Time to come together
The organisation that is preparing for the celebration of Latvia’s 100th anniversary next November has announced that it is organising a process called the Baltic Centenary Way in commemoration of the Baltic Way in August 1989, when some 2 million Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians stood in an unbroken chain of people holding hands from Tallinn in the north all the way through Riga and on to Vilnius in the south, to demonstrate their desire for independence from the Soviet Union. At that time, all three countries had been under occupation for much longer than they had been independent states between the two world wars, and the Baltic Way was one of the key elements in the independence struggle.
The whole world saw what the Baltic people were doing, and just seven months later, Lithuania became the first of the three to declare independence from the USSR. The date for the demonstration was not chosen randomly. It marked the 50th anniversary of the wicked Molotov-ribbentrop Pact, named after the Nazi German and Bolshevik foreign ministers who signed a peace treaty that included a secret protocol on dividing up Europe after the war, both sides assuming that neither would attack the other.
Of course, that’s not how things worked out, but the anniversary of the infamous pact and its secret addenda was a perfect opportunity to organise a demonstration. Since then, similar events have been held in many parts of the world, not least in Catalonia, where the Catalan people are currently waging a struggle to break free from the Republic of Spain. The two situations – the Baltic one and the Catalan one – cannot really be compared, given that Spain is not a totalitarian country, but the Baltic Way set a tone that can be emulated elsewhere.
This time around the plan is to do something similar on August 23. The Latvian Institute has announced that this time there will be three cakes that will travel from Riga to Tallinn, Vilnius and Helsinki (readers may not realise that Finland, too, gained independence from the Russian Empire in 1918). At certain points along the way, people will be asked to pass the cakes hand to hand, then the baked wares will be put back in their cars, and off they will go.
This seems rather odd to me. What kind of cake can survive being passed hither and yon for hundreds of kilometres? But the idea is a nice one nonetheless, and if I happen to be nearby, I may try to take part, trying hard not to put my thumb in the icing.
Unlike in 1991, when all three Baltic Republics gained independence pretty much instantaneously after the collapse of the anti-gorbachev coup in Moscow, in 1918 they each took their own pace. Lithuania went first in declaring its independence from the empire on February 17 (back in March, an original copy of the declaration was found languishing in an archive in Germany), Estonia followed suit on February 24, and Latvia waited all the way until November 18. In all three cases, it required another couple of years of combat before the three countries cleared out all invaders from the East and the West, and that was a sterling example of cooperation. Troops from all three nations regularly crossed each other’s borders to help each other out.
But what about now, nearly three decades after the restoration of independence?
On the face of it, the only things that the three Baltic States have totally in common are first of all geography and second of all history. All three became independent in 1918 and internationally recognised a few years after that, all three had democratic systems that were overthrown in coups conducted by Antanas Smetona in Lithuania in December 1926, Konstantin Pats in Estonia in March 1934, and Karlis Ulmanis in Latvia two months after the Estonian coup, all three were occupied first by the Bolsheviks, then by the Nazis, and then by the Bolsheviks again, all three suffered mightily under Soviet occupation, complete with fierce repression of local languages, mass deportations to Siberia, etc. And then all three became free again after the collapse of the USSR. It has been several years now since Latvia has been independent longer than it was during the interwar period.
Latvian and Lithuanian are related languages and two of the oldest languages in the world to be still spoken today. When I was growing up, I was told that if you spoke Latvian, you could understand Lithuanian. Came the day when I was working at the American Latvian Association and went to a Lithuanian event, and I am here to tell you that it ain’t so, but they come from a common root that goes back to Sanskrit. Estonian is a Finno-ugric language, related to Finnish more closely than Latvian is to Lithuanian, as well as to Hungarian. That’s one difference.
The major difference, however, is that the three countries are competitors in economic terms. Estonia in particular has caused much jealousy in the other two countries because of its economic successes, down in large part to the implementation of shock therapy in the early 1990s and to the fact that for all practical purposes, Estonia is the southernmost province of Finland. Among other things, Estonia got the green light to implement the common European currency, the Euro, three full years before Latvia and four before Lithuania, and it was only last year that it was overcome in terms of per capita GDP by Lithuania. The three countries compete over investments, they compete over influence in the international organisations of which they are part, and they compete in sports and culture.
But in thinking about next year’s cake-based festivities, it is worth noting that in all of these areas, the Baltic States and their people also work together. The three parliaments have a partnership organisation that meets regularly. There are pan-baltic sporting events of various kinds, as well as pan-baltic (and beyond) cultural events.
Surely there is more that unites us than separates us, and so I very much hope that the centennial will be a marvelous occasion. I know that there are lots of different plans afoot, just go to the Latvian Institute homepage, and you will see all of the different things that are being planned throughout the year. One of Latvia’s magnificent song and dance festivals will be one such thing. And then November 18. I’ve always thought that the politicians of the day should have sped things up and declared independence during the summer, when it’s nice outside.
On the other hand, during the summer it stays light late, and that’s no good for fireworks, so on second thought, I suppose it’s just as well that it’s in November, when it does not stay light late at all. It’s not every year that your country turns 100. I hail from a land that celebrated its 241st anniversary in July with a lunatic in the White House. I’m glad I have a chance to celebrate here, as well.
Karlis Streips is a Latvian journalist and analyst of US descent
“The major difference, however, is that the three countries are competitors in economic terms. Estonia in particular has caused much jealousy in the other two countries because of its economic successes, down in large part to the implementation of shock therapy in the early 1990s and to the fact that for all practical purposes, Estonia is the southernmost province of Finland.