The lesson from Estonian independence? Don’t agree to a transition

The lesson from Estonian independence? Don’t agree to a transition

Igor Gräzin is an Estonian MP for the Estonian Reform Party. Before independence he was part of the Popular Front of Estonia, a major force in the Estonian independence movement and was elected to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union in 1991 under Boris Yeltsin. His advice? Don’t get stuck in a transition. 

Recently he was in London speaking at a Bruges Group event on his battle to take back control of Estonia from the USSR. I met him afterwards to get his thoughts on Estonian independence and Brexit.

It all started back when Gräzin was a professor of law at the Tartu State University. Under Soviet rule there was little concept of the nation state or sovereignty in the national consciousness. Estonia had been part of the Soviet Union for 48 years and there was a vague idea that sovereignty was something that was shared between Tallinn and Moscow. But during the 1980s the idea of sovereignty and independence grew and in November 1988 Estonia issued a declaration of sovereignty. Gräzin helped to draft the declaration which he says was the first time in Estonia sovereignty was officially defined in a legal text.

After the declaration was issued by the Estonian Parliament, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to hold talks with an Estonian delegation. At one point a frustrated Gorbachev hit the assembled group with ‘an absolutely disarming sentence’  – “You Estonians, why don’t you love us?”. Gräzin explained calmly: “It’s not about love, it’s about sovereignty”.

During the long campaign for independence, Gräzin recalls an unwelcome intervention from a foreign leader: the President of the United States. George Bush gave a speech in the capital of Ukraine which became known as the ‘chicken Kiev’ speech. Just months before an independence referendum in Ukraine and the collapse of the USSR, Bush had attacked “suicidal nationalism” and lent his support to the survival of the union. One year earlier the UK Prime Minister John Major made a similar speech on a visit to Moscow, specifically telling Estonians not to rock the boat.

But by that point it was too late, the clamour for independence had grown too strong to be thwarted by the US president. However, the movement may not have got off the ground had it not been for one issue – mining rights.  A few years earlier the USSR had declared an interest in mining phosphorite in Estonia. Since groundwater was close to the surface, there was a strong argument that digging for phosphorite would poison the water supply of the whole country. Estonian scientists were opposed to the plan and there were also concerns that the mines would bring in a wave of migration as workers from across the Soviet sphere would be drafted in to dig the pits. Moscow didn’t give up easily. The issue brought Tallinn and ordinary citizens into sharp conflict with Moscow. Estonian citizens gained a sense of identity, realising their interests and values were separate from the wider bloc.

The Phosphorite War, as it came to be known, brought the idea of true sovereignty to the masses. Ultimately when there was disagreement between two power bases one would win out. Grazin says the dispute between Tallinn and Moscow made ordinary Estonians realise that Moscow’s interests did not always align with ordinary Estonians. “It’s not about sharing the jurisdiction, it’s not anything to compromise, sovereignty means supreme power over a given territory, it’s absolutely indivisible.” says Gräzin.

The Popular Front of Estonia and the Phosphorite War led to the Estonian declaration of sovereignty and a push towards full independence. But Moscow had one final trick up its sleeve. A transition period.

Rather like Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, each Soviet republic had the right, in law, to separate from the USSR. However, the legislation didn’t specify how the process was to happen. When Estonia decided to leave, Moscow began introducing legislation about the process of secession to put hurdles in the way of the new republic. The Kremlin added a transitional period for a number of years and calculated assets and liabilities. “At first we went along with it”, said Gräzin, “but being lawyers and politicians we knew the tricks and we realised that it was a trap. Once you agree to the details you may be finished.”

He says sovereignty is a key concept in the current Brexit debate and cautions against seeing Brexit as something to compromise over: “If the EU Commission is against Brexit then so what? Who has the last word? For us, the last word belonged to the people and to the individual state, not to the Soviet Union.”

I ask Gräzin if there are similarities between the EU and the USSR.

“The best planning institution in the history of Europe was the state planned committee of the Soviet Union. The EU isn’t able to parallel it. But EU planning, by itself, is going to fail in exactly the same way as it did in the Soviet Union.”

Gräzin opposed Estonia’s entry into the EU but was ultimately defeated in 2004 after a referendum.

“The EU is run by bureaucrats who care about regulations and reporting things.

“There’s no place in the EU Commission where the popular voice can come in as it’s filtered through highly paid employees. The Soviet Union was exactly the same. They are planning quotas on immigration and fishing and everything, it’s just the Soviet case.”

I ask him what ordinary Estonians think of Brexit.  “We want the Brits to succeed” says Gräzin. “Brexit by its own existence without proper results yet has given Europe a breath of fresh air.” He says ordinary Estonians are happy with Brexit as they understand the real reasons behind it.  As for the negotiations, they treat them like they treat rival sports teams – “who’s going to win?”