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Thirty years since Baltic Way joined Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania

Friday is the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way, when two million people held hands across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to protest the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which saw the Baltic states annexed into the Soviet Union in 1939.

The Baltic Way, also known as the Baltic Chain, took place on 23 Aug. 1989 and made headlines around the world. It was organised in just six weeks by the peoples' front parties in all three Baltic states (Rahvarinne in Estonia, Tautas Fronte in Latvia and Sajūdis in Lithuania) and saw people create an unbroken chain from Tallinn, through Riga, to Vilnius.

The date was no coincidence. On 23 Aug. 1939 an agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, had been signed which stated Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania would forcibly become part of the Soviet Union. The Baltic Way was held on the 50th anniversary of its signing. It was a peaceful protest and aimed at highlighting the plight of the Baltic states.

Buses took people all along the line so the human chain could be formed, and people sung songs and waves flags. Then at 7 p.m., everyone held hands or linked arms for 15 minutes.  

With two million people taking part across all three countries, the Soviet leadership in Moscow could no longer say that only an extremist minority were involved. It had become clear that it had broad appeal in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. With international media reporting on the chain, it thrust the situation in the Baltics into the public eye. 

Professor Andres Kasekamp, chair of Estonian Studies at the University of Toronto, told ERR News that at the time people were not protesting for independence but for freedom. During the late 1980s reforms introduced to the Soviet Union by Gorbachev meant there had been an opening up of society, but nobody knew how far they were allowed to pushback against the authorities. Or when the authorities would clamp down on them.

In 1987 the first protest against the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact took place in Tallinn's Hirve Park. The Soviet authorities did nothing. Then in 1988 the Singing Revolution started, which saw thousands of people come together to sing patriotic songs. But the Soviet authorities still did not react. The Baltic Way was organised with the idea of pushing the Soviet authorities to admit the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols existed.   

But what was the effect of the Baltic Way? Keiu Telve, head of the Vabamu Museum, says that metaphorically the Baltic Way made some of the first cracks in the Berlin Wall. Kasekamp says it was the height of cooperation between all three Baltic states and has never been reached again.  

The Baltic Way is an example of when a peaceful protest has worked. It has gone on to inspire other protests around the world, most notably the Catalan Way which called for Catalonian independence from Spain and stretched for 400km in 2013. It has also inspired a human chain in Hong Kong which should take place today.

Speaking about the legacy of the Baltic Way, Kasekamp said: "It's the ideal symbol of peaceful civic disobedience, and how a peoples' power can destroy an empire and bring it down. That it can be done."


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Editor: Helen Wright

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