Latvia's unique path toward independence: the challenges associated with the transition from a Soviet republic to an independent state.

Author:King, Viola Olga


In the late 1980s, Latvia, a tiny republic in the northwest corner of the former Soviet Union (USSR), seeing a window of opportunity provided by the policy of glasnost, instability inside the USSR, and political upheaval within the Warsaw Pact countries, became one of the key agitators among the Soviet republics to demand independence from Moscow--a view shared by several Baltic specialists (1) This paved the way for the emergence of independence movements in its fellow Baltic republics, Estonia and Lithuania, the latter of which took the lead in seeking to break free from Soviet rule. This caused a domino effect throughout the USSR. In short, the three Baltic republics--Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania--set in motion the political process that resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. (2)

Latvia's road to independence and democratization proved to be quite different from that followed in other Soviet republics, particularly in Latvia's sister Baltic republics-Estonia and Lithuania. Latvia's geopolitical position and demographic composition, as well as cultural and historical variables, created a set of unique challenges that shaped its struggle for independence from Moscow not present in other Soviet republics, particularly the independence movements in Latvia's sister Baltic republics. Latvia's geopolitical position and demographic composition, as well as cultural and historical variables, created a set of unique challenges that shaped its stuggle for independence from Moscow not present in other Soviet republics. Once the policies of glostnost and democratization initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the director general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, created an opening for independent political thought, it became possible to express diverse political opinions and engage in political activities more freely. As a result, a nascent civil society emerged in Latvia led by environmental, folklore, and religious groups, each of which adopted specific political agendas. (3) This period of political and national awakening in Latvia is often referred to as the "Singing Revolution" due to its non-violent nature and the significance of traditional Latvian folk music in facilitating the push for independence. (4)

The "Singing Revolution" ignited a major debate concerning historical interpretations of Soviet actions in Latvia after 1939, which caused Latvians to reject the legitimacy of Soviet rule in their homeland. The most important of these historical turning points was commemorated during the so-called "calendar demonstrations" throughout Latvia, which jumpstarted the anti-Soviet movement and provided momentum for like-minded activists in the other Baltic republics to mobilize their populations in seeking self- determination. (5) However, due to unique ethnic and demographic challenges, as well as security considerations, the independence movement in Latvia took a backseat to those in Estonia and Lithuania. The most significant of these challenges was that Latvia would have to deal with its high proportion of ethnic Russians in its population, who were unwilling to sever ties with the USSR completely. The ethnic and political tensions that grew out of this situation threatened to produce violence. In addition, the significant Soviet military presence on Latvian territory raised a tangible security issue. If hardliners among Soviet authorities chose to use force in order to keep Latvia in the USSR, there was a strong possibility that the situation would result in a full-scale military intervention. Despite these challenges, Latvia's transition toward independence remained peaceful. Ethnic tensions did not result in a repetition of the large-scale violence that occurred in other Soviet territories (e.g., Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Tadzhikistan), where ethnic conflicts turned bloody. (6) There was also no open military intervention from Moscow, primarily due to Western attention on what was happening in the region and a willingness on the part of the leadership of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) to support the Baltic republics in their quest for independence. (7) In 1991, Latvia, joined its Baltic neighbors, in declaring its independence from the Soviet Union. Shortly thereafter, it held parliamentary elections and established democratic institutions. Later, in May 2004, Latvia joined the European Union.

In seeking to establish a viable, fully functioning democracy and an efficient market economy, Latvia has faced multiple obstacles and challenges. Perhaps the most crucial concern proved to be the issue of citizenship and naturalization for non- Latvians. As they wrestled with this issue, Latvian authorities searched for ways to preserve the country's culture while embracing ethnic diversity to ensure equal rights for its various minority groups.

Historical Background

It would be impossible to analyze the political developments that led to Latvia's push toward independence in the late 1980s and early 1990s without examining the country's history, which shaped Latvia's attitude toward the USSR and fanned the flames of its independence movement. Major milestones in twentieth century Latvian history-- the declaration of Latvian independence (November 18, 1918), the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop (or Nazi-Soviet) Pact (August 23, 1939), the annexation of Latvia to the USSR (August 1940), the massive purges and deportations of Latvians (1941, 1949, and 1959), and, the migration of Russian settlers into Latvian cities--left an indelible mark on Latvian national consciousness, which contributed to the rise of strong anti- Soviet sentiment in that Soviet republic. In the wake of glasnost in the late 1980s, these issues stimulated the rise of a new Latvian civil society. For political activists, these events became the foundation upon which Latvia could legitimize its effort to reestablish its independence.

During the Soviet era (1940-1991), Latvian history had been distorted and adjusted to fit the ideological framework created by the Communist Party. As a consequence, ethnic minorities in the USSR were cut off from their historical memory for decades. The period of glasnost initiated by Gorbachev in the late 1980s provided an opportunity for a more critical examination of Soviet policies. As soon as this Pandora's Box was unlocked, it was impossible to close it. As Juris Dreifelds, a political scientist at Brock University in Ontario, writes:

[H]istory is much more than just a "detached register of significant events of the past. History can be a weapon, a club. It can also be a source of strength and of mobilization, a focal point of intense emotions; it can help define friends and enemies and break down walls or build them up. (8) For Latvians, by the late 1980s history became both a peaceful weapon for change and an inspiration for political mobilization.

For more than seven centuries, after German-led crusaders conquered Latvian territory in the 1300s, a succession of foreign powers--the Vatican, Denmark, Prussia, Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, and Russia have controlled various parts of modern-day Latvia. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Latvia had been entirely absorbed into the Russian Empire. However, it retained a certain degree of autonomy, and the German barons remained extremely influential there. (9) Mostly due to the efforts of the German clergy, Latvia attained one of the highest literacy rates in the Russian Empire. By the mid-nineteenth century, over 80% of the Latvian population was literate. In addition, Latvia's geopolitical position, extensive sea trade, and the rise of a publishing industry helped familiarize Latvians with modern political and economic ideas, and lifestyles of Western Europe, as well as those in Moscow and St. Petersburg. During the second half of the nineteenth century, as political scientist Artis Pabriks and historian Aldis Purs point out, a Latvian ethnic identity emerged and became the basis for social organization. The intensity and scope of Latvian professional cultural endeavors (i.e., art, literature, song, and theatre) unified and mobilized a nation, giving rise to a strong sense of national consciousness and the development of a movement interested in preserving Latvian culture against the threats of Germanization and Russification. This period is often referred to as the First Latvian Awakening. (10)

During World War I, Latvians seized upon the opportunity to establish an independent state, and on November 18, 1918, the Latvian National Council formally declared the country's independence. However, de facto independence came only in January 1920, after the last foreign troops left the country. Following the adoption of a new constitution on February 15, 1922, the first Parliament (Saeima) assembled in November 1922. Earlier, in the Treaty of Riga (August 11, 1920), Soviet Russia had eccognized Latvian independence and renounced "voluntarily and for eternal times all sovereign rights over the Latvian People and its territory." (11) On September 22, 1921, Latvia, along with the other two Baltic states, joined the League of Nations. Following its declaration of independence, Latvia established itself as a successful state. Dreifelds characterizes this period as the "Second Awakening." (12) After experiencing the hardships of immediate postwar reconstruction, Latvia, by the mid-1930s, achieved prosperity. In addition, the adoption of progressive welfare programs minimized social tensions Moreover, in terms of education, Latvia ranked second in Europe (after Estonia) in the proportion of its population that had attained some level of post-secondary education. (13)

Latvia experienced a major turning point in its history on August 23, 1939. According to the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Latvia (as well as Estonia, Finland, the eastern...

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