The Foreign Aspect during the Latvian Restoration of Independence 1987-1991


In 1945 the Soviet Army occupied Latvia for the second time. Despite the fact that the Republic of Latvia did not exist, its annexation by the USSR was not legally recognized by the most Western powers. During the long Cold Wars in US and UK Latvian diplomats in exile still continued their work. Also the Latvian organizations in exile did everything in its power to put pressure on the Western governments to keep its non recognition of the Soviet occupation policy. However, the exiles themselves were not strong enough to achieve the restoration of independence. The main impulse had t0 come from Latvia, and with the western support. When the political changes begun in the Soviet Union after 1985 that lead to independence movement the local leaders had to find ways for their own foreign policy. They had many tasks: first make contact with the Latvians in exile, gain the western support and start direct talks with Moscow. Later when the juridical and practical process for restoration of independence had started, Latvia had to restore its Foreign Ministry and build its diplomatic service from the scratch. It was a hard and complicated work knowing the experience and knowledge of the independence activists.

Before we start to talk about the Latvian diplomatic activities we must take a look at the global diplomatic situation from late 70’s to the end of the 80’s. The Cold War a stiff competition between the Western Block and the Soviet Union and its satellite states. The political and ideological struggle erupted in conflicts within the so called Third World Countries, Middle East and Asia. Soviets spent enormous resources for their diplomatic and military activities, but the results were questionable at best. The Soviet centralized economy was unfit to survive this arms race and that eventually lead to its collapse. However, the Western powers lacked proper knowledge about the exact scale of the Soviet problems and they could not predict the Soviet collapse. However, there was a hope to win the Cold war or at least peacefully end it.

To do this a great powerful leaders were needed. And coincidentally at the same time both opposing countries USA and USSR  got two such men. Ronald Reagan and Michael Gorbachev. Both remarkable men with a  great will power. The goal of the Ronald Reagan was to restore the lost greatness of US during the Democrat rule. Gorbachev wanted to make grand reforms to end stagnation and restore the greatness of the USSR.  At first Reagan challenged the USSR with strong remarks like “The Empire of Evil” speech that heated up the arms race. However, at the same time he hoped to make equal dialogue with Gorbachev. And the pressure made by US against the Soviets achieved this. Gorbachev who himself started a cardinal reforms in his interior policy also wanted to make a change in the Soviet foreign policy. His goal was to reach strategic balance between the West and East to ensure the survival of the Soviet state. To achieve this he had to cut down the arms race and end the ideological rivalry. By such means Gorbachev gave up his positions one by one that lead to the ultimate breakdown of the USSR.

The Baltic States were not top priority for the Western powers. The main goal was to make the Soviet Union harmless. The collapse of the communist system was a wild desire for the West, however they were afraid of the consequences that may come. However, already in 1986 in Jurmala, Latvia during The Chautauqua Conference the US ambassador Jack F. Matlock openly declared that US still does not recognize the annexation of the Baltic States. However, the main support from US only begun in 1989 and lasted till 1991 when it was clear that the USSR has no future and the restoration of the Baltic States independence is  technically possible. This support was realized as warnings to Gorbachev not to realize any aggressive actions against the Baltic States. On 1989 the new US president George Bush in the Malta conference stated his support for the Baltic independence and made Gorbachev promise not to use any force, but make talks with the Baltic leaders to settle the question. Gorbachev kept his promise until  January 1991 and after the worldwide condemnation he was unable to make any more aggressive steps. 

In 1989 New York Times published a supportive statement for the Baltic States independence. Soon after that the US Secretary of State sent a letter to Latvian envoy in exile Anatols Dinsberģis where he promised to support the Latvian efforts to restore full power over their future and with the help of the emotional protests he wished Latvians to restore freedom in a peaceful way. Also the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed her support. In 1991 president Bush again pressed on Gorbachev to fulfill the Baltic States demands, however he pointed out that the Baltic States they have to resolve this process with Moscow leadership. US had no intention to escalate the relations with the USSR because of the Baltic States. The US and other Western countries feared that the Baltic States are pushing for the independence too fast and may halt the process of liberalization within the USSR and endanger the international balance. The fear that living space of the Soviet Union may turn into “black hole” made many to watch the Baltic efforts with suspicion and weariness.

During the 1991 August coup the US decided to wait for the outcome of this coup was unclear. However, the outcome was so favorable that Latvia finally restored its independence and almost every country rushed to officially recognize Latvia as a sovereign state. From these facts however, we cannot make an equivalent conclusion that it was only the US position that decided the Baltic States independence. The position by the US and its allies were greatly affected by Latvian load demands and foreign lobby. If there were no active struggle for independence within the Baltic States and no active communication with the Western powers, their position would be just as neutral as regards the question of the independence of the Central Asian Republics.

So we must pay attention to Latvian attempts of making foreign diplomacy during the restoration of independence. The first ones who tried to approach the West was the Helsinki – 86 human rights group founded in Liepaja 1986 by nationally minded individuals. Their acts of commemoration on June 14 and August 23 in 1987 sparked a start for the national awakening. They sent letters to US delegation in Jurmala on 1986 and also to the UN. They expressed anger over the worse social and political situation in the occupied Latvia. It has been a an act of courage since until then no such letters came from Latvia itself, but from Latvians in exile. Sadly the Helsinki-86 movement was soon repressed by the KGB and their leaders exiled.

In 1988 the Latvian Popular Front was established as a mass political movement. One of its goals was to establish contacts with Latvian organizations in exile. In every country with a significant Latvian population there were active organizations that may help to get LPF to appeal to western governments. The main Latvian exile organization was the Worlds Free Latvian Organization. Some Latvian exiles were suspicious of the LPF and feared the KGB involvement.  But, most representatives of WFLO expressed support. The head of the Latvian writers union Jānis Peters made a first LPF foreign visit to Canada. LPF made its first foreign support group in Sweden with the help of exile Atis Lejiņš. After that LPF made its groups in USA, UK, Canada and Australia. The first congress of the LPF was only speaking about the need for Latvian autonomy since the prospects for full independence seemed practically impossible.

The head of the LPF delegation Pēteris Laķis speaks to Latvian exiles in the castle of Abrene France May 1989

The head of the LPF delegation Pēteris Laķis speaks to Latvian exiles in the castle of Abrene France May 1989

On 1989 a Baltic Assembly was made that gathered LPF along with its Lithuanian and Estonian counterparts under a common goal. The WFLO and American Latvian Union expressed full support. On May 1989 in the castle of Abrene, France the WFLO and LPF made a meeting. The talks were led by Pēteris Laķis, Eduards Berklavs, Juris Rozenvalds and Juris Golde. In these talks a path to restoration of Latvian independence was set. From this point the cooperation between LPF and WFLO became frequent. LPF leaders made occasional visits to US and Europe. During the 1991 August coup the leader of LPF Dainis Īvāns was in the US with his exile friends. Also the Latvian National Independence Movement made similar contacts with Latvian exiles. These contacts were essential; if in the case of Soviet repressions the exiles had to support LPF and inform the world.

The successful talks with Latvian exiles helped to spread the word of LPF across the world. Exiles made lobbies in their governments. LPF also sent its envoys to other Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia. A petition of 700 000 sign ups was gathered to propose changes in the USSR Constitution to achieve greater freedoms for Soviet republics. In a clandestine way this petition was sent to Moscow to bypass KGB. However, what happened to these petitions reminds a mystery.

On 1990 the first free elections took place and the LPF managed to achieve a majority in the Latvian Supreme Soviet. With communists in opposition the LPF now could slowly transform the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic into the independent Republic of Latvia. On May 4 1990 a Declaration of restoration of independence was passed. The declaration made Latvia to start its own foreign policy. The will for good relations with neighboring states by using democracy and justice was expressed. Latvia declared its support of the Universal Declaration of the Human rights and 27 other international documents. Since the Latvian independence was not yet juridically and practically ensured no state rushed to recognize it. On May 16 Latvia received a document where the King of Sedang David Gil Mayréna II recognizes the Latvian independence and sovereignty. After the first moments of positive surprise, it soon turned out that this kingdom exists only on paper with no chance of recognition for herself.

To get recognition from real countries, Latvia had to make direct talks with the USSR. The president of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev was against the Baltic States independence and Latvia was still full of Soviet armed forces and KGB waiting for takeover. A Latvian Foreign Ministry was restored. The LSSR had its own Foreign Ministry, but it was made for symbolic functions and had only few active workers. Thus it was not recognized by anyone outside the USSR. On July 9 the Latvian government made a statement that the goal of the LR Foreign Ministry is to achieve the restoration of the Latvian independence -de facto. Jānis Jurkāns had become the first Latvian Foreign Minister since 1940.

On May 14 1990 Gorbachev outlawed the Latvian declaration of independence. Instead he proposed the formation of Soviet confederation and after that the Union of Sovereign States.  While some Latvian leaders like Ilmārs Bišers was ready to support this the majority of the national leaders stood against it. Soviets did not even start any talks about their proposal. On July 10 1990 Latvian Supreme Soviet proposed talks about the restoration of the Sovereign Republic of Latvia according to July 16 1940. Andrejs Skrastiņš was nominated as the chief of negotiations along with Jānis Peters who became the main representative of the Latvian Council of Ministers in Moscow. However, Gorbachev was still reluctant and hoped for his New Union Treaty. At the same time his rival Boris Yeltsin the leader of the Russian Federal Soviet Socialist republic took the chance and visited Latvia and expressed his support.

With no chances for peacefully stopping the Baltic breakaway, Gorbachev now looked ways to install presidential order over the Baltic States. It would mean the beginning of repressions and the removal of the national governments. However, such acts needed an internationally approved reason and failure to do so caused a massacre on January 13 in Vilnius, Lithuania and the Barricade movement in Riga. Soviet army and KGB was unable to make a provocation that would justify Gorbachev’s actions. With the Western media on the spot and even despite the Gulf War crisis Gorbachev received worldwide condemnation. He also lost his support from hardliners in the party, army and KGB.

On January 13 the Chief of  the Latvian Supreme Soviet Anatolijs Gorbunovs signed treaty with Boris Yeltsin is regarding the foundations in bilateral relations with the Republic of Latvia and Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was ratified by the Latvian Supreme Soviet and acknowledged the sovereignty of  the both states. However, it also asked Latvia to grant citizen rights to all people within its territory. This would mean that large masses of the Soviet migrants also may become citizens. That sparked protests within society.

However, this treaty limited the Gorbachev chances to affect Latvia. After the January crisis he met Gorbunovs and agreed on talks. It was achieved not without the help of US president George Bush who in congress speech declared that the soviets have promised to withdraw its forces and stop violence. On February 19 new delegation was sent to Moscow with Ilmārs Bišers and Jānis Dinēvičš. The first set of talks was about the Soviet Army, the Latvian property conversion, the state enterprises and the Latvian intellectual property. The next set of talks on March 17 failed because the Soviets were unable to accept the Latvian demands.

Lithuania and Estonia were also unable to reach common ground with Moscow. On May 12 1990 in Tallinn the tree Baltic States leaders Anatolijs Gorbunovs, Vytautas Landsbergis and Arnold Rüütel restored the Baltic States Council originally made in 1934. On December 1990 in Vilnius all three Supreme Soviets came together in joint session. All three governments made a common demand to stop the Soviet aggressive policy and allow the Baltic States representation in the international institutions.

The Baltic Council

The Baltic States Council

Letters were sent to the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Union to make an inter-parliamentary delegation speed up the restoration process. Also EU Parliamentary Assembly received plea to make special status for the Baltic States. EU institutions in fear from USSR reaction denied every such proposal. On November 19 1990 the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe asked the Baltic delegation to leave the conference room after receiving complaints from USSR. Only on June 1991 the OSCE finally discussed the Baltic question.

On July 10 1990 the chief of the Latvian Council of Ministers Ivars Godmanis and the Foreign minister Jānis Jurkāns went to Washington DC on a private visit. They managed to hold a meeting with president of US George Bush, and the Secretary of State James Baker.  Baker again expressed his support for Baltic States independence and said that Latvia has legal rights with the help of negotiations to restore their freedom. The President was much more reserved in his expressions.

The Sweden was the only state that recognized Latvia as legal soviet part and handed over the Latvian soldiers fighting in German ranks. However, now the Swedish government was more sympathetic towards Latvia. In 1989 Sweden opened Consular branch in Leningrad with diplomat Lars Freden  in charge. He was supportive towards Latvia and achieved official visit of the Swedish ambassador in Riga. The Swedish government made apologies to veterans and their families who were handed over to the Soviets in 1945.  Meanwhile the Eastern European countries who also looked to get rid of the Moscow yoke were quite reserved in talks with Latvians.

The August coup of 1991 suddenly halted all the talks for a short time. On August 21 the coup had failed and Latvia declared full independence. The first country to recognize Latvia as an independent country was Iceland. All others followed. The last country that was little “late” was Rwanda on 1993.  The US herself only officially recognized Latvian independence on September 2 after the Soviet Union had agreed to recognize it too. It was done by Moscow on December 6.

Baltic States leaders visiting George Bush at the White House

Baltic States leaders visiting George Bush at the White House

Just like in 1917-1921 when Latvia was fighting its war for freedom, Latvian diplomats had to make their message to the world. Only this time Latvians had support from exile compatriots and historical legacy. The US non recognition policy was essential to US position on the Latvian independence. The diplomatic activity from Latvian freedom fighters played the most important part in convincing the US and other western powers to keep this favorable position.  If the US position would be neutral Latvia may regain independence in the same way as Belarus and remain within the Moscow sphere of interest. The Latvian will of democratic western society is what achieved our independence. And this achievement must not be undiminished as there are many other far larger nations without their own country.

Selected Sources:

Latvijas valsts atjaunošana, 1986.-1993. : autoru veltījums Latvijas Republikas proklamēšanas 80. gadadienai. Universitātes žurnāla “Latvijas Vēsture” fonds, Latvijas Zinātņu akadēmijas Baltijas stratēģisko pētījumu centrs. Rīga : Latvijas Universitātes žurnāla “Latvijas Vēsture” fonds, 1998

Lapsa,Lato Metuzāls Sandris, Jančevska, Kristīne  Mūsu vēsture, 1985-2005 Rīga : Atēna, 2008 1. sēj.

Īvāns, Dainis LTF Rietumos  Rīga 2001

Argita, Daudze. Latvija Zviedrijas ārpolitikā 1945.-1991. Rīga. Zvaigzne ABC 2011

Matlock, Jack F, Jr.Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. Random House (NY), 2004

Fredēns, Pēters, Larss. Baltijas brīvības ceļš un Zviedrijas diplomātija 1989-1991 Atēna, c2007

Mille, Astra.  Te un citadelē. Jānis Peters : tumšsarkanā.Rīga : Atēna, c2006.

Lejiņš, Atis,  Mūra drupinātājs jeb Ceļš atpakaļ uz mājām Rīga : Jumava, 2002


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