Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 21
15 November 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
A Beginning, Not an End

Mel Huang

As nations throughout Europe celebrate the tenth anniversary of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, on the Baltic coast the event is looked at in a somewhat different light. At the time when Ossis and Wessis were embracing at the suddenly open Berlin Wall, the peoples of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania still remained locked behind the Soviet shackles. However, the collapse of the Wall was one of the most potent catalysts for the increase in activities of the Baltic national movements.

At the time the Wall came down, independence movements in the Baltic states were still developing but were picking up a runaway momentum - fuelled on by developments in the former Warsaw Pact countries, news of which filtered through the ever-present Soviet censor and propaganda machine. Estonian President Lennart Meri often joked that only Estonians, with their ability to pick up Finnish television broadcasts, knew that Lech Walesa had a moustache. Yet, from that point on, the peoples of the three countries began taking their fate into their own hands, and two years later, Moscow finally released the shackles.

What did the collapse mean?

The collapse of the Wall was a symbolic moment, both at the time and today - when it acts as a focal point in the recollection of the events of 1989. Head of the Congress of Estonia (Eesti Kongress, a representative body of Estonian citizens during the last years of Soviet occupation) and current Riigikogu Deputy Speaker Tunne Kelam had this to say in the daily Eesti Paevaleht on 9 November:

"The fall of the Berlin Wall was directly connected with the formation of the Estonian Citizen's Committee. The connection between Estonia's independence and the Berlin Wall's collapse became clear, as on both occasions, the deeds [arising from] from the consequences of the Second World War were undone. In Estonia, it marked the quiet disintegration of the Communist Party. On that day, I kept track of the events, above all by radio. It all showed that the Communist dictatorship no longer had any prospects in the world."

Others, even those formerly connected with the Communist Party, voiced a similar opinion. Former Chairman of the Estonian Supreme Soviet and current parliamentarian Arnold Ruutel said that the event "gave confidence" to Estonia's desire to restore its independence. Even the former Soviet premier of Estonia, Indrek Toome, suggested likewise in the same publication:

"At the time, in the hearts of individuals, the wall had already collapsed... In my opinion, the wall's collapse provided support, because [it encouraged] the right thing to develop in the right direction. In Estonia, it demonstrated to the implementers of perestroika, that soon we will again be independent."

The role of Gorbachev

Bringing up the role played by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev conjures up different feelings in the Baltics. With all the ten-year anniversary commemorative events, the world seems to have fallen into a relapse of what US political commentator Rush Limbaugh calls "Gorbasm." Today, as it did ten years ago, the world blindly showers full praise upon the former Soviet leader, assigning him unilateral credit for the collapse of Soviet hegemony. Though glasnost and perestroika opened the doors to the popular fronts in the Baltics, Gorbachev's image is forever tainted in this region by the bloody crackdowns which occurred during the run-up to the restoration of independence in the three countries.

The opinions of Gorbachev in this region vary from admiration to hatred, from lukewarm praise to outright accusation. Ojars Kalnins, the Latvian Ambassador to the United States, offered this opinion on Gorbachev to Central Europe Review:

"Gorbachev's perestroika opened a Pandora's box in what he thought was the Soviet Union, but was in fact a prison of captive nations. Gorbachev may have been the last 'Soviet man,' that is someone who had no national identity himself and thought that an artificial entity such as the USSR could reform itself. In effect, Gorbachev was an inadvertent liberator. He gave the nations of the Soviet empire an opportunity to break loose from their chains. That wasn't his intention, but that was the end result of his actions. I do think Gorbachev deserves credit for one thing - he kept the bloodshed to a minimum. I believe that the break-up of the USSR was inevitable. It was simply a matter of when and how. Gorbachev accelerated the process and was incapable of stopping it once it had started."

Another opinion offered to Central Europe Review came from Linas Kojelis, a former high-ranking official in the Reagan administration and current consultant in Lithuania:

"It wasn't perestroika that changed Lithuania; it was the end of fear. When it became clear that Moscow would not only not shoot or deport non-conformists but also wouldn't bother to beat them up or even arrest them, people began to feel empowerment. Gorbachev's role in shaping Moscow's new 'non-violent policy' (though, blood did flow in Lithuania during Gorbachev's rule both in Vilnius and Medininkai) is not clear yet. It may be that he was instrumental in formulating it, and for that he should be given credit. On the other hand, the KGB might simply have lost heart and run out of steam."

However, some are not as gracious as Kalnins and Kojelis. Some in Lithuania want to put Gorbachev on trial for the aforementioned bloody crackdowns in Vilnius and the Medininkai border region. The comparison and contrast made by the international media of Gorbachev and Egon Krenz, East Germany's last leader prior to November 1989, is poignant in that two leaders holding full responsibility for both crackdowns and openness have suffered such different fates: Gorbachev has taken centre-stage at the commemorative events; Krenz has lost an appeal against his conviction for his role in some of the East German border shootings which occurred throughout the years of Communist rule. In Gorbachev's case, there may never be enough known about his true connection to the various blood-shedding events to satisfy all.

Ambassador Kalnins offers an interesting look at historical irony:

"For Latvians, one could draw a parallel between Gorbachev and Lenin. Neither welcomed Latvian independence, but each, by bringing about the collapse of an empire, made that independence possible."

A symbolic watershed

While the commemorative events commenced in Berlin, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari held his own regional celebration in honour of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He was joined in the university town of Jyvaskyla by presidents Lennart Meri (Estonia), Vaira Vike-Freiberga (Latvia), Valdas Adamkus (Lithuania) and Aleksander Kwasniewski (Poland). At the conference, held in conjunction with the commemoration, all the leaders praised the collapse of the Berlin Wall as a symbolic watershed event for their own countries. In addition, the leaders stressed that a situation must not arise in which a new Cold War would be fostered, in which a new dividing wall in Europe would stand.

One of the true historic ironies is the fact that the participants in this celebration led such different lives during the era of Soviet hegemony. The meeting brought together a former resistance fighter against Soviet forces, a junior Communist minister and a one-time victim of Soviet deportations to Siberia. How times change...

Mel Huang, 11 November 1999



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