Preventing armed conflict in Estonia


A diplomatic intervention led by the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe helped to avert an armed conflict in Estonia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 1990, the people of Estonia voted in the first free elections in the country since 1938. A major issue facing the new government was the plight of the non-Estonian minorities (most of whom were Russian) in Estonia, who constituted over a third of the total population. Initially, the Estonian government considered granting citizenship to all residents in the country. However, following a referendum in March 1991 (in which the Estonian population chose independence) and the attempted coup in Moscow in August, the administration introduced much more stringent conditions.1 The potential fallout from the dispute was exacerbated by the Russian government’s refusal to withdraw military personnel from Estonia until the non-Estonian population was granted citizenship. Foreseeing the problems that could arise from these developments, the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) established a Mission in Estonia in February 1993.2 In June 1993, another discriminatory law was discussed in the Estonian parliament and in response, Russian communities in Estonia organised referenda on increased autonomy, while the Russian government cut gas supplies and warned that it would intervene if necessary.3

Faced with an escalating crisis that could easily have spiralled into armed conflict, the Estonian government invited the CSCE to assess the crisis and mediate a peaceful resolution. The recently appointed CSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Max van der Stoel, was immediately dispatched to Estonia. The following day, he issued a series of recommendations to improve the legal status of the non-Estonian population, which itself helped to calm the crisis.4 In the ensuing weeks, he engaged in extensive shuttle Diplomacy between the Estonian government and the Russian communities, convincing the former to allow the referenda to go ahead on the condition that they remained symbolic, and the latter to state their respect for the territorial integrity of Estonia.5 Although many issues remained, the threat of armed conflict had been defused. Meanwhile, the OSCE Mission (renamed from CSCE in 1994) worked with both parties to maintain stability, verifying the withdrawal of Russian troops and providing language training to the Russian population.6 Despite some tense moments in 1994-1996, the presence of the OSCE (and later, the EU) helped to ensure that any disputes remained in the political sphere.7

1 Sergey Khrychikov & Hugh Miall. “Conflict Prevention in Estonia: The Role of the Electoral System.” Security Dialogue, Vol. 33, No. 2. (2002) p.193

2 OSCE. OSCE Mission to Estonia (closed). (OSCE, 2020) Available at: (Accessed 23/11/2020)

3 Celestine Bohen. “Russia Cuts Gas Supply To Estonia in a Protest.” The New York Times. (1993) Available at: (Accessed 23/11/2020)

4 Max van der Stoel (Wolfgang Zellner & Falk Lange, eds). Peace and Stability through Human and Minority Rights: Speeches by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. (Baden Baden: Nomos, 1999) p.102

5 Hanne-Margaret Birckenbach. “Half Full or Half Empty? The OSCE Mission to Estonia and its Balance Sheet, 1993 – 1999.” European Centre for Minority Issues Working Paper, No. 6. (2000) p.42

6 Rob Zaagman. “Conflict Prevention in the Baltic States: The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.” European Centre for Minority Issues Monograph, No. 1. (1999) p.19

7 M. Merrick Yamamoto. OSCE Principles in Practice: Testing Their Effect on Security Through the Work of Max van der Stoel, First High Commissioner on National Minorities 1993–2001. (Maryland: University of Marland, 2017) p.63

Start Year


End Year




UN Regional Group

Eastern Europe

Type of Conflict

Risk of a vertical (state-based) intrastate conflict

Type of Initiative

Diplomacy, Mediation of a peace agreement, Monitoring, observation, political, and verification missions

Main Implementing Organisation(s)

The Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe.




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