BALTIC CEN­TE­NARY

Time to come to­gether

The Baltic Times - - FRONT PAGE - Karlis Streips

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.

Karlis Streips

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