Baltics mark 1989 human chain that defied Soviets

24th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

Capping a weekend of events, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers ran the last stretch of a 31-hour, 678-kilometre relay along the original route of the human chain that became known as the Baltic Way.

Riga -- Tens of thousands of people in the Baltic states Sunday commemorated the heady days of 1989, when two million linked hands in a landmark protest against Soviet rule that helped speed them to freedom.

Capping a weekend of events, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers ran the last stretch of a 31-hour, 678-kilometre (421-mile) relay along the original route of the human chain that became known as the Baltic Way.

Zatlers, 54, jogged the final kilometre to the Freedom Monument, an imposing column in the centre of the Latvian capital.

"We showed that we could decide our own future," Zatlers said at the monument.

Organisers said 50,000 people had taken part in the relay, which converged on Riga after starting Saturday in the Estonian capital Tallinn in the north, and Vilnius in Lithuania, to the south.

The race and other festivities have helped the Balts take a step back from their daily woes. They are in a deep recession after an abrupt halt to an economic boom.

The human chain linking the then Soviet republics was organised on August 23, 1989.

More than a quarter of the total population of seven million joined hands in an unparalleled act of solidarity and peaceful defiance.

Footage was this year inscribed in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register, a list of 193 archives of global significance.

The date marked the 50th anniversary of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression deal the Stalinist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed days ahead of World War II.

The pact -- which many Russian historians argue was essential because the West failed repeatedly to stand up to Nazi expansion -- included secret protocols carving up Poland and allotting the Baltic states to Moscow.

"We must remember that 70 years ago, the leaders of other countries cynically decided our fates," Zatlers said Sunday.

Berlin and Moscow sliced up Poland in September 1939. In 1940 the Soviets annexed the Baltic states, which had been ruled by Russia until World War I.

Tens of thousands of Balts were deported or killed. The Nazis brought their own terror after turning on the Soviets in 1941.

Victorious Soviet troops drove out the Nazis in 1944 -- the issue of whether Moscow liberated or reoccupied the Baltic states remains deeply divisive.

The region stirred after reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985.

The Balts maintained their protests despite crackdowns in Latvia and Lithuania in January 1991.

Independence came after a failed August 1991 coup against Gorbachev in Moscow sped the Soviet Union's collapse. The Baltic trio joined NATO and the EU in 2004.

AFP/Expatica

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