Manifest of Independence and election of the Constituent Assembly

On 24th February 1918, the Salvation Committee of Estonia, which was exercising an executive function on the authorisation of the Diet of Estonia, issued a “Manifest for All Nations of Estonia”, by which Estonia was declared an independent state. Although the principles set out in the manifest could not be applied during the following nine months because of German occupation, the document laid the foundation for the first state order in Estonia and served as the starting point for the later constitution. The manifest declared Estonia to be a democratic republic, and made provision for elections to a Constituent Assembly by means of a general, direct and proportional electoral system.

The rights and freedom of its citizens and the right of cultural autonomy for its national minorities were established, and proposals were made both for land reform and for monetary reform. In this way, a provisional choice was already made in respect of the future state order on Estonia, namely a democratic parliamentary republic based on a unitary state.

Elections to the Constituent Assembly were conducted with all haste and it met for the first time on 23rd April 1919. According to a declaration made by that Constituent Assembly the new Estonian republic was independent of any legal act issued before the manifest of 1918, and was not to be considered as the legal successor of any state which had previously existed on Estonian territory. Instead, the legal basis for the independence of Estonia was the natural right of a nation to self-determination. The Constituent Assembly’s declaration drew on the fundamental principle of the sovereignty of a nation. Yet, until a new, constitutional order could be established, the legal norms deriving from the ‘special regime’ accorded to the Baltic states’ governments and of the Russian state remained valid in Estonia.

One of the main tasks undertaken by the Constituent Assembly was the drafting of a Constitution. The document which eventually emerged reflected a wide range of interpretations of the true meaning of democracy. It also reflected the fact that Estonians had not experienced freedom for many centuries, nor had there ever been a democratic state order on the territory of what was now Estonia. The philosophical, humanistic interpretation of the power of a nation as that of a society based not only on freedom and equality but also on the separation of power was well known, but there was little understanding of how a state might actually function, and how democracy might be defended. There was no experience of state government. The majority of the Constituent Assembly’s members also belonged to the left of centre, social democratic parties and undoubtedly had a less pragmatic view of how a new democracy might function than some of their right wing counterparts. All these factors left an imprint on the first Constitution of Estonia.

Details about this article