Mart Laar: Meri and Yeltsin bargained over the treaties like at a bazaar in Bukhara

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Photo: Toomas Volmer

Americans equipped leaders of Estonia with a Reagan-era classified handbook on how to be crude and rough while negotiating with Russia, recalls Mart Laar as he reminisces on how the 1994 July Treaties happened. Tomorrow will be 20 years since these were entered. For the occasion, Postimees prints an excerpt from memoirs underway by Mr Laar – a book called «The Turn» (Pööre).

The path to the July Treaties was a long and winding one, starting right after Estonia regained her independence – long before the «Isamaa» (Pro Patria) government.

Without support by the West, it was hopeless to get the Russian troops, still sitting in Estonia, to move out. Increasingly, Russia was issuing statements on how the troops were still needed to protect the local Russians in Estonia and to stop the discrimination, and that Russia had invested too much over the years to just walk away.

As early as in the summer of 1992, Russia had begun to be reticent regarding talks to get the troops out; they had begun to halt negotiations, to halt the halting of negotiations, while tying the issue to the situation of the Russian-speaking population, especially that of the military pensioners.

Thus, things began to look bad with the talks quietly «ticking away» in Lohusalu. By Estonia, Jüri Luik was appointed to hold the talks, named a minister for that purpose. From the US ambassador Robert Frasure, Mr Luik got a classified and probably still nonexistent manual on how to negotiate with Russians i.e. Ronald Reagan team’s experience from disarmament talks with the Russians. We read it through and were quite taken aback, initially, as its opening advice was to begin by being extraordinarily crude, impolite and harsh.

Not to back down one inch, even if the opponents’ proposals seemed reasonable – all we were to do was to curse, swear and insult. To not react to the opponent’s attempts to have civil communication; just let ‘em have it, hit ‘em hard and that’s all. If you give the Russians a tiny corner of a trench, we were instructed, they would dig in and start demanding the next concessions. For that very reason, there were to be no concessions at all. Meanwhile, you must know what you want i.e. how far you may retreat in certain issues; this may in no wise be told to the opponent, not even hinted at.

Do we have to be so mean, I asked Mr Luik. Yep, he said curtly. Also, the manual suggested we split up the roles precisely – playing the bad cop / good cop game with the Russians. They said the Russians would easily fall in that trap and start coming to the good cop to tell their troubles and end up striking a deal with that very party. Quickly, it became clear to me that Mr Luik was planning for me to be the bad cop and President Lennart Meri to be the good one. We had already developed a division of tasks like that anyhow, and to me it sounded totally logical.

So we went into the negotiations. We held on to our positions real stiff, never took a step back. Well, the Russians didn’t either. When we wanted to know when the Russian troops would be taken out of Estonia, they talked about the turn of the century, with Paldiski it was even 2002. We, however, thought they should get going immediately. We only shifted our deadlines according to as they had already arrived. By the summer of 1994 we had arrived at a point where the number of Russian troops remaining in Estonia had considerably dropped and the territory in their use shrunk; still, the problem as such remained unsolved.

Already when forming the Isamaa government, we had discussed with President Meri that we could not let Estonia’s independence go a second time. For that, it was unavoidable to take Estonia into Europe.

But why would Europe want a country with a Russian military base and a couple of Chernobyl-type nuclear reactors – to say nothing about NATO?  Even every investor will think a dozen times before investing in a country like that. Thus, the delay with removal of the troops was hindering Estonia’s integration into the West.

Partly, that was obviously what Russia was aiming at. Our goal was to remove the obstacle. At the end of 1993, we succeeded at our first breakthrough with the talks – the Russian delegation had even written down new standpoints; now, they said they were basically ready to set August 31st 1994 as the deadline to pull the troops out. But, in order for that to happen, Estonia was supposed to pay $23m for the housing of the troops in Russia and give the remaining military pensioners residence permits, the option to pass citizenship exam without speaking Estonian, and the opportunity to participate in privatisations.

Not thinking twice we rejected the demand, but then we had a sneaky idea. Mr Luik announced that Estonia was willing to accept Russia’s proposal to remove the troops by August 31st 1994, full stop. On my part, I immediately called the Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and asked him to strongly support the date. The Nordics did that, and the European Union promptly followed suit. Russia tried to explain that they had not really meant it like that, and that they had several conditions attached, but Mr Luik just stared at them like a fish and said he knew nothing of any conditions. Thus, the date August 31st started to live a life of its own and there was nothing Russia could do. Alas, that was but a small victory.

To move on with the talks, we needed the Presidents to meet in order to break through the Russian bureaucratic apparatus. That was indeed promised, at the end of 1993, but it got postponed again. The atmosphere is not fit yet, they said. Thus, August 31st kept coming closer but there was no agreement. It only got worse.

With the Latvians – who shared the same problem – we had worked in close cooperation and agreed that when it came to talks with Russia we would not do anything without letting each other know; we would stand together, or fall together if need be. We did not believe of course that the agreement would stick too long, but it fell apart at a speed even I was surprised by. The Latvians went to Moscow, they were handed a text prepared by Russians to be initialled, and the Latvians signed it. Afterwards, it was already impossible to claw anything back, as Latvia had come under pressure by the whole world.

The Latvians had agreed to leave Skrunda radar base in Russian hands for the time being; we, however, badly needed to get the Russian army out once and for all and fast, in order to integrate with the West. Secondly, Latvia had finally surrendered with the military pensioners’ issue, leaving it up to Russia to decide. We, however, had to keep these rights – in the name of Estonia’s stability.

Frome there on, all went as we had feared. The Russians laid the same agreement on the table for us and said point blank: sign, if you are so one with the Latvians. We did not, of course. Again utilising all our contacts in the West, we tried to finally achieve the summit with Mr Yeltsin. As helped by Robert Frasure, we arrived at the idea of using the G7 summit at Naples. There, Bill Clinton was to secretly slip an address by President Meri into Mr Yeltsin’s hand, proposing that they meet and talk things through so as to keep the Russian state agencies from interfering.

To do this, Mr Clinton stood ready, also promising to come meet all three Baltic presidents and support the removal of Russian troops. Now, it was time to write the letter. The initial draft was done by Mr Meri personally, but Mr Frasure did not think it was concrete enough. Such flowery language, he said, the Russians would not understand. He proposed that he come over with his family, to Keila-Joa, to meet me and Mr Luik. He would teach us to make the real American hamburgers and afterwards we would talk and see what we could do about it.

A deal. The hamburgers were wonderful indeed. Thereafter, Mr Frasure uncorked a bottle of rare whisky and we got busy writing Mr Yeltsin a letter. I can’t help it but the whole scene reminded me of the famous painting «The Zaporozhye Cossacks writing a letter to the Turkish Sultan» [By Ilya Repin – edit] except that Mr Luik was not shirtless and I lacked the fancy Cossack moustache. Anyway, a letter resulted. Slightly tweaked by assistants to Mr Clinton and Mr Meri, it was quietly passed on by Mr Clinton to Mr Yeltsin, in Naples, while also telling the latter – very quietly – that he’d better behave and live up to the great expectations. Mr Clinton already thinking the issue was settled, up popped a journalist at the after-event press conference sounding the very first question: will Mr Yeltsin remove Russian troops from the Baltics by August 31st?

Thereat, Mr Yeltsin went into a resounding «Nyet-nyet-nyet!». He then did try to explain that he was intending to meet the President of Estonia, but no-one paid attention to that any more. With no concessions to be expected from the Russian side, the fear was that now the West would be putting pressure on us – especially having been asked by Russia to urge us to be compliant. At their meeting, Mr Clinton had not directly done that, but he had mentioned to Mr Meri that perhaps the latter could consider giving in regarding the military pensioners.

We realised that we would be in trouble stretching things too long, but all of a sudden Ambassador Trofimov, on July 23rd, came with a notice from Moscow that Mr Yeltsin was expecting President of Estonia on July 26th in Moscow – in three days time, thus. The invitation very much resembled the one-time style of Moscow ordering reticent leaders of Soviet Republics to show up in the Kremlin – and Lennart Meri was quite upset. Looked like the meeting would be no good. Mr Luik also was of the opinion that Mr Yeltsin would only use the meeting to curse us to our face. By Luik and Meri alike, it was vividly imagined how they would be standing in the Sheremetyevo Airport trying to get a taxi. In the end, Mr Meri said he’d be willing to go – but only in case he would have an official invitation; otherwise he would not be going. In the nick of time, the invitation arrived and the President was able to go. True to his ways, he did it in style, chartering a plane.

Before Mr Meri and Mr Luik departed, we were sitting down in Kadriorg, the three of us... with not too much hope in our hearts. Mr Meri did not even bother to take along the latest version of the Estonian-language version of the treaty, as there’d be no deal anyhow.

Deep in thought, we braced to face the darkness of the future; I asked Mr Luik what the American manual was saying about steps to take when we’re at the end of the road and looking down a cliff. Mr Luik just shrugged and said: «Now, all of a sudden, the Russians will totally collapse and concede in nearly everything you have desired.» Sadly we smiled – at the moment, that did feel such an impossibility. So Mr Meri and Mr Luik went on their way, I headed back to Toompea to wait for the news. Suddenly, the phone rang. The secretary said it was Helmut Kohl calling...

I answered, of course: true to our tradition, Mr Kohl had called without any protocol and foreign ministry as we could speak German with each other. He knew our President was on his way to Moscow. He had talked about that, with his friend Boris and cautioned him to behave. Boris, he said, had promised to do that. Mr Kohl also told me everything would be all right, don’t you worry. Still holding the phone, I couldn’t help but grimly grin. But I thanked him just the same. And went on expecting the Moscow news.

Mr Luik called. The reception in Moscow had been icy, as we had been expecting; the meeting with Mr Yeltsin was just about to start and Mr Luik had to hang up, promising to keep us informed with it all. For hours thereafter, it was the sound of silence. The tension rising, there was no news. We were wondering what was happening in Moscow to keep Mr Luik from getting to a telephone. Turning to gallows humour, we said perhaps it was like the old days when one went to see the Czar and ended up in Siberia. Then, however, Mr Luik called back and passed the bombshell: the treaty was as good as signed and any minute the Paldiski nuclear base fate would also be agreed. I was absolutely shocked.

All I asked was, what were the conditions, as they did not have the treaties with them. Mr Luik said they had signed the Russian language treaties as there was nothing else at hand. Sure they had had to hurry so they paid no great attention to the details, so Mr Luik guessed some provisions could perhaps cause confusion. Mr Luik assured me that should there be any mess he would be willing to take all responsibility and I was free to tell everyone and have him sacrificed if needed. The sacrifice part was not needed and I told him so. So I went into waiting mode, to hear details from Mr Luik on what had actually happened and what where the treaties they’d signed.

Having not been in Moscow personally, I can now only rely on statements by President Meri, and some little information added by Mr Luik. Trying to relate it more-or-less politely, this is what transpired. To begin with, they sat down with Russian state agencies which were not able to utter anything that made sense. Mr Yeltsin, however, was praising Mr Meri and telling the others what a wise President the man was. Hearing that, the Russian officials developed a worried look. Leaving them to mind their own business, Mr Yeltsin proceeded to ask Mr Meri and Mr Luik to another table by themselves, to also down a little vodka perhaps.

Mr Meri, not a vodka-guy at all, was in trouble knowing he’d have to play along. With Mr Yeltsin beginning by offering him a long list of all kinds of vodkas one can think of, Mr Meri could only name one he hoped Mr Yeltsin would not have – Absolut. Hearing that, Mr Yeltsin’s eyes lit up: «Now you did hit the very mark, Mr President!». So Mr Yeltsin ordered the Absolut to be brought, threw out the officials and it was vodka-time with Mr Meri and Mr Luik while lamenting the stupidity of the officials who can’t get anything done. But he and Mr Meri, they were two Presidents and they would get these things settled at once. So vodka flowed freely. Mr Meri had spotted a small palm tree at his side; craftily, he passed his vodka on to the pot. Mr Yeltsin never noticed that. Pretty soon, he noticed nothing much at all and the talks got going mighty fine.

According to Mr Meri, at times it was more like bargaining at a bazaar, in Bukhara – where he’d bought him a hookah... but a deal was reached.

Mr Yeltsin sent the officials to formulate the documents while he continued with the bottle. As Russian foreign minister entered, after a while, to report on how they were doing, Mr Yeltsin poured him a tall glass of vodka, commanded it to be downed, and complained at the officials taking so long – behold how fast a pair of Presidents can work stuff out.

Talks entered their fourth hour and Mr Yeltsin was showing obvious signs of fatigue. A banquet followed, and that was a trial. Now, it was Mr Meri who did most of the talking, interpreting what Mr Yeltsin had said. Finally, all was settled and Mr Meri and Mr Yeltsin signed the agreement.

Actually, it was one treaty and one agreement that were signed. The third treaty, regarding removing troops from Paldiski, had to wait a couple of more days. Because of that, a part of the Estonian delegation had to stay behind, in Moscow. What they did sign were the treaty on removing Russian troops, and the agreement regarding military pensioners. Craftily, Mr Meri had inserted into both the clause that in case of disagreements, the Estonian language version of the text would be guided by. The version, thus, which we were yet to compile when back in Tallinn...

Having received the initial version of the treaty in Estonian as done by translators, I was not satisfied. I proceeded to translate it myself, applying the so-called creative approach. Professionals said translation wasn’t done like that. I said it was and I had already done it. So we got the Estonian versions ready. Interestingly, no arguments developed from the Russian side – probably, they had no Estonian translators at all.

In the public arena, noise naturally abounded. All enemies of Lennart Meri’s joined ranks and accused him of betrayal of national interests. Had I been after cheap popularity, I could have gone along with it – but that would have been playing with Estonia’s national interests. Unambiguously, we got behind the treaty. At that, I do not see why we would have had to have been against. In the treaties, all kinds of hazards were foreseen, shrewd schemes were hidden therein, but none of these came to pass. The Russian troops did exit Estonia on the very August 31st, on the very conditions that we needed.

Thereafter, Estonia’s integration with Europe really got in top gear. By 1997, Estonia became the first state on the former Soviet territory to start accession negotiations with the European Union.