Lecture in the Lithuanian Embassy (Helsinki)
January 14, 2020
First, I would like to thank ambassador Valdemaras Sarapinas for inviting me to speak about the recognition of independence of the Baltic states.
On January 13, 1991 Soviet forces stormed the Parliament building and the TV station in Vilnius. Unarmed civilian Lithuanians confronted Soviet soldiers. Fourteen people were killed and hundreds injured in what became known as January events. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the victims of January events. Their courage paved the way for independence and freedom. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were the last to enter the Soviet Union as union republics and the first to leave in 1991.
For fifty-one years, the Baltic states were under the Soviet communist occupation but were never culturally or politically assimilated to the Soviet Empire. In the 1970s, occasional political protests, inspired by the OSCE Final Act, took place in the Baltic republics.
These protests were brutally cracked down. The issue that first activated popular protests was environment, with major demonstrations against the expansion of polluting industries occurring in Riga (November 1986) and Tallinn (spring of 1987). In the course of 1988, popular protests became more political; Sajudis in Lithuania, the Popular Front for the Support of Perestroika in Estonia, and the Latvian Popular Front. In August 1989, ”The Baltic way” became a major demonstration for independence.
Finland’s foreign policy was based on the European status quo until the end of the Soviet Union. Finland was not part of the Eastern bloc politically but belonged to the Soviet strategic sphere of interest based on the Treaty of 1948. The background of the treaty is not well known. Th treaty was suggested to foreign minister Viacheslav Molotov in Moscow by the Finnish communist prime minister Mauno Pekkala - against the instructions of president J. K. Paasikivi in November 1947.
However, since the beginning of perestroika and glasnost latest in the summer 1986, the European security system was in a process of revolutionary changes. The ideological division between East and West was rapidly disappearing. Of course without the protest movements of the ordinary citizens, and like in Poland, also trade unions, the division of Europe would not have disappeared. In late 1989, I wrote in my book After the Cold War: Europe’s New Political Architecture (Macmillan, London, 1991) which was out of print in January 1991, as follows:
The Eurasian security system has entered a stage beyond the Brezhnev doctrine. Each state now has the right to find its own way to socialism, or better, away from socialism. This development will, if not interrupted by the quirks of history, have a major impact on the geostrategic landscape of Europe in the 1990s.
My point concerning the reference to ”the quirks of history” was the fear that a return to Stalinism could take place in the Soviet Empire. It was believed that Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision about a Common European House was to dismantle the military confrontation ”alliance against alliance”, as he stated in his speech in the Council of Europe in the summer 1989. But the main goal of that vision was both to rescue socialism and the unity of the Soviet Empire. In history, the only way to rescue socialism has been by tanks, not by democracy. The return of stalinism almost took Place in August 1991.
Vladimir Bukovsky has documented in his Judgment in Moscow (The Ninth November Press, 2019) several meetings of Gorbachev with a number of Western political leaders in 1989-1991. The fear of the collapsing of Gorbachev’s reforms was imminent. Psychologically the Western leaders, not only socialists or social democrats, were captured by the fear that in case Gorbachev would not proceed successfully, it would have a negative impact on the socialist parties in the West but also it would cause an enormous security threat for Europe.
On October 17, 1989 former Chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt told Gorbachev in Moscow in his capacity as chairman of the Socialist International, that ”together with Scandinavian comrades we have exercised pressure in the Baltic states in order to pacify them”. ”In case needed, we are ready to say to them that do not play with fire. You should support the (Soviet) federation”. Brandt convinced Gorbachev that ”no end of socialism but its new beginning was on the horizon”.
The process towards independence was activated by an independence declaration of Lithuania signed by all members of the Supreme Council led by Sajudis on March 11, 1990. It was the first time that an occupied state declared independence from the dissolving Soviet Union. Gorbachev called the Act of Independence illegal and the USSR demanded revocation of the Act and began applying sanctions against Lithuania, including an economic blockade. However, the process was not to be stopped anymore. On May 31, 1990, the Supreme Soviet of Moldavian SSR voted to recognize the Restoration of the Independence of Lithuania although Moldavia was still part of the Soviet Empire.
Based on the available documents, President Mauno Koivisto formulated Finland’s approach to the events in the Baltic states in February, 1990. In a meeting with Foreign Minister Pertti Paasio, Koivisto emphasised a cautious approach, as described in his memoirs. He criticised a Swedish consul who in Leningrad had encouraged the Estonians to work actively for independence, ”because Moscow will accept independence without any major problems”, as consul stated. Koivisto writes that the Swedish consul, whose comments he read in a memorandum, ”must have misunderstood the situation”. However, the Swedish consul was on the right track.
During his two terms as president from 1982 to 1994, the foreign policy line of Finland was decided by President Mauno Koivisto (Social Democrats). He used to say that Finland’s foreign policy in essence was about our relations with the Soviet Union. However, Kalevi Sorsa, a former Chairman of the Social Democrats, Foreign and Prime minister, was a grey eminence with special relationship with the Soviet Union. He was the speaker of parliament from 1989 to 1991 and was considered a leading successor of Koivisto in the presidential election of 1994. As foreign minister, Sorsa stated in 1988 that the the Baltic issue is a Soviet domestic issue.
I think that was also Koivisto’s view. It became clear in August 1990 when he met Arnold Rüütel, who had been elected the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Estonia earlier in March. Koivisto was almost angry when Rüütel insisted the Estonian right to independence without approval of Moscow. Koivisto lectured about history and said that it is better to have friends in the nearest vicinity and enemies far away. At the end of the lecture Koivisto stated that the Soviet Union is an important and good neighbour for Finland. In other words: Rüütel did not get Finland’s direct support to its efforts to gain independence without negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev.
On September 8, 1990 President George H. W. Bush met the Finnish president Mauno Koivisto in Helsinki. I have excerpts from the declassified confidential US memorandum, and I quote:
President Koivisto: Discussions with the BaIts have not yet really started.
The President [George H. W. Bush]: They look resigned to working it out - I was worried for a while about bloodshed.
President Koivisto: There are problems of minorities. Riga is very dependent on raw material from Russia - what they produce can be sold only to Russia. The northeast corner of Estonia is Russian - they want their independence.
I was travelling in conferences in different cities of Europe as head of unit of research and planning of the Foreign Ministry in 1990 and early 1991. In September 1990, in Italy Galina Starovoitova, a ministerial advisor to Boris Yeltsin, President of Russia, told me that Yeltsin’s plan is to get rid of all territories occupied by force. She ensured that even the former Finnish Karelia was to be returned and if the Baltic states should become independent. I remember this conversation very well. The months from the autumn 1990 to August 1991 constituted the most critical period concerning the developments in the Soviet Union and in the Baltic states. In November 1990, during the OSCE meeting in Paris, Gorbachev appealed Koivisto during a hastily convened face-to-face meeting in the conference hall which has been described by Koivisto in his memoirs. Koivisto states that it was obvious - after talk with Gorbachev - that the Baltic states could not avoid violence by the Soviet army in the near future (”The Makers of History”, 1995, p. 389).
He reveals that alarming messages about forthcoming intervention of the Soviet troops were received through official
channels from Paris but also through the KGB Resident and his deputy in Helsinki during the first days of January 1991. In the media, Koivisto denied that he would have received such warnings. On January 10, Koivisto said in the that he is favourable to independence of the Baltic states but it should take place on the basis of the Constitution - in other words, in cooperation with Moscow.
On January 13, 1991 the events in Vilnius are a case in point. Five days later, similar violence occurred in Riga, leaving five dead. On January 22, Koivisto instructed the Foreign Ministry that ”Finland will not join the front against the USSR”. But beleaguered by economic and political breakdown throughout the USSR, Gorbachev had neither the will nor the means to prevent the Baltic republics from breaking away. On January 16, Koivisto blamed in an TV interview the radicals in Vilnius for the use of force of the Soviet troops. He also criticised the media for fabricating the stories with rest to the events in the Baltic states. Koivisto made a mistake which damaged his reputation not only in his own country but especially in the Baltic states
One can criticise Koivisto for the lack of understanding concerning the big picture of security developments in Europe and in the Soviet Union. The President of Finland does not have his own administration but a small staff. Koivisto was known to work quite independently. He criticised, in particular, journalism of the Finnish National Broadcast YLE, and tried to influence the news coverage from Moscow and even the Vilnius January events. My view is that he both supported Gorbachev and the maintenance of the Yalta order and stability. He had stated to Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in January 1987 that ”it is in the broader interest that the Soviet Union keeps order in Eastern Europe”. However, sometimes maintaining stability is the source of violence, as Condoleezza Rice has criticised her own policy of stability in Egypt. One could ask whether a more sympathetic approach by Koivisto to the Baltic demands for independence would have been a more constructive choice in the late 1990s and early 1991.
On February 11, 1991, the Icelandic parliament voted to confirm that Iceland’s 1922 recognition of Lithuanian independence was still in full effect, as it never formally recognized the Soviet Union's control over Lithuania, and that full diplomatic relations should be established as soon as possible. On March 11, Sajudis and the parliament of Lithuania elected Vytautas Landsbergis as President and the declaration of independence took place the following day. This resulted a deepening of conflict with Moscow. However, no country recognised Lithuanian independence. On March 27, the Finnish government issued a statement demanding dialogue. However, Koivisto had to recognise that Finland was more isolated among the Nordic countries with respect to the Baltic states.
President (Chairman of the Supreme Council) Arnold Rüütel of Estonia met President Georg W. H. Bush in Washington on March 29, 1991. Rüütel thanked for the American role to stop the use of force by the Soviet Union in the Baltic states but the situation remained difficult for Gorbachev’s weakening position and the way forward was linked now to Boris Yeltsin. I quote:
President Rüütel: We have an agreement with Russia, and in that agreement there is a clause supporting full sovereignty for Estonia. When Yeltsin talked to me, he said that he personally is in favour of freedom for the Baltic states, but that it is difficult finding support for that idea. When I last met with Gorbachev at the end of January, he was almost silent on Baltic independence. And that, despite the fact that I argued with him that after we define our status, we could improve our economy, which would benefit the Soviet Union as a whole, and not only the Baltics.
President Bush insists that a negotiated path could be possible but Rüütel denies it as being too complicated. Bush takes up the situation in the Soviet Union. I quote:
But what will happen in the Soviet Union? None of us can predict what will occur. You· are in a position to know. What do you think will happen? Will Gorbachev remain in power? Or will Yeltsin come power? Are the Army and the KGB moving society to the right? Answer only if you are comfortable. It is simply very to get a feel for how things will work out.
President Rüütel: I am very pleased to respond. Broadly Soviet society breaks down into two camps: liberal and reactionary. In last meeting with Gorbachev at the end January he again said that he is on the side of democracy. Whatever he says, he is wavering, and gradually moving toward partycracy. This certainly has contributed to the relationship between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, although there are personal differences here as well. … Let the Baltic case be the test case for democracy in the USSR. It is important in responding to the forces of stagnation in the USSR that the rest of the world convey a clear view of their activities.
Bush concluded the meeting with a warning of Realpolitik: But because of our standing as a superpower, we must conduct ourselves so as not to encourage a totalitarian takeover. I'm listening to your words. But the situation is such that we don't want to inadvertently push the military and the KGB to move against the center. We want independence, democracy, and a free market. We don't want to inadvertently push for a military takeover.
At the end of the meeting of 45 minutes, Bush told Rüütel that he has encouraged Gorbachev to support independence of the Baltic states. Gorbachev promised independence to the Baltic states but ”it would take years” when meeting the British Prime Minister John Major in Moscow in March. Later on, Bush announced publicly that if the Soviet Union were to use armed force against Lithuania (and Latvia as well as Estonia), the U.S. would react accordingly. His verbal threat was never tested. Kalevi Sorsa, who was a member of the board of the Bank of Finland, tried to organise a visit of a newly elected vice-president of the USSR Gennadi Janajev to pay a visit to Finland in April, as Koivisto writes in his memoirs. Sorsa had met Vitali Shaposnikov, a high official of the Soviet Communist Party, who had conveyed the idea about Janajev’s possible visit to Sorsa. Shaposnikov was worried about Boris Yeltsin who was planning to visit Finland. This proposal of Sorsa was interesting taking into account his status as a confidential collaborator of the KGB, which position was revaled by the Soviet archives in 1993. Did Sorsa have special information about the plans of Janajev in April?
In June, the Soviet Union ended the economic sanctions against Lithuania after the decision of the Lithuanian government to freeze the declaration of independence for 100 days. Koivisto met both Gorbatchev and Yeltsin in late June in Moscow. Gorbachev explained that ”we have proposed a divorce process to the Baltic states”. Otherwise the presidents discussed the economic problems and bilateral issues in a business as usual spirit. Koivisto did not get any indication about the ongoing power struggle inside the Soviet Communist Party.
On Monday August 19, a coup of Stalinists led by Janajev took place in Moscow and some regiments of the army joined. In Tallinn, the Soviet troops tried to occupy the TV station but failed. The coup was over on Wednesday. Helsingin Sanomat had been quick to publish a leading article almost welcoming the coup because ”stability in the Soviet Union has always been good for Finnish-Soviet relations”. President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin emerged from the crisis as a new leader of the collapsing state. His action triggered off the recognition process of independence of the Baltic states.
After the failed coup, Koivisto held a press meeting on August 22. He stated cautiously that the events in Moscow permit the Baltic states to strengthen their autonomy and to improve conditions to gain full independence in the longer term. Koivisto’s statement was almost an understatement. He also reflected loudly the ”pains experienced inside the Soviet army during the coup”. Iceland recognised independence of Estonia as Koivisto was holding his press meeting. Further he writes in his memoirs that the Finnish foreign policy line with respect to the Baltic politics was close to the line of the United States. ”Our goal was to maintain good relations both with Moscow and the Baltic states”.
This comment is obscure. The documents show that Koivisto’s priority was stability and reforms of socialism in the Soviet Union, not independece of the the Baltic states. Koivisto had two problems. First, he was a convicted socialist who supported Gorbachev in his efforts to rescue socialism. In case socialism failed in the socialist camp, it would cause a major setback to the socialists in the West, as Vladimir Bukovsky has revealed. Second, Koivisto had been advocating the Soviet order in Eastern Europe, in other words the Yalta order, for security reasons. He had not been keen to listen to the voices of the ordinary citizens. Of course he was not alone among the Western leaders.
May I say a few words about the recognition process in the Foreign Ministry after the collapse of the coup. As the director of the Western countries in the political department, I had been working with advisor to Prime Minister Esko Aho, Olli Rehn, to analyse the developments. I had had consultations in Stockholm on Monday and was back in the Ministry in the morning of Wednesday 21st. Estonia had declared independence on Tuesday and Latvia on Wednesday. Rehn requested prime minister Aho to fly to Helsinki as soon as possible on Saturday 24th.
We prepared a study in the political department with ambassador Markku Reimaa and found documents which revealed the fact that Finland had never recognised de jure the occupation of the Soviet Union of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In other words, Finland needed to refresh the diplomatic relations established with the Baltic states in 1920. On Sunday August 25th, Prime Minister Aho, not president Koivisto made an announcement about the recognition after the meeting of the government outside the palace of the president. President of the Russian federation Boris Yeltsin had recognised independence of the Baltic states day before. Symbolically, Prime Minister also seized the opportunity to strengthen its role as leader of foreign policy of Finland. Finally, on September 6, 1991 the Baltic states were recognized by the Soviet Union. Yet the conflict between the Baltic states and the Soviet Union and later on with the Russian Federation was not over in the autumn 1991. The Soviet troops stayed in the Baltic states. Prime Minister Aho met with President George H. W. Bush at the White House on May 13, 1992.
Secretary Baker: We're hearing suggestions from the Baltics that they will block CSCE consensus if they don't get cooperation on getting the Russian troops out of their states. This issue is not really for CSCE - it's not the way CSCE has functioned in the past. I think we need to find a way to work together particularly since the Baltics have not been as
forthcoming with respect to CSCE principles. This is not an issue we want to come up in Helsinki.
Prime Minister Aho: We are also worried about this issue. They have threatened not to sign the agreement.
The President [George H. W. Bush]: All three?
Prime Minister Aho: Yes. Your contacts with them are very important.
The meeting in Helsinki between the Baltic presidents Arnold Rüütel, Anatolijs Gorbunovs, Vytautas Landsbergis and the US president Bush on July 10, 1992 was important for the solution to get the Russian troops to leave the Baltic territories. Landsbergis was worried that Russia planned to resist the withdrawal. Ambassador Lennart Meri took up ”a new Brezhnev doctrine” that ”Russia has duty to protect all Russians by military means”. The removal of the troops had taken too long time and it was remembered. No wonder that the Baltic states joined Nato in 2004.
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"The more you understand the world, the higher your chance of shaping it".
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Valtiotieteen tohtori, suurlähettiläs, tasavallan presidentin entinen neuvonantaja, professori ja kirjailija.
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