The third Constitution of the Republic of Estonia (de facto 1938 - 1940, de jure 1938 - 1992).

The third Constitution of the Republic of Estonia entered into force on 1st January 1938. It remained in force, de facto, until 16th June 1940, when the Soviet Union occupied Estonia and, de jure, until 28th June 1992 when the fourth Constitution of the Republic of Estonia was adopted by referendum.

In reality, however, the 1938 Constitution did not reduce the degree of authoritarianism. It even incorporated additional restrictions on the democratic process, thereby formalising some of the violations which had occurred since the 1934 Constitution was adopted. The Riigikogu became bicameral, consisting of a lower chamber, or State Council, and a newly created upper chamber, or State Board. Appointment to the latter had no democratic basis, and its members consisted of high officials, representatives of chambers and local government, and persons appointed by the Head of State at his or her discretion. The most important power of the State Board was its ability to reject resolutions passed by the State Council. It never had occasion to exercise that power, however, as restrictions on the formation of political parties resulted in the creation of a compliant State Council, and an obedient, puppet parliament. The direct power previously accorded to the state’s citizens was renounced, public initiative was no longer allowed, and the holding of referenda was left at the discretion of the Head of State.

The role of Head of State became more distant from the people than had been envisaged in the 1934 Constitution. Moreover, the post of Head of State was replaced by that of President of the Republic, whose mandate was extended to six years. The 1934 Constitution had provided for the Head of State to be directly elected by popular mandate but, in the 1938 Constitution, this was discontinued. Only the State Council, the State Board, and the assembly of representatives of local government had the right nominate presidential candidates and, once a candidate had been nominated, the President was to be elected by these bodies instead of by popular suffrage. As far as the powers of the head of state were concerned, there was little difference between the competence of the President and that of the earlier, Head of State.

One significant difference between the second and third Constitutions, however, was the clear introduction of a corporative state in 1938. In addition to the existing, local and cultural governments, a third form of local government was factored in from the professional local bodies or Chambers. These Chambers were given the right to issue mandatory orders, and to collect taxes from their members.

In comparison with the earlier Constitutions, that of 1938 was more socially conscious and populist in nature. It also reflected the influence of social demagogy which, by that time, had reached its peak in Italy and Germany. The third Constitution represented much more a development of the second Constitution than the creation of a new form of state order. Nevertheless the state order, based on parliamentary democracy, which had been at the core of the 1920 Constitution, was replaced by a very different form of state order, namely that of authoritarian dictatorship. At the peak of the parliamentary and economic crises faced by the Estonians in the 1930s, and disappointed by the inefficiencies and instability of their state’s democratic process, Estonia followed the prevailing trend of that period, namely the creation of a corporative state. The orderly and chamber-based system established by Benito Mussolini in Italy seemed particularly attractive. After the 1934 coup d’état, a new state order, similar to that of the Italian model, was gradually established in Estonia. The multi-party system was replaced by a one-party system, and elections became a formal voting and loyalty control exercise. Freedom of speech was proscribed, and press freedom was restricted by state-controlled censorship. The state also became actively involved in the establishment of professional chambers. It was this form of state order which was legislated for in the 1938 Constitution.

Estonian authoritarianism proved to be milder in nature than that encountered in other authoritarian regimes in Europe. No massive, political repression was ever conducted and, unlike in Germany, Italy or even Latvia, no concentration camps were created; no widespread persecution of national minorities or anti-semitism was practised, behaviour which characterised nearly all of the European dictatorships of that era. Nevertheless the autocratic nature of the Estonian regime caused many democratic states, which had earlier supported Estonia, both to distance themselves politically from Estonia and to criticise the Estonian state order.

On 16th June 1940, and taking advantage of West European countries’ distraction by matters elsewhere during the Second World War, the Red Army of the Soviet Union invaded Estonia and occupied it. On 21st July 1940, the existing state order was replaced by Soviet order and, on 6th August 1940, Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union. Later, from the summer of 1941 until the autumn of 1944, Estonia was under German occupation and, as a general commissariat, belonged to the greater Ostland commissariat. Unlike Slovakia, Croatia or Bohemia and Moravia, Estonia was neither a puppet state nor a protectorate. A second, Soviet occupation terminated the German occupation, and Soviet annexation was restored, an occupation and annexation which lasted until the autumn of 1991.

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