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My 1989 (2009)

This was written for a German TV station (ARTE) web page marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For most Balts, the process of democratization was synonymous with the restoration of independence. We were democratic countries before our occupation in 1940, and could only be so again if our legal independence were restored.

For me, the democratization wave of 1989 began on June 14, 1987 when a thousand Latvians had the courage to defy the Soviet KGB and place flowers at the Latvian Freedom Monument in the heart of Riga. By August 23, the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, similar pro-independence demonstrations took place in Lithuania and Estonia as well. We were inspired by what Solidarnosc had done in Poland, and encouraged (albeit inadvertently) by Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika.

Baltic independence seemed only possible with the retreat of the Soviet Empire, and the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in early 1989, coupled with growing democratic movements in the Warsaw Pact countries, was a clear signal that something was indeed changing. As a Latvian-American lobbyist in Washington, D.C. I saw the establishments of Baltic ‘popular fronts’ not only as moves toward democracy, but also independence.

From 1987 on, I worked closely with the Latvian Popular Front (LTF) and the Latvian National Independence Movement (LNNK). In August 1989, both organizations had bold plans for the 50th anniversary of the notorious Stalin-Hitler Pact. The LNNK planned an international conference on self-determination in Riga, and the LTF was working with its counterparts in Estonia and Lithuania to organize The Baltic Way.

I had been born in a Latvian refugee camp in Munich after World War II and had grown up in the United States. Until 1989, ‘independent’ Latvia meant the country my parents had lived in from 1918 until 1940. But in August of 1989, I arrived in Riga along with a U.S. Senator named Bob Kasten, who was inexplicably allowed by the Soviets to participate in the LNNK conference on self-determination. A day later, on August 23rd, I stood at the foot of the Latvian Freedom Monument, at the mid-point of the 600 km human chain that extended from Tallinn, Estonia, through Riga, to Vilnius, Lithuania. I was just one of 2 million Balts who sent a powerful message to Moscow – and the world – that independence for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia was no longer a dream. Two years later, that dream became a reality.

We Balts had been watching closely what was happening in Hungary and other Eastern European countries. As Hungarians proclaimed their republic in 1989, what did they think about the Baltic chances of restoring their independence?

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