Breakthrough years

​Estonian society became politically active in 1988. A joint plenum of the creative unions (writers, artists, architects, and theatre and film people), which focused on Estonian national culture and the threat of intensifying Russification, expressed dissatisfaction with the activity of the Soviet Estonian leadership. In mid-April, the Estonian Popular Front in Support of Perestroika was founded. This moderate, but clearly innovative movement wanted to make the Soviet Union more democratic, and demanded political and economic autonomy for Estonia within the Soviet Union. The moderate aims of the Popular Front were enthusiastically supported by the Estonian population and it quickly became a powerful mass organisation. The early summer of the same year witnessed a series of concerts and joint singing, soon to turn into a large-scale popular movement, and later called the Singing Revolution. Besides the moderate course, a more radical national movement emerged in 1988, which was clearly directed at restoring Estonia’s independence. The Estonian Heritage Society, established at the end of 1987, used totally un-Soviet rhetoric. In August 1988, the first Estonian political party was founded: the Estonian National Independence Party (Estonian abbreviation ERSP). Its core was made up of the MRP–AEG members.

​In summer 1988, under public pressure and in order to avoid the popular movement getting out of control, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev replaced Karl Vaino, the conservative head of the Estonian Communist Party who was extremely unpopular among the Estonians. However, the new leadership under Vaino Väljas, perceiving the support and pressure of the mass popular movement, began making increasingly radical decisions in the interests of Estonia, and defending them in the Moscow corridors of power. In summer, the Supreme Soviet of Estonia adopted the blue-black-white flag of the Republic of Estonia once again as the Estonian national flag. On 16 November the Estonian Supreme Soviet passed the Declaration of Sovereignty, which confirmed the supremacy of laws passed by the Soviet in the Estonian SSR. The document also declared that the basis of the relations between the central authorities of the Soviet Union and a Union republic must be an agreement that would establish the rights and duties of both sides, achieved by negotiations. Moscow declared the declaration null and void, but was unable to halt the process of restoring independence.

​In opposition to the Estonian national mass movement, forces mainly representing the Russian-speaking population began rallying in 1988, regarding the Estonians’ aspirations for freedom to be illegal. In summer, the heads of the huge Soviet factories in Estonia formed the International Movement of Soviet Estonian Workers and, in autumn, the Council of Working Collectives, both with the aim of defending the united and inseparable Soviet Union. They protested against the Language Act passed in January 1989, which declared the Estonian language to be the only official language in the territory of the Estonian SSR. They were also against replacing the flag of the Estonian SSR with the blue-black-white flag on the tower of Tall Hermann, a symbol of local power.

​A special mass undertaking by independence-seeking forces in the Baltic countries was the Baltic Chain, which attracted keen interest in the foreign press. On 23 August 1989, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, about two million people formed a living chain from Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius, thus eloquently demonstrating their wish for independence.

​By 1989, two trends had emerged within the Estonian independence movement. In February 1989, people united around the Estonian National Independence Party and the Heritage Society started the movement of Estonian citizens’ committees. The main aim was to restore the Republic of Estonia on the basis of legal continuity. In 1990, the Estonian citizens who were registered by the committees elected the Estonian Congress. On 11 March 1990, the Congress approved a manifesto that announced the wish of the Estonian people to restore the Republic of Estonia on the basis of legal continuity and the Tartu Peace Treaty (1920).The other trend was represented by the Popular Front, which became the strongest political power in Estonia at a time when the Communist Party was falling apart and losing its monopoly on power. In March 1989, the Popular Front was successful in the elections of the Congress of Representatives of the Soviet Union – the first multi-candidate elections. As a result of elections in March 1990, the Popular Front had the largest number of representatives in the Supreme Soviet of Soviet Estonia. By that time, the Front had already abandoned the idea of a union agreement and supported full independence for Estonian, not on the basis of legal continuity, but relying on the principle of declaring a new Estonian state (the ‘third republic’).

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