Both before and after independence, Estonia's foreign policy had a strong Western orientation. Western recognition of Estonia's legal independence was a key source of strength for the republic in its struggle with the Soviet Union. After 1991 Estonia worked to maintain that relationship and integrate with European political institutions as a further safeguard against potential threats from Russia. The last Russian troops stationed in Estonia after 1991 finally were withdrawn in August 1994, but relations with Yeltsin's Kremlin remained cool. Growing instability in Russia and Western attempts to placate Russian nationalism left Estonia anxious for greater European security guarantees but wary of being squeezed again in great-power politics.
Relations with the West
During 1990-91 Estonia undertook a vigorous lobbying campaign on behalf of international support for its bid for independence from the Soviet Union. The Estonian foreign minister at the time, Lennart Meri, was one of several Estonian officials who traveled widely to sustain the Western commitment to the republic's independence. Although the West generally remained in favor of renewed statehood for Estonia and the other Baltic states, Western leaders believed that the real key to that independence lay in Moscow. In August 1991, release of that key came in the form of the attempted coup d'état by conservative elements of the Soviet government.
In the wake of independence, Estonia moved quickly to join the international community. In September it was admitted to both the United Nations (UN) and the CSCE. In the UN, Estonia would later find common ground with the East European countries as well as participate in the organization's various committees and auxiliary bodies, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In March 1992, Estonia took part in the creation of the Council of Baltic Sea States, an association of all the countries bordering the Baltic Sea and dedicated to furthering regional economic and political cooperation. A year later, the Estonian representative was elected to a one-year term as president of the organization. In the realm of security, Estonia joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) in late 1991 and actively sought support for its efforts to become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Cooperation with the European Union included significant economic aid as well as talks on a free-trade agreement.
Estonia's greatest foreign policy success came in May 1993 with its admission to the Council of Europe. After applying in September 1991, Estonia had to hold its first free parliamentary elections in 1992 before being seriously considered for membership. Although Estonia's citizenship policy came under close scrutiny by council delegations, in the end they accepted Estonia's legal arguments for denying automatic citizenship to Soviet-era immigrants, taking encouragement from the noncitizens' right to participate in local elections. Estonia considered admission the equivalent of a clean bill of health for its young democracy, which Russia had sought to tarnish with accusations of human rights violations.
In the mid-1990s, Estonia's staunchest foreign allies were the Scandinavian countries, particularly Denmark and Sweden. In 1990 the three Baltic states established regular contacts with the Nordic Council, the main political organization uniting the five Scandinavian states. Denmark's prime minister, Poul Schlüter, became in 1991 the first Western head of government to visit Estonia. The Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt, became an outspoken defender of Estonia after Russian threats to impose economic sanctions on Tallinn heightened tensions in 1993.
In some respects, the development of Scandinavian ties appeared to be a higher priority for Estonia than the fostering of greater Baltic cooperation, begun during the three republics' common struggle for independence. Baltic leaders held regular summit meetings beginning in 1990 and issued numerous joint declarations concerning their relations with Russia. An interparliamentary Baltic Council was established in 1990 to promote further cooperation at semiannual meetings. In mid-1993 Baltic military commanders even met to discuss plans for a joint infantry battalion that would be offered for peacekeeping missions around the world. Yet, progress on a free-trade agreement among the three countries was slow, and this situation was not helped in 1992 when Estonia elected a center-right government while Lithuania voted back in Algirdas Brazauskas and the former communists. Ultimately, a free-trade agreement was signed in April 1994.
Estonia's relations with the United States were strong, although the George H.W. Bush administration's initial delay in establishing diplomatic ties with the republic disappointed many in Tallinn. The United States held off recognition for several days in deference to Mikhail S. Gorbachev. However, Secretary of State James A. Baker visited all three Baltic states in September 1991 and five months later was followed by Vice President J. Danforth Quayle. Relations with the William J. Clinton administration appeared solid, although some Estonian officials expressed concern about what they perceived as its unqualified support for Russian president Boris N. Yeltsin.
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