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Opinion: The fight for the future was also a fight for the past

The Baltic Way in Rapla on Aug. 23, 1989.
The Baltic Way in Rapla on Aug. 23, 1989. Source: Ivar Vilde/Estonian History Museum

Historian and senior researcher Kaarel Piirimäe discusses the events that made it possible for Estonia to restore its independence and the Baltic Way.

In the last decade of the 20th century, the restoration of Estonia's independence was made possible due to four parallel (but not fully synchronous) processes: (1) a long-term global crisis of Communist ideology, (2) an attempt to transform the Soviet Union, which destabilised the system more than expected, (3) the ending of the Cold War confrontation thanks to the "new mindset" of Soviet leadership in the field of foreign policy, and (4) the accelerated European economic and political integration at the end of the 1980s, which acted like a magnet to the system of the stagnant Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) in the Eastern bloc. As a result of these processes, the federal states of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s.

It should also be taken into account that after the "oil shock" of the second half of the 1970s, the prices of fossil fuels started to plummet at the beginning of the 1980s, causing a deficit in the budget of the Soviet Union. Because Moscow propped up the economies of its allies by supplying them with cheap fuel, the CMEA became an even bigger item of expenditure. However, the younger generation of the Communist Party of the USSR, who came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, had no intention to declare the death of Socialism. Instead, they were idealistic and faithful communists who tried to reform 'real socialism', changing it into an attractive model of modernism next to capitalism. It was Gorbachev's vision that the systems of capitalism and communism had to converge in the future, without melting into one.

In the 1980s, a new wave of globalisation brought not only the triumph of the market economy, but also the "shrinking" of the world as a result of the information revolution. The last pieces of the iron curtain that had not yet been pierced by radio waves, fell due to fax and satellite communications (television and telephone). In the case of Baltic national movements, it facilitated access to information but also helped local events, e.g. the Baltic Way, to reach international media.

All of this does not mean that independence was inevitable; however, these were contributing factors. There were also some impediments. The downside of globalisation and integration was that nationalism seemed to have died out. After the death of General Franco and the adoption of a new democratic constitution in Spain in 1978, Catalonian and Basque independence was swept under the rug (and under the floor) in terms of public policy. In the 1980s, the Scottish independence movement took a leap backwards. In 1979, the Scottish National Party helped overthrow the government of the Labour Party — even though the socialists supported the autonomy of both Scotland and Wales — but the following long reign of Conservatives was extremely adverse. Self-determination of nations as the right to separate from the state had been banished into the postcolonial world. For most Western intellectuals, nationalism was appalling and of course this attitude was also a manifestation of disguised major power chauvinism.

It seemed clear to Baltic national movements that one will not get very far with the right of nations to self-determination. Baltic refugee activists had already tried to link the Baltic question with colonialism and the standard of self-determination for decades — without any results. More productive were the concepts of historical right and international law. The Baltic Appeal, which was written in 1979, on the 40th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (MRP), by Baltic dissidents, which included four Estonian freedom fighters (Mart Niklus, Endel Ratas, Enn Tarto and Erik Udam), found great resonance in the West. On Aug. 25, 1979, The New York Times published the full text. The Appeal served as the basis for the 1983 European Parliament resolution condemning the continuing illegal occupation of the Baltic States under the MRP and proposing, among other things, that the matter be referred to the UN Special Committee on Decolonization (so that the connection with colonialism was seen at least in that statement).

The fight by the Baltic peoples for their future was also a fight for their past. The bringing together of public historical narratives and personal, familial and communal memories was a very important part of the fight for freedom. The unveiling of the truth about the MRP meant the demolition of the historical myth at the heart of the supremacy of the Soviet Union and state identity, which was obvious to everyone, both conservatives and reformers. (The myth was simply a statement that the MRP might have been cynical but a pragmatic step to lengthen the years of peace by two years.) So it's no wonder that the Soviet power's response to the demand to reveal the actual history of the MRP was painful. When the Popular Baltic Fronts published the secret protocols of the MRP in major daily newspapers on August 1988, the Former Head of the KGB of Latvia and future putsch complained that it "destroyed Soviet Latvia."

Two names should be mentioned in connection with the MRP and the Baltic Way. The first is Endel Lippmaa, who led the attempt of the Baltic States to disclose the MRP in the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union and then declare it void. It was based on his proposition that Gorbachev allowed a commission (led by A. Yakovlev) to be formed, which was seemingly in compliance with disclosure (glasnost) and the course of the nation's overall internal renewal. At the same time, Gorbachev hid the secret protocols of the MRP within the Kremlin archive, claiming that they could not been found, while probably hoping that the commission would be able to suppress the topic. The second is Edgar Savisaar, who made a proposal to the leaders of the Popular Front of Lithuania, on July 14, 1989, to mark the anniversary of the MRP with an unprecedented demonstration, joining the nations' capitals with a chain of joined hands. Its purpose was to put pressure on Moscow, so that it would confess to the existence of the secret protocols as soon as possible.

At the same time, the MRP was at the height of conflict in terms of the interests of historical politics. The Popular Front of Estonia initially demanded the internationalization of the MRP problem in Yakovlev's commission, but they were forced to back down. Ukraine and Belarus, who had gained the most from the MRP, were strongly opposed to the reinterpretation of the MRP. Even Lithuania, whose independence seemingly hung on the MRP, was not interested in a comprehensive dissection of the problem because the aspects of territory in the secret agreement would have opened a Pandora's ox in regards to Vilnius. The Polish communist elite had tried to discuss historical questions with Moscow for years, especially in relation to the Katyn massacre; fortunately, for the Lithuanians, they did not mention Vilnius. Such a demand would have been grist to the mill of the reactionary forces of the USSR. For these reasons, Savisaar promised in the MRP Commission that the condemnation of the MRP was not related to the separation of one or another Soviet Republic from the USSR or the shifting of borders.

In reality, the promise was worthless. Baltic national movements interpreted the Dec. 24 decision by the Congress of People's Deputies to declare the MRP null and void as an assessment that the annexation of the Baltic States was illegal. This is despite the fact that the MRP and the annexations of 1940 had no direct link to one another (after all, imagining that the agreement of spheres of interest would be followed by legal annexation, moreover, the secret protocol of the MRP did not define how the Soviet Union would pursue its interests in its sphere — even the Germans were upset over the interpretation by the Soviets that occurred during the period June-August 1940). But in the turmoil of political struggle, no one cares about the details.

Ultimately, the Baltic Way was a huge success, bringing the discourse of Baltic national movements to the front pages of the world's daily newspapers and television news. The Baltic Way affirmed the opinion of most Western powers that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had been illegally annexed. One must admit that the MRP and non-recognition were related because if the Soviet Union had not been in cahoots with Germany in 1940, it is very likely that the non-recognition policy wouldn't have developed as it did. Thus, it was only right to recall that Stalin — the "saviour" of Western democracy and the winner of war — was actually an accomplice of Hitler in 1939-1941.


Kaarel Piirimäe is senior research fellow at the Estonian War Museum and historian. He has degrees from the University of Tartu, the University of Göttingen, and the University of Cambridge (PhD). He has worked at the University of Tartu as a research fellow and associate professor.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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