Remarks by former ambassador, visiting professor Alpo Rusi
Redi (Helsinki), August 19, 2019
I would like to thank the embassies of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for the invitation to talk about my recollections of the final hectic days and weeks of the Cold War from the perspective of a Finnish diplomat working in Helsinki, where I was located at the time.
Today we remember the historic demonstration called "the Baltic Way" which took place on August 23rd, 1989. We have all come together to watch the documentary movies screening “The Baltic Way - 30”, when more than two million people changed the course of history.
The changes in Europe were indeed historic in the Summer three decades ago. Today on August 19, 1989, thousands of Hungarians and Austrians gathered at the border fence between the two countries, which also marked the dividing line between the Communist bloc and the West. They had come for a “pan-European picnic” and were joined by hundreds of East Germans who took the opportunity to rush across the border into Austria and from there to West Germany.
On August 23, 1989, marking the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, "the Baltic Way" played a decisive role in strengthening the forces of peaceful change inside the Soviet Empire. Five decades earlier the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was the trigger for the Winter War. We in Finland can never forget what happened also to you, our Baltic brothers and sisters.
If citizens inside the Soviet Union were able to show their dissent in mass demonstrations, why should they not do so in the so-called independent socialist countries as well? Two million was too much for any violent involvement. Today we know that "the Baltic Way" contributed significantly to the collapse of the Berlin Wall as an example of people’s peaceful demonstration can play against in any tyranny. We watch the events in Hong Kong and understand that history is going on.
"The Baltic Way" was finally reported in the media throughout the world and also in Finland. However, the broader "Baltic Awakening" had been growning from a grass roots movement into one uniting all three Baltic nations since the early 1980s. Due to Finlandisation, it was difficult or even controversial to report these incidents and demonstrations in the Finnish media.
What was the mood in the Finnish Foreign Ministry in 1989? The President of the Republic of Finland, Mauno Koivisto was nervous about the possible repercussions of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. In his memoirs, Koivisto quotes his own comment to Japan’s Prime Minister Nakasone in Helsinki in January 1987: ”There are many national disputes in Eastern Europe. It is in the broader interest that the Soviet Union is in charge of order there”.
Koivisto feared for the maintenance of stability in Europe, which explains why he - and the Finnish government - insisted the Baltic states should negotiate their independence with Moscow. Finland had declared its own independence without any negotiations with Russia on December 6th, 1917. We do not know whether Koivisto did not want to remember these events.
I was working in the Foreign Ministry as the Head of the Research and Planning Unit of the Political Department in August 1989. Our work focused on speech writing for the ministers and the president as well as writing background memos about changes in security policy. In late August 1989, I was invited to the Parliamentary Defence Committee to say a few words about ongoing changes in the European security system. This took place after my return from New York, where I had been a resident scholar at Columbia University as well as the East West Institute for 12 months.
”The collapse of the Warsaw Pact may take place sooner than expected because Gorbachev is not able to use force in the orbits for the maintenance of order”. This was essentially the basic argument of my short presentation. Everyone understood that if this should happen, the next systemic collapse would be within the Soviet Union. The reception of my thesis was almost hostile or cool at least.
Finland was preparing for a state visit by Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1989. Soviet control over the Eastern Europe was at stake. There were winds of change blowing in most of the Eastern European states. "The Baltic Way" took place exactly the right time, two months before the visit. My task was to redraft the official joint statement to be approved during the visit. We managed to change the Soviet proposal in order to get "neutrality" recognised without conditions by the Soviet Union. The recognition was a step forward but it was too little, too late: Finnish neutrality became more or less obsolete within two years.
In the Foreign Ministry, we had to be prepared for various outcomes: particularly the potential collapse of Soviet control in Eastern Europe. A task force was established to monitor change in Europe. Boris Jeltsin became a decisive player in developments in the Soviet Union. In the Autumn of 1990, I had two meetings with Galina Starovoitova, who was a member of the Duma and an advisor to Jeltsin on national minorities. She told me in confidence at a conference of the Ford Foundation in Italy that the Soviet Union will collapse and "we want to get rid of the territories that were annexed by force". She also insisted that "of course the Baltic states need to become independent". At that time my book After the Cold: Europe’s New Political Architecture by Macmillan in New York was in print and had come to the same conclusion. It was my duty to report these meetings to my government. Today these memos are already declassified.
The Finnish government had a major challenge to maintain contacts simultaneously with the Jeltsin government of Russia and with the collapsing Soviet Union. For many, Jeltsin was a trouble-maker and Gorbachev a constructive statesman. Both of them need to be appreciated for their achievements regarding the end of the Cold War. Finally Jeltsin took over and the rest is history. In late August 1991, Finland recognised the independence of three Baltic
states. President Koivisto was not against but the media about the decision was informed by Prime Minister Esko Aho.
The recognition of the Baltic states changed the course of Finland’s foreign policy. Prime Minister Esko Aho delivered a historical speech by opening the door to the EU membership on September 3, 1991. In the Foreign Ministry and in the office of the Prime Minister we had drawn the conclusion, after the failed coup in Moscow, that time had come for new openings in foreign policy.
In my capacity as the new head of the unit of European and US affairs, I had been drafting that statement after the nomination of the government of Aho since April. Europe was about to change dramatically during the Summer 1991. Together with advisor of Aho, a young member of the parliament Olli Rehn, we were tasked to draft elements of a foreign policy program of the new government. We drafted a wording which would make it possible
to apply for the EU membership.
The collapse of the Soviet Empire was a pre-condition for our EU membership, but also of the NATO and EU memberships of the Baltic states later on. This was not easy to understand in 1991. Consequently, one could ask whether the citizens of the Baltic states played the key role regarding the collapse of the Soviet Union with their determination to start building their national identities again and unifying after decades of Soviet occupation.
In 1990 Marju Lauristin, an Estonian scholar and politician, stated in the conference in Italy mentioned above that in case independence could not be resolved quickly, a catastrophe would take place because young people would leave and the backbone of the nation would break. Romualdas Ozolas, deputy Prime Minister of Lithuania emphasised that the Lithuanians have been an ethnic population with the right to its own Constitution for five decades.
"The Baltic Way" will be remembered as a historic landmark which made it possible to be free and together again.
The issue in 1990/91 was either a catastrophe and no independence or independence and freedom.
The brave citizens participating in "The Baltic Way" need to be always respected because it facilitated the prospect for the future of close cooperation, freedom and integration between Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which had been broken from 1939 to 1991. Our countries need to strengthen their presence and influence within the EU.
We are now together on the same side of the course of history.
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