The Baltic American Freedom League (BAFL) held its Annual Awards banquet Saturday evening, August 13, 2011, at the Lithuanian Hall in Los Angeles, California. This year’s Awards Banquet also celebrated the 30 anniversary of the founding of BAFL.
The afternoon began with a well attended pre-meeting in the Lithuanian Hall downstairs meeting room with our guest of honor, Tunne Kelam and his wife Mari-ann. It was an opportunity for the BAFL board and our VIPs to meet with Mr. Kelam in an informal setting.
The Awards Banquet started with a 6 PM cocktail hour leading to dinner seating around 7 PM. Our Master of Ceremonies, Kestutis Reivydas asked Mrs. Dalile Polikaitis to say the invocation and BAFL Vice President, Maryte Sepikas, lead the assembled in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.
BAFL Vice President Dr. Hendrik Leesement then took the stage to introduce the BAFL board members and the VIPs. Director Ted Liliensteins next read a congratulatory Letter from Rep. Howard Berman. Due to time constraints other congratulatory letters were not read.
In his introductory remarks, BAFL President Imants Leitis, spoke of 30 years of BAFL accomplishments such as: initiating and having the Baltic Freedom Day resolution passed in Congress, hosting the annual Human Rights conferences, having President Reagan re-enforce the “non-recognition of the Soviet occupation of Baltic countries” policy by the United States, initiating the establishment of the Baltic Caucus in the US House of Representatives, helping persuade the US to expand the Visa Waiver program to include the Baltic Nations, helping push for a NATO defense plan for the Baltic States with the result being that the “Eagle Guardian” plan was extended to cover Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, helping pass many other Congressional resolutions important to the Baltic cause, and helping get Stalin’s bust removed from display at the National D-Day Memorial, in Bedford, Virginia.
He also briefed the audience as to BAFL’s more recent goals and the need for BAFL in the future. Mr. Leitis also asked past BAFL President and a founder, Tony Mazeika, to say a few words. Mr. Mazeika also spoke to past BAFL accomplishments and made suggestions for the future. He stressed that having a paid consultant in Washington, DC was a key to many of BAFL’s early successes.
At the end of dinner service (provided by Antanina Uldukiene and staff), the Lithuanian mens octet, “Tolimin Aidai” (Distant Echos) took the stage and won the audience over with their wonderful songs and voices.
Next, Kestutis invited President Imants Leitis to the stage to present awards. The BAFL President’s Award was presented to Dr. Hendrik Leesment for his “many years of dedication and commitment to the Baltic American Freedom League”. Dr. Leesment has been a BAFL member since 1983 and board member since 1992.
President Leitis next introduced special guest and keynote speaker MEP Tunne Kelam. Mr. Kelam has been an Estonian member of the European Parliament since 2004. He was an influential leader in the restoration of independence and in the rebuilding of democratic institutions in Estonia. Imants presented Tunne Kelam with the BAFL Baltic Freedom Award. The inscription reads as follows: “Tunne Kelam, Estonian freedom fighter and member of the European Parliament. For leadership in restoring Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union and rebuilding its democratic institutions”.
Mr. Kelam gave an informative and riveting speech reflecting on Estonia’s path to freedom and independence. Tunne spoke to the fact that it has been difficult to get the truth of what happened to the Baltics in 1939 out to the general public. He feels the world in general knows little of the Baltic countries histories. The Russians are loath to admit to the illegal occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The Welles Declaration (U.S. non-recognition policy), which established a five-decade non-recognition of the Baltic States’ annexation, was a major factor enabling the regaining of independence. Once the movements for independence began, the Soviets were hesitant to suppress them because of continuing U.S. support of this doctrine.
Though he was initially hesitant about what might be accomplished in the European Parliament, he has come to respect it as the “world’s largest democratic body” with 750 members. Tunne feels that it is the best international forum where one can introduce and represent Estonia and Baltic interests. He also stressed that many of today’s problems in Europe and the U.S. stem from a lack of morality on the part of financial and political leaders. Mr. Kelam feels this is a time for principles and values, and that our current economic problems should not be passed on to future generations.
After Tunne Kelam’s speech, the audience was treated to a number of songs by Estonian songstress, Marya Kivi (aka Marya Roxx). By the end of her performance, the audiance was singing the refrains to “Hotel California”. Marya was accompanied on the piano by Kaie Pallo and on the guitar by Becky Freisen.
During the banquet, Master of Ceremonies Kestutis Reivydas raffled off over 20 gifts that he had purchased for the banquet during his recent trip to the Baltics. President Leitis then concluded with closing remarks and thanked the many BAFL supporters and members that attended and those that had helped to put on the banquet.
In closing, St. Casimir’s Choir Director, Victor Ralys, took the stage and energetically accompanied the audience on piano, which led to a rousing singing of the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and American anthems.