Boris Yeltsin, chairman of the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Soviet, flew to Tallinn immediately after the attempt to restore Soviet rule by force in Lithuania on January 13, 1991. He signed agreements granting independence to all Baltic Republics – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Vladimir Lebedev, chairman of the Association of Russian Citizens in Estonia, who in those years was a deputy and member of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR, spoke with RIA Novosti about Yeltsin’s historic visit.
Question: Was Yeltsin’s visit a surprise?
Answer: He made the decision to come on January 13, 1991 quite suddenly, although preparations for the signing of the agreements had been underway. The day before, Soviet troops occupied the television station in Vilnius and some people were killed in the clashes. This is what prompted Yeltsin to go to Tallinn and sign the treaty on interstate relations. There is an interesting backstory to this treaty. Our Estonian colleagues in the Supreme Soviet had it in the fall but wouldn’t show it to us. Later on I got a copy of the draft treaty but it was important for us to receive it officially. So we went to Moscow to talk to the leaders of the Russian Supreme Soviet about potential impact of the treaty and to get the official text.
In Moscow, we approached Fyodor Shelov-Kovedyayev, then the chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet Committee on International Affairs. He said that since the treaty concerns interstate relations it cannot be disclosed. Then we met with Sergei Shakhray, deputy chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet. He expressed surprise that we still didn’t have the document and he said it would be brought to us, but it never was. If we had had the draft treaty ahead of time, perhaps there would not have been the dispute over articles 3 and 4 concerning the citizenship for ethnic Russians in Estonia.
Q: After the treaties were signed, Russian deputies met with Yeltsin. What did they talk about?
A: Three bilateral treaties were signed in Tallinn. Estonia and Latvia were represented by the chairmen of their respective Supreme Soviets, Arnold Ryutel and Anatoly Gorbunov. Lithuania was represented by some lower-rank official who had been found in Tallinn, although the official document later bore the signature of Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Lithuania Vitautas Landsbergis.
There was a big news conference after dinner and the signing ceremony in the White Hall of the Supreme Soviet on Toompea Hill. The news conference was attended by Estonian and Russian journalists and TV reporters as well as representatives of Western media. We deputies of the Supreme Soviet were present as well. Mr. Yeltsin was very excited and happy to answer questions. He really seemed to enjoy it. One of our deputies, Pavel Panfilov, asked loudly: “Mr. Yeltsin, there are Russian deputies in the audience. Would you like to meet with Russian deputies of the Estonian Supreme Soviet?” (There were 24 Russian speaking deputies among 105 parliamentarians). Yeltsin paused for a minute, and then said not very enthusiastically: “Well, I haven’t slept in two nights, so I won’t sleep for a third one.”
We had written a letter to Yeltsin about economic issues, as well as the status of union plants and the Integral (an association that was being established in Estonia from among enterprises of federal subordination). All we needed was for him to sign a resolution. Yeltsin’s assistant warned us that we only had 20 minutes or we won’t get his signature. We were taken to a room and our meeting lasted for about 20 minutes. While we were taking our seats and exchanging greetings, one deputy – I don’t know what got into him – asked Yeltsin about miners in northeastern Estonia. At that time miners were Yeltsin’s pet project. And that was that. Yeltsin dominated the conversation, not giving any of us a chance to speak. I looked at my watch, 20 minutes passed, then 22, but nobody dared interrupt him and say: “Please, let’s leave the miners aside, you need to sign this resolution.” Then the assistant came in to say that our time was up. So our chance was missed.
Q: But you had met Yeltsin before in Moscow…
A: Yes, it was in the early 1990s. The meeting lasted for 10 minutes. I was a member of the Presidium of the Estonian Supreme Soviet, and the presidium performed the functions of the collective Estonian presidency. In addition, I chaired the Interregional Council of Russian deputies of Estonia at all levels. I was jokingly called “the Russian President of Estonia.” So, my status allowed me to seek a meeting with Yeltsin. The topic of my first meeting with Yeltsin was the status of Russians in Estonia, including the establishment of Russian University in the republic and preserving the Soviet Union. His answer was something like, “Hold on, guys, Russia will not abandon you.” We heard it then and we are hearing it now.
Q: Why did Yeltsin fly to Tallinn but leave by car?
A: Yes, Yeltsin arrived by plane. A host of people met him in the airport: delegations of the United Council of Work Collectives; representatives of different plants and strike committees with streamers, posters and banners. They wanted to explain to Yeltsin the situation in Estonia and the threat facing Russian residents and the entire state. With great difficulty, security guards managed to squeeze him through the throng of people and take him to the Supreme Soviet building on Toompea Hill. While the treaties were signed and the new conference held, more people were coming to thе airport. Everyone knew about Yeltsin signing the treaties, and they were waiting for him at thе airport. When people were told at about 3 a.m. that Yeltsin had already left for Leningrad in a car, they started to leave. The crew of the plane was not told till the morning. They waited for Yeltsin the whole time.
Q: What was the significance of Yeltsin’s visit for Estonia and its ethnic Russian population?
Answer: His visit encouraged those who wanted Estonia to withdraw from the U.S.S.R. Before his visit they thought about the republic’s economic self-sufficiency, but after Yeltsin’s visit they realized that Yeltsin’s influence was stronger than Gorbachev’s and started thinking about seceding from the U.S.S.R. As for the first presidential elections in June 1991, the Russian community mostly supported his rival, Nikolai Ryzhkov, realizing that Yeltsin was threatening the unity of the U.S.S.R.
The Treaty on the Foundations of Interstate Relations between Russia and Estonia, under which both countries recognized each other as sovereign states, established the international and legal basis of bilateral relations in the political, economic, humanitarian and others spheres.
Article III of the treaty provided for the right of people to receive or keep the citizenship of either country. Article IV of the treaty provided that choice of citizenship should conform to the laws of both countries.
Russia interprets this treaty to mean that any former Soviet citizen who lived in Estonia at the time can obtain both Russian and Estonian citizenship. Estonia interprets the treaty to mean that former Soviet citizens can receive Russian citizenship in accordance with Russian law or Estonian citizenship under Estonian citizenship law.
Under Estonian law, only people who lived in Estonia before 1940, or whose parents lived in Estonia before that time, can become Estonian citizens. All others seeking citizenship must pass a proficiency exam in Estonian and answer questions on Estonia’s constitution and law on citizenship in Estonian.
There are 1.34 million people living in Estonia, 83% of which are citizens. More than 110,000 are Russian citizens, and another 101,000 do not have any citizenship.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.