The Baltic States and Their Region: New Europe or Old?

By David J. Smith | Go to book overview

Non-territorial cultural autonomy as a Baltic contribution
to Europe between the wars

David J Smith

When considering Baltic contributions to the construction of Europe over the past century, it is important to keep in mind the pioneering efforts by the three countries to implement non-territorial cultural autonomy for their national minorities during the period between the two World Wars.1 Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all enshrined the cultural autonomy principle in their founding constitutions, and all went on to implement it in practice to varying degrees during the 1920s. Of the three, however, only Estonia formally drafted a full minorities law on this basis. The Estonian case thus provides the central focus for this article, which examines the origins of Baltic cultural autonomy, its implications for wider European debates on minority rights during the period in question and its possible relevance to post-communist central and eastern Europe.


1. Cultural autonomy in inter-war Europe: Estonia, Latvia and
beyond

The Estonian Cultural Autonomy Law of 1925 was unique in inter-war Europe, and elicited much attention internationally. Under its terms, representatives of Estonia's Russian, German, and Swedish minorities (and other nationality groups numbering at least 3,000) were given the possibility to establish their own cultural self-governments. Once constituted, these could assume full responsibility for the organisation, administration and control of public and private schools operating in the mother tongue of the relevant minority, as well as for the supervision of minority cultural institutions and activities more generally.2 Whilst cultural self-governments were structured along the same lines as local authorities, the exercise of minority rights was not linked to particular territorial sub-regions of the state. Rather, each autonomous minority had the status of a corporation at public law, whose remit extended to the state territory as a whole. The institutions of autonomy were partly funded by central and local government, which provided the same level of funding previously allocated to minority schools within the state sector. However, since cultural self-governments had the status of public corporations they also had the power to levy taxation on their members, something which provided them with an important additional source of income.

The law was especially suited to the needs of Estonia's small and territorially dispersed German and Jewish minorities, both of which established cultural self-governments during 1925–26. By contrast, the

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