Latvia and the 1991 August Coup Attempt

The removal of the monument of Lenin after the failed August coup

The removal of the monument of Lenin after the failed August coup

On May 4 1990 Latvian Supreme Soviet had accepted the Declaration of the Restoration of Independence. However, the declaration set an “interim period” until full restoration of the sovereign Republic of Latvia, after which the Saeima the Latvian parliament would be elected again. Until then the legitimate ruling body was the Supreme Soviet (Council) of the Republic of Latvia. After first free elections since 1934, it was controlled by the Popular Front of Latvia, Latvian National Independence Movement. However, in the opposition there were still many convinced communists who wanted Moscow to help them to stop the Latvian breakaway from USSR. Latvia was still full with Soviet troops and special forces like OMON. So the “interim period” was a dangerous game, since the President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev was against the Baltic independence. And there were many around Gorbachev who tried to convince him to use more radical methods to not let it happen.

The main plot to effectively halt the Baltic independence was to impose the Presidential Order in the Baltic States. That would remove the Supreme Soviet from the power and impose direct rule from Moscow. The culmination of this plot was the January 1991 Barricade movement. The enemies of the Latvian independence could not bear their defeat and blamed the “Betrayal of Moscow”. On February 4 1991 the members of the LSSR Prosecutor’s office publicly asked the president of USSR to issue a state of emergency in Latvia, restore the order of the USSR constitution and stop the work of the “illegal state structures”.   On April 9 political organization “The Union of the Baltic Soldiers” issued a statement that it will with the use of arms will ensure the Soviet power within Latvia.

The series of provocative acts started once again. An explosion took place near dormitory rooms of the Latvian Ministry of Interior where Soviet soldiers and their families lived. Also an explosion on the bridge over Gauja where the Soviet troops were heading to their base in Ādaži. As in previous occasions these explosions were too weak to actually hurt anyone, but were intended to blame “radical nationalists” for the attacks on the Soviet forces. From May 23 to August 12 the OMON special forces responsible for bloodshed in January, started a series of attacks on Latvian customs posts. 21 such attacks were carried out. The customs points were burned down, the custom officers were beaten and their arms removed. In Lithuania on July 31 seven officers were killed by OMON and one paralyzed. On May 25 1991 the Soviet Army carried out a drill where they learned how to block the way to the center of Riga. Apparently the Soviets wanted to prevent a situation in January when people managed to move large amount of tractors and other agricultural transport and made barricades from them.

However, the local Soviet radicals were not informed about the plot to overthrow Gorbachev. On 19 August 11:00 after learning the news about the coup the main leader of the Soviet radicals Alfrēds Rubiks in the press conference issued the support for the coup. Alfrēds Rubiks was a carrier communist whose highest point of success was the chairman of the Riga Executive committee it can be compared to the title of the Major of Riga. Before the Latvian independence movement many remembered Rubiks as progressive communists supportive of the Gorbachev ideas. However, his ambition to build the metro system in Riga was halted by massive protests. Since the protest movement against the metro project involved certain national character the fear of more Soviet immigrants, Rubiks now turned completely into Soviet hardliner. He was the First Secretary of the breaking Latvian Communist party, and now took the leading role of the local coup supporters.

Meanwhile the Latvian Republic Supreme Soviet lead by Anatolijs Gorbunovs on 10:00 issued a statement that the State Council of State of Emergency that took over power in Moscow is illegal and has no power within Latvia. Meanwhile the head of the Soviet Baltic War region general Fjodor Kuzmin informed them that he is charge of the realization of the state of emergency in Latvia. Latvian Popular front stated that the coup has taken place in the neighboring country and it should be treated that way. At 18:00 the Latvian National Independence Movement made a decision to ask the Supreme Soviet to fully establish the Latvian independence.

Even when the Latvian national leaders declared that coup in August is not in effect within Latvia, in reality it was much more complicated. Western countries only had expressed sympathy and support for Latvian independence, but had not fully recognized. They wanted to that only in the most certain moment and if Moscow herself allows it. In this situation the Soviet Army and OMON had everything to remove the Latvian government from power. On 19:15 OMON and Soviet paratroopers raided the first floor of the Latvian TV center. On 20:30 OMON invaded the Riga Interior affairs administration and in 20:45 OMON again took over the Latvian Ministry of Interior. On 22:30 OMON raided the Popular Front headquarters and vandalized it. On 22:15 OMON men murdered the driver of the Jūrmala Creative house Jānis Salmiņš near the Riga Interior affairs administration.

On 4:30 at August 20 OMON took over the Riga International telephone central and telegraph station. Then OMON took over the Latvian Radio building. Latvian Radio restored its work in the airwaves in illegal transmitter station in the city of Salaspils. On August 20 Estonia had fully declared its sovereignty. Meanwhile in Latvia the OMON was still on the run and raided the Latvian training camp at Kauguri and disarmed the security of the Latvian Council of Ministers.

OMON armored cars heading to center of Riga

OMON armored cars heading to the center of Riga

The fate of the Latvian independence was decided in the White House square in Moscow. The Soviet army and the Special forces refused to attack the RSFSR parliament defended by thousands of Russian citizens. On August 21 it was clear that the coup had failed. However, on August 20 four OMON armored cars entered the Dome Square in Riga. They were heading to Latvian Supreme Soviet where people finally gathered to vote for the full sovereign status of the state of Latvia. As the sound of helicopters roared above and tanks moved even closer, elected deputies stopped the discussions and voted to end the interim period and restore the Latvian Republic de facto. 111 voted for, 13 against. In 13:10 the Republic of Latvia had become a sovereign country once again.

OMON did not received any clear order to assault the Supreme Soviet building. At 14:10 they left the scene. At the end of the day Soviets left the TV and Radio house. All who officially supported the coup attempt was removed from their office. In August 23 the Republic of Island officially recognized the Latvian independence first one to do so. On the same day Alfreds Rubiks was arrested. On August 24 the president of Russia Boris Yelstin officially recognized the Baltic states independence. The Latvian Communist party and all the Soviet security structures including KGB was made illegal.  On the night of August 24-25 the Lenin monument was demolished.

Soviet power was fully removed in the following months. In 1994 all Soviet forces were removed from Latvia. However, the people who in the critical days of August wowed to “arrest and shoot all the nationalists” still plays role in the Latvian politics. Alfrēds Rubiks leads the Latvian Socialist party and works in the European Parliament despite his imprisonment in nighties. Many others of his allies are trying to revenge the defeat of the August 1991 under the guise of the human rights and social democracy. We must understand that August 1991 was a close call for Latvian independence and if it succeeded we won’t be reading this. So our duty is to guard our country in every way we can.


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