The International Recognition of Latvian Independence 1918-1921

Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics the first Minster of the Foreign Affairs.

Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics the first Minster of the Foreign Affairs.

On January 8 1919 the president of United States of America Woodrow Wilson issued his fourteen points where he declared his vision that every nation has their rights of self sovereignty. However, the new state of Latvia for long years had a hard time to achieve international recognition. The leaders of Entente were skeptical about the stability of this new state and still hoped for the Bolshevik defeat in the Russian civil war. After the international recognition was achieved Latvia struggled to find its place in the European diplomatic arena. The process of gaining official recognition of Latvian independence was long and interesting story. Before we begin discussing an important explanation of juridical and diplomatic terms are needed. The de facto recognition means the country or government is recognized as existing legitimate body that can make legal contacts with other officially recognized nations. However, it means the borders of this country are not legally determined and it lacks full diplomatic rights. The de iure or de jure recognition means the country and its borders are fully recognized and the country has equal rights in the international affairs.

The first attempts of foreign diplomacy were made by Latvian Provisional National Council in 1918. It had its own chamber of foreign relations and its goal was to contact western powers to seek support for desired independence. The contacts were made with the western embassies in Petrograd (Petersburg). It was harder task to send delegates to allied countries. First Latvian delegate to London was Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics. His mission was to introduce everyone with the prospect of sovereign and indivisible Latvia. Before arriving in London Meierovics established an information bureau, that made important work by spreading the news and opinions about Latvia and it’s strive for independence.

In the mean time Germany and Soviet Russia had signed the Brest-Litovsk peace agreement, giving Germany full power over the Baltic region. It was now fully possible for Germany to annex the Baltic region. However, the German government was caught up with the troubled Western front and left the Baltic question behind. German Kaiser Wilhelm II even called the Baltic region as “free and sovereign region”. Although he possibly meant that local Baltic Germans can establish their own country, for Latvians such position was also promising.

Meierovics mission in London was successful. He could persuade the British about the need of the Latvian independence. On October 23 1918, the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour informed Meierovics that the British government has decided to temporary recognize the Latvian Provisional National Council as the Latvian government until the future peace conference would fully decide the Latvian question. Latvian politicians understood this as a de facto recognition. Meierovics asked Balfour to make a written resolution to confirm the British position. This was done in November 11 that again confirmed British support for the LPNC.

Latvians made contacts with the German government, however no direct answer came because of the revolution of the November 9 and the German capitulation changed everything. Allies instructed Germans to keep their forces in the Eastern front as long as necessary to fight of the Bolsheviks.

New German social democratic government decided to abandon all plans for desired “BalticState” and accepted the Latvian Provisional Government that was formed on November 18. The first Minister of Foreign affairs was Meierovics.

German-Latvian relations worsened in spring 1919 when Latvian army together with German Landeswehr and Iron Division fought off the Bolshevik invasion. The anti-Latvian coup in April 16 and forming of pro-German government clearly showed that Germany support for independent Latvia was only temporary.

Latvians sent their representatives on Paris Peace conference on January 1919. There they discovered the British inflexibility in the support for Latvia. Great Britain and France thought that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia soon will collapse and therefore was no longer interested in supporting Latvians. The Latvian delegation consisting Meierovics, Jānis Čakste, Jānis Seskis and others could not participate directly in the Peace conference. Instead Latvian representatives worked in background, keeping contacts with the leaders and gave many proposals. The western diplomats and leaders replied that Russia needs to decide the Baltic question. However the Treaty of Versailles concluded that Germany respects the independence of territories of the former Russian Empire and gives up all claims for them. Also Germany was allowed to keep its army in the Baltic region but not interfere the Baltic national governments. It was small but significant achievement.

The German-White Russian joint attempt in destroying the Latvian independence in November 1919 resulted the declaration of war against Germany. After the initial defeat of the army of Bermont, Latvia received German radio message that the Army of Bermont is now under the command of the State of Germany. Previously it was supposed to be under command of the White Russian general Yudenich. After Latvian received the confirmation from the German Foreign ministry; the Latvian government concluded that Latvia is at the state of war with Germany. On November 25 Latvia issued a note to Germany of entering the state of war and cancelation of all diplomatic relations. Ironically the German government did not understand the reason for this declaration of war and replied that Germany is in no means in the state of war with Latvia.

After the final defeat of German reactionary forces in 1919 things started to brighten up. Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Belgium and France recognized Latviade facto. At the first half of 1920 the western powers discussed the de iure recognition of the Baltic independence. Italy and Japan was supportive, France was elusive about it, but the US was strictly against it. US were skeptical about the long lasting of the Baltic States and feared that other territories in Far East may break away from Russia favoring Japan.  Also Poland was quite hesitant of the de iure recognition since it would mean that it had to give up its claims for Latgalian region.

After complete defeat of the Soviet forces the peace talks with Germany and the Soviet Russia begun. Latvian side presented documents proving German extended support for the Bermot army. Germans became more compliant and promised to acknowledge Latvia as de iure after the Entente powers do this. Germans also gave indefinite promise to compensate the war losses done by German military formations. Germans also proposed not to call the coming agreement as Friedensvertag (peace agreement) but simply Vertag (agreement) since they still did recognized that they are in the state of war with Latvia.

The Agreement for restoring of contacts between Latvia and Germany was signed in July 15 1920. The formal state war was cancelled and issued the German formula of de iure recognition. However, Germany failed to take any responsibility for the Bermont army and the anti-Latvian actions. Therefore the Latvian declaration of war against Germany lost it meaning. Ironically Germany was the only country that Latvia has ever declared war and no real peace agreement was ever signed, because the other side did not recognized the Latvian declaration of war.

While neither Soviet Russia nor Latvia had ever declared war on each other, they had to sign a peace agreement. That was done in August 11 1920 and Soviet Russia promised to recognize the sovereignty and independence of Latvia and voluntary for ever gives up all claims against Latvia.

The peace agreement with Soviet Russia now paved way for full recognition of Latvian independence. Since the Bolshevik revolution had won and its government had recognized Latvia there was no other option for the western powers.

However, the new founded international body the League of Nations was hesitant to join all three Baltic nations in their ranks, since they were still not fully recognized. International diplomats and lawyers could not decide whether the joining the League of Nation mean the full de iure recognition. That was crucial for the state of Georgia that also submitted the application for joining the League of Nations since the lack of the international support made it vulnerable to the Soviet occupation.

At the end of 1920, Meierovics visited Italy, France and Great Britain. Italy was generally supportive to Latvian juridical recognition, since it had no interests in Russia and also was disappointed with the Treaty of Versailles. Meanwhile in France the political circles were more and more convinced that there is no way how to topple the Bolsheviks. This was crucial for France, since it was old-time supporter of Czarist Russia and had given large credits to it. The president of France Alexandre Millerand promised to support de iure recognition of Latvia. On 29 December France issued proposal to other partner states to recognize the Baltic States de iure. The British were however, still hesitant, the Foreign Secretary George Curzon was strictly against, but Prime Minister David Lloyd George wavering, however at the last moment he managed to persuade his Foreign Secretary to support Latvia.

On January 26 1921 the Higher commission of Entente (Great Britain, France, Belgium, Japan and Italy) unanimously decided to recognize Latvia and Estoniade iure. Entente now wanted to empower the newly founded national states in Eastern Europe to prevent any Soviet expansion. Soon Poland and Finland recognized Latvia. After that came Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Persia, Austria, Portugal and Romania. United States of America was the last of the superpowers to recognize Latvia de iure – on July 28 1922. It was because of American new emerging isolationist policies and loss of general interest in European affairs. During the inter war period 42 countries officially recognized Latvia. On September 1921 Latvia joined the League of Nations. Latvia was no ready to play active role in international politics.

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