Latvia's Unique Path toward Independence: The Challenges Associated with the Transition from a Soviet Republic to an Independent State

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Introduction

In the late 1980s, Latvia, a tiny republic in the northwest corner of the former Soviet Union (USSR), seeing a window of opportunity provided by the policy of glasnost, instability inside the USSR, and political upheaval within the Warsaw Pact countries, became one of the key agitators among the Soviet republics to demand independence from Moscow--a view shared by several Baltic specialists (1) This paved the way for the emergence of independence movements in its fellow Baltic republics, Estonia and Lithuania, the latter of which took the lead in seeking to break free from Soviet rule. This caused a domino effect throughout the USSR. In short, the three Baltic republics--Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania--set in motion the political process that resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. (2)

Latvia's road to independence and democratization proved to be quite different from that followed in other Soviet republics, particularly in Latvia's sister Baltic republics-Estonia and Lithuania. Latvia's geopolitical position and demographic composition, as well as cultural and historical variables, created a set of unique challenges that shaped its struggle for independence from Moscow not present in other Soviet republics, particularly the independence movements in Latvia's sister Baltic republics. Latvia's geopolitical position and demographic composition, as well as cultural and historical variables, created a set of unique challenges that shaped its stuggle for independence from Moscow not present in other Soviet republics. Once the policies of glostnost and democratization initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the director general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, created an opening for independent political thought, it became possible to express diverse political opinions and engage in political activities more freely. As a result, a nascent civil society emerged in Latvia led by environmental, folklore, and religious groups, each of which adopted specific political agendas. (3) This period of political and national awakening in Latvia is often referred to as the "Singing Revolution" due to its non-violent nature and the significance of traditional Latvian folk music in facilitating the push for independence. (4)

The "Singing Revolution" ignited a major debate concerning historical interpretations of Soviet actions in Latvia after 1939, which caused Latvians to reject the legitimacy of Soviet rule in their homeland. The most important of these historical turning points was commemorated during the so-called "calendar demonstrations" throughout Latvia, which jumpstarted the anti-Soviet movement and provided momentum for like-minded activists in the other Baltic republics to mobilize their populations in seeking self- determination. (5) However, due to unique ethnic and demographic challenges, as well as security considerations, the independence movement in Latvia took a backseat to those in Estonia and Lithuania. The most significant of these challenges was that Latvia would have to deal with its high proportion of ethnic Russians in its population, who were unwilling to sever ties with the USSR completely. The ethnic and political tensions that grew out of this situation threatened to produce violence. In addition, the significant Soviet military presence on Latvian territory raised a tangible security issue. If hardliners among Soviet authorities chose to use force in order to keep Latvia in the USSR, there was a strong possibility that the situation would result in a full-scale military intervention. Despite these challenges, Latvia's transition toward independence remained peaceful. Ethnic tensions did not result in a repetition of the large-scale violence that occurred in other Soviet territories (e.g., Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Tadzhikistan), where ethnic conflicts turned bloody. (6) There was also no open military intervention from Moscow, primarily due to Western attention on what was happening in the region and a willingness on the part of the leadership of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) to support the Baltic republics in their quest for independence. …