The first changes

​By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union’s economy was in a critical situation, largely caused by a lack of technological development compared to the West, the inefficient socialist planned economy based on extensive production, and preferred development of military industries. In the arms race with the main enemy, the USA, the Soviet Union turned out to be the loser, having exhausted its potential. The Soviet export of oil and gas suffered seriously after fuel prices fell on the world market. At the same time, the Soviet Union increasingly depended on imported grain, which was unable to meet the demands of the domestic market. The increasing lack of food products and basic necessities (footwear, clothes etc.), plus escalating prices, caused bitter resentment among the population. Soviet foreign policy had reached a dead-end as well, as it had been expansionist for decades, trying to extend Soviet power throughout the world. The war against Afghanistan started in 1979 and proved much more complicated than initially estimated. This brought about foreign policy complications and further strained the country’s economy.

​The Soviet leadership did not publicly acknowledge the crisis. Therefore, many people, including most Estonians, were initially cautious of Mikhail Gorbachev, the new leader of the Soviet Union, who started his innovative policies in 1985. The key words glasnost and perestroika (openness and reconstruction) seemed like empty slogans, and it was not clear what kind of reforms and changes the new Soviet leader was actually pursuing. In 1986, the situation began to change. On 26 April 1986, a nuclear reactor accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, which became the test of the new policy of openness. The attempts of the central powers to suppress or minimise information about the disaster in a densely populated area caused indignation in the population.

​The first signs of radical changes in society emerged in Estonia in spring 1987, when the Soviet plans to establish phosphorite mines in northern Estonia were revealed. This unleashed an extensive protest campaign, the ‘phosphorite war’. This also marked the kick-off of the process of regaining Estonian independence, as the environmental issues were soon supplemented by political topics. In August 1987, the Estonian Group on Publication of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was founded (Estonian abbreviation: MRP–AEG). The group organized a mass meeting in Hirvepark in Tallinn the same month, where people demanded that the secret protocol of the 1939 pact be made public. The meeting was not forcefully disbanded, as would have happened before, which showed that civil rights had expanded and the regime had softened – the authorities even granted permission to hold the demonstration.

​Simultaneously with the increasing political freedom in society, Estonians started demanding economic reforms and the right to make their own decisions. In autumn 1987, the idea of self-managing Estonia (Estonian acronym IME) was enthusiastically discussed in Estonian society. The plan was to make Estonia economically independent (adopt a market economy, and establish Estonia’s own currency, tax system etc.). Although formally it was no more than a suggestion to grant the republic greater decision-making power to better manage the economy, many people nevertheless hoped that Estonia would gradually manage to separate itself from the Soviet Union, or at least achieve greater autonomy. The proposal failed to get a positive reply from Moscow, although the Soviet Union now allowed private enterprise.

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