1991, at 11:02 p.m., the Supreme Council of the Republic of Estonia voted in favor of the Resolution on the National Independence of Estonia.

The 69 individuals who voted in favor of the resolution and now belong to the August 20 Club are Ülle Aaskivi, Mati Ahven, Andres Ammas, Tõnu Anton, Uno Anton, Lembit Arro, Hillar Eller, Kaljo Ellik, Ignar Fjuk, Illar Hallaste, Liia Hänni, Arvo Junti, Jaak Jõerüüt, Rein Järlik, Ants Järvesaar, Villu Jürjo, Hillar Kalda, Teet Kallas, Peet Kask, Johannes Kass, Kalju Koha, Valeri Kois, Mai Kolossova, Jüri Kork, Toomas Kork, Heino Kostabi, Ahti Kõo, Tiit Käbin,Ants Käärma, Mart Laar, Marju Lauristin, Enn Leisson, Jüri Liim, Jaan Lippmaa, Alar Maarend, Tiit Made, Mart Madissoon, Tõnis Mets, Aavo Mölder, Ülo Nugis, Ants Paju, Eldur Parder, Heldur Peterson, Andrei Prii, Priidu Priks, Jüri E. Põld, Enn Põldroos, Koit Raud, Jüri Reinson, Andrus Ristkok, Jüri Rätsep, Arnold Rüütel, Tõnu Saarman, Edgar Savisaar, Hanno Schotter, Lehte Sööt, Aldo Tamm, Rein Tamme, Andres Tarand, Indrek Toome, Enn Tupp, Ain Tähiste, Uno Ugandi, Ülo Uluots, Heinrich Valk, Ants Veetõusme,Rein Veidemann, Helgi Viirelaid and Vaino Väljas. The vote for the restoration of the country’s independence was confirmed with a strike of the gavel by Ülo Nugis.

The resolution, published the following day in the State Gazette (Riigi Teataja), was as follows:

312 Regarding Estonia’s national independence


Based on the continuity of the Republic of Estonia as a subject of international law,


drawing upon the Estonian population’s declaration of intent clearly expressed in the March 3, 1991 referendum to restore the Republic of Estonia’s national independence,


given the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR’s March 30, 1990 decision regarding “The Estonian national status” and the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR’s declaration regarding “The Cooperation of the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR and the Congress of Estonia,” taking into account that the coup which has taken place in the Soviet Union poses a serious threat to the democratic processes taking place in Estonia and has rendered impossible the restoration of the national independence of the Republic of Estonia by means of bilateral negotiations with the Soviet Union,


the Supreme Council of the Republic of Estonia has decided:


1. To confirm the Republic of Estonia’s national independence and seek the restoration of the Republic of Estonia’s diplomatic relations.


2.To establish for the development and submission to referendum of the Estonian Constitution the Constitutional Assembly, the composition of which will be shaped by delegation from the Republic of Estonia’s highest legislative organ of state power, the Supreme Council of the Republic of Estonia, and the representative body of the Estonian citizenry, the Congress of Estonia.


3. To hold parliamentary elections according to the new Constitution of the Republic of Estonia in the year 1992.


Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Estonia A. RÜÜTEL

Tallinn, August 20, 1991.

Just two hours after this vote, Lennart Meri, then Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, sent the following fax from Helsinki to Tallinn, with urgent orders:

Aug. 21, 1:10 a.m.



Please compile 2-3 texts in which political and constitutional arguments are presented with which the Republic of Estonia most urgently seeks international recognition. Please do this with the participation of R. Millerson, H. Lindpere, J. Luik A. Neljas and English translators, during the next 12 hours, as a priority.


Please regard all other activities as secondary to this work. That is an order.


The Soviet Union’s legal government no longer exists. The Latvian MN has been conquered and Kiev is being attacked. An attack is expected on Yeltsin’s headquarters in a few tens of minutes. Time must be measured in hours for the realization of our application as constitutional.


Lennart Meri 

On Aug. 22, Iceland became the first country to formally recognize Estonia's newly reestablished independence, with Russia following on the 24th, and other countries continuing to follow suit after that. By Aug. 29, Sweden became the first country to open its embassy in Tallinn, and by Sept. 6, the Soviet Union itself recognized Estonia's independence. On Sept. 17, Estonia joined the United Nations.

Three and a half months later, on Christmas Day, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, declared his office extinct and handed over its powers to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. One day later, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved by Declaration No. 142-H of the Soviet of the Republics of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, which also acknowledged the independence of the former Soviet republics.

While the country continued to rebuild both itself and its diplomatic relations in the early 1990s, Russian troops remained in the country for another three years — stark evidence of the reestablishment of Estonian independence not being a clean break following decades of occupation. On July 26, 1994, however, Estonian President Lennart Meri and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement for the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Estonian territory, the culmination of years of negotiations.

By Aug. 31, 1994, Russian troops were completely withdrawn from both Estonia and Latvia, and by Sept. 30, 1995, the decommissioning of Paldiski nuclear base was likewise completed.

Estonia applied for EU membership two months later, on Nov. 24, 1995, and after nearly a decade of negotiations was finally acceded to the EU on May 1, 2004. On March 29 of that same year, Estonia also joined NATO.


This article was originally run by ERR News one year ago, on Aug. 20, 2016.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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