One Hundred Years Of Independence? The Fall And Rise Of Baltic Freedom

The history of most countries around the world has been marked by a fight for freedom in one way or another. The stories of some have become common knowledge and a regular feature in history textbooks, with their independence days noted all around the world.

Then, there are countries whose struggle for freedom and independence has been no less persistent, but the stories of which are rarely known by anyone who is not their citizen or a history enthusiast.

Last year, the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – celebrated 100 years since the declaration of their independence. Taking advantage of the ensuing wave of self-determination at the end of World War I, the states declared their sovereignty after almost 200 years of occupation by what had then been Imperial Russia.

President of the United States Donald Trump welcomed the leaders of the Baltic States, from left to right, Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia, Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, and Raimonds Vejonis of Latvia, to the Oval Office in commemoration of the centenary of Baltic independence. Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead

However, despite a centenary of formal independence, in reality the Baltics were politically independent for around half of that period. The other half was spent under the occupation of the Soviet Union. The countries have always been a valuable target in the power struggles of larger and militarily-superior states. This is largely due to their access to the Baltic sea and the ability to act as a buffer between the historically frequently hostile Western Europe and Russia.

The story was no different during one of the greatest clashes of superpower interests, World War II. Formally, the “ownership” of the Baltic states was decided by splitting Europe into spheres of influence in the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union. In practice, it was assumed by the Soviet Union when Nazi Germany fell.

The Western Bloc never recognised the occupation and incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union as legitimate. However, it did not make the reality of the tragedies that followed any different. Hundreds of thousands of Baltic nationals were killed, deported to Siberia, or imprisoned in the mass repressions carried out by the Soviet regime.

Moreover, estimation shows that the development of Baltic economies was set back by two to three decades. Then there are, of course, the devastating consequences that come with the trauma of occupation and yet cannot be easily measured. Suppression of the free mind, widespread alcoholism, and the persistent fear that anything you say or do may be interpreted as hostile to the regime, are but a few those traumas.

The fall of dictatorships can be rapid, the creation of new democratic institutions to replace those of the old regime do not take much longer. However, what is often overlooked is that the culture such dictatorships create, that of fear and helplessness, is internalised by citizens to aid survival. Overthrowing ideas and mindsets are much harder and requires a lengthier process than writing a new constitution and organising the first democratic elections. Sometimes, it spans whole generations.

However, many were able to resist such mindset and must receive a fair share of credit for their role in bringing an end to the Soviet regime. For all the efforts to eradicate civil society and political consciousness, the fight for freedom and independence in the Baltics never died.

Lithuania became the first country to announce its independence from Soviet Union in March 1990, with Latvia and Estonia following soon after. This was achieved largely through peaceful means: the armed resistance had been eradicated within a decade after the end of World War II.

Decades of peaceful resistance followed, fuelled by ideas emerging in secret meetings among patriotic intellectuals and shared with the rest of society through forbidden publications. This eventually turned into open and peaceful mass demonstrations.

One of its most remarkable expressions was that of the Baltic Way. On August 23, 1989, around two million people joined hands to form a human chain spanning across the three Baltic States to mark the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which paved the way for their occupation. What became known as the Singing Revolution toppled the regime that few in the West could imagine ever falling.

The Baltic Way: around two million people joined hands across the Baltic States on August 23rd, 1989, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which paved the way for their occupation. Photo: WikiCommons.

The period of re-established independence has so far been much more successful than its interwar predecessor. The Baltic States are currently characterised as ‘flawed democracies’ on the Democracy Index.

However, there is no doubt that the three states are free and democratic – after all, countries such as Belgium, France and the United States share the same classification. The Baltics are also the only post-Soviet countries to have joined both the European Union and NATO, as well as the Eurozone.

Nevertheless, the occupation of parts of Georgia and the Ukraine by Russian forces in recent years have not let the Baltics forget that the independence won from Imperial Russia lasted only 22 years before the Soviets came.

Their existence in the interwar period was built on a somewhat naïve trust in the international order of the League of Nations. The countries declared themselves neutral before the beginning of World War II, believing that this would be enough to keep their sovereignty safe. The Baltics learned the hard way that international law often only matters as much, as it can serve great power interests.

This time, the naivety and unwarranted optimism is gone: the states are fully aware of the potential threat from their problematic neighbour.

In addition, they understand that independence comes in more forms than just political sovereignty: in their case, another important aspect is that of energy sovereignty. Russia has long used gas as a tool of geopolitics, utilising differentiated pricing and even halting the flow of gas to gain the upper hand in conflicts with customer states.

In response, Lithuania got a new Floating Storage and Regasification Unit in 2014, which allows liquefied natural gas to come from Norway, Qatar and even the United States. The name of the ship is anything but subtle: ‘Independence’.

Of the many lessons that the last hundred years have taught the Baltics, two seem particularly important. Firstly, no matter the circumstances, there will always be people in the world whose political consciousness and refusal to give into repressions will rally millions to fight for their freedom.

Secondly, the fight for freedom and democracy may never really be over, nor that it should be. Democracy is a commitment that requires constant support, attention and participation. If left on its own, it may just become an easy target for powers that never quite stop looking for ways to sway the balance of power in their favour.

Nevertheless, the Baltic States serve as living proof that, even after the occupation of one of the most vicious dictatorships in history, it is still possible to become one of the most developed democratic states. This message should be one of hope for the nations around the world for whom the struggle still continues.

Eglė Karečkaitė

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