No. 38




Withering of the Parliament – Changes in the Foreign Policy Competence of the Pre-War Riigikogu*

05 December 2018


RiTo No. 38, 2018

The article analyses what was the competence of the parliament in shaping and implementing foreign policy in the Republic of Estonia in 1918–1939 like in comparison with other institutions of state authority, and assesses whether the Parliament could perform the foreign policy tasks, obligations and rights provided by the law. During the period under discussion, several major legislative and political changes took place in the division of foreign policy competence.

The article discusses the impact of the Constitution of 1920, the Act on the Organisation of the Government and the Ministries of 1929, the amendments to the Constitution that were adopted by a referendum in 1933, the coup of 1934 and the new Constitution of 1938 on the foreign policy competence of state institutions. In the pre-war Republic of Estonia, there was no balance of state powers, which is a precondition for the functioning of democracy. The Constitution that entered in force in 1920 provided for a parliament with large powers, which controlled the executive power also in foreign policy. The debate on the need for a head of state and the scope of his or her powers, which had started during the drafting of the Constitution, continued after the Constitution had been adopted. The Act on the Organisation of the Government and the Ministries of 1929 and the amendments to the Constitution that were adopted by a referendum in 1933 strengthened the executive power, but due to the coup, the amendments to the Constitution did not enter into force to the full extent. After the coup of 1934, the power concentrated in the hands of the Government and the Parliament lost its competence; the so-called Era of Silence began. The new Constitution, which was adopted at the initiative of the authoritarian regime that had carried out the coup and which entered into force in 1938, did not bring along the restoration of parliamentary democracy and the balance of state powers. The executive power headed by the president with large powers used the parliament as a rubber stamp to give a legal appearance to the authoritarian regime. The role of the parliament in foreign policy was that of a silent onlooker. It was expressed especially clearly during the concluding of the military bases agreement between Estonia and the Soviet Union. This agreement, which was an important milestone in the loss of the independence of Estonia and allowed the deployment of the red Army troops into Estonia, was ratified by the president without the previous approval of the parliament. The parliament that had no powers to influence the course of the signing of the agreement did not request reporting on the agreement also later. Besides the political changes that took place in the legislation and the life of the country, the article also analyses the impact of the alienation of the state authority from the society on foreign policy and the state as a whole.

* The article is based on the author’s Master’s thesis “Political and Legal Competence of the Estonian Parliament in Foreign Policy 1917–1940”, which was defended at the University of Tartu in 2018 and was awarded August Rei Scholarship in Parliamentary Studies.