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Cities in ESTONIA




Evidence of habitation in present-day Estonia dates back approximately 7 000 years. From 5000 BC until the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1000 BC), people were engaged in primitive agriculture, fishing and hunting. The first decorated objects date from ca. 2000 B.C. From this period there are also remains of fortifications, traces of cattle breeding and simple agricultural settlements.

The first to describe the Estonian people was the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote: "The Fenni (Estonians) are barbarians without possessions. They have no weapons, no horses and no houses. They eat herbs, dress in animal skins and sleep on the ground...".

In the fifth century, Slavic tribes appeared near present-day Estonia. The Estonians immediately built primitive fences around their villages to defend themselves, but for lack of leaders they were soon defeated. Around 850, Estonia became part of the Vikings' trade route to the Slavic peoples, Byzantium and the Caspian Sea region. In the 11th and 12th centuries, there were regular invasions by Slavic peoples who, however, did not succeed in subduing the Estonians.

Christianity and German rule

Danes, Swedes and German monks tried to introduce Christianity to this region, also without much success. In 1093, the Pope in Rome sent crusaders to the Baltic region to introduce Christianity. Together with German merchants, a military invasion led by Albert von Buxhoevden followed in 1200. In 1208, they founded the city of Riga, the capital of present-day Latvia. Around 1208, the tribes living in present-day Latvia and Lithuania were also subdued. From 1208, the Teutonic Knights also tried to conquer Estonian territory. The Estonians held out for a long time under the leadership of Lembitu, but eventually lost. By 1220, the whole of Estonia was under control of the Germans and the Danes who collaborated with the Germans. Only the island of Saameraa resisted for a long time but was finally conquered in 1227.

In 1219 Valdemar II of Denmark founded the city of Tallinn, the later capital of Estonia. In 1237 the Crusaders also tried to subjugate parts of Russia, but suffered a humiliating defeat in the famous battle on Lake Peipus, which was frozen at the time. The part of Estonia that was then called Livonia came under the rule of the Teutonic Knights, Northern Estonia was for the Danes. Estonia became part of the Hanseatic League, a trade organisation. The Estonians benefited from this and changed from a primitive agrarian society to one of the best organised agricultural and trading nations of the time. In 1343, the Estonian peasant population tried to end the domination and many Germans were killed. However, the Germans took bloody revenge and thousands of Estonians were literally slaughtered.

In 1346, the Danes sold Northern Estonia to the Lijflanders, part of the Teutonic Order, who would thus dominate all of Estonia for the next two centuries. Merchants controlled the trade and German nobles owned 95% of the land. At the end of the 15th century, two new powers emerged around the borders of Livonia. They were Poland-Lithuania, a united kingdom, and Muscovite Russia. Territorial disputes led to wars in 1454 and 1519 between the Germans and the Poles.

In 1519 Albert, the head of the Livonians, met Martin Luther, the great reformer. Luther advised Albert to turn away from the Pope in Rome. In 1524 the Synod of Tallinn adopted the principles of the Reformation, and Estonia became a Protestant country. This turn also meant the end of the German and Livonian congregations in 1561. The Livonian Wars caused a quarter of a century of unrest in Estonia. The Russians under Ivan the Terrible penetrated deep into Estonian territory in 1558, devastated the country and weakened the power of the Livonians. In the 1560s, Poland-Lithuania and Sweden fought over the Estonian territory. The Russians again intervened in this struggle a few years later. In 1584, the Swedes took control in northern Estonia, while Poland subjugated Livonia.

Swedish rule

In 1599 there was another war between Sweden and Poland-Lithuania. In 1629, at the Peace of Altmark, the Swedes remained the most influential power in the Baltic region. In order to appease the landowners who were of German origin, the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus gave them large tracts of land. They immediately took advantage of this by raising taxes and introducing serfdom. The Swedish King Charles XI tried to break the power of the Baltic barons and to submit them to Swedish rule. Charles XI also did a lot to develop the population. Simple education was introduced and the first books in the Estonian language were printed. In 1632 the University of Tartu opened its doors. In 1699, Russia, Denmark and Poland formed an alliance and tried to end Swedish rule over the Baltic region. This led to a titanic struggle between Charles XII of Sweden and Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. In November 1700 the Swedes defeated the Russians at Narva. The Swedes then made the mistake of not advancing towards Moscow, but focusing on Poland. While Charles XII was in Poland with his army, Peter the Great again invaded the Baltic region. In 1709 the Swedish army was crushed at Poltava. In 1714 the Russians gained control over Finland and in 1719 they invaded Sweden.

Russian rule

With the Treaty of Nystad in 1721, Sweden was forced to withdraw completely from the Baltic region and Estonia came under Russian control. Meanwhile, Peter the Great had founded Saint Petersburg in 1703. Initially, little changed for the Estonian population. Peter the Great gave the German landowners even more power and at one point they controlled the whole of daily life (including the police, education and the legal system). In 1739, the Rosen Declaration was drawn up. It stated that the landowners could buy and sell farmers, stop and impose marriages and corporal punishment. They also drew lots to decide who would have to do military service. Czarina Catherine II wanted to do something about these degrading conditions but the German landowners ignored her recommendations. This led in the first half of the 19th century to several uprisings among the population which had little effect. It was not until 1861 that conditions for the peasantry improved somewhat.

Czar Alexander III abolished serfdom. Although this gave them back their personal freedom, they still remained completely dependent economically. In the 19th century Estonia also began to develop industrially. Paper, glass and textiles were manufactured. The population of the towns grew rapidly and by 1860 most of their inhabitants were native Estonians. Tsar Alexander III strengthened the Russification of the Baltic region by replacing the German landowners with Russian administrators. The tsarist police force carried out a real reign of terror in those years. In the second half of the 19th century, nationalistic feelings gradually arose among the population as a result of social reforms, the growth of industry and increased prosperity. At Tartu University, the Estonian language was taught, and an Estonian intelligentsia came into being.

In 1905 there was much unrest among the population in Russia (strikes and demonstrations), which also affected the Estonian population. Workers went on strike in Tallinn, Pärnu and Narva, and students protested in Tartu. German possessions were set on fire. At a congress attended by all Estonian parties, people demanded autonomy from Russia and an end to Russification. The Russians refused to comply and the population started looting and burning their possessions again. The Russians reacted strongly and many revolutionaries were arrested and sentenced to death. The outbreak of World War I did not yet have many consequences for Estonia, although the Germans did intend to occupy Estonia. However, many Estonians (ca. 100,000) were called up to serve in the Russian army. The war, food shortages and a weak government caused great social unrest in Russia. The tsarist government soon fell and was succeeded by a provisional government composed by Alexander Kerensky.

On 26 March 1917, 40,000 workers demonstrated in Tallin. The Kerensky government reacted by allowing self-government. A National Council, the Maapäev, was established and a temporary government was formed with Konstantin Päts as prime minister. In November 1917, the Bolsheviks (Russian Communists) led by Lenin and Trotsky started the Russian Revolution. Meanwhile, the Germans had advanced on Tallinn. On 24 February 1918, the now underground Maapäev declared independence. The next day the Germans occupied Tallinn, arrested many Estonian leaders, and claimed rule over Estonia. Immediately afterwards the Bolshevik troops entered Estonia. Prime Minister Päts fled the country. In November 1918 the war ended and the retreating Germans left a large power vacuum. Päts and the independence movement immediately proclaimed another independent Estonia, whereupon the Bolshevik troops again invaded Estonia. This time, however, the Estonians received military assistance from England, Finland, Sweden and Denmark. Estonian general Laidoner led the army in the counter-offensive in January 1919. By the summer of 1919, the Estonians had advanced to the city limits of Riga in Latvia. Elections were held in April and the first legislative assembly was formed with August Rei as president..

Estonia independent

A constitution was adopted in June 1920 and in 1921 Estonia was admitted to the League of Nations. Estonia was an independent country for the first time in its history. In 1924 the communists attempted a coup d'état, but it was a total failure. In 1939 Russia and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement. This was a non-aggression pact that would have major consequences for the Baltic States. It was agreed that the Baltic state would occupy Poland. Soon after, Estonia was occupied by 100,000 Russian troops. Thousands of Estonians, including Päts and other political leaders, were deported to the Soviet Union. In August 1941 Estonia officially became a republic within the USSR and the short period of independence came to an end.

Second World War

In June 1941, the Germans invaded Russia, and by the end of August Estonia was occupied. The Estonian population initially welcomed the Germans as liberators. However, it soon became clear that they were simply an occupying force. Many Estonians were put to work in the German war industry, and a sham government was appointed to govern the country. After the Germans lost the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviets began their counter-offensive. By January 1944, a large part of European Russia was back under Soviet control and they reached the Estonian border at Narva. With the threat of yet another Soviet occupation, the leader of the resistance, Jüri Üluots, called on the Estonians to defend Narva against the Soviets. Together with the Germans, they held out for six months.

Soviet rule

In September 1944, however, Estonia was conquered by the Red Army and many Estonians fled to Western Europe and Finland. Due to war victims, deportations and refugees, the population of Estonia had fallen from 1.1 million to 850 000 by the end of the 1940s. In the 1950s, the Estonians groaned under the yoke of Joseph Stalin. Political opponents, intellectuals and collaborators were deported to Siberian labour camps. The Soviet government also tried to suppress nationalistic feelings among the population by cultural Russification. Estonian history was rewritten, national monuments destroyed and freedom of the press severely curtailed. Despite these Soviet measures, the Estonian nationalist consciousness naturally remained. In the post-Stalin era, Estonians regularly demonstrated for human rights in their country. The period of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction) in the 1980s under the regime of Michael Gorbachev led to a revival of nationalistic feelings in Estonia. Cultural life flourished again, the freedom of the press increased, political parties were founded and religious services were performed in public again. In 1988, limited political activities were again permitted and the progressive Estonian People's Front won seats in parliament. Edgar Savisaar was Prime Minister at that time. In a national referendum in March 1991, 78% of the population voted for independence. In August 1991, a military coup against Gorbachev failed and led to the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Estonia independent again

Estonia declared independence on 20 August 1991 and chose to sever all ties with the Soviet Union. Due to the deteriorating economic situation, Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar resigned in January 1992. He was succeeded by Tiit Vähi who formed an interim government. In 1992, a new constitution was adopted after a referendum. Important elements of this new constitution were a different structure for the parliament and the limitation of the president's power. In September, the first free elections were held. Mart Laar, the leader of the largest party, the "Fatherland Alliance", became prime minister. After a number of scandals, Laar was forced to resign and was succeeded by the moderate Andres Tarand. After the 2nd elections in 1995, the Russian minority in Estonia gained six seats in the parliament. Tiit Vähi again became prime minister. Vähi resigned as prime minister in February 1997 after allegations of corruption. Mart Siimann, formerly a journalist, was nominated as the new prime minister. In May 2001 Estonia achieved a great success by winning the Eurovision Song Contest.

On 1 May 2004 Estonia joined the European Union. The new government led by the new prime minister Juhan Parts (Res Publica) was appointed by the president on 9 April 2003. However, Parts tendered the resignation of the government on 24 March 2005. After the March 2003 elections, Juhan Parts, the leader of the new Res Publica party which won 28 seats from nowhere (as many as Centre Party which had ruled until then) formed a coalition with the neo-liberal Reform Party (RP) and the more rural-oriented People's Union. Thearts government had a majority of 60 seats. The cabinet included only one female minister, Ms. Ojuland, the minister of state. Ojuland, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. She was the only member of the government who had already served in the previous government. The 36-year-old Prime Minister Juhan Parts was Auditor General before he became leader of Res Publica.

After several incidents in 2004, relations between the two coalition parties deteriorated. The resignation of the Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications, Meelis Atonen, was the beginning of a series of events that led to a schism between the two parties. On 9 September 2004, then-Minister Atonen was forced to resign after major problems with the ferry connection between the mainland and the two big islands (Saaremaa and Hiiumaa). Moreover, RP leader Andrus Ansip announced that he no longer felt bound by a secret memorandum (January 2004) between his predecessor, Siim Kallas (the current Estonian Euro commissioner) and Prime Minister Parts about a merger between Res Publica and RP in the autumn of 2004. Ansip cited 'changed circumstances' (decreased popularity of Res Publica) for this, and since then things have gone downhill between the two parties. Subsequently, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mw. Kristiina Ojuland (Reform Party), was sent home by Prime Minister Parts on 8 February 2005. She refused to take political responsibility for the loss of 91 confidential documents in her ministry. On 22 February 2005, Reform Party member Rein Lang took over the ministry from her for a short time.

Four weeks later, the Reform Party tabled a motion of no confidence in Minister of Justice Vaher (Res Publica), who had proposed that 63 corrupt officials and administrators in Estonia should be identified and brought to justice. Both the exact number of 63 and the way in which the objective was to be achieved were objectionable to many politicians. The motion was passed in parliament and the Parts government tendered its resignation to the president on 24 March 2005.

The new governing coalition led by Andrus Ansip (Reform Party) was quickly formed. The new coalition consists of three parties: Reform Party (RP), Center Party (CP) and People's Union (PU) and has a small majority, 53 seats (out of 101) in the Riigikogu.

In September 2006, the former Estonian foreign minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves (52) became the new president. An electoral college consisting of 101 parliamentarians and 244 local officials chose Ilves (174 votes) over the incumbent president Arnold Ruutel (162 votes).

The parliamentary elections of Sunday, 4 March 2007 ended in a victory for the centre-right Reform Party of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. Its coalition partner, Edgar Savisaar's more left-oriented Centre Party, also did well. There was little difference between the two parties. Some 61 per cent of the million or so Estonians entitled to vote turned out to vote.

According to Estonian media, the Reform Party could count on the support of 27.7 percent of the electorate after counting almost all the votes. The Centre Party would have 26.2 per cent. In the 101-seat parliament, the winner could probably count on 31 seats against 29 for the Centre Party.

Ansip appeared to have benefited from strong economic growth as expected, a member of the European Union since 2004.

In June 2009, the Estonian Parliament agreed to double the number of troops in Afghanistan. The euro became the official currency in Estonia on 1 January 2011. The Baltic country of about 1.3 million inhabitants joined the eurozone on 1 January as the 17th EU member. The euro replaces the Estonian kroon. In February 2011, the Reform Party won 56 of the 101 seats. In August, Toomas Hendrik Ilves won the presidential election. At the end of 2012, talks with Russia on border disputes begin. In February 2014, the two countries conclude a treaty that puts an end to these disputes. In March 2015, Minister Taavi Roivas' reform party wins the elections partly due to fears over Russia's intervention in Ukraine.

In 2016, NATO holds exercises in the border area. In October 2016, Kersti Kaljulaid becomes Estonia's first female president. In November 2016, Juri Ratas of the centre party, which finds much support among Estonia's Russian-speaking minority, forms a coalition government after Taavi Roivas failed to survive a vote of confidence. In 2017, Nato army units are stationed in the Baltic states because of what the alliance sees as a Russian threat. In 2017, Nato army units will be deployed in the Baltic States because of what the alliance perceives as the Russian threat. In 2019, the centre-right opposition party Reform wins the parliamentary elections and defeats the ruling Centre Party in the parliamentary elections. In 2021, Kaja Kallas becomes Estonia's first female prime minister after her Reform Party forms a coalition with the Centre Party.


Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania: country studies
Federal Research Division, Library of Congres

Spilling, M. / Estonia
Marshall Cavendish Corporation

Taylor, N. / Estonia
Bradt Publications

Williams, N. / Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania
Lonely Planet

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated January 2024
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