Popular Front of Latvia

The entry card for the first LTF congress on 1988

The entry card for the first LTF congress on 1988

On October 8 25 years will pass when the Popular Front of Latvia (Latvijas Tautas Fronte – LTF) the leading force for restoration of independence was founded. LTF was a mass movement one of the last of its kind in Latvian history. Its main objective was to restore the Latvian independence which was fulfilled on August 21 1991. After that the LTF faded away and was replaced by many rivaling political parties. However, the achievement of this political movement cannot be underestimated, for without it Latvia would not be same as today.

On April 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as the General secretary of the Soviet Socialist Communist Party Central Committee. Since the times of Stalin this position was for  the man in charge of the whole Soviet Empire. However, the Soviet Union had changed a lot since then. Weakened by the economical and political stagnation caused by dysfunctional economic system and unneeded arms race the Soviet Union was slowly heading for demise. Mikhail Gorbachev was opting to bring new wave of reforms to solve the impeding economical problems. The perestroika or “rebuilding” He wanted to reduce the importance of the state planing, allow the factories to set its own plan of production and boost private sector in trade and agriculture. More freedom was given to collective farms. These reforms was progressive, but since the main foundations of the economic system – centralized planed state enterprise were not harmed.

Gorbachev went even further with the policies of glastnotj – openness allowing more rooms for freedom of expression, social political criticism and social activity. Such possibilities soon allowed people to express their criticism of the national demographic situation, the arbitrariness of the Soviet Army and the rotten state of the Latvian language and culture. In result the movement such as Helsinki -86 and Environment Protection Club appeared. Helsinki-86 illegally issued journal Auseklis (Morning Star) where they expressed protests against the downsizing of the Latvian majority and restrictions on the Latvian language. They submitted many protest letters to the Soviet leadership and the UN Authorities calling to allow Latvia to peacefully separate from USSR as granted by its constitution.    They achieved widespread attention by publicly commemorating the deportations of June 14 in 1987. Their second attempt of commemorating the Hitler – Stalin pact on August 23 was met with militia hostility and ended in clashes and arrests. Meanwhile the Environment Protection Club  managed to cancel grandiose plans for Riga subway and Daugavpils Hydro Electric dam. On 1987 the Helsinki-86 formulated a common goals for years to come- restore historical justice to the victims of the Soviet crimes, protect the rights of Latvian language and culture and in the end break away from the Soviet Union. On 1987 these goals seemed very utopian.

However on 1988 things moved on fast pace. The  violent oppression of the 23 August demonstration and suppressed celebration of the November 18 the Latvian independence day lay a bad image for the soviet reform policies. It was clear that the Soviet government wanted to direct reforms from above and was not ready for such activity from the people. Even the massive KGB secret police was caught off guard by the Helsinki-86 and other movements. So soviets to appease the masses. The commemoration of March 25 deportations of 1949 were sanctioned and joined by thousands. Meanwhile the  Helsinki-86 members who were gathering outside the sanctioned areas were arrested. A large crowds gathered at the funeral of the anti-soviet dissident Gunārs Astra.

On June 1 1988 the annual Writers Union plenary was held. For decades the Latvian writers, poets and artists were the pillars of the Soviet society. Despite being constantly watched by the Soviet government they often expressed their protest against the repressive regime in artistic hidden ways. The Latvia intelligentsia was widely respected among the Latvian society. Now was their their turn to express their views openly. In Estonia the writers union had already expressed  the need  for the Popular Front. They also angered the communist government with their nationalistic demands. In Latvia the head of the writers union Jānis Peters choose a alternate method – he invited the leadership of the Communist party to the plenary. In their presence the soviet regime faced a stiff criticism and calls for more national freedoms. However, when the professor of the Arts Mavriks Vulfsons publicly declared that Latvia was not voluntary joined by the Soviet Union in 1940, and there was no soviet revolution the plenary reached climax. The shocked and stiff General Secretary of the Latvian Communist Party Boriss Pugo said only one phase to Vulfsons – “You just murdered the Soviet Latvia!”.

As the myth of the peaceful annexation was finally unmasked, more people rallied for the national cause. The June 14 1988 was officially sanctioned and joined by masses. The member of the Helsinki-86 movement Konstantīns Pupurs took the flag of the Republic of Latvia and lead a large cr0wd towards the Brothers Cemetery. Crowds held posters of slogans of national liberation. As the Communist Party expressed great doubts about the events, the Latvian National Independence Movement (LNNK) was founded and strive for full independence. On September the communist government was forced to allow use of the Latvian national symbols.

Meanwhile in Estonia the Popular Front was already founded.  First calls for such front in Latvia was also issued on June 1 during the writers plenary. On June 27 1988 first meetings were held within Latvia to form its own Popular Front. The organization works were lead by Jānis Peters and Jānis Škapars. The supportive groups were created in whole Latvia and connections with Helsinki-86 and LNNK were established. Meanwhile the troubled Soviet authorities were looking for a way to control this emerging movement. They wanted to overflow the movement with loyal agents who would keep the movement loyal to the regime. Similar schemes were made in Eastern European satellite countries. Communist party had plans of how to direct and use the popular front to keep in line with the official Moscow guidelines. However, the core leadership of the Popular Front was well aware of this and managed to prevent these plans.

The Popular Front organization meeting under suspicious look of Lenin

The Popular Front organization meeting under suspicious look of Lenin

The core leaders of the Popular Front was Dainis Īvāns a well known journalist, who opposed the building of the Hydro Electric dam in Daugavpils. Sandra Kalniete the academic and literate who also were deported to Siberia on June 14 1941 was one of the leading figures in scorching out the soviet agents from the movement. Jānis Škapars, Jānis Peters a well known writers   Jānis Dinēvičš along with Sarmīte Ēlerte were also important leaders. On Autumn 1988 the Popular Front achieved support of 100 000 people from all nationalities. Before the opening congress on October 7 a great manifestation was held in the main Mežaparks Music hall. The new head of the Latvian Supreme Soviet Presidium Anatolijs Gorbunovs showed his support for the movement.

On October 8 1987 at the Congress Hall the First Congress of the Popular Front of Latvia took place. With inspiring speech by actor Ēvalds Valters the congress started work. The first goals of the Popular Front were still pragmatic. Instead of calls for full breakaway a calls for democratization of the system, more autonomy from Moscow and the extension of the national rights were called. Since the prospects for full independence seemed unreal Popular Front at first pushed for sovereign Latvia within Federal Soviet Union.The new elected General Secretary was Dainis Īvāns after Jānis Peters rejected this position for himself.

The year 1988 came to an end with mass manifestations of November 11 and November 18. Flag of Latvia was raised on the top of Castle of Riga. The Communist leadership soon discovered that the Popular Front had quickly evolved into  massive political movement that could possibly turn into political party and remove the communists from office. Even worse large parts of their own members turned into passionate supporters of the Popular Front.

Their fears were materialized by the decision by the Gorbachev to change the constitution and allow free elections of USSR Peoples Congress. During the 1989 the political reforms moved towards the removal of the monopoly of the Communist party. Gorbachev however still thought that his party is strong enough to secure victory and power despite the rivals. However, on March 26 1989 Popular Front managed achieve majority among the Latvian representatives in Peoples Congress of the USSR.   Popular Front soon faced many rivals. Helsinki-86 and LNNK were quite skeptical about the pragmatic policies and cooperation with the progressive  communists. Meanwhile the orthodox communists formed an Interfront movement in direct opposition to Popular Front. The Interfront was inspired both by KGB and Communist party and was a crowd of aggressive mostly Russian speaking workers, army men and stalinsts. The situation became polarizing between the Latvian society. The LNNK started a campaign to register all Latvian citizens to form Peoples Committees.  Such form of act was still seen as unconstitutional. In such outcome they hoped to restore the Republic of Latvia.

The rivalry between LNNK, Helsinki-86 and other national radicals with the Popular Front forced them to take actions. LNNK and their allies pursued a more aggressive non compromise agenda that did no go well with the real situation. In opposite the parliamentary way of the Popular Front seemed a way too slow and even cowardly. However, the national radicals ignored the fact that Latvia was still full with Soviet troops and KGB that could suppress then if they go too far.

The actions of LNNK made the Popular Front issue a “a call of May 31”. Popular Front abandoned the goal of sovereignty within Soviet Union and turned to joining the fight for full political and economic independence.

On October 7 1989 a second congress of the Popular Front was called. However, there was grave danger of the movement split as the radical wing of the movement wanted to ally with LNNK.  The split was averted and Popular Front issued a main objective to secure victory in the Supreme Soviet elections. A new emerging leader from this congress was Ivars Godmanis who became deputy to Dainis Īvāns.

LNNK managed to elect its own Citizen Congress as alternative parliament, however it was not recognized by nobody and had no real executive power. Meanwhile the Latvian Communist Party had a split of its own with members who were supportive to Popular Front and orthodox communists. The party was weakened and their subordinate guardians – the army and KGB was in confusion. On April 6 1989 Latvian Communist Party held its last congress and had a split. 200 members left the congress to form the Latvian Independent communistic party. In turn the remaining loyal members joined under the command of Alfrēds Rubiks a aggressive orthodox communist looking to end national movement with force.

The Popular Front election campaign on 1990

The Popular Front election campaign on 1990

Popular Front won a jackpot by organizing the Baltic Way on August 23 1989. A great support was achieved. Also a global attention was received. On March 18 1990 Popular Front secured victory in the elections of the Supreme Soviet. Dainis Īvāns as the leader of Popular Front could take the position as the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, however he declined and Anatolijs Gorbunovs took the leading position. Gorbunovs now had completely joined the cause for full independence and was pragmatic and wise leader. Īvāns took the role as his deputy. Two fractions came in effect in the Supreme Soviet – the Popular Front with 138 and Equality with 57 communist and Interfront members.

The juridical work for the Declaration of Independence was already underway. The declaration was passed on May 4 1990. In contrast to Lithuania it was however not a full breakaway for it set an transitional period. Knowing the heavy presence of the Soviet army and KGB, the Popular Front wanted to make talks with Moscow and Western Allies. Ivars Godmanis became the head of the Latvian government.

As the Gorbachev declined any talks with the Latvian government and threatened with the Presidential Order that would remove them from office. In so whole year from May 4 to January 13, soviet radical forces attempted to make provocations to install presidential order. A series of explosions, an attempt by Soviet soldiers and police cadets in civilian uniforms to storm the Supreme Soviet building. On October 7 1990 3 Popular Front congress was made. As Dainis Īvāns was too much involved in the Supreme Soviet, Romualds Ražuks was elected as the new party leader. In fact the most elected members were replaced with outer parliamentary members. It later turned as a crucial mistake. The Popular Front also moved towards nationalism as it became friendlier with LNNK and acknowledged it Citizen Congress  as legal representatives of the peoples interests. The symbol of Popular Front also was replaced from Black and White to more nationalistic symbol of Jumis.

The Popular Front symbol of 1990

The Popular Front symbol of 1990

The January 13 was a great test for the Popular Front.  In reaction to bloody events in Vilnius, Dainis Īvāns came out with strong speech on radio and called people to build barricades to protect the important governmental buildings. The reaction was overwhelming instead of soviet tanks, large masses of tractors and trucks arrived in Riga from all country side. Popular Front united the majority of Latvians to defend the Riga from the soviet reaction. Soviets made a mistake by making the first strike in Vilnius, rather than Riga that was the center of the Soviet military command. Caught again by surprise Soviet army and special forces were unable to fire at such great masses of people. On January 20 special OMON forces however, made a firefight by attacking the Ministry of Interior killing five people. But, Soviets failed to get armed response in return so the plot to install the presidential order from Moscow failed. The Barricades were a strategical victory by the leaders of the Popular Front.

On March 3 1990 another victory was achieved by the Popular Front. A popular poll asking “Do you support the democratic and independent Latvia?”. Of all 87,6% registered voters 73% voted yes. That was a strong proof for Moscow and the rest of the world for Latvian will for independence. The poll results even showed that large numbers of non-Latvians support the cause for independence. However, the Soviet radicals were far from giving up. On August 19 Soviet radicals made a coup attempt in Moscow. They managed to keep their plot a secret till the last minute and the Latvian leaders were caught off guard. There was no time for new Barricades, as the OMON and the army forces captured TV, Radio and every other building they could get. However, despite entering the city square with armed transports the OMON was unable to seize the Supreme Soviet building. Either they waited for the order that never came or they were stopped by cement wall barricade that protected the Supreme Soviet building.

As the coup supporters Alfrēds Rubiks, KGB and Soviet Army was unable to arrest the Popular Front leaders on August 21 the full Latvian independence was declared. In fact the LNNK fraction was the first to insist it, after the news from Moscow became more positive the full independence was declared by the supreme soviet. Soon the news came that coup had completely failed. The mission to restore the Latvian independence was completed.

After Latvia became fully sovereign the Popular Front faded. It was a mass movement of more than 200 thousand members. However, since till the last minute the goal for the restoration of independence seemed nearly impossible. Latvian patriots knew very well that Latvia was full with Soviet troops and Soviet radical loyalists. So no plans what to do after the restoration were not set. New political parties appeared, background players showed up and became new leaders. Popular Front split in many factions. Ones joined the Club 21 that transformed into Latvian Way party. Others like Jānis Dinēvičš tried to restore Latvian Social Democratic Party. Likewise the Latvian Farmers Union was bought up from the Soviet past. The LNNK kept intact and for many years played important role in Latvian politics. The former Interfront members continued their fight within legal means and formed new parties.

The fortunes of the Popular Front members were different. Dainis Īvāns left politics and returned briefly to work as elected deputy in the Riga Town council. He joined the Social Democrats and after their demise left the politics completely. Sandra Kalniete became well known in the foreign scene as the Foreign affairs minister and the member of EU parliament. Ivars Godmanis took the Prime Minister seat two times and currently works in EU parliament. Jānis Peters along with Jānis Škapars returned to arts and literature. Sarmīte Ēlerte for many years lead the newspaper Diena. Later she rejoined politics as the Minister of Culture and currently works in Riga Town Council. Alfrēds Rubiks was imprisoned, but came back as the leader of the Latvian Socialist party. He is currently representing Latvia at the EU parliament along with his past enemies.

Popular Front made a grandiose work and achieved its mission. There is no such mass movement today that could unite the masses. Despite the fact that the independence did not fulfilled the wishes of many, the very fact that Latvia managed to regain its independence and create a democratic country where everyone can fulfill his individual true will its worth to remember every way along.

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