Lasīšanas ilgums: 17 minūtes

The adoption of the Declaration of Independence on 4 May 1990 was extremely moving. There was an air of utter euphoria both inside the plenary hall and outside the building of the Supreme Council. In our ecstatic joy, we felt as if the whole world was rejoicing along with us, and that, come tomorrow, our friends in Europe and the US would tell Moscow: ‘we want to make right the betrayal that we permitted at Yalta1, and you no longer have any right to keep Latvia in Soviet captivity’.

Soon enough, just like Lithuanians and Estonians, we found out the extent to which the principles of international law differ from the realpolitik that dominates international relations, which no one wanted to change and risk damaging the relationship that had been created over the years with the USSR nuclear superpower – Mikhail Gorbachev had at this time brought hope for change both in its foreign and domestic policies. These changes gave the West a chance to improve the global security situation, whilst also softening the regime in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself. Therefore, the Baltic issue was being resolved far beyond the borders of Latvia, in the political and diplomatic offices of the capitals of Europe and the US, with the events going on there having direct and indirect impacts on Latvia’s situation. We did not know then, but we do now, how much the talks and decisions there influenced the fate of our state and nation.

The majority of our Western friends looked with concern at the complications created in their relations with the USSR due to the impatience of the Baltic States. Hearing the West give friendly warnings, instructions and recommendations to not hurry, our feeling of déjà vu only intensified. We were afraid that the Baltics would once again become mere small change in a game played by superpowers. Thankfully, at the time, many of us did not realise the true scale of this game, and that let us press on with unhindered conviction and enthusiasm to fight for Latvia’s place in the world. We knew that the truth was on our side, and it would win.

Reading the memoirs of Bush, Baker, Thatcher, Mitterrand and other politicians, it is bewildering how very much taken by surprise they were with the rapid developments after Gorbachev came to power. Of course, while it was unclear what strategy to take in dialogue with Gorbachev about Eastern Europe, in most countries, the policy regarding the Baltics, despite the revolution taking place there, did not extend beyond statements of non-recognition of the incorporation of the states, as had been continuously repeataed for decades on end. However, Margaret Thatcher claims that everyone had been in agreement that ‘it is not a question of whether [the Baltic States] will be free–but only of when they will be free‘2. In turn, in November 1989, when meeting Bush at her residence, Thatcher had already decided to stop pursuing the Baltic question in order to avoid endangering Gorbachev’s loftier goals.3 But in the summer of 1990, when the parliaments of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia had adopted decisions on the restoration of independence of their states, the West was forced to start seriously deliberating the Baltic question.

Therefore, after 4 May, our politicians and diplomats had to quickly and relentlessly take advantage of every opportunity to get a word in on the international arena. We could not afford to have the Baltic question put on the backburner once again. Systematically knocking on closed doors was a difficult mental trial because you had to deal with disappointment over and over again, pull yourself back together and set out on another diplomatic visit, having faith that this time you will succeed in inching that much closer to your goal. Apart from the big, serious issues, we also had to learn to read protocol. For example, one of the clearest indications of the attitude of a country towards the Baltic question was how it handled entrance into the ministry of foreign affairs or other state institution. If the Baltic foreign minister or delegation was greeted and welcomed at the main entrance, this meant a step towards de facto recognition. If we, yet again, had to go through the service entrance, that meant that without consent from Gorbachev, they did not want to accentuate Latvia’s statehood.

Looking through the documents in my personal archives and those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, almost every page is a source of reverence. I had myself forgotten just how rich and intense that time was! How amazing it was! How our diplomats and politicians had taken advantage of any opportunity, any chink in the official position of the West that ‘the solution of the Baltic question lies in Moscow’. It is unknown who first coined the phrase ‘creeping recognition’, but it quickly found its way into the jargon of professional journalists and political analysts as a description of the relentless efforts of Baltic diplomats to gradually expand their pro-independence network abroad and strengthen the conviction that we are independent not just de iure, but also de facto. It had first appeared in the summer of 1990 in Washington, DC, when US President George Bush met with the prime ministers of the Baltic States one by one.

The creeping recognition policy implemented by the Baltic States is not only a unique experience in the history of our state and its foreign affairs, but also a notable contribution to the history of international law and inter-state relations. It must be studied and chronicled. Someday, this experience could prove to be useful for another occupied country at a different turning point in history, or in other circumstances where people will attempt to peacefully regain the liberty taken from them and their country, or at least part of it.

The policy of creeping recognition was implemented by several actors and in several directions. The continuity of Latvia’s statehood was embodied by the diplomatic service, headed by Anatols Dinbergs. The independence of the restored state was represented by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Supreme Council of Latvia. Latvian exile organisations were a resource with broad contacts. Cooperating among themselves, these institutions carried out massive diplomatic and political explanatory work abroad. This expanded the range of foreign politicians and diplomats supporting the Baltic States, and it achieved a practical result – the opening of Baltic information offices in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Brussels. In turn, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs managed to accredit Latvia’s chargés d’affaires at the foreign ministries of Lithuania, Estonia and the Russian Federation. In terms of importance, the political support for the Baltic question provided by the US Senate and Congress must be highlighted, as well as the creative solutions enacted by the Nordic states that allowed their representatives to be present in Riga. This was an invaluable source of information independent from Moscow for the foreign ministries of these countries, as well as for foreign journalists. In today’s age of immediate information, it is difficult to even imagine how important and influential this independent information was in the implementation of the creeping recognition of Latvia and the Baltic question.

Sweden was the only Nordic country which, at the end of World War II and under pressure from the USSR, had for security reasons recognised the incorporation of the Baltic States into the USSR. This is a painful page in the bilateral relations between our countries, and it is one which, as the Awakening gained ground, Swedish politicians and diplomats tried to make right with their presence and their extensive political and practical assistance. Thus, the first foreign diplomat to start working in Riga was Swedish Consul Lars Fredén. He had received his consular commission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, so in Riga he had to constantly keep in mind that he could not afford to do anything that Soviet supervisors could qualify as ‘gross intervention’, or that could damage the relationship between Sweden and the USSR. Yet despite this, we trusted him completely, as we had over and over again seen proof that Lars was a true friend of Latvia, willing to take on risks and walk the line together with us. During the bleak days of dual governance, his presence, international experience, well-considered advice and discrete assistance provided invaluable support that helped us slowly weave our ‘creeping recognition’ web. In the course of my official duties, I had many opportunities to meet with Lars and to get to know him personally. I admired his great intelligence, extensive knowledge and cultural sophistication. He was my model of a Western diplomat, which I yearned to emulate. Fredén was a charming and thoughtful person, whose character had subtly married all the best aspects of Western and Eastern civilisations. Immersing himself in Chinese culture and studying Mandarin had lent ironic accents to his reserved Nordic nature, and I had the impression that he would often look at himself and others with a bit of benevolent ironic distance.

Unlike other Western diplomats, who obeyed the restrictions created by the non-recognition policy during the post-war period and seldom ventured to make private appearances in any of the Baltic States, Swedish diplomats visited us regularly and knew how very different Latvia was from the rest of the Soviet Union. When, soon after beginning perestroika, Gorbachev removed restrictions for Soviet citizens to travel abroad, it completely changed the daily life of the Swedish Consulate-General in Leningrad. It was suddenly flooded with people arriving in cars from Tallinn and Riga (less so from Vilnius), sleeping in their vehicles for days on end on nearby streets, waiting their turn to submit their documents and obtain a visa.

This extraordinary situation needed a solution, and based on the experience of Finland, which had opened a consular office in Tallinn in 1971, Sweden decided to establish such an office in each capital of the Baltic republics. The times had changed, and Moscow was no longer asked for permission, but simply informed about the decision. Although there was a risk that such ‘audacity’ could irritate Moscow, surprisingly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR agreed right away, because the Swedish proposal was in line with the new Soviet position of giving the united republics greater autonomy in developing international relations. On 8 November 1989, Swedish Foreign Minister Sten Anderson officially opened the consular office in Tallinn. In parallel, the Swedes started searching for appropriate office space in Riga, and on 22 December a rental agreement was signed with the city executive committee for premises at Lāčplēša Street 13. They could now calmly start renovating and preparing to welcome visitors. However, due to rapid political developments in the Baltic States, the consulate in Riga had to be opened much sooner than originally planned.

 On 11 March 1990, the Supreme Council of Lithuania adopted the Act on the Restoration of an Independent State of Lithuania. On 18 March, the Latvian Popular Front won the first round of elections for the Supreme Council by a landslide, and it was expected that we, too, would adopt a declaration of independence. In early March, Lars Fredén arrived in Riga to prepare the consulate for operation without haste over the course of the next couple of months. Renovations were in full swing at the premises on Lāčplēša Street when the order came from Sweden to officially open the office in Riga within a couple of days. As impossible as this task may have seemed, Lars knew it had to be done before the Supreme Council adopted the Declaration of Independence. And so, having stashed paint cans in the corners and having swept up the worst of the debris, on 29 March the unrenovated office was officially opened, with an address delivered in Latvian by Swedish Minister of Justice Laila Freivalde and an improvised reception. However, it would be two more months before the consulate was in suitable shape to actually take in visitors.

Sweden had also planned to open a consular office in Vilnius, but it did not manage to do so prior to the 11 March Act of Independence, and, of course, Landsbergis refused to accept a branch office of the Consulate-General in Leningrad in its place. That would have been commensurate to acknowledging that the USSR still maintained de facto power over Lithuania. Therefore, the Swedes only started working in Vilnius after the coup of August 1991, when diplomatic relations between the states were restored.4 Until then, Lars ‘covered’ Vilnius out of Riga, driving tens of thousands of kilometres over the course of the year.

With or without proper legal status, the Swedish consulate in Riga held great political and practical significance, because up until the coup of August 1991 it served as a direct line between the Latvian government and the West, which was especially important in crisis situations. In turn, for other Western countries the consulate was almost the only – or indeed the sole effective and trustworthy – source of information about events in Latvia. Pretty much any official or ‘private’ delegation to arrive in Latvia would somehow find a way to meet with Fredén. With the Baltic question gaining increasingly more attention within the international agenda, Lars’s workload also grew – there were more and more visitors. In effect, he functioned as an ambassador, rather than a consul, as his duties were more diplomatic and political in nature, rather than technical. Fredén’s regular official memos to the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs analysing the political situation hold important testimony as to the history of our state and should definitely be studied and published as soon as the ministry’s archives from this period are declassified.5

When, after the coup of 1991, Sweden again established diplomatic relations with Latvia, we were sure that it would be Lars Fredén who would become ambassador. Alas, the internal hierarchy of the Swedish diplomatic service did not allow for such derogations: he was appointed as chargé d’affaires ad interim and tasked with heading the diplomatic mission until the arrival of the ambassador proper. I was so upset over this injustice that I even wrote a letter to Anatolijs Gorbunovs asking him to contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sweden and explain to them how invaluable Lars Fredén was to us. We were all shocked because we could not imagine someone else taking the place of Lars. But, as it goes, the capitals always know best when it comes to what is to be done and how. Because of this ‘we know better’, the ministry failed to heed Fredén’s advice to hurry up and become the first country to recognise Latvia’s independence immediately after Yeltsin. The pundits in Stockholm believed that they should wait for the official liberation from the USSR, and it was only when they saw the avalanche of recognition rolling over the Baltic States in a matter of days that the Swedes came to their senses, managing to jump onto the list as the 20th state to recognise us.

For Lars Fredén, it was an especially moving and well-deserved moment when, with the words ‘Your Excellency, this news comes far too late’, he presented to Anatolijs Gorbunovs the telegram from Carl XVI Gustaf recognising the independence of Latvia. I am extremely pleased that, following the restoration of the state decorations of Latvia, Lars Fredén was one of the first to receive the Order of the Three Stars, Third Class. His books Transformations: Baltic Liberation and Swedish Diplomacy 1989–1991 and The Return – Swedish Security Policy and the Baltic Countries during their First Years of Independence 1991–1994 contain essential documentary testimony of the first years of the restored independence of our state. Lars stood by us when Latvia needed it the most.

Today, the Danish Cultural Institute is a well-known institution that has welcomed many people of Latvia. That is why its opening in Riga in the summer of 1990 now seems like such an obvious and simple affair. Back then, it was a forward-looking and bold move that ensured a Danish presence in the Baltic States. Unlike Sweden, Denmark had never recognised the incorporation of the Baltic States into the USSR, and therefore it was unable to open a consular office here. From the very beginning of the Awakening, Danish society had closely followed developments in the Baltic States, and the government felt growing pressure to cooperate and support the Baltic States. Despite social sympathy, in early 1989 it was still too unclear how the events in Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn would unfold, and what the relationship between the Baltics and Moscow would look like. Therefore, the boldness of the Danes in taking an active stance when the majority of Western countries were still holding onto a ‘let’s not rock Gorbachev’s boat’ policy is that much more commendable. As the situation in the Baltic States developed6, Denmark took on an increasingly active and diverse role, becoming the most skilful and persevering advocate for our freedom efforts, both in bilateral contacts with other Western countries and at international organisations.

Gorbachev had announced that the perestroika would also entail greater autonomy for the united republics, giving them the right to establish direct contacts in citizen diplomacy. In 1989, Denmark made skilful use of this, hosting a discussion with the Baltic States in Copenhagen without needlessly agitating Moscow. In the name of ‘not agitating’, the meeting was hosted by APN7 and Politiken, and the invited participants from Latvia were representatives of the official nomenklatura, albeit of the progressive wing. Nikolajs Neilands and Ivars Ķezbers carried the Communist Party flag, Raimonds Pauls was Minister of Culture, and Jānis Peters was the Chairman of the Writers’ Union and also a member of the board of the Latvian Popular Front. This visit has gone down in history because Editor-in-Chief of Politiken Herbert Pundik and Jānis Peters were in agreement that placing an emphasis on bilateral cultural relations could be the path to securing a Danish presence in the Baltic States. Soon thereafter, Pundik proposed to Foreign Minister Uffe Elemann-Jensen that the Danish Cultural Institute be opened in Riga. Yes! Jensen immediately saw the potential of the proposal – it was an excellent way to bypass the restrictions created by the non-recognition policy and create a platform for building support in Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn.

The matter of funding the institute was slightly more complicated, as neither the government nor the Danish Institute had planned for something like this in their budget. And here Pundik had a role to play once more. The editor-in-chief of Politiken addressed society at large, asking them to donate money. As he would later explain: ‘Newspapers must inform about the news, but sometimes you have to do more than just deliver the news. Sometimes newspapers have to create events themselves.‘8 And Politiken did indeed create an event, collecting 1.8 million Danish krones. The Latvians did not just idly stand by either, and upon the initiative of Jānis Peters they donated 60,000 roubles and pledged office space free of charge. But then came a Nyet! from the Riga City Executive Committee. Moscow understood full well that opening such an institute would reinforce independence efforts, so the leadership of the Executive Committee had probably been instructed to not allocate the premises. Today, the reason for the refusal sounds ridiculous – since the premises had not been requested by any official institution, there was no one to allocate them to… But Peters would not be Peters if he were to give up in the face of a mere formality. He was master of the Writers’ Union, so the institute was provided with two rooms there. In turn, the Ministry of Culture allocated funds from its budget to provide accommodation for the director of the institute.

The Politiken campaign was not just about raising money – it was a large-scale public relations operation that secured a popular mandate for the Danish government to support the Baltic States. ‘In a democratic state, politicians cannot ignore such widespread public support.’ And Denmark certainly used this mandate to the fullest, supporting the Baltic States in a myriad of diplomatic and political aspects. Special merit has to be given to Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen9, who acted persistently and at all possible levels.

Director of the Institute Rikke Helms arrived in Riga on 1 June 1990, as yet unaware that she would spend the next 13 years working in Latvia. Her eager and open personality, immense work capacity and ability to weave a broad network of close contacts made Rikke the best known Dane not only in Riga but all throughout Latvia, as both doors to various institutions and people’s hearts opened to her. Among us, Rikke was certainly better-known and more popular than the Queen of Denmark, as lèsemajesté (insulting) as that may sound. Thanks to the Democracy Fund founded by Ellemann-Jensen with the aim of financing citizen diplomacy between Eastern European countries and Denmark, thousands of people from the Baltic States had the chance to attend various courses on democracy and language learning, attend festivals, and intern at local governments in Denmark. Contact-building went both ways, as Rikke involved community colleges, cultural academies, various ministries and municipalities from nearly every corner of Denmark in supporting exchanges, as well as cultural and educational events.

As with the Swedish consulate, during the dual governance period, the Cultural Institute had to work far beyond the scope of just establishing relations in culture and education. The institute was, in effect, an unofficial embassy serving to constantly link government offices and various institutions in Denmark with Latvia. For almost all Danish delegations that visited Latvia during the period of dual governance, the Cultural Institute drew up a saturated agenda, setting up meetings at the Supreme Council and at government and executive agencies. During the coup of August 1991, when communication channels from Latvia to the world were cut off, the Cultural Institute in Riga and its branch offices in Vilnius and Tallinn provided, through their independent communication system, a direct flow of information to the Danish government and journalists, who, in turn, distributed it further.

It was an important and long-awaited moment for both Rikke Helms and myself when on 27 August 1991 at Riga Airport we greeted the Ambassador of the Special Mission Otto Borch, who had arrived to officially restore diplomatic relations between Denmark and Latvia. On the previous day, Queen Margret II of Denmark had received the foreign ministers of the Baltic States at Fredensborg Palace. Ellemann-Jensen recalls: ‘It was a moment I will never forget: the royal guard parading before the palace, their orchestra playing. The royal dachshund was happily barking at the top of the stairs. Behind the dachshund, stood the Queen, smiling joyously and greeting Lennart Meri, Jānis Jurkāns and Algirdas Saudargas.’10 Henceforth, political and diplomatic relations between the states were handled by the Danish Embassy, and the Cultural Institute could finally return to its primary cause – cultural diplomacy.

Sweden had a consulate and Denmark had the Cultural Institute, but public interest in the Baltic States was also quickly growing in the other Nordic countries – Iceland, Norway and Finland – and so contacts with authorities and people expanded, and the governments of these countries sought ways to ensure their presence in Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius. So the Nordic Council of Ministers decided to open an information office in each of the Baltic capitals. In autumn of 1990, when the vacancies for the directors of these offices were announced, the Norwegian Richard Baerug, who was fluent in Latvian and Russian, applied for the job in Riga. He spoke Latvian surprisingly well; I remember that after our first phone conversation, I wondered how a Latvian youth raised in exile had managed to maintain such phonetically pure and grammatically correct Latvian. It was only later that I learned that Richard was not Latvian and his interest in the language had been roused by coincidence – through contact with a Latvian girl who visited his neighbours in summer. He had navigated the jungles of our noun declensions, consonant interchanges and verb conjugations with such mastery that he spoke almost flawlessly and with just the slightest hint of a foreign note.

Officially, the Information Office of the Nordic Council of Ministers had already been opened in February 1991, when Thor Pedersen11, Chairman of the Council, visited Latvia. The opening was, however, a little theoretical, as the employee of the Riga City Council Property Department who had the keys had not shown up, and the delegation was not able to actually enter the office. This failure to fulfil a task was so very Soviet-like that I could have died out of shame. What made it even worse was the fact that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had previously encouraged Pedersen to not hesitate with signing the lease. And so we found ourselves awkwardly shuffling about by the doors, which were painted a Soviet shade of brown, and Pedersen had no other choice than to put on an elegant smile, attach the office plate to the locked door, and pose for the historic photo.

As a result, the newly appointed head of the office, Baerug, was the first to see and assess the premises. He found them to be unsuitable for the office, as the rooms were dark, with the windows facing the enclosed courtyard. Times had changed, and Baerug was no longer met with a Nyet! at the Riga City Council. After the municipal elections, a majority of seats in the Riga City Council belonged to the Popular Front of Latvia, and doors were opened for our foreign friends. Out of several offers, Richard chose half of a floor on Basteja Boulevard, quickly renovated it, and in early summer the Nordic Information Office started working. After restoring diplomatic relations with Latvia, the already unified Germany also opened its embassy in this building.

During the August Coup, the Nordic Information Office became an unofficial press centre. Since the stagers of the coup had cut the telephone lines between Latvia and the rest of the world, the teletype of the office12, which was somehow still working, became almost the only channel of communication for foreign journalists to relay the events in Riga to their newsrooms.

Foreign affairs was not a regular part of the work of the Nordic Council of Ministers, and therefore the heads of the offices in the Baltic States had the freedom to choose their ways and means of operation at their own discretion. Like the Danish Cultural Institute, the Information Office effectively acted as the embassy that had not yet been established. The staff of the office worked with the broadest possible range of issues – from cooperation in the energy or law enforcement sectors to developing relations in education and culture. The only area that the council had deemed outside of the mandate of the office was defence policy. The office quickly became a popular and necessary intermediary, as interest about the Nordic countries in Latvia and vice versa was immense. There were so many proposals for collaboration that Richard described it as follows: ‘You go to bed at three and start working at eight. I was not only representing Nordic interests here, I was just as much representing Latvia’s interests in relations with the other Nordic countries, which is completely natural.’13

As valuable as the presence of the consulate was in Riga, it still remained a part of the Swedish Consulate-General in Leningrad, and according to international consular law, its existence could in no way be considered as a de facto recognition of the independence of Latvia. Likewise, the Danish Cultural Institute and the Office of the Nordic Council of Ministers, even if they were functioning as unofficial embassies, did not hold the status of a diplomatic mission. Try as we may to convince the Western countries to at least accredit a chargé d’affaires, they carefully avoided any formalisation of relations that Moscow could interpret as them recognising the independence of the Baltic States.

The first foreign diplomat to be officially accredited in Latvia following the occupation and annexation of our state in 1940 was chargé d’affaires of Lithuania Algirdas Žvirenas. He took his post as head of the diplomatic representation of Lithuania on 15 August 1991. Although an exchange of chargés d’affaires had been agreed upon with Lithuania and Estonia back in autumn 1990, when Alberts Sarkanis and Aldis Bērziņš began working in Vilnius and Tallinn, preparations by our neighbours had taken a little longer. At least Lithuania managed to do it four days before the coup and three weeks before the State Duma of the USSR recognised the independence of Latvia; Estonia accredited its first diplomat only after the international recognition of our de facto independence.

Notes and references

1At the Tehran Conference (28 November–1 December 1943), Roosevelt and Stalin met informally and agreed on the fate of the Baltic States after the war. This agreement was confirmed at the Yalta Conference on 4–11 February 1945.

2M. Thatcher. Downing Street. Memoires. Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 1993, p. 667.

3G. Bush, B. Scowcroft. A World Transformed. New York: Vintage books, 1998, p .192; K. Spohr Readman. Germany and the Baltic Problem after Cold War: the Development of a New Ostpolitik 1989-2000. London: Routledge, 2005, p. 11.

 4Since Sweden had recognised the incorporation of the Baltic States into the USSR, it would have had to re-establish diplomatic relations. However, the word ‘establishing’ was crossed out on the draft, and the title of the document became ‘Agreement Between the Republic of Estonia (Latvia/Lithuania) and the Kingdom of Sweden on the Restoration of Diplomatic Relations’.

 5What is the period for declassifying the archives of the Swedish MFA? Are the archives of the dual governance period already available?

 6The elections of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union, at which the popular movements won a convincing majority, were viewed in the global political world as a signal of serious change.

 7The official press agency of the USSR – Agenstvo pechati y novsotei.

 8R. Helms. Politisks atbalsts kultūras iepakojumā. Diena, 26 or 27 August 2015.

 9The state of Latvia has thanked Ellemann-Jensen for his service by awarding him the Order of the Three Stars, Second Class. 12 April 1995.

 1010 years after. Uffe Ellemann-Jensen. The Danish Cultural Institute – 10 years in the Baltics. 1990–2000. p.14.

 11Thor Pedersen, Minister of Nordic Cooperation, Denmark.

 12The teletypes at the disposal of the government of Latvia, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also continued to function.

 13From an audio recording of Sandra Kalniete’s interview with the former head of the Nordic Information Office Richard Baerug in Riga on 16 February 2018.