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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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OMON against Latvian independence 1990-1991


One of the most strongest and dangerous weapons used by breaking Soviet regime was OMON – Отряд Милиции Особого Назначения (Militsiya Special Purpose Unit). The so called “black berets” were heavily equipped and fanatical protector or the Soviet order. It was under command of Soviet Ministry of Interior, made to combat organized crime and support Soviet Police or Militsiya raids, however from 1990 its tasks became more political and toward against the restoration of the Latvian independence. The actions of this unit became violent and criminal and their actions took life’s both in Latvia and Lithuania. It was OMON who was responsible for attack against Latvian Ministry of Interior on January 20 1991 during the time of the Barricades in Riga. The attack on the night of 20 January still sheds in mystery because of the involvement in so-called “third force” and many details of the history of OMON in Latvia still is quite unclear. Here all the known aspects of this unit and the 20 January event is gathered, knowing that many questions still will be unanswered for some time.

The OMON Riga unit was made in 2 December 1988 under the orders of the Soviet Minister of Interior Vadim Bakatin. It was one first of 5 such units in the Soviet Union. The original unit consisted 148 men 20 of them were officers. The commander was Edgars Limmars while the real leadership was held by militsiya officer Česlvav Miljnik and his deputy Sergej  Parfijonov. The working style of the OMON was often brutal; the destruction of the illegal trade places, direct takeover of  the proceeds from crime without documentation and the torture of the suspects. However, in the unstable economic situation when crime level was critical the OMON was praised as a brave fighter of the organized crime.

OMON became involved in politics in May 15 1990 when after protest held by the Interfronte – movement against independent Latvia a large crowd of the Soviet Army officers and military cadets attempted to break in the Latvian Supreme Council building. The OMON used brutal force to disperse the crowd and saved the Latvian national government from trouble. Many saw them as heroes and good allies for independence movement.

However, after the 4 May 1990 when Latvian Soviet Supreme Council voted for Declaration of the Restoration of Latvian Independence the relations between new national Latvian Ministry of the Interior and the OMON begun to deteriorate. The members of OMON were mostly Russian, Ukrainian and Caucasian nationals from Soviet Union who had no sympathy for Latvian fight for independence as they viewed Moscow as their main command in charge.

The conflict begun in June 1990 when new Latvian Minister of Interior Aloizs Vaznis issued many orders that affected OMON. The members of OMON were forbidden to have a part-time job in private security company “Vikings” that caused resentment as it was good way to gain extra funds. Next order was the depolitization of the interior structure workers that OMON resisted. OMON raised a red Soviet flag at their base at Vecmīlgrvāvis in Riga and refused to follow the orders of the Latvian government. Many similarly minded members of the interior ministry joined OMON and its size raised up to 200 members. The Latvian government had no proper units to stand against such well-trained and heavily armed force and now the Latvian independence got itself a dangerous enemy.  And the rulers from Moscow knew about this and looked to use OMON for their efforts.

The situation got worsen when in November 14 OMON was officially disbanded. Minister Aloizs Vaznis ordered to halt payments and food delivery to OMON. The OMON now became stateless paramilitary unit that only subordinated to Soviet Ministry of Interior in Moscow formed of angry and heavily armed men.

OMON now switched to terrorism, attacks and provocations. OMON were responsible for many detonated explosions around Latvia to provoke the national violence so the Moscow can issue a state of emergency in Latvia. OMON attacked the memorial monuments to Latvian soldiers fighting in the German ranks. After that the OMON switched to political buildings in Riga.

In 27 September 1990 OMON invaded the Press House a mid size high-rise building. Press House was home to Latvian Communist Party Central Committee publishing and editorial stuff and printing equipment. Under the pretext of defending the property of the communist party, OMON made difficult for other national newspapers to publish. OMON attacked the Press House again in 2 November 1990 in 7 November during the official Soviet celebrations OMON raised the red banner on the Press House roof.

In 12 December 1990 at 3:10 an explosion took place near the Latvian Communist Party Central Committee society political center at Kr. Valdemara street 5. Then at the night of 18 December someone threw an explosive above the fence and hit the yard of the War prosecutors office of Riga war garrison. Few minutes after that an explosion took place near Latvian communist party Riga regional committee building. A third explosion took place near the Latvian Council of Ministers just 13 meters away from then standing monument of Lenin. In 21 December explosion hit the political war school building territory.   More explosions followed in 26 and 27 December. All of them were specially intended not to make any causalities and to look like a work of Latvian national radicals. The terrorist acts were made to make way for further actions by Moscow to install presidential order in Latvia.

In January 2 1991 OMON took complete control over the Press House. Latvian Minister of Interior Aloizs Vaznis arrived at the site along with deputies of the chairman of the Latvian Council of Ministers Ilmārs Bišers and Dainis Īvāns, but were ignored by OMON. Later at that day the members from criminal militsiya came to document the criminal act and were attacked by OMON, their certificates destroyed and car damaged by bullets.  In January 8 Aloizs Vaznis wrote a letter to the Soviet Minister of Interior Boris Pugo where he informed him about the crimes done by OMON and advised full disbandment of it to escape further crisis caused by them.

In 13 January the Barricade movement begun as the answer to violent events in Vilnius, Lithuania and the actions of the OMON became more extreme. At 14 January OMON opened fire at the Barricade defenders driving by on the Vecmīlgrvāvis bridge. Later at that day OMON assaulted the barricades at Brasas bridge shooting cars and throwing the Molotov cocktails.  At the night of 15 January OMON invaded the Riga police school, abusing the students and vandalizing the school rooms and stealing the weapons.

In January 16 OMON took their first victim. Again attacking the barricades at Vecmīlgrāvja bridge the OMON shot a driver Roberts Mūrnieks who later died in hospital. Now murder was added to the list of the OMON’s crimes and they did not dare the enter the city center filled with crowds of Barricade defenders.

The shot and burned bus by OMON on Vecmīlgrāvja bridge January 1991

The shot and burned bus by OMON on Vecmīlgrāvja bridge January 1991

At the night of the 20 January OMON stopped a bus with five Latvian policeman, attacked them, abused them and took them to their base were they continued to abuse them.

On January 20 21:09 OMON arrived at the city center and assaulted the Latvian Ministry of Interior located then at Raiņa boulevard 6. Just at this time the Chairman of the Council of Ministers Ivars Godmanis on the live air was speaking that the situation has normalized and people may leave the streets. He was cut short just as the live TV reports moved to city center near Old Riga canal where gun fights had erupted all over.

OMON raided the ministry of Interior and killed the militsiya lieutenant Vladimir Gomorovich. The OMON faced an armed resistance from the militsiya unit from town of Bauska who were near the spot and opened fire. However, there was not only OMON there was unknown unit the so called “third force” that based on the rooftops of the ministry and the nearby buildings and first opened fire above OMON men to provoke them, and then at the building and park in front of the ministry. It’s still unknown who was the third force, either some special squad of army or KGB or some other Soviet unit.

OMON gunman at the night of 20 August 1991

OMON gunman at the night of 20 August 1991

The attack was intended to provoke various armed units in Riga on both sides to join the firefight. So that the bloody outcome will result the imposition of the presidential government in Latvia. The direct rule from Moscow would halt the move to full independence.

After a hour of chaotic fire exchange the first news of the causalities were confirmed. Two members of Militsiya on the Latvian side Sergey Kononenko and Vladimir Gomorovich were killed. One schoolboy Edijs Riekstiņš were killed. Two TV operators Andrejs Slapiņš and Gvido Zvaignze who were filming the fire exchange were shot dead.    4 Latvian militsiya members were wounded along with TV operators from Russia and Hungary. It is possible but not confirmed that at the time of the siege one OMON gunman was shot dead, as the video footage showing truck entering the ministry yard and taking away the unidentified body.

The provocation failed as the resistance was not too significant to cause a greater eruption of events. Also just as in Vilnius on 13 January the TV cameras and foreign journalists were all around causing great backlash against Soviet Union.

The Barricades was later removed, but Latvia was not still fully free from Soviet Union and OMON continued to cause mayhem.  Their next target was Latvian customs posts at the borders. As Latvia had declared restoration of the independence, the own border guards and customs were needed. However, the Soviet Union still regarded Latvia as their territory and therefore viewed Latvian customs stations illegal. On the night of the 23 May OMON attacked four customs stations. On 29 May Latvian Supreme Council addressed a protest note to Soviet Supreme Council and Mikhail Gorbachev about the criminal actions of the OMON, demanding to remove them from Latvia. Soviet minister of the Interior Boris Pugo however called the OMON actions according to interests of the society and their actions were made without the consent of Moscow.

The last call for OMON was the August coup in Moscow in 1991. While Latvian government defied against the coup, Latvian communist leaders and members of army and KGB took active part in installing coup in Latvia. In 19. August at 19:15 OMON raided the Latvian TV building and halted the broadcast at 19:30. In 20:30 OMON raided the Riga Interior affairs office, at 20:45 OMON was back at the Latvian Ministry of the Interior. Then OMON seized the base of the First police battalion.   At 22:30 OMON invaded and vandalized the office of the Latvian People’s Front. At 22:15 near the Riga Interior affairs office OMON gunmen killed the driver of Jurmala House of Culture Jānis Salmiņš.

OMON in action in August 1991 at Dome Square Riga

OMON in action in August 1991 at Dome Square Riga

At 20 August OMON continued to take over the main Latvian objects. The Riga International phone and telegraph central and Latvian Radio building. The workers of the Latvian Radio installed a clandestine radio station in Salaspils. At evening together with Soviet Army troops OMON raided the Latvian police training center in Kauguri. Latvia seemed under complete grip under OMON at that time.

However the Latvian government was still working and the coup in Moscow itself faced an unsuspected resistance. On 21 August at 13:00 four armored OMON transporters entered the Dome Square and headed for the Supreme Council building where desperate Latvian government was looking to vote for complete  restoration of the independence. The vote was done in 13:10 and Latvia was now officially a fully independent from Soviet Union. The OMON left the scene at 14:10. At that day the August coup was defeated and officials of the Russian Soviet Federative Republic officially supported the independence of the Baltic states. The OMON retreated to its base at Vecmīlgrāvis an were commanded by deputy of the Soviet Minister of Interior not to leave their base. In August 31 OMON evacuated its base and went to its new location Tyumen, Russia. The one of the most greatest enemies of the free Latvia was ultimately defeated and exiled.

After the regain of the independence the Latvian authorities tried to find and sentence the criminals of the OMON. The main leader of the OMON Sergey Parfjonov was held and arrested at Tyumen airport by Latvian criminal police team. He was sentenced for many years, however he was asked back president of Russia Boris Yeltsin to face sentence at home. He was then amnestied and became local politician. He is still in the international search by Latvia. Two other OMON criminals escaped to separatist republic of Transistria and took important governmental posts. Other OMON men joined the armed conflicts in Georgia at early nighties and supported the movement against Yeltsin in 1993, however they may have been supported Yeltsin himself by making provocations to help Yeltsin issue a state of emergency. OMON men may also be responsible for killing of the St. Petersburg Duma deputy Galina Starovoitov because she stood against hiring the ex OMON members in government offices.

In Latvia Dmitry Mashkov sentenced for stealing jewelry while working at the police despite the fact that he was included in OMON’s criminal file. Later he was held suspicious for attack on Riga Synagogue on 1998 and for the murder of judge Jānis Laukroze. Also Konstantin Nikulin was involved in many criminal cases combined with murders of state officials.

The Riga OMON is just small part of giant list of unpunished crimes made by Soviet Authorities. The records of OMON men after their departure from Riga show that they have not abandoned their criminal lifestyle. Russia still has its own OMON that is tough guard of Vladimir Putin regime. OMON today can be seen at the streets of Moscow arresting opposition activists and dispersing demonstrations. The Russian interior system is just as brutal and criminal minded just as it was 20 years ago. Latvian politicians, security officials and the people must to do anything in their hands not to allow the return of the new OMON in Latvia.

The funeral of the victims of the OMON attack at 20 January 1991

The funeral of the victims of the OMON attack at 20 January 1991

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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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