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The Pursuit of Independence, 1987-91

The national awakening came about in large measure as a result of Gorbachev's loosening of the reins of repression and his public stress on truth and freedom of expression. When open demonstrations started in 1987, Latvians were no longer lacking in social cohesion. The purpose of these "calendar" demonstrations was to publicly commemorate the events of June 13-14, 1941 (the mass deportations of Latvians to the Soviet Union); August 23, 1939 (the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact); and November 18, 1918 (the proclamation of Latvian independence). During the several years leading up to the first demonstrations by Helsinki '86 on June 14, 1987, several groups had labored with missionary zeal to inspire Latvians to work for a number of social and political causes.

One group that organized in 1976 committed itself to the revival of folk culture and, in spite of harassment, succeeded in rekindling interest in Latvian traditions and in awakening pride in being Latvian. Parallel to the folk culture group, another movement focused on the repair of old churches and monuments and the protection of the environment. The founder of this movement, the Environmental Protection Club (EPC), acknowledged that its primary goal was to raise the consciousness of the general public. Indeed, the EPC became the organization within which many individuals opposed to various aspects of Sovietization and Russification could unite. Under the seemingly nonpolitical umbrella of the EPC, they could organize far more radical bodies, such as the Latvian National Independence Movement.

A dynamic group of young theologians within Latvia's moribund Evangelical Lutheran Church also began a campaign to reactivate their congregations and the structure of the church itself. The Rebirth and Renewal (Atdzimsana un Atjaunosana) group did not have many members, but its activism and confrontation with communist party officials and policies energized people within the growing religious communities as well as in the wider society. Indeed, several individuals from this group served as catalysts for the creation of the Popular Front of Latvia (Latvijas Tautas Fronte--LTF).

The mobilization of a larger constituency of Latvians occurred as a result of the successful campaign to stop the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Daugava River in 1987. The initiator of this campaign, journalist Dainis Ivans, was later elected the first president of the LTF.

The "calendar" demonstrations, led by Helsinki '86 during 1987, electrified the Latvian population. Most people expected the authorities to mete out swift and ruthless retribution. When they did not, even more people joined in. In 1988 this grassroots protest was joined by the Latvian intelligentsia, whose demands for decentralization and democratization were forcefully articulated at the June 1-2 plenum of the Latvian Writers Union. Several months later, the idea of a popular front was brought to fruition, with a formal first congress organized on October 8-9, 1988.

The LTF had more than 100,000 dues-paying members and chapters in almost every locality in Latvia. These members slowly took the initiative in politics and became a de facto second government, pushing the Latvian Supreme Soviet to adopt a declaration of sovereignty and economic independence in July 1989. They also helped elect a majority of their approved candidates for the all-union Congress of People's Deputies in the spring of 1989; for the municipal local elections in December of that year; and for the critical parliamentary elections of March-April 1990. Slightly more than two-thirds of the delegates in the new parliament, now known as the Supreme Council, voted in favor of a transition to a democratic and independent Latvia on May 4, 1990. This process was marred by several instances of Soviet aggression, most notably in January 1991, when five people were killed during an attack on the Latvian Ministry of Interior in Riga by units of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs Special Forces Detachment (Otryad militsii osobogo naznacheniya--OMON), commonly known as the Black Berets. The transition turned out to be much briefer than anyone could have expected, however, because of the failed Soviet coup of August 1991. Latvia declared independence on August 21, 1991. Soon thereafter, the Soviet Union recognized Latvia's independence, and once again Latvia was able to join the world community of nations.

Physical Environment

Latvia is traditionally seen as a tiny country. In terms of its population of about 2.6 million, it deserves this designation. Geographically, however, Latvia encompasses 64,589 square kilometers, a size surpassing that of better-known European states such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Denmark. Seen from the air, Latvia is an extension of the East European Plain. Its flat terrain differs little from that of its surrounding neighbors. Latvia's only distinct border is the Baltic Sea coast, which extends for 531 kilometers. Its neighbors include Estonia on the north (267 kilometers of common border), Lithuania on the south (453 kilometers), Belarus on the southeast (141 kilometers), and Russia on the east (217 kilometers). Prior to World War II, Latvia bordered eastern Poland, but as a result of boundary changes by the Soviet Union, this territory was attached to Belorussia. Also, in 1944 Russia annexed the northeastern border district of Latvia, known as Abrene, including the town of Pytalovo (see fig. 2).

Data as of January 1995

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