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Latvians campaign for national independence, 1989-1991
The Baltic republics of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania achieved their independence from the Soviet Union by conducting movements based on nonviolence. Tactics included: nonviolent protests, noncooperation, and defiance to combat Soviet military intervention and political intrusion. The problems for Latvia in particular were born after the Soviet occupation following World War II. From that point forward the Soviet leaders employed a program to eradicate the previous Latvian society and to force the “Sovietization” of Latvian society. The Soviets implemented a repression of Latvian culture and language. Initially, many Latvians responded by using guerrilla tactics to fight violently during the first years of the oppressive Soviet occupation, but by 1952 it was clear that the violence was ineffective and nonviolent resistance began in small doses.
Students began the nonviolent effort by boycotting the Communist Youth organizations and citizens followed suit by refusing to vote in Soviet elections and by refusing to speak Russian in public. In addition, Latvian Communists resisted nonviolently by defending Latvian culture in Soviet institutions.
In 1986 and 1987, the Latvian human rights watch group, Helsinki ’86, began to lay further groundwork for the 1989 independence campaign by organizing large demonstrations to celebrate important dates in Latvian history. The group also wrote letters to the Soviet leaders and international authorities expressing the group’s discontent with the political and cultural oppression. During 1987, Latvian civil society groups began to hold meetings that would later lead to the organization of the independence campaign. In 1988, during a funeral march to commemorate a popular Latvian dissident, Latvians sang their national anthem and flew their original flag for the first time since World War II.
The Soviet occupiers still attempted to suppress these early forms of nationalist resistance though slander in the official media and arrests of dissidents. Nonetheless, the nationalist fervor in Latvia continued to grow around a shared desire to reclaim traditional culture and independence. By June 14, 1988 the number of participants in pro-Latvian marches reached 100,000 (later reaching 500,000 on a regular basis). Despite attempts by Communist Party authorities to slow the move towards liberalization, Latvians became more and more openly defiant to Soviet rule. Latvians began to publish critiques of the Communist Party and occupiers in newspapers and increased the number of letters and declarations demanding the protection of Latvian culture.
By late summer in 1988 the National Independence Movement of Latvia (NIML) had begun to call for full independence. They were joined less than a year later by the Popular Front of Latvia (PFL), which would lead the independence campaign from mid-1989 to 1991. On August 23, 1989, one year after its founding, the PFL joined with the Estonian and Lithuanian independence campaigns. With this partnership between the three campaigns, the groups formed a human chain to connect from one capital city to the next with more than two million people participating. This action of the PFL and the other Baltic groups enraged the Soviet leaders in Moscow, who threatened any continued agitation with violence.
Meanwhile Latvian nationalists became more creative in their actions in support of independence. In November 1989 a student group led a mock funeral for “scientific communism,” and later Helsinki-86 organized a similar mock funeral for Lenin at his monument in Riga. During this period and later, young Latvian men refused conscription into the Russian army.
Also in 1989, a group called the Citizens’ Movement began registering all citizens who had been in Latvia before the occupation and all other residents who supported an independent Latvia in the future. The group registered nearly half the population before electing a Citizens’ Congress in April 1990 to act as a parallel government in the movement towards independence.
Even before the Citizens’ Congress was formed, however, the Latvian Supreme Soviet (later called the Supreme Council) held its first open elections. On March 18, 1990, pro-independence candidates from the PFL and the NIML won the elections with two-thirds of the seats. This new pro-Latvian council quickly replaced the Citizens’ Congress (which had been widely supported as a parallel government at its outset) at the head of the independence campaign.
Just two months after the elections, the Latvian Supreme Council then announced its intention to restore independence and renamed the nation “The Republic of Latvia”. At that point the Supreme Council was seen as the real government in Latvia receiving legitimacy from the people and taking the lead in the campaign. With a mixed population of Russians and Latvians, along with the presence of thousands of Soviet troops, the opposition to this parallel government was strong and on May 14, 1990, President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union nullified the Latvian independence. The next day, when unarmed Russian-loyalists marched on the Latvian Supreme Council to demand the repeal of the declaration of independence, an even larger crowd of Latvians hurried to surround the building of the Supreme Council and defended it without violence—although there were a few minor physical interactions during the 4-hour standoff.
Consequently, an increase in repressive violence occurred in the Latvian capital of Riga as the Soviet Interior Ministry's “Black Berets” conducted attacks against Latvian citizens and local authorities. People supporting the Soviet Union called for an intervention to restore order, while the pro-independence organization started to uncover new forms of nonviolence to combat a possible Soviet military invasion. On December 11, 1990, the Popular Front announced an organized national defense plan in a statement titled “Announcement to All Supporters of Latvia's Independence.” The plan was to use civilian nonviolent actions and noncooperation to resist Soviet force.
On January 2, 1991, the Soviets tested this nonviolent defense plan when Black Berets attacked the Press Building in Riga and the Soviet government said that more paratroopers would be sent in order to make sure military conscription was properly carried out. The Latvians responded nonviolently with an initial protest rally of 10,000 people in front of the building that housed the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Then the Latvians presented a strong resistance to the conscription by pretending not to speak Russian and by removing or replacing street signs, signposts, house numbers, and place name tablets to confuse the army.
Pro-Russian residents also continued to use increasing nonviolence to protest the Supreme Council’s support of independence. They held rallies and threatened a general strike to begin on January 15 unless Latvia was returned to Soviet rule. Nonetheless, on January 11, the violence in the Baltic region increased with Soviet soldiers firing at peaceful citizens in Lithuania. A few days later, Russian soldiers and tank units killed 14 and wounded 200 people that had been guarding the Television Center in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
Naturally, Latvian leaders thought that they would be the next targets. In order to prevent this, on January 13 the Supreme Council broadcast on the radio a plan to guard the parliament building, the communications centers, and other sites in Riga. Human and material barricades would be set up to hinder the Soviets. On the same day, 500,000 people had come together to protest the treatment of Lithuanians and to show that they would not back down. The attack on Latvia did not end up occurring because Boris Yeltsin, the chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, joined the leaders of the three Baltic nations on January 13 to protest the use of violence and intrusion in the Baltic states. In addition, Yeltsin announced an “Appeal to Russian Soldiers” to discourage them from attacking legal institutions in the Baltic states. Despite these actions, hostility remained at a high level for the next eight months with the Black Berets employing their terror tactics in an attempt to provoke a violent Latvian reaction. Despite killing six Latvians, these provocations failed.
The Latvian Supreme Council made the next move on June 20, 1991, when they approved a proposal for the creation of the Nonviolent Defense Center to organize nonviolent resistance in order to protect Latvia against a rumored invasion from Moscow. The proposal not only discussed the new center, but also detailed the protocol for responding to a coup d'etat.
August 19, 1991, brought tensions to a new high with rumors that a military coup was happening in Moscow. There was an increased troop presence in Latvia, especially in the capital Riga. The National Defense Center issued 2,000 copies of the guide to nonviolent resistance and they encouraged people to set up small centers of resistance in each of their towns. With everyone prepared to resist using nonviolence, the pressure from the Baltic states and within Moscow (see “Defense of Soviet State against coup, 1991” in this database) was too much and two days later the coup failed. Latvia gained its complete independence only two weeks later.