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The Return of Freedom - Baltic-Russian Relations During the First Years of Independence

Anförande vid Utrikespolitiska institutet, Stockholm, Sverige

It was Thursday the 15th of August 1991 - twenty years ago by the day.

Michail Gorbachov, President of the Soviet Union, had arrived in his official summer residence at Foros in the Ukraine the day before. The state of the Soviet Union was miserable in the extreme.

The economy was collapsing, and not only the three Baltic republics but also Armenia and Georgia had already declared their independence. And - in particular since the autumn of 1990 - tensions inside the regime had been building up.

On the one side the so called "power ministries" centered around the all-encompassing security sector - on the other the increasingly vocal President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin in a semi-alliance with the republics seeking either independence or very substantial autonomy.

On Friday the 16th those who would become the conspirators met in the guest dacha of KGB in the woods a bit South of Moscow and decided to act.

And on Monday morning the world woke up to a reactionary putsch in Moscow pursued by a desperate "gang of eight" trying to turn the clock back and restore the old oder.

I well remember the drama of that day. The tanks started to enter the Soviet capital.

We were in the early phases of an election campaign here in Sweden. But suddenly everything was very uncertain.

In January we had seen how the very same forces had tried to regain full control of the Baltic republics by a combination of military might and political manipulation.

There was no doubt that the attempt then was just the beginning of an attempt to take control in Moscow as well. But when it failed in the periphery of the dissolving empire it had to wait in the centre as well.

Today we all know what happened during those fateful days two decades ago.

Late in the afternoon of that Monday the newly elected President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin climbed up on one of the tanks outside the White House in Moscow and read out his defiant declaration.

And two days later the coup had failed - a result of a combination of the incompetence of the plotters and the bravery of Boris Yeltsin - and a radically new reality had emerged.

On August 24 the Russian Federation officially recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And two days later it banned the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The world had changed.

It would take some time until what remained of the Soviet Union decided to abolish itself, but before that it had on September 6 formally recognized the independence of the three Baltic states.

And this is of some importance.

Their indepence was not a consequence of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was recognized by the Soviet Union before it dissolved.

Events in the Soviet Union during the years leading up to these dramatic days had naturally been followed with great attention here in Sweden, and more than most we had developed links with the political forces that had emerged in the three Baltic republics.

Our policy towards them had not been entirely uncomplicated.

Along with others we had naturally welcomed when they - along with Poland ands Finland - were able to emerge as independent states after the twin collapse of the Russian ands German Empires at the end of World War I.

And relations during the interwar years had been friendly and good without being particularly close. They were fragile states in an area were tensions were gradually building up again.

Their fate was sealed when Hitler and Stalin on August 23rd 1939 divided up the East of Europe between them. Hitler evacuated the German populations from primarily Estonia and Latvia, and in 1940 Stalin proceeded with the occupation and sovietization of all three of them.

This is not the place to go into the details of the drama of the tragic years that followed. In 1944, large numbers of refugees, primarily from Estonia, were able to cross the Baltic Sea and find a future in Sweden.

But Sweden also agreed to the Soviet demand to forcibly send persons that had fought against them back to an uncertain fate. During the dark decades that followed a strange silence reigned in Sweden concerning these our immediate neighbours.

We could talk loudly against colonialism and occupation in far-away corners of the world, but there was an almost collective silence against the same in our very own part of the world.

I don't believe that the governments of the day had any particular illusions about what was happening in the Soviet Union and its Baltic republics during those years, but to talk about it was another question.

These were decades of silence we now remember with a certain shame.

There were a few that tried to attract attention to what was happening. Let me mention just the name of Andres Küng since he since some years is no longer with us. But they were often marginalized. To be anti-soviet was not really acceptable in our political debate during those years.

The more remarkable was the surge in sympathy for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that we started to see when the old songs of freedom and indepence started to challenge the Soviet flags on the other side of the Baltic Sea.

The so called Monday meetings will be remember with a 80th meeting on Norrmalmstorg in a couple of hours. The history of those meetings reflected the history of the independence movements in the Baltic states.

To Norrmalmstorg came its leaders to talk to the world when they were full of hope - but also in the days of fear when they afterwards retreated to discussions about the possibilities of setting up exile governments in Sweden.

But independence come.

And it was a result of the combination of the united determination of their peoples - their peaceful and determined struggle, examplied here with the presence of Mart Laar - and the heroism of the democrats of Russia.

We - those of us who stood and spoke at Norrmalmstorg - were proud to be able to give our support.

When independence was re-established it was the end of one period and the beginning of another.

And for Sweden it was now a key task to help the three nations on the road to stability, security and European integration.

In retrospect we know that this went very well.

But during those years it was by no means certain.

And things could have gone as wrong here as they did in other parts of Europe.

The withdrawal - "the early, orderly and complete withdrawal" as we said then - of very substantial and important ex-Soviet military forces and installations had to be negotiated and implemented.

The very difficult questions of the situation of all those from other parts of the Soviet Union that had been sent to these three republics in order to change their demography had to be handled.

Their economies had to very quickly turn from total Soviet dependence to something that could actually work. And the three countries had to be put on a secure path to Atlantic and European integration.

Our new neighbours were fortunate to have leaders of principle, who - with the words of Vaclav Havel - dared to dream the seemingly impossible to make the seemingly impossible become true.

They had the support of friends abroad, here in Stockholm as well as elsewhere.

And crucially we were fortunate that the early years of these efforts were years still dominated by those political forces in Russia that had recognized independence in September 1991.

But there were of course periods when we feared that this would change, in which there would have been very real and very obvious dangers for the three newly reestablished independent nations.

They were still fragile. They were still not anchored in the instiututions and structures of the West.

Two decades later the three Baltic states have performed far better than any other part of the former Soviet Union. In spite of the severity of the financial crisis of the last few years they have become models of economic reform and financial stability.

These very days Europe is often associated with weakness and problems as states struggle with their deficits and their debts.

But today we have the possibility to broaden the perspective. And then we can see that the last 20 years have provided us with an immense European success story.

Media are reporting that rating agencies are contemplating to upgrade Estonia - a country that recently joined the Euro and knows virtually nothing of debts and deficits. And in the debates we see Latvia mentioned as a country that has demonstrated that even the most difficult of financial issues can be handled.

There were few who on 15 august 1991 believed that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania 20 years later would be were they are today: They clearly belong to the successful of Europe - and perhaps in paricular to the success of the North of Europe.

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