Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

Dealing with the Past: The Case of Estonia

Hanna Järä

January 1999

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


An essential challenge facing a society in transition stems from the legacy of the former power elite. A compelling need to restore moral order by the assessment of the abdication of the rule of law and violations of human rights requires an opportunity to face the past and its consequences. The process of dealing with the past includes a strong commitment to revealing the truth and redressing the past. The critical question around the issue is what is considered a proper reaction towards leaders and perpetrators who were responsible for oppressive activities and other violations of human rights, many of whom remain part of the new political structures or hold important positions in public life. The central tension is between the politics of compromise, the essence of which is to leave the past intact, and the radical notion of justice. Thus, the key dilemma facing the emerging democracies is whether past violations should be forgotten or confronted, forgiven or prosecuted.