Centenary of the Tartu Treaty: Estonia Opens Pandora’s Box

On February 2nd Estonia celebrated with unprecedented pomp the 100th anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty with Soviet Russia. The level of these celebrations is evidenced by a far from complete list of events dedicated to the anniversary: conferences, online lectures, concerts, divine services, rallies. Estonia issued a €2 coin and a commemorative medal in honour of the anniversary, presented talking sculptures and a woven carpet in honour of the treaty, and even staged its theatrical re-signature. Let’s agree, few international documents are awarded such honour.

Surely none of this would have happened if the 1920 Treaty of Tartu had not recently started to be layered with the modern political events and territorial claims against Russia that are increasingly voiced by representatives of some Estonian political forces. First and foremost, by the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), which has been part of the ruling coalition since last year. It came to the point that the claims were made even in the New Year’s address of the Speaker of Parliament Henn Põlluaas, who represents this party. Congratulating the Estonian people on the new year of 2020, he said that the Treaty of Tartu is valid, and therefore the borders between Estonia and Russia established by this document are also relevant.

In principle, and before the rise of the “great-power” EKRE to the political firmament, references to the 1920 pact repeatedly created problems in relations between Russia and Estonia. It is worth recalling that it is because of precisely this document that we still do not have a border agreement. The treaty, initialled by both parties as early as the 1990s, was not ratified in the end due to Tallinn’s attempt to blatantly cheat by unilaterally adding a reference to the same Treaty of Tartu to the preamble at the last moment. It took years to re-sign the treaty without a provocative preamble. But if the previous composition of the Estonian parliament did not risk ratifying it, the current one with such a speaker and with EKRE in the coalition will not be able to take this step.

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The problem is that in 1920, when signing the treaty in the city of Tartu, which in Russia was still called Yuryev (which is why the Russian version of the document includes this name), the Bolsheviks made unheard of concessions, agreeing to the inclusion of Ivangorod and districts inhabited mainly by the Russian population in Estonia. In addition, Moscow undertook to allocate to Tallinn a part of the gold reserve of the Russian Empire (modern Estonian historians claim that 11 tons of gold were delivered), at the same time writing off part of the imperial debts (in fairness, it should be noted that the Bolsheviks themselves were not yet going to give them to someone). And that’s not all. In exchange for peace, Estonia was granted a concession for logging in Russia.

Despite the frankly burglarious terms, Lenin received the treaty with enthusiasm. For several weeks, in his speeches and articles, he called the document “a breakthrough in the blockade”, “an act of enormous historical importance”, “a window to Europe”, and so on. The fact is that this was the first inter-state agreement with a capitalist European state. By current standards, it would be described as a pact of two “self-proclaimed unrecognised republics”. But Lenin hoped in this way to shake Europe’s unity and break the economic blockade. “We have made peace with Estonia – the first peace to be followed by others, opening up the possibility of trade exchange with Europe and America,” he wrote in the “Pravda” newspaper.

At the same time, the leader of Soviet Russia admitted that he had given the Estonians purely Russian territories, which had never had anything to do with Estonia. He explained this quite simply: “We do not want to shed the blood of workers and Red Army soldiers for a piece of land, especially since this concession is not made forever: Estonia is going through a period of Kerensky, workers <… > will soon overthrow this power and create Soviet Estonia, which will sign a new treaty with us”.

This approach to defining boundaries was inherent to the Bolsheviks from the beginning. Cordons were considered to be a convention and a relic of the past. After all, the world revolution was about to break out – and then “all Soviet republics will unite into a single world socialist federation”.

Thus, there wasn’t much difference to whom this or that “Kem volost” would go to. It is on this basis, for example, that Donbass joined Ukraine, as Vladimir Putin has repeatedly pointed out.

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But in 1940, when Estonia was attached to the USSR, the Treaty of Tartu (Yuryev) lost force, and mainly Russian districts were transferred to Russia, to the Pskov and Leningrad regions. It is these regions that the mega-patriots of EKRE now lay claim to, periodically making territorial claims against Moscow and ignoring the principle of the inviolability of post-war borders.

Estonian politicians who discuss this topic don’t even seem to understand what Pandora’s box they are trying to open. Well, in fact, if they want to revive a long-lost document from centuries ago, why not dig deeper and get close to, say, the 1721 Treaty of Nystad, through which Russia, in fact, gained legal possession of the whole current territory of Estonia and part of Latvia (including Riga). And Peter I paid money for it that was substantial in those times. None of the current Baltic politicians raise the issue of compensation for the terminated treaty and do not demand for it to be included in the preamble of new international documents. Pompous anniversary celebrations in honour of the 300th anniversary of this Treaty are not yet planned in the Baltics.

If we remember the borders created by the conflicts of 1920, the Lithuanians would have to give Vilnius to the Poles, and Lvov to the Ukrainians. If we set our sights on the post-war borders, Western Poland would have to move to Germany. But for some reason none of these countries, which rushed to audit the historical events of the 20th century, hint at this.

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On the other hand, it has become fashionable for them to demand reparations, compensation and indemnity from Russia. It is funny, for example, to watch former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Pavel Klimkin demand compensation for “the Stalin regime’s occupation of part of the territory of Poland and Ukraine”. I would like to ask what part of Ukraine this regime occupied. If it is again about Polish Lvov, it seems that the current Kiev regime continues to control it. Accordingly, what should Moscow compensate and to whom? Let them understand between themselves who is the “occupier” to whom.

All current attempts by the young Europeans to revise history and pull out of mothballs long-defunct documents of past epochs will certainly turn against them. Of course, all of this is doomed to failure and is not worth even the anniversary coin in honour of the Treaty of Tartu. But in the coming years we will witness more than one such anniversary with the mandatory silence towards some other – “awkward” – anniversaries.


Vladimir Kornilov

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