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The day we re-declared our independence

Twenty years ago on May 4, 1990, 138 deputies in the Supreme Council of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia passed a declaration that made the Latvian SSR null and void. At the same time they reinstated the independent Republic of Latvia that had been founded on November 18, 1918.

Since the Latvian SSR was considered by Moscow to be part of the USSR in 1990, this declaration wasn’t immediately recognised by the powers that be in the Kremlin. In fact, it took another 15 months for Latvia’s restored independence to be recognized by the world, and that only happened after the USSR itself collapsed and came apart.

But voting for an independent Latvia on May 4, 1990 was a bold move of enormous political consequences, and a clear indication to the world that the old USSR was rapidly losing its control of what Ronald Reagan had once famously called the Evil Empire.

For example, the Latvian Supreme Council itself had just been reconstituted through Soviet elections in March 1990, and for the first time in Soviet history, a majority of its deputies were no longer Communist Party loyalists. They not only favoured Latvia’s independence but reminded the world that Soviet rule in Latvia had been illegal since 1940. The 1990 re-declaration of Latvia’s independence began the process of dismantling this illegal rule and re-establishing the constitution, institutions and values of the sovereign Latvian state first established in 1918.

In all, 201 deputies had been elected to the 1990 Supreme Soviet, but when it came time to vote on the restoration of independence, 138 voted in favour, 0 voted against, and 1 abstained. Those deputies that were still loyal to the Soviet regime simply didn’t vote one way or another.

It was an incredibly emotional day in Latvia on May 4th, especially in the square in front of the parliament, which was filled overflowing with thousands of well-wishers. As they emerged from the parliament building the 138 deputies who voted “yes” were greeted by tears, cheers and emotional ovations from the huge crowd.

Three days after this declaration on May 7, the Supreme Council chose Ivars Godmanis to be its chairman and (in effect) prime minister. In less than 3 months, on July 31, 1990, Ivars Godmanis and his Foreign Minister Jānis Jurkāns were sitting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. talking to President of the United States George Bush. They talked about the restoration of Latvia’s independence.

For anyone who is under the age of 20 it’s almost impossible to imagine what life was like in Latvia under Soviet rule. It’s equally difficult to imagine that in 1990, apart from some patriotically impassioned people in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, there was nearly no one on this planet who could imagine a world without the Soviet Union.

And yet 15 months later, not only did the pugnacious Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia restore their full independence from the Evil Empire, 12 other Soviet Republics un-sovietised themselves. Among them was a country we know of today as the Russian Federation.

Russia, in some political form or another, has been around for centuries, but the Russian Federation that exists today was founded on December 26, 1991. That makes the Republic of Latvia – founded in 1918 and restored in 1991 – 73 years older than its prominent neighbour to the east.

While RÄ«ga and Moscow may sometimes disagree on the details of history, I like to think that when Latvian re-declared its independence 20 years on May 4, 1990, we made it a little bit easier for Russia to achieve its independence one year later.

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