In January 1991, Latvia and Lithuania exploded in violence. Throughout 1990 and 1991, Moscow had became increasingly aggressive toward the Baltic countries in an attempt to suppress independence movements they believed could initiate a collapse of the entire Soviet Union.
As tensions mounted, the Chairmen of the three Baltic supreme councils on December 1, 1990, signed an appeal to the parliaments of the world, asking them to use their influence to stop the Soviet Union from threatening the Baltic countries and from applying economic and military pressure.
On January 2, 1991, Soviet Interior Ministry forces seized national press centers to stop the publication of newspapers in Latvia and Lithuania, signaling the start of a crackdown. These moves were compounded by a decision to reinforce the military units already stationed in the Baltic countries by airborne assault units.
The U.S. government was hesitant to issue a statement regarding the troop movement for the sake of solidarity in the Gulf War. It was thought that U.S. reaction might cause a break with Moscow which would encourage Saddam Hussein to resist U.S. demands.
On January 8, President Bush’s Press Secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, read a statement during a press conference. The statement said that the Administration considered the Soviet action as provocative and counterproductive, and would hurt prospects for peaceful negotiations with the Balts. President Bush spoke to Gorbachev three days later, urging dialogue.
On January 13, “Bloody Sunday,” the situation plunged into tragedy. Soviet troops attacked and occupied the television complex in Vilnius, in the process killing fourteen civilians and wounding about 700 innocent people (Diena 1/13/06). Furthermore, there were signs that an attack on the parliament building might be imminent. Most of the Lithuanian deputies barricaded inside, while thousands of Lithuanians gathered outside to form a human shield. They defied the Soviet tank crews surrounding the area, who kept ordering the public to disperse or face attack. The attack never took place.
Rallies to support the defenders of the parliament were held in Lithuanian cities, as well as in Latvia and Estonia. Seven hundred thousand people turned out for demonstration in Riga in support of Lithuania. The situation in Riga was almost as tense as in Vilnius, as Latvian patriots began building barricades around the parliament building and other sites.
At the same time, Communist forces in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania continued to fight for the dismissal of the three parliaments and the overthrow of their governments. The just-formed Latvian Committee of National Salvation (headed by the Communist Party leader, Alfred Rubiks) demanded that the elected legislature be dissolved and power transferred to the Committee.
The violence in Lithuania suggested that those who were conspiring to oppose Baltic independence, were seriously preparing for a coup d’etat.
Boris Yeltsin rushed to Tallinn to sign a mutual security pact with representatives of the three Baltic countries. In it, each “recognized the other’s state sovereignty” and forbade its citizens to participate in “armed actions that infringe on one another’s sovereignty.” Yeltsin also issued a direct appeal to Russian servicemen not to obey orders to attack civilians in the Baltic countries. It can be said that in 1990 and 1991, democratic Russia and the Baltic nations were allies.
After a sharp internal debate within the U.S. administration on the course U.S. should take, it was agreed that the U.S. response should be measured, but with sufficient vigor so that Gorbachev understood the seriousness of the U.S. position. The President issued a statement condemning the violence and urged Gorbachev not to use force but to encourage peaceful change.
Gorbachev maintained that he knew nothing of the decision to use force until after the fact, and contended that military and civilian cabal had ordered the attack without his knowledge. This very much influenced President Bush’s position on the issue.
On January 14, the Military Commander of the Baltic area, Lt. Gen. Fjodors Kuzmins, issued an ultimatum to Chairman of Latvia’s Parliament, Anatolijs Gorbunovss to rescind all laws adopted by the Parliament relating to Latvia’s independence and sovereignty. The Parliament did not comply with the order.
On January 15, Secretary of State James Baker submitted an official demarche to the Soviet charge d’affaires, Sergei Chetverikov. The Secretary told Chetverikov that there was absolutely no justification for the use of force against the democratically elected government of Lithuania, and that is was reasonable for the U.S. to be concerned that Soviet policy had changed for the worse. The Secretary compared the Soviet action in Lithuania to earlier Soviet Cold War activities, and said that it directly contradicted Gorbachev’s assurance to President Bush that Gorbachev would resolve the Baltic issue without violence.
Nevertheless, seven days later on Sunday, January 20, a Soviet detachment of special riot troops (Omon), popularly known as Black Berets, attacked the headquarters of the Latvian Ministry of Interior, killing five people in the process. After taking the building, they withdrew few hours later. Claiming that snipers were shooting at them, the Black Berets rushed into a hotel across the street and fired automatic weapons around the lobby.
Publicly, Gorbachev once again denied personal responsibility and blamed the violence on Latvians. On January 21, President Bush spoke again urging Soviet leaders to desist from using force. At the same time, he sent Gorbachev a letter warning that the U.S. would freeze economic ties and would not support special associate membership for the Soviet Union in the IMF and World Bank if the violence in the Baltics continued.
Baltic American leaders had been expecting the worst between Russia and the Baltic countries now for several months prior to Bloody Sunday. Most of their central organizations had considered or prepared contingency plans in case the Soviet government attempted to suppress the emerging freedom in the Baltic countries by use of force.
On January 8, Valdis Pavlovkis, Chairman of the American Latvian Association (ALA) complained to the White House about the movement of large number of Soviet paratroopers into the Baltic countries. The White House responded that it was only a display of force intended to intimidate the Balts and not for combat action against the population. The next day, U.S. government sent a note to Soviet Union condemning the movement of combat troops to the Baltic countries.
Upon receiving the news about the massacre in Lithuania, the Baltic American Community immediately went into action to alert the American public, government and press about the events and atrocities in the Baltics and to get the government to exert pressure on Gorbachev to cease the violence against the Balts.
Four thousand Lithuanians demonstrated in Washington. The American Latvian Association’s office in Washington established a 24 hour watch to maintain uninterrupted contact with Latvia and to pass information to the White House, the State Department and Congress. Baltic Americans were urged to contact the White House and their congress persons to urge them to take concrete measures against the Kremlin such as an economic and high tech embargo, to raise the Baltic issue at the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to establish a moratorium on visas for Soviet Officials for visits to the U.S., and to cancel the scheduled summit in Moscow between Bush and Gorbachev, so that Gorbachev would not resort to violence. Thousands of Balts responded to the call to action. They made phone calls, sent mailgrams and letters to the White House and Congress, visited their local congressional offices and held demonstrations in half a dozen cities or so. The Baltic American community was never so united and active as during the bloody days of January 1991.
On January 22, representatives of the major Baltic American organizations met with the President’s National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, and his Assistant for Eastern Europe, Dr. Condoleezza Rice. The Baltic American community was represented by Marie-Ann Rikken [now Kelman], of the Estonian American National Council; Valdis Pavlovskis, of the American Latvian Association and the Baltic American Freedom League; Jonas Bobelis, of the Supreme Committee to Liberate Lithuania and Asta Banionis, of the Lithuanian American Community. The Balts were furious about the U.S. subdued response to the killings in Vilnius and Riga.
Scowcroft tried to explain that the administration could do little to force the Kremlin to change its policies. Not only would anything the U.S. did be a “mere pinprick,” he said, but it might also be “provocative and counterproductive.” The Balts, on the other hand argued that only forceful and concrete measures–canceling the Moscow summit, or an economic and high tech embargo — by the U.S. would deter the Soviet from using violence against the Balts in the future.
President Bush made a surprise appearance at the meeting. “I heard that my favorite Baltic leaders were here and I thought I would look in on them,” the President exclaimed. He said he could stay only for five minutes, but he stayed for forty. Just as he had done before, during the Baltic crisis in the spring of 1990, the President raised the specter of Hungary in 1956: imprudent Western support could “doom” the cause of Baltic independence. Scowcroft added that by “lashing out,” the U.S. might open a trap door under Gorbachev and ruin whatever chance there still was for reform in the Soviet Union. He then asked the Balts whether they would prefer a KGB-military dictatorship in the Kremlin? Pavlovskis responded that other forces were at work in the Soviet Union–the progressive reformists. A force that wanted true freedom and democracy in Russia. If the U.S. would support them instead of Gorbachev, they instead of the KGB or the army would come to power when Gorbachev fell. Gorbachev will fall, it’s only a question of when, stated Pavlovskis. Asta Banionis stated that if the President does not care about the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians and their democratic movements, then he should care about the more than 200,000 Russian demonstrators in the streets of Moscow who had turned out a couple of days ago to protest the crackdown in the Baltics. Marie-Ann Rikken [Kelam] stated that “the Russians might tend to see this [Bush’s hands-off policy] as appeasement.” That set the President off. The President cut her off in mid-sentence: “Don’t—use—that—word!”
Leading Republicans in Congress warned Mr. Bush that a trip to Moscow at this time would be widely opposed in Congress. On January 27, the U.S. government announced that the scheduled February Moscow summit was canceled. The following, Soviet officials announced that Moscow was preparing to withdraw some troops from the Baltics.
Although documents and books published in recent years show that President’s Bush policy and actions in support of Baltic independence was considerably stronger and more active than his public statements at the time would indicate, the major consideration that guided his actions was how it would affect Gorbachev’s support of the Gulf War. To criticize Gorbachev publicly for bloodshed in Vilnius and Riga could place Moscow’s support for the war at risk.
And that was to be avoided at all cost.
The Baltic American January campaign had impact. It apprised the American public, press and government of the dangers to Baltic independence and gained wide spread support for the Baltic cause. Columnists such as Evans and Novak, William Safire and Abe Rosenthal wrote articles attacking the Administration for its refusal to support the Baltic struggle with Moscow. Hundreds of editorials and op-ed pieces were published in defense of the Baltic people and in support of their freedom and independence. Five resolutions were passed by Congress in support of Baltic issues during the month of January.
The bloody days of January are a monument to the Baltic people’s love of freedom, their courage and determination and their unity.
ALA 1986–2000–Anita Terauda and Irene Karule
At the Highest Levels–Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, 1995
Autopsy on an Empire–Jack F. Matlock, Jr., 1995
A World Transformed–George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, 2000
Call the Briefing!–Marlin Fitzwater, 1995
Diena–January 13, 2006
Showdown–Richard J. Krickus, 1997
The Baltic States at Historical Crossroads, Latvian Academy of Science, Edit.
Talavs Jundzis, 2001