Ambassador of Latvia Baiba Braže writes on the 30th anniversary of one of the most unique expressions of non-violent protest the world had ever seen
30 YEARS AGO, ON 23 AUGUST 1989 AT 7PM, two million people in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania joined their hands, forming a 675km long human chain from Tallinn via Riga, all the way to Vilnius. The human chain covered the distance from London to Glasgow. It was one of the most unique expressions of non-violent protest the world had ever seen. This action brought together people of all ages, nationalities, religions and backgrounds in the Baltic States and became known as the Baltic Way. In 2009, UNESCO included the Baltic Way in the Memory of the World Register.
But back in 1989 I stood together with my family, friends and fellow students in the Baltic Way for the future and freedom of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The atmosphere was electric – we had enormous motivation, we were fearless and totally committed to our cause. We demonstrated loud and clear that the division of Europe created by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in their treacherous agreement of 1939 had to end. After half a century of illegal Soviet occupation, we wanted to return to where we belonged – European civilisation and values; we wanted to regain our freedom and independence.
One should remember that under the Soviet Union totalitarian regime there was no freedom of speech, association or manifestation. For a simple expression of the very idea of freedom for Latvia or carrying a Latvian flag, one could be sentenced to jail. In these circumstances, it was understood that the demonstration had to be of such a scale that the Soviet regime would not risk arrest or violence.
There were no mobile phones, internet or messaging apps. It was done via simple word of mouth and fixed line phone calls (I received one from my friend Dace, saying we should go). Information sheets were spread by the three big popular organisations in the Baltics – The Popular Fronts. In the Faculty of Law, where I studied, our professors were some of the most active leaders of the Latvian Popular Front, and, as students, we formed a cell of the Popular Front. We read that the idea of this enormous non-violent protest came from Estonia. It was jointly developed and coordinated into a concrete plan in secret meetings. This plan succeeded and the world noticed.
World media widely covered the Baltic Way, reminding the world that in 1939 the Hitler-Stalin Pact divided Europe, setting the stage for the start of World War II.
Soviet tanks rolled into the independent Baltic States and illegally annexed them, invaded Finland, and Polandwas partitioned between the Nazis and Soviets, while Western Europe was left for the Nazis to conquer. The consequence of the Pact was a dreadful and devastating global war. That is why the Russian Foreign Ministry’s recent efforts to justify the Soviet-Nazi Pact cannot fail to cause alarm around the world.
The Baltic Way announced to the world that it was time to end division in Europe, that the Baltic people wanted their independence back, and that totalitarian regimes would not decide our fate. There had been other demonstrations and protests, but the Baltic Way was by far the most massive. The Soviets did not dare attack it, and it soon became clear that the regime was crumbling. I am very proud that together we succeeded in bringing down the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain.
But most of all, I am proud of what our countries have achieved since then. Our peaceful, modern, clean and forward-looking Baltic States are an example that free societies, commitment, joint effort, mutual support and the clever use of resources ensure successful development. Membership in the EU and NATO enhanced our sovereignty, security and development, while also providing efficient tools to extend our solidarity and assistance to other states, shape the international agenda and implement values based foreign policy.
This year, to celebrate the Baltic Way, the anniversary of the freedom campaign has been marked in many places around the globe jointly by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. From the United States and Canada, to Indiaand Uzbekistan, Latvian embassies and consulates together with their colleagues from the Baltic State diplomatic missions, diaspora organisations and Baltic friends celebrate The Baltic Way 30. Human chains were formed at the US Capitol Building in Washington DC, Lithuanian Square in Copenhagen (Denmark), Tbilisi (Georgia), Castlebar (Ireland), the square by the Sophia Kievska National Reserve in Kyiv (Ukraine), and a race dedicated to the Baltic Way took place at Eidsvoll Square in Oslo (Norway). A flower mandala has already been created in India, in the colours of the Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian national flags. Closer to home, in London, the Baltic communities held joint celebration in Hyde Park on 24 August 2019.
WE INVITE ALL READERS TO JOIN US FOR ‘THE BALTIC WAY IN FUTURE’ DISCUSSION, EXHIBITION AND FILM ON 25 SEPTEMBER AT 18.00 AT THE EUROPEAN BANK OF RECONSTRUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT.