Years of parliamentarian democracy

​The chain of events unleashed by the 1917 Russian revolutions led through he War of Independence (1918-1920) to the Republic of Estonia. For the first time in history the Estonians had their own state, governed via representational democracy by the Estonian people. Estonia was a multinational country; besides Estonians there were Russians, Germans, Swedes, Jews and others, altogether about 1 million people. A large number of Estonians lived outside the republic, especially in the Soviet Union.

​Public order in Estonia was determined by the constitution adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 15 April 1920. Typically of the era and based on the idealism of a newly independent people, the constitution was remarkably liberal. Estonia was a parliamentary democratic republic, where the supreme power belonged to the people: the one hundred- strong Riigikogu, the Estonian parliament, had legislative power. Executive power was implemented by the government headed by the State Elder, both of them politically answerable to the parliament. One of the peculiarities of the constitution was that it did not stipulate the post of the head of state (president): the State Elder whose duties included some representational functions of a head of state, primarily fulfilled the tasks of a prime minister.

​The administrative division (into parishes and counties) and national symbols of the newly established republic were based on historical traditions.

​Estonia’s international status became more secure in 1921, when the leading countries in the world recognised Estonia de jure. Estonia became a full member of the League of Nations the same year. Normal or even friendly relations developed with most countries. Relations with the communist Soviet Union were exceptional: despite sharp ideological opposition, economic relations were pragmatic, because the internationally isolated Soviet Union desperately needed an outlet to the world market, and the young Estonian state equally desperately needed the income earned through transit trade.

​Estonian political life in the 1920s was influenced by the large number of parties: the Riigikogu usually had six bigger and four to eight smaller parties. The only option with such fragmentation was to form coalition governments, involving representatives from four or five parties. Hence only general principles could be agreed when the government was formed. In solving more specific questions, discord was quick to arise, and coalitions were therefore unstable – the average duration of a government was a bit under 11 months.

​However, the young state turned out to be surprisingly successful in administrative and economic areas, which strengthened stability. A national currency was adopted as early as 1918, the Estonian mark (replaced by the kroon in 1928). Land reform was of crucial importance. It ended the hundreds of years of economic and political supremacy of the Baltic German minority and increased the number of loyal smallholders by establishing tens of thousands of new farms. Industry and trade also developed rapidly, although relying too much on Russian markets and the extremely liberal credit policy caused a temporary setback in 1923 and 1924. A hugely profitable but short-lived deal was the brokering of Soviet Russian gold to the West (1920-1922). The new economic policy of Finance Minister Otto Strandman helped to end the crisis: without neglecting industry, the focus was now on agriculture and Western markets, and also on Estonia’s own needs. By the end of the 1920s Estonia had successfully integrated into the European economic space.

​Developing Estonian-language national culture became essential as well. Much attention was paid to the humanities (developing Estonian-language terminology, history, ethnography, economic geography etc.). For the first time it was possible to acquire education in Estonian, from primary school to university, and the University of Tartu became the national university. At the same time, national minorities were able to acquire secondary education in their mother tongue and enjoy cultural autonomy; special attention was paid to integrating the border areas predominantly inhabited by the Russian-speaking population; repatriation of Estonians from Soviet Russia was promoted.

​The main factor of instability in the early 1920 was the threat of communism. Not that the communist ideology and movement were influential in Estonia, but the few communists had the backing of the Soviet Union together with the Comintern, who generously financed their followers abroad. The aim of the communists was to seize power by means of an armed rebellion and immediately afterwards turn to the Soviet Union for help. This was to be followed by the Red Army marching in, incorporating and Sovietising Estonia. However, the attempted coup on 1 December 1924 failed, and after that the communist movement lost support in Estonia. To secure public order, a voluntary armed organisation, the Defence League, was re-established, and the cultural autonomy of national minorities was made legal.

​The biggest threat to Estonian independence was the Soviet Union, whose foreign policy moves were keenly observed. The planned military-political defence league (Baltic League) against the Soviet threat of invasion involving all Baltic countries (from Finland to Poland) failed, and Estonia had to rely on the world community and the League of Nations.

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