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The editors of BALTIC STUDIES - a periodical on international affairs and politics - asked me to review an article by a Danish scholar on the policy of the Danish government (and major parties) on the Baltic nations´ struggle for their restored independence. My review was published on the Magazine´s web side. - JBH

This article is not so much about Danish support for the Baltic struggle for independence; rather it is about domestic politics – electoral maneuvers between the major parties on how they could be seen to express „small state sympathy“, without risking the wrath of the Soviet Union or the displeasure of powerful allies. It is therefore of interest, mainly for those who want to know what happened behind the scenes in Danish politics. For those who want to understand the risks and potential dangers for the Baltic nations of seceeding from the Soviet Union, it is hardly of any interest.

Unlike the nations of Central and Eastern Europe which retained their nominal sovereignty, the Baltic states were annexed into the Soviet Union, following up on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and its secret protocols. Under Mr. Gorbachev the Soviet leadership seemed to be ready not to apply force to prevent the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe and the unification of Germany, in return for major disarmament agreements and the „peace dividend“ involved. But when it came to the break-up of the Soviet Union itself – there Mr. Gorbachev set the limit. And when it became evident that his halfhearted attempts at reform inside the Soviet Union had failed , he had only one major aim left for staying in power: to keep the Soviet Union together – under a new constitution – at all cost. Failing that, he would lose his grip on power.

The leaders of the West – Mr. Bush sr. and Chancellor Kohl in particular – had unwisely placed all their bets on Gorbachev remaining in power. Admittedly, there was a lot at stake: Ending of the Cold War, nuclear and conventional disarmament, reduction in military postures and removal of occupation forces in Eastern Europe, the peaceful reunification of Germany and unified Germany remaining in NATO. All of this, according to the conventional wisdom in the West, depended on Mr. Gorbachev remaining in power. Else, the hardliners would presumably come back and put all of those benefits at risk. If keeping the Soviet Union together was the precondition for Mr. Gorbachev to remain in power, so be it. That is how Western policy, vis a vis the Soviet Union, ended in the absurdity of wanting to keep the Soviet Union together, in the name of stability.

That is why president Bush sr. gave his infamous „chicken speech“ in Kiev in February 1990, appealing to the Ukrainians „not to succumb to extreme nationalism“ but to keep the Soviet Union together – all in the name of stability. This is why Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterand jointly wrote a letter to President Landsbergis of Lithuania, pleading with him not to implement Lithuania´s declaration of independence, but to accept negotiations with the Soviet Union without preconditions. And this is why there was de facto an unbridgable gap between Western rethoric in support of democracy and national self-determination on the one hand, and the realpolitik of keeping the Soviet Union together as a partner for ending the Cold War, on the other.

This is why Western support for the restored independence of the Baltic nations was in reality lukewarm, to say the least, and in some cases even downright hostile. The leaders of the Baltic independence movements were treated in the West as unwelcome intruders or spoilers of the amiable big-power partnership, putting the peace process at risk. That is why the Danish foreign minister – who hosted a CSCE-sponsored conference on ending the Cold War in Copenhagen in June 1990 – turned away the foreign ministers of the three Baltic countries, on the insistence of the Soviet delegation. The representatives of those newly established democracies were not even allowed to put their case at a conference on human rights. Sometimes action speaks louder than words.

With the failed coup d´état in Moscow in August ´91; with the ascendancy to power of Boris Yeltsin in Russia; with Mr. Gorbachev´s fading away and the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 – Western policy, vis a vis the Soviet Union and the Baltic states, unravelled lika a house of cards. It was based on wishful thinking about Mr. Gorbachev´s ability to push through political and ecenomic reforms within the Soviet Union. It proved how unwise it is to base policy on the political fate of one single individual. And the course of events – specially the break-up of the Soviet Union – automatically solved the dilemna of Western leaders, who had witheld support for restored independence for the Baltic nations in the name of keeping Gorbachev in power and thus keep the peace-process alive. This policy, obviously, was a failure.

January 1991 was a turning point for the Baltic nations´ struggle to restore independence. Then it had been decided in the Kremlin that the imminent secession of the Baltic states from the Soviet Union could not be tolerated any more. The plan was to create incidents on the ground to justify military intervention in the name of protecting national (Russian) minorities and to restore law and order. Ultimately, Baltic governments and parliaments were to be removed and emergency rule from Moscow imposed.

In the light of contemporary events in Ukraine, this sounds familiar. There were Soviet garrisons in all three countries. Those troups were mobilized to occupy crucial sites such as ministries and media centers. In Vilnius this lead to the TV-Tower massacre. In Riga special troups went on a shooting rampage and in Tallinn the tanks started rolling. But at the last moment the Soviets chickened out, facing the prospect of a massive bloodbath. They stepped back from the brink at the last moment. From that moment on the Baltic independence movements had won. And since the Soviets had lost their appetite for resorting to violence – they had lost. It was only a question of time. The ultimate moment came in August ´91.

Faced with the imminent crack-down by Soviet forces in early January ´91, President Landsbergis appealed to foreign ministers of neighbouring countries (especially NATO countries) to come to Vilnius to demonstrate their solidarity. Landsbergis thought that the presence of NATO ministers mattered. This was the Baltic nation´s hour of peril. By resorting to force, the Soviet leadership challenged the West, put their policy to the test. Only one foreign minister of a NATO country responded and arrived on the scene to demonstrate his solidarity. That was the Icelandic one. Was Iceland´s action somehow riskfree? Far from it. Next to Finland, Iceland was more dependent on Soviet trade than any other West-European country, including oil and gas, the life-blood of any economy. The Soviets showed their displeasure by recalling their ambassador from Reykjavík and threatened trade-sanctions. But the Icelandic government was not to be intimidated. Iceland took a calculated risk and got away with it.

After the failed coup d´état in Moscow in August ´91, the Icelandic foreign minister used that window of opportunity – while there was power vacuum in Moscow and political confusion at the highest levels – to issue invitations to the Baltic foreign ministers to visit Reykjavík, where formal recognition of the restored independence of the Baltic states was implemented and confirmed. This was done in the hope that others would follow suit, so that the process would become irreversible. This turned out to be right.

By this time the old refrain that nothing should be said or done that could undermine Gorbachev, lest it endanger the peace-process, was no longer valid. Mr. Gorbachev was out of power and his policy of keeping the Soviet Union together under a new constitution, had been shipwrecked. The Soviet Union was in a process of dissolution. Thus, support for the restored independence of the Baltic states, which previously had been condemned as adventurism, had become risk-free. Then everybody could jump on the band-wagon. After Iceland´s initiative, that is what happened.

Looking back at the course of events during 1990-91, it seems obvious that the policy persued by Western leaders vis a vis the Soviet Union and the restoration of independence of the Baltic countries, was deeply flawed. This was an attempt to reconcile the incompatibles. You simply could not support Gorbachev´s policy of keeping the Soviet Union together, and at the same time welcome the secession of the Baltic nations from the Soviet Union. Those two aims were mutually exclusive. If you supported Gorbachev´s policy of maintaining the integrity of the Soviet Union as an irreplacable partner in ending the Cold War, you would have to pay the price of sacrificing the right of the three Baltic nations to leave the Soviet Union and restore their pre-war independence. This was de facto Western policy. If you actively supported the restoration of Baltic independence, you would have to challenge the illegal annexation of those countries into the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

Thus Western leaders were caught upon the horns of a dilemma, from which they could not extricate themselves. Their rescue came from an unexpected source. With their futile coup d´état in Moscow, the „hardliners“ deposed Gorbachev and paved the way for Yeltsin´s ascendancy to power. And as the authors of this article under review put it (p.22): „With the power of the Soviet Union broken and with Russia in support of Baltic independence, the risks to détente connected with that support largely dissappeared“. Ironically, it took some time for the Bush administration to adapt to a totally changed situation. The US became number 56 to recognize the Baltic states´ independence, a day after the Soviet Union!

When put to the test, for instance by the attempted Soviet crack-down in the Baltic capitals in January 1991 or in reacting to the coup de´état in Moscow in August same year, Danish policy seems to have been more retroactive rather than acitve. Ultimately, the different emphasis by the major parties were solved, not by their own action but by the course of events. This is why the article seems to be intended more for home consumption, rather than claiming any regional significance. As such, a narrative of 25 pages seems to be extravagant. The story could have been told in half that space.

Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson

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