The restoration of Latvian independence 1986-1992

Soviet armored transport in Riga, August 21 1991

There are three independence days for Latvia. The first one is  November 18 – the date of the actual proclamation of Latvian republic, the May 4 – the declaration of restoration of independence and 21, August today – the restoration of Latvian independence in practical matter when Latvia used the breakdown of coup in Moscow to finally break away from the Soviet Union. There is a discussion what is most important- the declaration of restoration of independence or actual restoration itself. One is clear that in  May 4 Latvian national government made the decision to make an interim period until actual restoration of independence and it may take longer if there would not be any coup in Moscow. This article tells the story of how the Latvian independence was restored from the beginning until the end.

The independence of Latvia was halted in 1940, by the Soviet Union when it was occupied and annexed. The independence was not restored after the end of World war II since Latvia was kept as Soviet possession without any protest by Western powers. However Western powers such as US was smart enough not to officially recognize Latvia as juridical part of the Soviet Union. No relations with the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic was made since Western powers still regarded Latvian republic as juridical entity and Latvian diplomatic service still worked in Western countries. This action made possible to restore Latvia as a justified state if such time would ever come. The only Western state that recognized Latvia as Soviet possession was Sweden. Also Australia did that for a short time by the time of labor government but changed its stance after the collapse of leftist government.

In Latvia itself during most years of Soviet rule it was impossible to openly fight for independence. Armed resistance by partisans took place between 1945 to 1953 but was defeated by superior Soviet security forces. A passive, unarmed resistance persisted during the Soviet time, but Soviet KGB did everything to halt any open movement. The dissidents like Gunars Astra was intellectuals and was under constant surveillance  by the KGB . It was clear that open resistance was not possible until the Soviet government itself would lift the iron curtain of single party rule and KGB presence. Under the reign of Khrushchev and Brezhnev it seemed impossible.

The situation changed once Micheal Gorbachev became the General secretary of the Communist party. Contrary to his predecessors who were in old age and lack of will to change everything Gorbachev seemed young enough to make a major change. Soviet Union needed one since its stagnating planed economy, disadvantage to Western economy and technology and lose the fight in arms race with US made USSR weaker and weaker. So he made new program called – perestroika.

Gorbachev desired to change the planned economy to make it free from bureaucracy that made low gains for the state. He gave more possibilities for the farming and local business.  But he was still far from changing communist economy completed.  But Gorbachev added another change that was critical for his success – he allowed more freedoms on the political field. People now had rights to openly say their mind, took part in demonstrations and even form non-Party movements. That was a fatal error of Gorbachev – he attempted to liberalize both economy and politics but was not ready to give up the full power of the communist party. Another communist country – China did otherwise – they liberated economy, but kept the full totalitarian power of the communist party. China still persists as communist country and are top two superpower in the world. Soviet government made a rather schizophrenic approach – they tried to change everything but on the other hand they did not want to change nothing. That was the main cause of collapse of Gorbachev policy.

The perestroika did not go unnoticed in Latvia. As the press and television became more liberal it made seed for the nationalist movement. The first sign was in August 25 1986, when an international conference in Jurmala, Latvia took place between American and Soviet diplomats. At the so called Chatowka conference US ambassador in Moscow made a public speech where he reminded of the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact and noted that US has never accepted the occupation of Latvia. This first time when this question was raised and openly discussed. Improvements between relations of US and USSR made possible for the west to openly talk about this issue.

Nationalist march in 14, June 1991

Things moved on in 1987 when local Latvian nationalists were strong enough to appear from underground. A political movement Helsinki – 86 named after a civil right conference in Finland made a public appearance.  The June 14 was the day of great deportation to Siberia in 1941. Helsinki – 86 made a step to commemorate this event by attending the Monument of Freedom and laying flowers in front of it. Soviet government did everything to stop them but they succeeded by making an appearance at the monument. It was a symbolic act that moved the masses. The next step was to remind of the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact in August 23. This time Soviet security forces were more prepared however a large masses attended the demonstration and it turned into semi-violent outburst when Soviet militia arrested the demonstrators. The reaction by the Soviets was so strong, that nationalists did not make the same step in November 18.

It was not only the nationalists, there were also the environmentalists. The Environment protection club made large demonstrations against plans to build hydroelectric plant near Daugavpils and Riga metro. It was also important in terms of nationalism since such plans would require a large number of workforce from the Soviet Union. Latvia already had a large influx of Soviet migrants and they were against more of them. In the end both projects were canceled.

1988 was a milestone of political movement in Latvia. Nationalists openly demanded the restoration of independence. Latvian people became more active. Gorbachev was speaking more and more about democratization and Soviet security suddenly felt weak to halt anti-Soviet activities. New nationalist movement Latvian national independence movement was founded and Helsinki – 86 continued their fight. A large nationalist demonstrations took place and it was no longer a taboo to call the events of 1940 as the Soviet occupation.

It was October 8 1988 when things begun to move a step further. A new mass movement Latvian Peoples Front was organized. The main leaders were journalist Dainis Īvāns, Sandra Kalniete and others. It was made as the alternative against Communist party and was allowed to function.  However Peoples Front had a more careful planing then Helsinki 86 and LNIM. They wanted to achieve their goal by working with the Soviet authorities and gain independence in parliamentary way. It was possible by taking place in the now free election of Supreme Soviet – the parliament of the Latvian USSR to gain majority in it. Radical nationalists resisted any cooperation between the Soviet Authority. That made a sharp divide between moderate and radical nationalists that still persists today.

The strategy by Peoples front was a successful first was a good result in Soviet People’s congress that worked in Moscow and second was the absolute majority in the Supreme Soviet of Latvian SSR. First achievement was the restoration of Latvian national symbol – red and white flag as the official symbol of the Latvian SSR. This all was possible due to the Gorbachev decision to lift the sole status of the communist party. The next step was recognition as Latvian language as the official language in Latvia.

As the Latvian society was more ready for the restoration the legislative project of the declaration was finished on July 28 1989. The peoples Front had 65% support of the population and Moscow was now afraid of losing Latvia. The Latvian communist party had leader change and Anatolijs Gorbunovs  became the chairman of the Supreme Soviet.  Gorbunovs was not a hardline communist instead he supported national movement. However the other side of the party lead by orthodox communist Alfrēds Rubiks was strongly against independence. Along with them a large Russian population was strongly against change that would remove their first hand political status. However a large part of them was still unaware of what the changes will bring, a minority of them supported the independence. It was now clear that Latvian political forces had split in two rival parts, one that supported breakaway by the Soviet Union, others that were strongly against it. Crucially the second side was supported by Moscow and Gorbachev however his power was declining.

Enemies of the independence organized a movement called Interfront a counter force against the People’s Front. It was a rabid organization made from hardliners, army and security officers and anti-Latvian minded Russians. On the other side Latvian hardliners started to organize Citizen congress an alternative to the Supreme Soviet. Their goal was to register all rightful citizens of Latvian Republic who or their children had been citizens before 1940. Peoples Front however was against the Citizen congress and did not take any part in it. However in 1990 elections took place and the congress has begun work but it had a marginal effect on the events since the power was in Supreme Soviet and Peoples Front. In same time a split in the Latvian communist party was apparent and in summer 1989, it parted in two forces. It was a clear sign of weakness. The landmark event of 1989 was marking of the anniversary of the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact. Two million people in the three Baltic states joined in living line from Tallinn to  Vilnius to show unity against Soviet tyranny. It was the most highlighted event of all that even encouraged Warsaw Block countries to stand up to Moscow.

The year 1990 was the time when a move to restore independence was to be done. Everything was set for this – a massive support by the people, strong position in Soviet authority and weak communist opposition. However it was to remind if such action will take place the response from Moscow would not be positive and situation in the republic would change. So far Gorbachev watched events in the Baltic states in with suspicion but refrained to make harsh counter steps. Communist party and KGB still tried to hinder the nationalist movement but they lacked direct order from Moscow to make repressions. If restoration of independence would be declared Moscow would find a reason to allow harsh measures.

Outside Parliament building May, 4 1990

Latvian neighbors Lithuania and Estonia already did this step, Latvia was ready to do it on May 4 1990. With support of 138 deputies and one abstained and 57 Interfront deputies leaving the parliament before voting- the declaration of independence was signed. A large crowd greeted the deputies with joy and flowers a mood was in an upswing. However now the Latvian government had to make a troubled road to make independence working in full-time. Soviet army and KGB was still in Latvia and Moscow denounced the declaration. One goal was to form own form of government free from Moscow which meant making own ministry of interior and foreign ministry and own security forces. It was the time of two governments in Latvian the one Latvian the other Moscow.

The situation in Moscow started to stir up. As the national movement outburst not only in Baltic states but in Ukraine and Caucasus, Gorbachev now was in a tough situation. So far he has shown himself to Western leaders as democratic statesman. US president George Bush Senior made Gorbachev made to promise him not to make aggressive movements in the  Baltic states. Soviet power already lifted in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Berlin wall. Hardliners begun to pressure Gorbachev to make aggressive moves, he himself was undeceive but he was against the full collapse

A plan to halt Baltic independence was based on making various provocations made by security forces to give Moscow official reason to enforce direct presidential rule over the Baltic republics. In Latvia it was done by special forces the OMON who attacked Latvian border posts, seized the house of press and made various coverup explosions.

A violent outburst’s already happened before in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Now one happened in Vilnius, Lithuania 1991 on January 13. An attempt by Soviet tank division to capture Lithuanian TV tower was faced with resistance of  the large unarmed crowd. In uneven battle with tanks 14 Lithuanian citizens lost their lives. A sharp response took place in Riga. The government decided to surround the Riga city center with barricades. Thousands of Latvians from all sides of Latvia came to protect the Latvian government. Old Riga was surrounded with Barricades and people was ready to face armor and OMON if necessary. On  January 20 the OMON attacked the Latvian ministry of interior. A bloody shootout took place in Old Riga. But the Soviet government was unable to send more forces because of the large outcry of the international community. Even if the US were busy with Gulf war the CNN and BBC made reports from Riga that stopped Gorbachev from making more aggressive moves.

After the events of January 1991 things begun to move towards Latvian way and downwards Soviet way. Gorbachev had lost sympathy from both Western powers and both hardliner communists. A last attempt by Gorbachev was to sign Union Agreement that would keep the Soviet Union as federation with autonomous republics. Baltic states denounced such agreement. But a conspiracy against Gorbachev begun to realize as the hardliners made a last desperate attempt to save the Soviet Union.

The hardliners were supported by elements of the KGB. Their plot was to oust Gorbachev from power and declare the status of emergency in all Soviet Union. The coup begun on  August 19 1991, when Gorbachev was on vacation in Foross. He was ready to take a plane back to Moscow, when the coup leaders locked him on house arrest and cut him from the outside world. Gorbachev however hesitated to cooperate with the coup leaders. They went back to Moscow were attempted to seize power. However they failed to arrest the main enemy Boris Yeltsin – the President of Russian SSFR who begun to organize resistance against the coup. A large crowd gathered in Moscow to support him and the army was unable to open fire against its own people.

In Latvia the OMON captured the phone central, radio and television. A Latvian government led by Ivars Godmanis declared the X hour. It was the event when if necessary the Government had to go underground and start resisting. The enemies of the independence saw chance to act. Alfrēds Rubiks announced support for the coup and threatened to get tough with all nationalists.

It was  August 21. The night before there were bloody clashes between the army and Yeltsin supporters. The army comradeship begun to object the coup. Yeltsin was in control of the White House of Moscow and the army resisted to attack it.  It was now in Latvia where no other choice was left but issue official status of Latvian republic. The government had voted for Constitutional law of state status of Latvia.  The interim period had to be canceled and the independence had to be  now in full effect.

The vote took place 13:00 as the OMON armored vehicles approached the parliament building. However the OMON did not storm the building and the vote was successful.   A failure of the coup in Moscow prevented the OMON from attacking the parliament. In the evening OMON abandoned all captured buildings.

When Gorbachev arrived in Moscow on August 23 he was now a president of collapsed state. As other Soviet republics declared independence the Soviet Union only on the paper. New Russian government supported Latvian independence.

The first country who officially recognized Latvia as  an independent state was Iceland. Nearly all countries in the world including North Korea rushed to recognize Latvian independence. US however was slower and recognized Latvia only on September. The last one was Rwanda in 1993.

This is only a instruction on complicated aspects of the events between 1986 and 1992. This was the time of hopes and dreams, fears and troubles. The independence was not a cheap price to pay, Latvia is still on the long road to build solid state. But the very cause of this long fight was just and was for the interests of Latvian people.

Selected Sources:

Latvijas valsts atjaunošana : 1986.-1993. (1998) Riga : [Latvijas Universitātes žurnāla “Latvijas Vēsture” fonds.

Latvijas Tautas fronte : 1988-1991 : veltījums Trešajai Atmodai un Latvijas Tautas frontes dibināšanas desmitgadei. (1998)Rīga : Jāņa sēta.

Tālavs,Jundzis (2000) 4. maijs : rakstu, atmiņu un dokumentu krāj. par Neatkarības deklarāciju. Rīga : Fonds Latvijas vēsture.

Starptautiska zinātniska konference “1990. gada 4. maija Latvijas Neatkarības deklarācija: starptautiskie un iekšpolitiskie aspekti”(2011) Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.


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