THE BALTIC ROAD TO FREEDOM: 1987-1991“BREAKING THE SILENCE” The issue of the Independence of the Baltic States on the International Agenda, 1987-1991

Fifteen years ago 35 Foreign Ministers of European States and North America gathered in Copenhagen to address the issue of human rights. The Conference was convened within the framework of the CSCE-process, as it was called in those days.

The issue of the Independence of the Baltic States on the International Agenda, 1987-1991
By Mr.Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs & External Trade of Iceland 1988 – 1995


At the time the political landscape of Europe was undergoing a tumultous change. The Berlin wall had come tumbling down. The Nations of Central and Eastern Europe had broken free. The reunification of Germany was underway. “Glasnost” and “Perestroika”, the political trade-mark of Mr. Gorbachev, had become catchwords for optimism about reform from within the Soviet Union. The President of the United States, Mr. Bush, sr. spoke in glowing terms about a “New World Order”, based on co-operation instead of confrontation.
What was in the brewing was an over-all resettlement between the two remaining superpowers of the consequences of the Second World War. The conventional wisdom was that nothing should be said or done by western leaders that could undermine the new partnership between the USA and the Soviet leadership under Mr. Gorbachev. Nothing should be said or done that would put at risk Mr. Gorbachev´s willingness to cooperate on the peaceful reunification of Germany, according to Chancellor Kohl and Foreign Minister Genscher.
In this context the emerging independence-movements in the Baltic States were received by the West as if they were awkward intruders into this amiable fraternity of superpowers. They were enwrapped in silence. Their leaders were told in hushed voices not to disturb the peace and urged to settle for a compromise with their colonial masters.
That is why, when the newly appointed foreign ministers of the three Baltic States arrived in Copenhagen for the CSCE Conference on human rights, they were denied access. They were not even allowed the right of self-expression – at a conference on human rights – , lest the Soviet representatives would boycott the Conference and throw the peace process into jeopardy.


When political expediency, or the mutual self-interest of the high and mighty of this world prevails in such a way over fundamental principles of international law and justice, it is time for small nations to try to give meaning and relevance to the concept of “solidarity of small nations”. That is why, when it was my turn to speak, I set aside my prepared text and tried to lend my voice to yours, which had been silenced. On the Fate of the Baltic nations I said i.e. the following:

“We cannot pretend that the problem of the Baltic States can be glossed over or forgotten, lest we endanger the peace process. The simple fact is: Human rights and the rights of nations are indivisible. These universal human values can not be handed out as privileges to be enjoyed by some of us, but denied to others.

The undisputed historical fact is that the Baltic nations were independent states, recognized as such by the international community. During the war they suffered the fate of military occupation and illegal annexation. The illegality of this act of war has been recognized by the Soviet Congress of Deputies”

From that moment onward I missed no opportunity to remind western leaders that there was no way that they could reach an over-all settlement with the Soviet Union on the unsolved consequences of the Second World War, without taking into account the fate of the Baltic nations. Restoration of their independence had to be a part of that comprehensive plan. That was a moral imperative that could not be hedged or glossed over in the interest of political expediency.


In every forum, where we had a platform and an audience, we insisted on reminding those who wished to forget; at the UN, within NATO, in the European Council and the European Parliament, at CSCE – conferences, in the Nordic Council, at Social-democratic party – leaders´ meetings, everywhere we kept the argument running.
There is an old saying that drops of water ultimately penetrate the stone. And slowly but surely, little by little, the drops began seeping into the stone, until the cracks in the surface began to be visible to all.
First there was polite silence. Then there were words of caution. Finally there was reluctant acceptance, that the issue could not be wished away by gloomy silence.
I wish in this context to pay tribute to my Danish colleague, Mr. Uffe-Elleman Jensen, who joined me early on in this effort and proved to be an effective champion for our cause, not least within the European Union, where I had no access.

I have no wish to exaggerate our influence. It was certainly not within our power to turn around the ship of NATO or change its course single-handedly. We were merely Foreign Ministers of small nations. But we could let our voice be heard and we had our vote. We were listened to respectfully. And we prepared the ground for the reaping of the harvest later, in the fullness of time.


January 1991 was a crucial time – a turning point. Then the oligarchs in the Kremlin, sensing that they were on the losing side of the Historical tide, made one desperate effort to remove the democratic governments and dissolve the parliaments in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn.
I remember vividly a telephone call in the middle of the night from President Landsbergis, saying in essence: “If you mean what you have been saying, come immediately to Vilnius to demonstrate personally your committment, in our hour of peril. The presence of a NATO Foreign Minister does matter”. -In response I immediately set off on a visit to the capitals of all three Baltic States.
I shall never be so old as to forget those days, in the squares and streets of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. There I witnessed nations unarmed and virtually alone, ready to defy any military might, in the name of human dignity, freedom and self-respect. It was a privilege to be allowed to be with you, during those unforgettable days.

Next it was the turn of those, who in January 1991 wanted to drown your newborn independence in blood, to meet their Day of Reckoning, in the hot streets of Moscow in August of that year. That was their beginning of the end; but the end of the beginning of the restoration of your independence.

It is not, perhaps, entirely out of place, here and now, for me to recount the sequence of events, those fateful days of August 19th to August 25th.

That scene began on the barricades in the streets in Moscow and ended in a modest ceremony in Höfði-House in Reykjavík, – where the four of us, the Foreign Ministers Meri, Jurkans, Saudargas and myself, signed the relevant documents, confirming the unqualified restoration of diplomatic relations between Iceland and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

  • The attempted coup d´etat in Moscow began on August 19th.
  • Two days later a North Atlantic Ministerial meeting was held in Brussels. The meeting was held in the shadow of the attempted coup . When the proceedings started there was still some measure of uncertainty as to the question of success or failure of the coup. During an interval Secretary General, Manfred Woerner, was requested to try to reach direct contact with Boris Yeltsin in Moscow and report back to the meeting. After less than half an hour the Secretary General returned with the following message from Yeltsin: The coup had failed. Mr. Yeltsin and the democratic forces were by now firmly in control. Yeltsin urged the NATO Foreign Ministers to do everything in their power to support the democratic forces that were now in control of the situation.
  • After the interval it was my turn for an intervention. Again I set aside my prepared text and appealed directly to my colleagues to give serious consideration to the totally changed situation. I referred to what I had been saying on so many previous occasions: That there was no way that the West could reach an overall settlement with the Soviet Union on the unsolved consequences of the Second World War, without taking into account the Baltic issue. Reunification of Germany and the restoration of independence and freedom to the Central and East – European countries was already achieved. What remained to be done was to reach a settlement on the restoration of the independence of the Baltic Nations. They were for more than half a Century the victims of the Second World War. They had suffered a military invasion, occupation and annexation into the Soviet Empire, as a direct consequence of the MOLOTOV-RIBBENTROP PACT, which now had been declared null and void. The Baltic Nations had borne the full brunt of Soviet Imperial suppression, through repeated deportations and application of a Russification policy. All this was in flagrant breach of the basic principles of international law and the code of conduct in interstate relations, that now was in the process of being negotiated. The West therefore had an inescapable, moral obligation to insist on the restoration of justice for these nations, as well as other Central and East-European Nations.
  • Until now we had often heard the argument that nothing should be done to undermine President Gorbachev and his supposedly “reformist regime”, lest it would play into the hands of hardliners who were making ready to take over and return to the old ways. Now this argument could no longer apply. The hardliners had already tried their hand and failed. President Gorbachev, if he ever was correctly to be seen as the leader of the democratic forces, had failed. The new leader was Boris Yeltsin. He had already, as President of the Russian Parliament, declared his support for Baltic independence and appealed to Russian soldiers not to use force against the unarmed population in the Baltic countries. The Congress of Peoples´ Deputies of the Soviet Union had already declared the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact null and void.
  • Politically speaking it was now imperative to act positively towards Yeltsin´s appeal for support for the democratic forces. The democratic forces were nowhere as strong as in the Baltic States. The restoration of Baltic independence was therefore a powerful impetus to the restoration of independence to other states, that had been incorporated by force into the Soviet Empire. In Politics timing is everything. The time to act was now.


According to my memory the response to my speech in the N-Atlantic Council was lukewarm, to say the least.
On my return home from this meeting I “occupied” the Icelandic Embassy in Copenhagen. For many hours and late into the night I was in telephone contact to Reykjavík and to the capitals of the Baltic States. My message was simple: The time to act is now. I issued formal invitations to the foreign ministers of the Baltic States to come to Reykjavík as soon as possible. We would then and there formally sign all the relevant documents restoring full diplomatic relations between Iceland and the Baltic States and appoint ambassadors and general consuls on a mutual basis. This would soon, I argued, be followed up by others. This was a situation when we had to act incisively for the sequence of events to gather momentum irreversibly.
I reached Meri in Helsinki and Jurkans in Copenhagen, but Saudargas I could not track down anywhere, since he was abroad. Finally I reached President Landsbergis, who authorized the decision.
The Foreign Ministers, Meri, Jurkans and Saudargas, arrived in Reykjavík on August 25th. On August 26th in Höfði-House, the same building that had housed the Reagan-Gorbachev summit-meeting in Reykjavík in 1986, five years earlier, the four of us signed the relevant documents and made brief statements on the significance of what was being done. Almost immediately the invitations started to pour in for the three Foreign Ministers to please visit European capitals to repeat what had happened in Reykjavík. The process had become irreversible.

That was “mission accomplished”.
The rest is history.

Conference on the history of Baltic freedom
Organised by ministries, universities etc.
Riga, March 4 – 5, 2005