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Latvia marks 30 years since declaring independence from Soviet Union

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People arrive to lay a wreath in front of the Monument of Freedom to mark the 30th anniversary of the restoration of independence of the Republic of Latvia on May 4, 2020
People arrive to lay a wreath in front of the Monument of Freedom to mark the 30th anniversary of the restoration of independence of the Republic of Latvia on May 4, 2020   -   Copyright  GINTS IVUSKANS/AFP or licensors
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Today marks 30 years since Latvia declared its independence from the Soviet Union.

MPs backed the move on May 4, 1990, and this was bolstered by a referendum the following year, in which 74.9% voted to split from Moscow.

Latvia's former prime minister, Valdis Birkavs, one of the architects of the independence declaration, has been speaking to Euronews to mark the anniversary.

What are your most vivid recollections from May 4, 1990?

"At my age, 77, those memories are still very bright. It is a true blessing to have been part of the process. Rarely ever in our lives can we say that we can smell freedom. But the smell was in the air in Latvia since the Popular Front was established. The most active members of society started to speak louder and louder about independence.

"I remember my own first discussion about the future declaration of independence. There was a bunch of four men – scientist Rolands Rikards; Romans Apsitis, who later became minister of justice; the current Latvian president, Egils Levits, then a prominent lawyer; and me, a lawyer – who one day gathered in Rikards’ apartment to speak over coffee about a document outlaying the principles of our independence. It still needed to be written then. There were other groups of deputies (MPs) working on them, too.

"The final draft of the Independence Act was worked out in the wee hours of May 4. The pro-independence Popular Front, a national movement, had 131 seats in the Supreme Council (Latvia's transitional parliament). 132 votes were required to pass the declaration. Following a long deliberation marred by an anti-independence MP's filibuster, the council came to voting on the declaration on May 4.

"With each voice cast for independence in the afternoon of May 4, the big crowd outside the parliament was chanting “one”, “two”, “three” and so on. The voting was a big-time nail-biter as, technically, to have the Act passed, the Popular Front was missing one vote.

"But it appeared that more parliamentarians wanted to make history – in total 138 deputies voted for the declaration.

"People rejoiced in the streets as if they had just hit the jackpot. The next day, the Soviet Supreme Council ruled the Latvian vote as unconstitutional.

But, sadly, blood was spilt...

"Sadly, it was not avoided. A series of fierce confrontations between the already free Republic of Latvia and the crumbling Soviet Union peaked in January 1991 in Riga.

"After attacks by the Soviet OMON (a special police unit of the Soviet Union) on Riga in early January 1991, the Latvian government (the Popular Front) called on people to build barricades for protection of possible targets in Riga.

"Six people were killed in further attacks, several were wounded in shootings or beaten by OMON. Most victims were shot during the Soviet attack on the Latvian Ministry of the Interior on January 20, while another person died in a building accident reinforcing the barricades.

"Among the Baltic nations, only Estonia shunned bloodshed during the restoration of independence."

Valdis Birkav
Valdis Birkav, right, with former US president Bill ClintonValdis Birkav

You briefly headed the Latvian Cabinet in 1993-94 and then served as a foreign minister in five governments until 1999. What were your priorities?

"There were three of them. First, the withdrawing of the Russian army, the dismantling of the Russians’ powerful Skrunda radar installations and paving way for Latvia’s joining the European Union and NATO.

"As a matter of fact, I was scolded by many, including my fellow party members for striving for the latter. Nobody believed in the early 1990s that Latvia would become a member state of The European Union (nobody had the courage to talk about membership in NATO).

"The story of the Skrunda facility is very interesting too. It served as one of the USSR's most important radar stations as it was responsible for scanning the skies to the west for incoming bombers or nuclear missiles before the USSR disintegrated.

"The demolition of a 19-story tower housing the radar was largely sponsored by the United States, the Soviet Union's main nuclear rival.

"Over the years of independence, Latvia’s relations with the large ethnic Russian community, especially in the Riga area, have been tense.

"Despite being widely voted for, Harmony, highly popular with Latvia’s Russians — who make up one-fourth of the population — has never been allowed by any Latvian president to form the government. Recently, the Harmony-led Riga City Council has been dissolved."

Do you believe your government has always been fair with Harmony?

"Estonians have allowed a pro-Russian party to be part of their government and nothing terrible happened. Having said that, do not forget that we had Russian troops on Latvian soil until August 30, 1999. The task of the governments, and mine too, was to negotiate conditions and the time of their pullout. The parliamentarians were well aware of the factor and the demographics. With many Russian military personnel and pensioners residing in the Riga region – they in fact were viewed as the fifth column, any misstep by the authorities could backfire painfully.

"In my personal opinion, Harmony could have been included in the governments, say in 2002, when the party received big support in the elections. It would have helped to mitigate the tensions.

"Speaking in general, Latvia’s integration policy of the Russian minority has been weak. But after Russia annexed Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, it was out of the question. Harmony has had some big problems in recent years. I am speaking about corruption in Riga."

Do you have any tips for the current Latvian government?

"I always have advice for our governments. As far as the current government is concerned, my proposal is this: work 24 hours a day on a plan aiming to quickly recover the economy bruised by the COVID-19 crisis.

"The acute problem of all of our recent governments was that they did not have clear priorities on their agendas."

Speaking of COVID-19 again, do you agree that the crisis is deepening divisions and, moreover, strengthening authoritarian regimes?

"In fact, I do. We just do not have a world leader to carry us through the health crisis. The current United States is not assuming a world leadership role as it has in the past. As a matter of fact, we see that America itself is suffering from the virus immensely. The blame game that the United States and China are involved in is dangerous. But with the blame falling on China, I’d say this: Latvia shouldn’t be part of the blaming and should take advantage of every opportunity that comes along.