Phosphorite War

​The first extensive national protest movement in Soviet Estonia (1987), which started the process of restoring independence

Environmental problems and hazards first became a topic of public discussion in the Soviet Union after the catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in spring 1986. This was made possible by the policy of glasnost initiated by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Pollution in Lakes Ladoga and Baikal was much reported in the press and the resistance of Latvians to building the Daugavpils hydroelectric plant became known all over the Soviet Union.

The most acute problem in Estonia was the plan to establish extensive phosphorite mines in Viru county. Preparations had been going on from the 1970s. By mid-1980s the plans were finalised and the mines were about to become reality near the town of Rakvere in Virumaa. Establishing a huge mine with 10 000 workers threatened all of Estonia with a natural catastrophe due to polluted ground water. In addition this would have required a massive influx of people from the Russian-speaking regions of the Soviet Union. The population of Rakvere would have increased from 20 000 to 50 000 people.

The planning and building dates of the mine were kept secret from the Estonian population until 1987. Early that year it turned out that the mine was already being planned and the work was supposed to start in the second half of the 1990s. The information that was revealed caused fierce discontent amongst the people. The press, gradually shaking off the Communist Party’s control and censorship, supported the people’s resistance to the phosphorite mine. The Soviet Estonian leadership came under severe criticism, because they had concealed the information. People demanded a stop to the whole undertaking. The antagonism culminated in spring 1987, when students organised two peaceful protest demonstrations in Tartu, carrying posters against the mine and also wearing protest T-shirts. The protests did not spread all over the country.

The protest movement known as the Phosphorite War subsided in the second half of 1987, when, under public pressure, the Estonian leadership managed to reach an agreement with the Soviet government to halt the planning of the mine. It became clear that the Soviet Union, suffering in an economic crisis, could not afford a new mine.

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