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Baltics: Three Republics Regained Independence With Fall Of Communism

In one of a series of stories marking the 10th anniversary of the crumbling of communism in Europe, RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at the irresistible tide which carried the three Baltic republics back to independence, despite all difficulties, and at some of the unfinished tasks.

PRAGUE, 26 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, have an unusual place in the story of the fall of Soviet communism.

The three small republics, huddled on the western tip of Russia, were not part of the vast territory which came under the sway of the Red Army as Nazi Germany was collapsing in 1944.

Rather, they were formally annexed to the USSR in 1940 under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Berlin and Moscow, which assigned the Baltics to the Soviet sphere of influence.

As a result, the Baltic states spent half a century submerged inside the Soviet Union itself, largely losing their identities in the eyes of the outside world.

But exactly 10 year ago this week, the world received a spectacular reminder of Baltic identity when, on a hot and sunny August 23, several million people joined a human chain stretching more than 500 km across the three states, from Vilnius to Tallinn.

While the Baltic people massed in protest, the popular front in each republic issued a joint statement, called the Baltic Way, urging the international community to support their collective desire for independence.

Moscow responded with an ultimatum. On the 26th of August -- 10 years ago today -- the Soviet Central Committee warned the Baltic communists they were approaching an "abyss" unless they suppressed what were called the "separatists and extremists" in their midst.

That seemed a pretty clear reference to the use of force. As the coordinator of RFE/RL's Baltic services, Kestutis Girnius, recalls, it was a decisive moment:

"The central government in Moscow finally realized that the momentum for independence was growing at such a rate that it was unlikely to stop unless brakes were applied from outside, and this was their first attempt to apply a very severe kind of brake."

It's possible to say in hindsight that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had no appetite for a Brezhnev-style invasion aimed at the Baltic states. But the Baltic reformists did not know that and they showed their courage by pressing ahead with their pro-sovereignty program. By September 8 the three fronts met in Lithuania to set up a consultative body.

Throughout this difficult period and afterwards, Western policy towards the Baltics had a certain ambivalence. The United States and the other Western powers strongly supported Baltic independence, having never recognized the legality of the USSR's annexation. But at the same they realized the destructive potential of Moscow's rage if the Balts tried to break away. In addition, the Western powers had signed the Helsinki Accords, which committed them to recognition of signatories' territorial integrity. As Girnius puts it:

"So the Balts got two kinds of messages, first was that we support you, we have never recognized your occupation. But the second message was that your independence to a great degree depends on the willingness of Moscow to let you go, so you have to wait".

The West was worried then that the whole process of liberalization in Central and East Europe could be upset by a backlash from Moscow against hasty moves in the Baltics. Today, 10 years on, the three Baltic states are still vigorously and sometimes impatiently pursuing membership of the major Western structures, the European Union and NATO. The EU is moving ponderously but with certainty to admit all three states, but that process will take probably until the middle of the next decade.

The question of NATO membership is more delicate. The West is committed to achieving that goal. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Marc Grossman put it at a Senate panel hearing (July 15, 1998), America is determined to create the conditions under which Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania can "one-day" gain membership of the alliance. But in practice moving the Western security pact into former Soviet territory is still a sensitive issue, and progress will depend in part on who replaces Boris Yeltsin as Russian President next year.

To return to the events of a decade ago, events moved swiftly as the autumn of 1989 progressed. The Lithuanian communist party decided to call a conference in which it would declare independence of the Soviet party. As Girnius says:

"It was doing this not necessarily because of the will of its leadership, but because of pressure from below and the absolute conviction that unless they moved forward in this way that they would be completely swept aside."

The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, and days later the Estonian Supreme Soviet nullified the 1940 annexation, and a Latvian commission declared the Soviet occupation illegal. Lithuania stood alone when it declared independence in March 1990, an act which led to a blockade from Moscow. But by the following year, as the breakup of the Soviet Union loomed, all three republics had regained their independence, and were starting out on their new road of democracy and economic reform.