The emergence of

Autocratic rule in Estonia

By John Koetzle, February 2001


The Constitutional crisis of 1920-1934 in Estonia inevitably led to the rise of autocratic rule in Estonia. There are two main reasons that allowed the constitutional crisis to occur and consequently the rise in power of an autocratic ruler Konstantin Pats.

The two main reasons were the instability of the structure of the government that was outlined in the constitution of 1920 and the economic downturn that transpired in 1924-25. Estonians, unhappy with the current structure of government and its political instability opted to turn to parties that had a more fascist ideology.


Many historians argue that Konstantin Pats ruled for the preservation of a stable government and economic growth but some may argue that Pats collaborated with the Soviets and encouraged the Soviet takeover. There is no real concrete evidence of these collaborations, however there is clear cut evidence that Pats's rise to power was really  not for Soviet rule. There is more evidence that his rise to power was for the preservation of his political power and not for the restoration of democratic rule in Estonia. You can make an argument that there are some similarities between Pat's regime and communist rule. Both governments discourage the democratic process of electing a governing body. However to make the argument that there was direct influence by the Soviets in Pat's regime cannot be supported wholeheartedly.

In February of 1920 Estonia officially claimed its independence from Soviet Russia. "The newly independent state of Estonia stretched 47,549 square miles." [Raun, U Tovia pg112) The Estonian peoples immediately started drafting their new constitution. "The structure of the newly formed government was modeled after the Weimar Republic, Swiss, French and U.S. constitutions." [Raun, U. Tovia pg. 112]


The Estonian government structure consisted of the State Assembly that contained 100 seats and the Riigivanem who was the president of the State Assembly. There was a Supreme Court that headed the judicial branch of the government. The Riigivanem unlike most presidents were elected internally by the State Assembly. The Riigivanem had no real power. He could be dismissed at anytime by the State assembly. The Riigivanem had not veto power either. In effect this was the major flaw of the constitution of 1920. Legislation could also be introduced by referendum. These were the unique characteristics of 1920. [Raun, U. Tovia 112-115]

As the result of the Riigivanem having very limited power there were virtually no balances of power between the different branches of government. Most of the power if not all was held in the legislature. There were fourteen different parties also in the legislature. All of the parties were fighting for the majority of seats in the State Assembly. Those who control the state assembly hold most of the power in the government. There were 20 changes in power in the senate between 1920 and 1934. Therefore was evidence of substantial political instability inherent in the system.


In a market economy when there is political unrest it is hard for businesses to thrive. The reason businesses are hurt is because different parties have different policies regarding economic reform and taxation. Consequently business owners are unsure of the future macroeconomic conditions that lie ahead. Therefore there was an increasing trend amongst the people of Estonia to implement a government with a stronger executive that would promote political stability. This political unrest characterized by the newly formed State Assembly led to consolidation of powers in control of the State Assembly. Those parties were in power were the center and right wing parties in favor of a stronger leadership and a stronger executive branch.

Gradually the government was becoming less liberal and more right ring leading to the precursors of the establishment of autocratic rule. Another reason for the consolidation of powers was the economic downturn and rising unemployment. "The number of workers in middle and large industry declined 17% in 1929-1933."(Raun, U. Tovia pg.115) Estonians were tired of the political unrest and economic recession that characterized the late 20's and early 30's. In 1933 the constitution was amended and the new constitution gave the Riigivanem substantial powers. "The Riigivanem was now elected directly by the people and had veto power over laws passed in the senate. Another one of the major reforms that was an integral part of the new constitution was that the State Assembly's seats be cut in half to 50. The head of state could dissolve it at anytime and call for new elections."[Raun, O. Tovia pg.119-120) This reduced the power of the State Assembly substantially. Therefore the newly drafted constitution was promoting more political stability because there was a balance in power in place between the executive and legislative branch. 


The current cabinet resigned that was headed by Jaan Tonnison at the time. Konstantin Pats who headed the Farmer's and Socialists parties took power as an interim president until new elections were held. Konstantin's main opposition was the League of Veteran's party who was predicted to win power in the next election in both the legislative branch and executive branch. They gained popularity by mastering the art of propaganda and gained control of most of the urban areas. Konstantin only had support in the agrarian areas so he was predicted to loose. Konstantin joined an alliance with General Laidoner who was recently shunned by the League of Veterans to gain control of the army. This was an intelligent strategic move because this prevented any threat of a coup detat that could be staged by the League of Veterans because they controlled the army. Konstantin Pats then began to officially shut down the League of Veterans and arrested 400 of its members. Konstantin Pats had now secured his political stability in Estonia. Abolishing the organization of the League of Veterans officially helped secure the idea that Konstatin Pats regime as autocratic. Another move that contributed to the notion that his reign was primarily autocratic was his officially postponing the elections for a new State Assembly and new president. If Konstatin Pats was really interested in preserving the democratic form of government that had been espoused by the constitution of 1920 and 1933 then he would hold the elections and led the democratic process prevail.


When Konstantin Pats finally did held elections it wasn't to return to the government that was drafted in the constitution of 1933. He called for a new two party system. The new bicameral system would consist of an upper and Lower House. Pats refused an organization of opposing parties in the new legislature. All people elected were non governmental officials and the remainder where those Pats appointed himself. Konstatin Pats claims that he was only maintaining the political stability of the country. Was an autocratic government the only way to uphold stability? Pats was originally elected as interim president to uphold order and to draft a new and improved constitution. Pats could have held free elections and implemented a two party system that we have in the Untied States but he blocked any opposing parties compromising the whole democratic system.

Konstatin Pats was not a dictator by conventional sense but his controlling opposition parties and appointing people to government positions undermined what the Estonian people fought for which was its independence under democratic rule. Some historians may argue that you have to view in the context of the times and the time many governments were becoming totalitarian and becoming powerful. Such powerful nations were Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. I argue that if they stayed a republic they could have attracted the attention and support of the United States and could have avoided many years under the rule of the Iron Curtain. In conclusion Pats did maintain order and the Estonians did prosper under his rule but he abused his power and undermined the whole democratic system



  • Tovio U. Raun "Estonian and the Estonians", Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, Stanford, California

  • Arvids Ziedonis "Baltic Hitory", Association For The Advancement Of Baltic Studies Inc



Designed and maintained by Oldrich Kyn . If you want to send

a message to Oldrich Kyn  please click on the  following icon: