Saturday, August 21, 2021

Legal Continuity of Baltic Statehood Since 1920 Continues to Play a Key Role, Mälksoo Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 18 – At the time of the August 1991 coup, the Supreme Soviet of Estonia “proclaimed the restoration of the independence of the Estonian Republic, Lauri Mälksoo says, maintaining the principle of the continuity of statehood which the Baltic countries and leading Western ones maintained even during the years of Soviet occupation.

            Many governments hastened to recognize Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at that time, but the governments of those who had continued to recognize the three since the 1920s did not have to take that step. Instead, they signed memoranda of understandings restoring the exchange of diplomats with the now de facto independent countries.

            The West’s non-recognition policy played a key role in keeping hope alive in the Baltic states that they would eventually be independent again and was a guiding principle in the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian independence movements in the 1980s, the professor of international law points out (

But after 1991, many in the West and some in the Baltic countries concluded that non-recognition policy -- and the principle of legal continuity it supported – had achieved its goal and was no longer critical. In his new essay in Nezavisimaya gazeta, Mälksoo suggests that such a perspective misses the point and that the principle of continuity remains critically important.

Indeed, the Tartu expert says, “although Moscow up to now has not officially recognized the thesis about the uninterrupted existence of the independent countries of the Baltic, the rest of the world has done so in a significant way.” But most important of all, this continuity has served as “the political guarantee of the complete integration of these republics in the Western world.”

This is “in part explained by the fact that creating a new country is more difficult than restoring an early existing one, a place which has been preserved in the collective memory of its people as something beautiful and valuable.” Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have that. The post-Soviet states do not – and they have faced much greater difficulties over the last 30 years.

As some in Moscow prefer to forget, Soviet Russia recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania explicitly on the basis of the right of nations to self-determination. (It signally did not do that in the case of Finland or Poland.) And this was “the first time in world history when new countries” emerged from others on the basis of this right.

Before World War II, the USSR pursued a “paradoxical” approach to the Baltic countries, simultaneously treating them like any other countries and signing accords with them, even as its communist apparatus sought to overthrow their governments and hoped to make them part of the Soviet Union.

 “After the defeat of the Polish Army in September 1939, Moscow presented an ultimatum to Finland and the Baltic countries, demanding permission for the establishment of Soviet military bases on their territories.” Finland refused leading to the Winter War, but the Baltic countries felt compelled to agree.  

            Then, after the Germans defeated France, Moscow on the basis of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact used these bases to occupy the three, force a change in governments, and illegally annex them to the USSR. Had Moscow lived up to its treaty, relations between Russia today and the three Baltic countries would have been immeasurably better.

            Despite the dismissive attitude of some Russian officials, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have made a major contribution to the development of international law about continuity of statehood and to the promotion of human rights as a principle on which governments must operate, Mälksoo continues.

            Although the Tartu scholar does not mention it here, the principle of continuity of statehood is the basis for the citizenship laws that all three Baltic countries have adopted since 1991. Those would be impermissible under international law if continuity was not accepted. But because it is, those laws are accepted by almost all other countries. 

            And in conclusion, he makes an important point. Few expect the Russia of Vladimir Putin to ever recognize the principle of continuity of statehood in the case of the Balts. But that isn’t a requirement for approving a treaty governing border adjustments. Such treaties can be adopted whether both sides accept continuity as a principle or not.

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