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The recognition of the Republic of Estonia and the establishment of diplomatic relations



Photo: Foreign delegation

The history of Estonia’s foreign relations and diplomacy dates back to before the Republic of Estonia was declared and it was recognised by other countries.

As a result of the 1917 February Revolution in Russia, Emperor Nicholas II abdicated and the Provisional Government of Russia was formed. In Estonia, an important milestone on the path towards independence was the unification of the Governorate of Livonia with the Governorate of Estonia on 12 April 1917 following the February Revolution, and as a result, Estonia acquired the outline we recognise today. Additionally, the Russian Provisional Government was pressured to give Estonia autonomy, and the Governorate of Estonia was formed with Jaan Poska as its governor.

As early as autumn the same year, as the Russian state became weaker (as a result of a Bolshevik coup that overthrew the Provisional Government) and the threat of invasion by German forces was looming, nationally-minded politicians began contemplating Estonia’s secession from Russia.

Therefore, in the uncertain political atmosphere of November 1917, the Estonian Provincial Assembly – the local government of the Governorate of Estonia (Maapäev in Estonian) decided to declare itself the highest authority in Estonia. The Provincial Assembly also decided to send a foreign delegation to Western Europe as its representative to apply for recognition to the idea of an independent Estonian state, and gain political and economic support. From the Estonian point of view, the members of the foreign delegation were the diplomatic representatives of the Provincial Assembly; however, in the eyes of international law, they did not become genuine diplomats because no country had yet recognised Estonia de jure as a state.   




The process that began in early 1917 culminated in the declaration of the Republic of Estonia (the public reading of the Declaration of Independence) on 24 February 1918, immediately followed by a German occupation. The German Empire refused to recognise the independence of Estonia and so the newly founded Estonian state had to wait until the end of the First World War in November 1918 to start building its state. Official recognition from other countries and the establishment of diplomatic relations had to wait because the First World War was followed by the War of Independence in Estonia (1918-1920) to fight off the invading Red Army. 

The first Estonian foreign representations were founded by the foreign delegation of the Estonian Provincial Assembly already in early 1918, when no formal diplomatic relations had been established with other countries. Jaan Tõnisson can be considered the first foreign representative of Estonia, arriving in Sweden as early as January 1918. With the consent of the Swedish government, a provisional embassy of Estonia was opened in Stockholm, although it was only in the autumn of 1919 that Sweden announced its de facto recognition of the Republic of Estonia.  
Estonian Embassy in London 1920

In spring 1918, France (1 March), United Kingdom (20 March) and Italy (29 May) gave their de facto recognition to the people of Estonia and their representative body, the Provincial Assembly, but not the new state. Western powers hoped that the small nations who had declared independence would accelerate the overthrow of the Bolshevik government in Russia and the decline of German influence.

Based on the recognition by the United Kingdom, a temporary mission was set up in London, named the Esthonian Provisional Legation, and it was headed as a semi-official representative by Ants Piip, who took the title Esthonian Diplomatic Representative.

The Estonian mission in Paris established after recognition by France was called the Delegation d’Esthonie en France and the envoy Karl-Robert Pusta called himself a représentant diplomatique.

Finland recognised Estonia de facto in August 1919. However, before that, in November 1918, the Provisional Government of Estonia appointed businessman Eduard Schwalbe as consul in Helsinki, and his apartment became something akin to a headquarters for Estonians and members of the foreign delegation until 1919, when an embassy began taking shape in addition to the consulate. The first ambassador in Helsinki was Oskar Kallas, who admittedly called himself an ‘Estonian deputy in Finland’ in late 1918 and early 1919, and sometimes the ‘deputy of the Provisional Government of Estonia in Finland’.

The position of Piip, Pusta as well as Kallas during the de facto recognition was vague among the diplomatic corps, and they received the status of an ambassador plenipotentiary and, accordingly, a somewhat more solid status only after the Republic of Estonia was recognised de jure.




After the end of the First World War in November 1918, a peace conference was held in Paris to agree on the terms of peace and build a new world order. The peace conference lasted from 18 January 1919 to 21 January 1920. There were 32 states taking part – victorious states, combatant states, neutral states and new states, including the Republic of Estonia. As the Republic of Estonia had not been recognised de jure, Estonia attended the conference as an observer. The Estonian delegation was very imposing, it had an extensive mandate from the government and it was led by Foreign Minister Jaan Poska himself. The main objective of the delegation was to obtain de jure recognition for the Republic of Estonia; however, military support and foreign aid were equally important.

As we know, Estonians did not succeed in getting the de jure recognition in Paris. However, on a positive note, the conference offered them a chance for intense communication with Western politicians and diplomats, developing relations and making contacts with various economic and financial circles. This was conducted on a large scale and it would later form the foundation of a network of contacts. They were somewhat successful on economic issues and foreign aid gradually began arriving in 1919.

In a situation where the prospects of obtaining de jure recognition for Estonia were not good, the search began for other ways to reinforce the independence of Estonia. As the Bolshevik regime in Russia seemed to become stronger rather than weaker, Estonia ended up negotiating with Soviet Russia. At the same time, Estonia did not give up their British orientation and communication with other Western states; efforts were made on several fronts.

In December 1919, peace talks led by Jaan Poska began in Tartu between Estonia and Soviet Russia. After difficult negotiations, a historic peace treaty was signed between the Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia in Tartu on 2 February 1920, with the countries mutually recognising each other. For Estonians, this was the end of the War of Independence that had lasted for over a year, and the first major achievement for the diplomacy of the young Estonian state. The Tartu Peace Treaty also paved the way for Estonia being widely recognised by the international community as an independent state.



AMBASSADOR AUGUST TORMA with wife Alice in the embassy rooms, 167 Queens Gate. This photograph was taken in the 1960s. Photograph: National Archives

After the signing of the Tartu Peace Treaty, the next country to recognise Estonia de jure in the summer of 1920 was Finland. The general de jure recognition of Estonia and its neighbours Latvia and Lithuania began in January 1921, when it was first offered by former allies – the Entente states. The Baltic States exchanged notes on mutual de jure recognition in the spring of 1921. Many other countries followed in 1921 and 1922, as well as the United States in July 1922. Estonia became a member of the League of Nations on 22 September 1921.

From then on, Estonia was an internationally recognised state with a sovereign foreign policy, which was exercised through pursuing active foreign relations, building up the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and establishing embassies. By 1940, Estonia had 11 embassies, a mission at the League of Nations in Geneva, a consulate general in New York, and nearly 160 consular missions. However, in 1940, this process was disrupted violently – the Republic of Estonia was occupied and annexed illegally by the Soviet Union in June 1940.

It is crucial to note that the Estonian foreign service was the only state institution to continue operating in the free world – through foreign representations in London and New York, which carried on working. Thanks to the policy of non-recognition of the occupation of the Baltic States upheld by the United States, the United Kingdom and other states, the continuity of Estonian statehood was preserved between 1940 and 1991 by Estonian diplomats who had remained in the West, and a government in exile began operating.



Removal of the Lenin statue in front of the building of the Central Committee of the Estonian Communist Party on 23 August 1991. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs moved into the building shown in the background at the end of 1991 and remains there to this day.




The Singing Revolution of 1988 in Estonia and other Baltic States brought widespread international support, and taking advantage of the wave of change, Estonia was able to restore its independence in 1991 as a successor state to the Republic of Estonia founded in 1918. This was the start of the so-called second coming – obtaining recognition for the restored Republic of Estonia, (re)establishing diplomatic relations, rebuilding the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the network of embassies.




In 1918, Estonia joined European and global diplomacy and in hindsight, it can be noted that it was a success. In his book Saadiku saatus, Eero Medijainen notes that, “… establishing the Foreign Ministry and embassies was one of the greatest achievements of Estonia before 1940”.
Just as the history of Estonian diplomacy began in 1917 before the Republic of Estonia was declared, the first Estonian foreign missions were established in 1918 and 1919 before the Republic of Estonia had been recognised de jure and formal diplomatic relations with these countries had been established.

The same scenario was repeated in 1990, when Lennart Meri, immediately after becoming the Foreign Minister of the Estonian SSR, began founding Estonia’s cultural and information points, which became the predecessors of the embassies of the Republic of Estonia that had by then become independent.

It is important to underline that the Foreign Ministry continued to operate as the only state institution between 1940 and 1991 through Estonian diplomats who had remained in the West, thus preserving the continuity of the Republic of Estonia. For example, Ernst Jaakson was in the Estonian diplomatic service for 79 consecutive years and worked at the Estonian representation in the United States from 1929 to 1998 – this way, he was also able to serve the restored Republic of Estonia. Lennart Meri was also a son of a diplomat and had lived in Berlin and Paris with his family before the Second World War.


By now, the Republic of Estonia has established diplomatic relations with 193 states. Estonia has a total of 47 foreign representations: 36 embassies, 3 consulates general (and one consular service in Pskov) and 7 permanent missions to international organisations. Additionally, nearly 200 honorary consuls are upholding the interests of the Estonian state and people in regions where Estonia has no official representation.


Used materials:

  • Eero Medijainen. Saadiku saatus.- Tallinn 1997
  • Eesti välisteenistus. Biograafiline leksikon 1918-1991.- Tallinn 2006
  • Ants Piip. Tormine aasta : ülevaade Eesti välispoliitika esiajast 1917.-1918. aastal dokumentides ja mälestusis.- Stockholm 1966
  • Teine tulemine : taasiseseisvunud Eesti välisesindused.- Tallinn 2003
  • Teine tulemine 2: Välisministeeriumi taasloomise lugu. – Tallinn 2008
Last updated: 29 June 2020

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