The August coup and Estonian independence (1991)

​The ‘August coup’ is the attempted coup d’état from 19 to 21 August 1991 in Moscow, carried out by the hard-line wing of the Soviet leadership. The group, mainly consisting of top leaders of various power structures (ministers of defence and internal affairs, chairman of the KGB and others), hoped to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were prepared to use extreme measures, trying to seize power and suppress democratic and national movements. The conspirators removed President Mikhail Gorbachev from power, formed the State Committee of the State of Emergency, chaired by the Vice-President Gennady Yanayev and the KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov, and brought tanks to the streets of Moscow. Armoured troops of the landing regiment based in Pskov were sent to Tallinn. Contrary to the expectations of the coup leaders, the putsch failed to find support in society or among the members of the power structures. Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Federation, quickly became the leader of the coup opposition and a spokesperson for democratic reforms. To foil the coup, he organised an extensive civil disobedience campaign in Moscow.

In that situation, the different political powers in Estonia managed to reach consensus: on the evening of 19 August, the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Estonia and the delegation of the Estonian Committee began talks about declaring Estonian independence. The main issue of dispute was the choice between two options: whether to declare a new independent Republic of Estonia or, on the basis of legal continuity, restore the previous Republic of Estonia that was declared in 1918 and occupied in 1940. At 23.02 on 20 August, the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Estonia approved the declaration of Estonian National Independence, coordinated with the Estonian Committee: after lengthy discussions, the version of legal continuity was chosen. In addition, a Constitutional Assembly was formed to work out the draft bill for a new constitution of the Republic of Estonia.

On the morning of 21 August, Soviet troops took the TV Tower and transmission was temporarily disrupted. The Radio remained free and continued to broadcast news about events in Estonia. By the afternoon of 21 August it was clear that the coup d’état in Moscow had failed, and after talks with the Estonian leadership, Soviet troops abandoned the TV Tower and left Estonia. On 22 August Iceland established diplomatic relations with the Republic of Estonia, followed by Lithuania, Latvia and Russia. The first big Western country to recognise Estonia was France. On 30 August, Sweden opened its embassy in Tallinn.

Gorbachev’s government came to power again in the Soviet Union, and no longer tried to prevent the independence of the Baltic countries, mostly because of the new political situation, their relative weakness and the world’s support for the Baltic countries. On 6 September, the Soviet Union officially recognised Estonia; on 17 September Estonia was admitted to the United Nations. Similar processes took place in Latvia and Lithuania. Other Union republics soon wanted out as well, and the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist in December 1991.

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