Years of the authoritarian regime

​By the beginning of 1934 the situation in Estonia had improved. The worst of the economic crisis was over, thanks to the devaluation of the kroon the previous summer. The lengthy fight over changing the constitution ended in the ratification of the constitution of the Vaps. The forthcoming elections of the State Elder (i.e. head of state) and the parliament promised to ease the tensions in domestic politics.

​Seeing the great popularity of the Vaps movement, and worried about their own prospects at the elections, the State Elder candidates Konstantin Päts and Johan Laidoner carried out a military coup d’état on 12 March 1934. Claiming that the Vaps movement was planning to seize power, they arrested several hundred leading Vaps members and closed their organisations and newspapers. At the same time a six-month general state of emergency was proclaimed, political meetings and demonstrations were banned, and the State Elder and Riigikogu elections were postponed.

​Although the coup was initially directed against the Vaps, in autumn it attempted to demolish the entire public order. On 2 October 1934 the Riigikogu session was prematurely terminated and the parliament was not allowed to convene again. This was the start of the so-called Silent Era. The state of emergency was extended, political parties were replaced by the sole official party, the Fatherland Union and professional chambers, journalism was subjected to censure and various publications had to fold, state control was established in significant fields (trade unions, local governments, churches, universities etc.); opponents of the new regime were under police surveillance; legislation was carried out through the decrees of the State Elder. Power belonged to State Elder Päts, Commander in Chief Laidoner and Prime Minister Kaarel Eenpalu.

​The new constitution was adopted on 1 January 1938. It legalised the existing administrative practice, making permanent several temporary restrictions caused by the state of defence and reducing people’s participation in state administration. The state of emergency, censorship and state control continued, political activities were still forbidden, important laws were issued as decrees. The newly established position of president was filled by Konstantin Päts, the new two-chamber Riigikogu was subservient to the president, as was the government, whose survival depended on the president’s will.

​In the economic sense, the silent era was quite successful, although success was primarily based on the favourable world situation, and not on the new regime. However, the forceful intervention of the state into economic life in the longer perspective heralded new problems due to the expanding nationalisation, ineffective state institutions, high taxes, suppression of salaries, extensive subsidising of farmers, and other factors. Ordinary citizens, however, experienced a gradually improving life in those years. Päts’ politics relied on the right-wing idea of national unity, which emphasised the need for Estonians to stick together regardless of their education, employment and wealth. These views were promoted through the State Propaganda Office, which also organised relevant national mass campaigns. Mainly for these reasons the authoritarian regime of President Päts secured the support of the majority of the population, and did not have to face a strong opposition.

​The biggest threats to Estonia came from outside, as the international situation in the second half of the 1930s quickly deteriorated. Serious dangers to world peace and Estonian independence came from the Stalinist Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, as both became militarily more powerful and aggressive. At the same time the League of Nations and democratic countries showed their inability to solve international problems. Efforts towards international agreements to guarantee Estonian security failed – Estonian foreign policy was too weak and the world was not really interested in the problems of the three Baltic countries. Under such circumstances it was hoped to secure Estonian independence by cautious balancing between the Soviet Union and Germany. Unfortunately it worked only until the two aggressors agreed about the fate of the three small countries. The 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact placed Estonia in the Soviet sphere of interest and by military threats forced it to sign the agreement on the bases that considerably weakened the sovereignty of the Republic of Estonia and finally led to the loss of Estonian independence.

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