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Estonia: Analysis From Washington--A Decree That Changed The World

Washington, 22 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - On August 24, 1991, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree recognizing the independence of Estonia, thus ending 50 years of Soviet occupation of that Baltic country.

But if the consequences of that decree were momentous for Estonia, they were if anything even greater for the Soviet Union, for Russia and for the broader international community.

In many respects, Yeltsin's decree represented the death certificate for the Soviet Union, even though that state continued to appear on the world stage for another four months.

By recognizing the independence of Estonia, Yeltsin set the stage for his subsequent recognition of the independence of Latvia and Lithuania, the two other Baltic republics occupied by Stalin in 1940 as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

But because Yeltsin was unwilling to acknowledge that the status of the Baltic countries was fundamentally different than that of the 12 union republics, the Russian president failed to erect a firewall between them and thus prefigured their independence as well.

Moreover, Yeltsin's decision to take this step by decree also helped to define this process in three important ways.

It guaranteed that the dissolution of the Soviet Union would be quick because it foreshadowed the notion that the borders of the union republics should become the borders of the post-Soviet states. It meant that the process of dissolution would be remarkably peaceful precisely because independence would come not as a result of struggle or long negotiation but rather by unilateral Russian action.

And it created in the minds of Yeltsin and many other Russian leaders an expectation that the Balts and other non-Russians would be grateful and thus remain friendly to Moscow.

That hope was inevitably misplaced at least for the Baltic countries, but its existence helps to explain why Moscow has acted and continues to act in the way that it does.

Second, this decree had equally fateful consequences for Yeltsin and Russia. While many around the world had cheered Yeltsin's heroism during the failed coup only a few days before, few world leaders were willing to view him as the president of an independent country.

Yeltsin's recognition of Estonian independence changed all that. Many countries around the world hurried to recognize Estonia -- in the next ten days alone, more than 40 did so -- but in doing that, they were implicitly recognizing Russia as an independent state as well.

That was not well understood by many diplomats and politicians at the time, although there was widespread understanding that these steps did represent a kind of recognition of Yeltsin's right to act as the predominant leader in Moscow.

Given the attachment many Western leaders felt to Gorbachev because of the changes he had brought about both inside the Soviet Union and in Moscow's relations with the outside world, many world leaders were reluctant to take this step.

But by acting on the Estonian demand for independence, Yeltsin effectively forced their hand, thereby gaining just as much for himself and his country as the Estonians had gained for theirs.

In the longer term, Yeltsin's action may have an even greater impact. By righting an historic wrong, it contributed to the moral renewal of the Russian people who also had suffered under Soviet power.

Even more, it represented a significant step in Russia's retreat from empire, a retreat that has given many hope that the Russia of the future may become a country living at peace with its neighbors rather than a cause threatening their existence.

And third, Yeltsin's action helped to transform the international system, posing a set of challenges to world leaders that all of them are still grappling with.

Yeltsin's decree ushered in a post-Soviet and not just post-Cold War world. In addition to pushing aside Gorbachev and the USSR, it destroyed many of the landmarks of the bipolar world that guided the foreign policies of the great powers since the end of World War II.

Most immediately, Yeltsin's decree helped to recreate what had been a major security challenge in Europe prior to 1939: coping with the zone of weak states caught between Moscow and Berlin and between the Baltic and the Black Seas.

Indeed, much of the current debate about the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union and about Russia's role in this region can be seen as the working out of the consequences of the August 1991 decree.

And finally, Yeltsin's recognition of Estonia six years ago served as a reminder that, despite the hopes of some and the fears of others, history has not ended and that individuals and nations can transform the world, regardless of the forces arrayed against them.