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Paul A. Goble Remarks Prepared for Baltic Centennial in Boston November 24, 2018

 

On this, the centenary of the establishment of the modern incarnations of the states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, it is important to pause and remember how this happened, why it is threatened, and also why, on the basis of the answers to the first two questions, it will win out in the end. 

 

150 years ago, few would have believed that these three nations would achieve what they have. 75 years ago, many made fun of “Baltic deputies” wandering through European capitals; and even 30 years ago, many didn’t believe it would happen as it did in 1991.

 

I think about these things frequently because I well remember how many people thought I was crazy when I said in November 1989 that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would be independent before the end of 1991. American activists from each of the three diasporas told me that it was nice to hear but that I must be out of my mind to be so optimistic. In the event, as you all know, I was too pessimistic: the three countries recovered de facto the de jure independence they had had since 1918 not 25 months later but 21 months! As part of your celebration, I would like to share my reminiscences and reflections on how all this happened, why no one must take it for granted, and what must be done now to ensure that there will be many more centenaries for the Baltic nations to celebrate.

 

From my perspective, there are five reasons why the Baltic miracle happened: 

 

First of all, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are historical nations. Not in the sense Friedrich Engels used the term as one to designate people who had built and long maintained states but as peoples conscious of their role in history, who recognized and recognize to this day that no defeat or victory is final and that outcomes are not foreordained but the result of human choice and action. Moreover, as such, they created themselves over the centuries rather than being created by others. On the one hand, their historical sense sets them apart from the Russians who  are ahistorical in the sense that they do not see their history as open ended and about choice. And on the other, unlike most but not all the other nations within the borders of what was the USSR,

the three Baltic countries were not created by others but by themselves. That gives them an advantage in a world where action, often bold action taken unexpectedly, can play a huge role.

 

Second, they have the advantages of geography not so much in their physical location on the sea but in terms of their mental maps, the place in which they put themselves. If many of the nations submerged by the Soviet dictatorship did not place themselves within a broader and non-Russian world, the Estonians, Latvians and the Lithuanians always did on the basis of culture and history. On my first visit to Tallinn, I was shown the city square from which I was told roads went to Karakorum, Baghdad and Paris but not to Moscow. In Riga, I saw the enormous dirigible sheds which linked Latvia to Germany and Europe before the Soviet occupation. And I will never forget that when Lithuania recovered its independence, one of its very first acts was to restore its national airline’s flights from Kaunas to Rome. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in short were always part of Europe and the West. That is not something that can be said about others.

 

Third, and this cannot be repeated too often, the Balts had a critical advantage in that they were three nations and countries rather than one. Because they are relatively small in size and next to each other, many treat them as quite similar; but they are fundamentally different on almost every measure – topography, coastline, language, religion, culture, economy, and so on and on. I always tell first-time visitors to the three that when you fly north from Latvia to Estonia you can tell where the border is by the color of the Baltic Sea and the arrangement of houses in the villages. 

 

That difference meant that each brought to the struggle for the recovery of independence in the 1980s something different. The Estonians were the source of many ideas, including popular fronts, glasnost, and perestroika, which were first mentioned in Tallinn. The Latvians were amazingly clever in organizing things such as exploiting shortcomings in Soviet customs law that allowed them to import 12 video cameras and then export 12 videos with the Soviet officials none the wise. And the Lithuanians gave the cause a moral aspect. I well recall the night of January 13, 1991, when the Soviet soldiers attacked the TV tower and killed 13 Lithuanians in Vilnius. Vytautas Landsbergis called to say that instead of running from the shooters, the Lithuanians stood firm and sang an old Lithuanian hymn “We shall be brothers again in heaven.” I told my State Department colleagues at the time that it was over. When confronted with a people like that, Moscow could not possibly win – and it didn’t.

 

But my point here is different: if any one of these components had been missing, the Baltic miracle might not have happened as soon or as peaceably as it did. Each was necessary, and everyone concerned with one Baltic country should remember than the other two helped it on its way, symbolically in the Baltic Chain and practically in so many other ways. And the fact that there were three Baltic countries had another important consequence: It meant that Moscow was always kept off balance. What worked in on place wouldn’t work in the other two, and the Kremlin never figured out how to approach each in a distinctive enough way to be able to control the situation.

 

Fourth, demography played a key role, but not the aspect of this most assume. When one uses the words Baltic and demography in the same sentence, most assume one is talking about the large size of the ethnic Russian communities in Estonia and Latvia and the much smaller one in Lithuania. That mattered after the recovery of independence but much less in the drive to it. Instead, three other demographic factors played a role.

 

First, the Soviet occupation lasted 50 years and not more than 70 as elsewhere in the Soviet empire. That meant that the drive to recover independence could be led by those who remembered life before 1940 and supported by large numbers of young people who had not been fully Sovietized. It is no accident that the Baltic governments were initially led by some of the oldest and some of the youngest people in those societies. Indeed, at one point, Estonia had the oldest president and the youngest prime minister in Europe.

 

Second, there is the question of the 1991 generation. John F. Kennedy famously told America’s Nobel laureates when gathered at the White House that there was more intelligence in that place that night than on any other except perhaps when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. The US was blessed with an amazing founding generation; the Baltic countries, with an equally amazing founding one that included representatives abroad like Ernst Jaakson, Dr. Dinbergs, and Stasys Lozoraitis and equally impressive people at home like Lennart Meri, Mavriks Wulfsons, and Vytautas Landsbergis. 

 

And third, all three had significant diaspora communities who played a critical role in keeping the dream alive and mobilizing support in their countries of residence. The Cossacks have a term, odvukon, which means to ride on two horses in order to be able to go further. That is exactly what the Baltic peoples had with the combination of their populations at home and their diasporas abroad. And those diasporas provided new leaders up to and including presidents in all three countries after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence.

 

And fifth, the three Baltic countries enjoyed the support of the West in general and the US in particular, support that reflected both practical politics and a commitment to principle. We like to talk about the principles involved, but politics mattered often as much as explains both the US decision to recognize the three the first time in 1922 and the articulation of non-recognition policy in 1940.

 

Many of you here in Massachusetts undoubtedly know the story of how recognition came in 1922. Henry Cabot Lodge was running for re-election to the Senate here. Lithuanian Americans among his constituents told him he wouldn’t get their votes unless Washington recognized Lithuania. He went to then- President Warren Harding who was unaware the US didn’t recognize the Baltic country. When he asked the secretary of state as to why that was, he was told that the secretary didn’t know. Harding, using some choice language, told him to recognize Lithuania immediately to help Lodge and while he was at it to recognize Latvia and Estonia too. That happened the same afternoon Lodge visited the White House. In 1940, the State Department acted on principle with regard to the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries; but it didn’t hurt at all that Franklin Roosevelt was running for a third term, and once again Lithuanian Americans made it clear that he needed their votes. 

 

All these things taken together led to the Baltic miracle, a miracle because it was not the result as many imagine of the collapse of the USSR but rather the restoration de facto of an independence never lost de jure while the Soviet Union continued to exist, albeit in a weakened form. The event at the end of August 1991 ushered in what may be the most important 100 days in the history of the three. I had a front row seat on those events, and I’d like to relate to you some of what I remember.

 

On August 27, 1991, five days after the coup in Moscow had collapsed and Estonia and Latvia had joined Lithuania in declaring that they had restored their de facto independence,

Estonian Foreign Minister Lennart Meri telephoned me and made the following remark: “Paul,” he said, “no one here expected the US to be the first” to recognize Estonia’s independence, “but at the current rate other countries are doing so, “you’re not going to make the top 25.” 

 

On the one hand, Lennart Meri’s remark reflected the frustration that he and many others including the current author felt with Washington’s go-slow approach, one that meant that US President George W. Bush did not announce a change in the American approach until September 2, six days after Lennart Meri’s telephone call. But on the other hand, the Estonian diplomat’s comment reflected a lack of appreciation of the very different situation in which the United States found itself as compared to almost all these other countries and has contributed to the spread of the notion that the US, having so proudly declared and maintained its non-recognition policy for almost 50 years, failed to act promptly when the primary goal of that policy was achieved, the restoration of the de facto independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

 

There were three reasons why Washington moved more slowly than many then and many even now wished: First, because of its longstanding non-recognition policy, the US did not have to recognize Estonia’s independence; it simply had to figure out how to restore the exchange of diplomats with the governments in place. Second, it had to be cautious in the troubled aftermath of the coup in Moscow lest by more precipitant action, Washington might have triggered a new upsurge of Soviet revanchism or a new wave of moves by the non-Russian republics of the USSR to leave more quickly than otherwise – or quite possibly both things at once, with risks for all involved. And third, Washington had to manage the shift from a policy that some of the co-ethnics of these three countries often felt they owned to a normal set of state-tostate relationships in which governments rather than diasporas would be the most important players. Each of these needs to be better appreciated by all those who care about the Baltic countries. 

 

America’s non-recognition policy, as argued for by Loy Henderson and promulgated by Sumner Wells in 1940, arose out of the Stimson Doctrine of 1930 which holds that the US will never recognize any change in the political status of a territory that is achieved by force alone. Thus with the recovery of de facto independence, some American officials believed that US non-recognition policy had achieved its goals and was no more. But others recognized either immediately or some months later that as great as the Baltic achievement was, it did not vitiate non-recognition policy because that policy provided two things on which the Baltic countries have continued to rely.

 

On the one hand, it meant that the status of the Baltic countries was and would always be different than that of the Soviet republics. It was not just a question of history and culture but of law, and one of the reasons that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania not only escaped from Moscow’s imperial rule earlier than the Soviet republics but now are members of Western institutions is that non-recognition policy underscored just how different they were and how consequently they had first claim to be restored to their place in the West, including  ultimately in organizations like NATO and the European Union.

 

And on the other, non-recognition policy provided the basis for much of the legal action of the three Baltic countries, including in particular their laws on citizenship. Had the principle of legal continuity under occupation not been maintained and maintained with the support of the United States, it would have been impossible for the three to adopt the citizenship laws that they have. Non-recognition policy thus has not been extinguished but rather reaffirmed, and American actions in August-September 1991 played a key role in that.

 

Nearly 30 years on, it may be difficult to remember how close the coup plotters came to winning and how ready so many of the officials in the communist party and Soviet state were to go along. Had the coup people killed Mikhail Gorbachev or even managed to detain Boris Yeltsin – and they came within minutes of doing the latter – the history of August 1991 would be very different.

 

As the coup collapsed, many in both the region and in the West decided that this effort had had no support and was doomed, something that the more recent actions of the Putin regime call into question. But at the time, at least in the first few weeks, the picture was very different in two respects which might appear to be mutually exclusive but in fact were tightly interrelated. And that reality was something that the United States as the victor in the Cold War and the last remaining super power could not ignore lest by its actions it trigger moves by others with potentially fateful consequences. 

 

To be Continued

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