Latvians celebrate 20 years of restored independence

Riga – There will be a festive mood in Latvia on May 4 as the Baltic state of 2.5 million people marks 20 years since it regained its freedom from the Soviet Union.In the days leading up to the anniversary, the claret-and-white striped Latvian flag was being hung from every public building; numerous festive events were taking place in Riga’s parks; and an open-air photographic exhibition was erected in the central Dome Square.On May 4, 1990, 138 deputies of the Supreme Council of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia passed a declaration making the Latvian SSR null and void.Then they reinstated the independent Republic of Latvia, which was founded on November 18, 1918 and lasted until the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact divided Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1940.

Emerging from the parliament building, they were greeted by large crowds showering them with flowers and singing traditional Latvian songs.Twenty years later, there aren’t quite as many people in the streets outside the parliament, but there is still plenty of activity.As well as the workmen making the capital city look its best, groups of schoolchildren from across the country scurry from building to building taking part in a treasure hunt designed to educate them in recent history.”We are Latvian patriots and May 4 is a symbol of our freedom,” says Inta, a 16-year-old student from Balvi, in the north-east of the country.”Our parents have told us about what happened, but it’s interesting to come here and see where it all happened,” she told the German Press Agency dpa.Another student, 17-year-old Guntis, said: “If we would still be in the Soviet Union, we would all be talking Russian and wouldn’t be able to make our own choices. That is why the day is important, even though we were not born when it happened.”However, not all the people dpa spoke to shared their enthusiasm.

Several members of Latvia’s Russian population said they did not regard May 4 as particularly special. Others said they were simply unaware of the date’s significance.But to Latvia’s outgoing foreign minister, Maris Riekstins, May 4 remains unique. Speaking to dpa on his last day in office and having been instrumental in setting up the fledgling foreign ministry 20 years ago, he said it was “almost impossible to repeat the same level of emotion of that day.””Anniversaries like this give us a reason to look back. In spite of ups and downs in those years, I think we have to be proud,” he said.As Ojars Kalnins points out, Latvia’s independence – along with similar events in Estonia and Lithuania – had ramifications beyond its borders.A former member of Latvia’s expatriate community in the United States – who eventually became ambassador in Washington – today he heads the Latvian Institute, a government body responsible for promoting Latvia overseas.

“For anyone who is under the age of 20, it’s almost impossible to imagine what life was like in Latvia under Soviet rule,” he said.”It’s equally difficult to imagine that in 1990, apart from some patriotically impassioned people in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, there was nearly no one on this planet who could imagine a world without the Soviet Union.””While Riga and Moscow may sometimes disagree on the details of history, I like to think that when Latvia redeclared its independence, we made it a little bit easier for Russia to achieve its independence one year later,” Kalnins suggested.