In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, the newly elected general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, introduced two concepts to his country and its satellite states that would fundamentally change the course of human history: glasnost and perestroika.
Glasnost, which literally means “openness,” allowed the citizens of the Soviet Union and its satellite states greater freedom of expression. Perestroika was about restructuring the Soviet economy, shifting from rigid, centralized state planning to a more flexible approach to combat chronic shortages of consumer goods.
These two reforms, coupled with struggles between moderate and hard-line Communists within the Politburo, the economic strain of the war in Afghanistan, the renewal of the arms race with the West, and the revolutions that swept through the satellite states in 1989, furthered the calls for secession from the Soviet Union by the three Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
The desire for independence from the Soviet Union had deep roots, stretching back to their annexation in 1940 per the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, signed in August 1939 by Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, provided for the three Baltic states and the eastern third of Poland to fall under a Soviet sphere of influence in exchange for the Soviet Union’s neutrality upon the German invasion of western Poland.
Following the annexations, tens of thousands of Balts were deported from their homelands by Soviet authorities and shipped eastward, a process repeated in the late 1940s. The aim of the wide-sweeping deportations was to remove those most likely to resist Soviet occupation and communism.
From the early 1950s until the mid-1980s, protests against Soviet control were limited and brutally crushed by government forces. However the freedom promised by Gorbachev’s reforms led, by 1987, to popular demonstrations in major cities such as Tallinn (Estonia), Riga (Latvia), and Vilnius (Lithuania) against Soviet rule. In 1988, these spurred the establishment of popular nationalist organizations in Estonia (April), Lithuania (June), and Latvia (October).
The first official cracks in the forced relationship between the Baltic states and the Soviet Union began to appear in late 1988 when the Estonian Supreme Soviet declared Estonia’s sovereignty. This proclamation was quickly followed by similar declarations by its counterparts in Lithuania and Latvia in May 1989. On August 23, 1989, the Balts demanded independence from Soviet control by forming a continuous human chain of more than 2 million people, 370 miles long, that linked their capital cities.
When the Soviet Union responded with force to demonstrations in Vilnius and Riga in January 1991, the response of Baltic citizens was swift and decisive. Between February and March of 1991 all three states held referenda regarding independence. In contrast, referenda held by the Soviets testing the willingness to continue the union were predominantly boycotted by the Baltic population.
In August 1991, all three Baltic states officially declared their independence, received external recognition of such, and were admitted by the United Nations as independent nations. On September 6, 1991, in the aftermath of the failed hardline coup attempt to replace Gorbachev in August, the Soviet Union recognized the three Baltic states.
Having successfully won their independence, each of the Baltic states then had multiple issues to address: politically, the formation of new governments, the foundation of political parties, and the drafting of constitutions; economically, restoring private property, releasing state control of industrial development and collectivization of farms, transitioning to an independent currency, and securing a solid and independent economic base; and socially, restructuring the school system and curriculum, restoring traditional institutions, including churches, and dealing with issues of citizenship and ethnicity. The Baltic states were more difficult given that they were literally controlled by Moscow. They lacked independent institutions from which they could begin to build.
The Estonians officially adopted their new constitution by referendum on June 28, 1992. This was soon followed by elections for their parliament, the Riigikogu, in September, which brought a center-right coalition into power, led by the Fatherland Party (Isamaa). Elections for Lithuania’s parliament, the Seimas, occurred in October 1992 and resulted in a majority victory for the Lithuanian Democrat Labor Party.
The same month a new Lithuanian constitution, establishing a democratic republic, was adopted by popular referendum and endorsed by the newly elected parliament. Latvians held the first national elections for their parliament, the Saeima, in June of 1993, leading to the victory of the centrist party, Latvia’s Way (Latvijas Cels), at the polls.
The question of citizenship for non-Balts continued to be a major point of contention. In 1989 Lithuania had the smallest percentage of Russians among its population at 9.4 percent; therefore it chose a more inclusive approach to citizenship. However Latvia’s Russian minority was 34 percent of its overall population and Estonia’s Russian population made up approximately 30 percent.
In November 1991 Estonia was the first Baltic state to establish specific divisions between citizens, as native Estonians and predominantly Russian immigrants who would have to undergo a process of naturalization before they were granted citizenship. Initially, Latvia passed a strict citizenship bill in 1994, establishing a quota of 2,000 maximum naturalizations per year. This quota provision was eliminated.
Following freedom from Soviet rule, economic productivity fell dramatically across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The new governments struggled to transition from state-controlled, command economies to market capitalism. Industrial production in Estonia fell by more than 50 percent in 1992, whereas in Latvia it fell by 33 percent, and in Lithuania by about 40 percent. The vast majority of workers maintained employment, indicating that worker productivity fell sharply as well.
Given the backward nature of factories, transportation systems, and communication networks due to the impoverished Soviet system as a whole, the Baltic nations grappled with reforming their economies and developing markets in the West.
They were also at a disadvantage in terms of learning basic capitalist business techniques such as marketing, packaging, and design. The Balts needed to retool not only their machinery but their economic mentality as well. Another psychological barrier to embracing capitalism was the long-lasting legacy of bitterness toward those who profited and operated on the black market under the communist system.
Often those who privatized larger businesses first were the Soviet managers of these plants and factories, continuing their pattern of economic exploitation. Privatization on the smaller scale occurred with less corruption.
Within the agricultural sector, the transition from collectivized farms to privatization was extremely difficult. Two additional negative elements were the lack of an adequate supply of farm machinery and the problems generated by a firm commitment to returning lands to those from whom they were taken during the process of collectivization.
In addition, during 1992 a severe drought wreaked havoc on both food production and the stability of the livestock population. Disaster was averted only through the infusion of large amounts of Western aid. But the prices of native agricultural products rose sharply, resulting in stronger competition with food imports from the West.
This led farmers to lobby their governments to institute protective tariffs for native-grown products, a tactic that would then harm the drive to increase exports of Baltic products to Western markets, which was connected to their desire to be integrated into Western economic entities.
Estonia was the first of the three Baltic States to reestablish an independent currency, the kroon, in June of 1992, and it led the charge for economic reform. Latvia soon followed with limited circulation of the lat in March of 1993, and Lithuania unveiled the litas in June of 1993. Although an important symbolic step on the path to complete autonomy, the emergence of independent currencies also emphasized some of the weaknesses within the economic structure.
Another source of instability was the lack of hard currency held by the respective governments. This weakness was remedied in part by the restoration of gold reserves by Western nations; these reserves had been sent west in 1940 as the Soviet occupation had begun. By 1993 Estonia and Lithuania gained membership in the Council of Europe; Latvia soon followed suit in 1995. By late 1995 all three had applied to join the European Union; by March 2004 all three had officially joined.
Another important means of securing full independence from the Soviet Union was the development of national militaries and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Baltic soil. These national militaries began as all-volunteer forces and were hampered by a lack of well-trained Balts, given that few Balts had wanted to become officers in the Soviet military.
In addition, during the transition period, government funds for training and equipping soldiers and for securing weaponry were scarce. Russian forces withdrew from Lithuania in August 1993; in August 1994 they withdrew from both Latvia and Estonia. All three Baltic states joined NATO in 2004.