Anthony Wilson-Smith October 24 1988



Anthony Wilson-Smith October 24 1988




In the eight years since she first joined Komsomol, the youth wing of the Comrnunist party, 23-year-old Inguna Bekere had never considered herself polit-

ically oriented. “Joining the party is something I was simply expected to do,” said Bekere, a university student in Riga, the capital city of the Soviet Baltic republic of Latvia. But two months ago, Bekere joined another group that she says has transformed her life: she became a volunteer worker with the Latvia Popular Front, a political movement pressing for the restoration of many powers that Latvia held as an independent republic before it was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940. Two weeks ago, Bekere was one of over 100,000 people who attended a Popular Front demonstration in support of such increased autonomy. “For the first time in my life,” declared Bekere, “I feel real hope for Latvia.” But she added, “I

am very worried about life here if we fail.” Throughout the three Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, there is a palpable mix of excitement and apprehension. In Lithuania and Estonia, recent gatherings by

similar autonomy-seeking groups have drawn enormous crowds and have been covered live on radio and television, awakening powerful nationalist sentiments. In each case, participants have campaigned for radical policy changes, including the creation of their own currency and vastly increased control over the economy, language, immigration and cultural matters. So far, Soviet authorities have sanctioned popular front requests in the three republics, claiming that they conform with leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s twin policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform). But Soviet officials also caution that each of the three movements has to work with—not against—the Communist party. Declared Janis Vagris, first secretary of the Communist party of Latvia: “To be effective, the Popular Front must remain a movement. There is no reason or need for an opposition political party.”

Despite public gestures of support, Soviet officials have reason to be nervous about the growth of nationalist feelings in the Baltic region. Since a 1939 agreement between Berlin and Moscow, under which Nazi Germany allowed the Soviet Union to annex the three republics in return for signing a nonaggression treaty, anti-Soviet feeling has been widespread. While official school history books disparagingly describe the years from 1920 to 1940—when the Baltics were independent—as “the bourgeois period,” many residents look back on that time with evident longing. In addition, Moscow-based ambassadors from Western countries refuse to visit the three republics because Western countries do not formally recognize the Soviet Union’s control over the region. And when Russian-speaking Westerners do visit, local residents—as a matter of pride—often prefer to speak to them in Latvian through English interpreters, even though most residents speak Russian.

Now, under Gorbachev’s glasnost policy, some young Baltic residents are publicly expressing beliefs that older generations only discussed privately. “We are living in an occupied country,” said Titus Vaults, a 28year-old law student in Riga. “The only proper solution is for the Russians to leave and let us have our country back.”

Those emotions are fuelled by widespread fears that the three republics are losing their distinctive identities. Over the years, a combination of outward migration to the West and an influx of ethnic Russians to the comparatively affluent region have increased resistance to further assimilation. The situation

is most pronounced in Latvia, where ethnic Latvians now account for slightly more than 50 per cent of the population of 2.6 million, while ethnic Russians make up about 30 per cent. Last year, 18,000 Soviets, most of them Russian, moved to Latvia. In Estonia, about 900,000 of the 1.5 million residents are native Estonians, while about 80 per cent of Lithuania’s population is Lithuanian.

Those changes have led to rising resentment of foreigners. At the Latvia Popular Front rally in Riga, one speaker, Eduards Berklus, who works with a splinter organization called the Popular Independence Front, was given a huge ovation when he declared, “Latvia must be for Latvians only, and anybody who is not one of us must leave.” Even more moderate Latvians acknowledge concerns over assimilation. Said Janus Peters, a revered Latvian poet: “We must be masters of our own land while there are still enough of us remaining here to do so.”

Many Latvians, including those who support the Communist party, point out profound differences in lifestyle between the Baltic republics and the rest of the Soviet Union. All three republics, with their Western-style architecture and the blond, Nordic appearance of many of their people, give the region the reputation of being the Soviet Union’s “window on the West.” Many residents seem to be acutely aware of—and seem to cultivate—such differences. In Tallinn, Estonia, some people have erected television antennas that allow them to receive programs from Finland—including a dubbedFinnish version of the popular American series Dallas. In Riga, style-conscious young

people pay an average of 150 rubles, or about $300, on the black market for fashionable stone-washed denim jeans—and pay more if the jeans bear an American label. At the Mozums co-operative restaurant in downtown Riga, students sometimes lace their conversations with bits of American slang while listening to music by such current and former rock music favorites as the group Styx and singer Stevie Wonder.

English-language Western books, such as the works of American author Joyce Carol Oates, are available in paperback for prices beginning at about 20 rubles ($40) secondhand. Said Vaults: “We are Latvians, not Soviets. To become like a Western country is a dream of many people.”

For young and old residents alike, however, dreams are tempered by the reality of deepening food and housing shortages. As in

much of the Soviet Union, such staples as meat, sugar and many fresh vegetables are in short supply. Local officials in Riga say that even with tight controls on immigration to the city, housing could not be available for all the people who want it until the year 2000. At Latvia State University, students in their final year of studies gloomily contemplate a future in which they have little control over where they will work or live. With few jobs or apartments available in the city, many say that they will have to leave Riga for less appealing jobs in more primitive parts of the

country—unless they happen to be part of a married couple, who get priority on apartments. Said Gunita Ozolina, 21, who is studying to be a teacher: “Perhaps I can meet someone who will marry me before I finish school so I can stay here. Otherwise, I do not know what I will do.”

That sense of despair is also apparent when residents discuss Latvia’s devastated environment. Last summer, uncontrolled emissions from cellulose plants and other factories forced officials to close miles of beach near Riga. Moreover, 132 million gallons of untreated sewage from Riga empty daily into the Baltic Sea. Residents blame many of their environmental problems on indifferent central planning in Moscow, where the factories were designed and approved without local consultation. Said the poet Peters: “Our beautiful, beautiful homeland is in danger of disappearing under garbage.”

Faced with those difficulties, Baltic reformers have eagerly seized on Gorbachev's statements over the past year in favor of decentralizing the Soviet economy and returning economic decision-making power to individual regions. Since then, popular front leaders in all three republics have advanced a series of specific requests that would, over time, give each area almost complete control over its economy. At the meeting in Riga two weeks ago, more than 1,000 Popular Front delegates dis-

cussed proposals ranging from creation of a separate monetary system to the right to make decisions relating to trade with countries in the West.

The drive for greater powers has extended even further—to a desire for formal, separate recognition in international affairs. In all three republics, popular front supporters are promoting resolutions that call for the right to join such international bodies as the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee. In each republic, supporters also encourage the use of traditional flags and anthems that date to the pre-Soviet days of Baltic independence. In fact, last August, Estonia unfurled its flag officially for the first time since 1940, and two weeks ago, Latvia and Lithuania followed suit.

Organized religion is also undergoing a strong revival. That is partly because the Kremlin, which actively discouraged religious practices for years, is now taking a more relaxed approach toward believers. At Latvia State University, many students are lobbying to reduce a course in atheist thought from mandatory to optional status. “It is stupid to force atheism on anyone,” said student Gunita Ozolina, who described herself as an atheist. “It just makes me feel badly for my fellow students who are religious.” At the same time, the Lutheran Church, the dominant reli-

gion in Latvia, has been rejuvenated. At the Popular Front meeting in Riga, Rubens Furis, a young Lutheran minister, declared: “We must welcome spirituality and the word of God back into our lives. It has been missing from many of us here for too long.”

Some popular front leaders plainly fear that the renaissance of faith and hope could become a problem in itself. If nationalist rhetoric becomes too pronounced, they say, it will enable Kremlin conservatives to force Gorbachev to impose restraint. Because of that, moderate leaders of the movement privately urge more radical colleagues to tone down their statements and work within Gorbachev’s reform program. Mauriks Vulfsons, a political commentator on Latvian television, said, “For perhaps the first time in my life, I

want to believe in Moscow.” But in private, other members are more defiant. “We will speak publicly as Moscow wants us to,” said one delegate at the Riga conference. “But in the end, we want our independence.” Gorbachev will likely listen sympathetically to requests for economic reforms—as long as they coincide with his own goals. “The question,” said one Western diplomat in Moscow, “will be whether the reform movements make him look fair—or weak.” But few experts expect that Moscow would grant outright secession. Added the diplomat: “The re-

publics can bend things a lot but they will not be allowed to break away.”

At a time of rapidly rising expectations, however, Moscow will clearly be hard pressed to contain the deep-seated emotions behind the movement—especially among its younger members. “I want a future where all things seem possible,” said Inguna Bekere, who this year will finish her master’s degree in arts at Latvia State University. “If things were to go back to as they were in the past, it would be worse than if none of this ever happened.” For residents of the Baltic republics, caught between an unpleasant past and an unpredictable future, hope may be the most uncertain commodity of all.


in Riga