November 18, 2002
Good evening. I am Janis Cakars, the current president of the Baltic and Finnish Studies Association. I would like to welcome you all to the fourth annual celebration of Latvian Independence Day at Indiana University. I am glad that so many of you could join us this evening.
Before we start our program, I would like to thank a few people for making this event possible. CASI provided the funding for the event. I would like to thank everyone who prepared food as well as Mrs. Pinkis for the piragi recipe and training. Thanks also to Zane Zilberte who was primarily responsible for bringing together the musical segment of the program.
We always begin these commemorations with a short speech on some aspect of Latvian culture, history or politics. These speeches also often take us back to the dramatic days of the late 1980s when Latvia was striving to reestablish the independence that it again enjoys today. Last year, Dace Bula spoke about the Latvian independence movement as a "singing revolution" and the importance of music to Latvian national identity. I myself spoke about the late 1980s four years ago at our first commemoration of Latvian Independence Day at IU. Tonight, I’d like to revisit this period and talk a little bit about the role of media in the Latvian independence movement.
Even though November 18th is a day for commemorating the declaration of independence in 1918 when Latvia first established its statehood, I think it is appropriate for us to reflect on the late 1980s at times such as today in order to try and understand the impact the events of the late Soviet era had on the Latvia we know today and the process by which Latvia restored its independence. I’d like to start to showing you a short clip from a documentary called "Barricades for Freedom" about the dramatic days in January 1991 when thousands of unarmed civilians gathered in Riga’s old town to defend key positions vital to Latvia’s self-governance and pursuit of freedom such as the parliament (Supreme Soviet) and television and radio buildings.
Soviet "black beret" forces had attacked in Vilnius on January 13, killing 14 people and early that morning Dainis Ivans got on Latvian radio and called for all supporters of Latvia’s democratically elected government to come to Riga. On the night of January 20, five people were killed in Riga including two journalists, but soon after the Soviet Interior Ministry troops withdrew. (Show clip. The first person to be show in the video is ??, the editor of the Popular Front newspaper Atmoda.)
Last year, Dainis Ivans, the former chair of the Latvian Popular Front and member of the Latvian Supreme Soviet, spoke in Riga at a commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the "Time of the Barricades." He said that there is currently a kind of schizophrenia in our understanding of how Latvia regained its independence with one view considering it a "gift" that came with the fall of the USSR and another view considering the Latvians to have won freedom entirely by their own efforts. Such a view has been advanced by the political scientist Walter Clemens who wrote: "…" Similarly the scholar of nonviolence Gene Sharp said in speech delivered in Riga: "…" Regarding the role of media a similar division of opinion exists with one side seeing the press as driving events and the other seeing them merely reflecting what was happening. Commenting on this conundrum and specifically the role of the pro-independence newspaper Atmoda, Inta Brikse once reduced the question to that of the chicken and the egg.
To me, this is not schizophrenia, but rather simply the recognition that the micro cannot be divorced from the macro; that the choices and actions taken by pro-independence forces cannot be seen outside of the context of changes in the Soviet Union and world politics as a whole. Similarly, media cannot be taken out of the social and political environment in which it operates. Media should not be seen simply as a mirror of society nor should it be seen as an all powerful shaper of society, although they may considered to be both in some sense.
A recognition of these complex and relationships, however, should not discourage us from believing that we can understand either the process by which Latvia regained its independence or the role of public communication in that process. There are discernable lessons to be drawn from and about the Latvian independence movement, some of which are hinted at and illustrated in the video we just saw.
The most obvious and striking characteristic of Latvia’s independence movement is nonviolence. A commitment to nonviolence and democratic principles was affirmed at each Latvian Popular Front congress and by all of the other pro-independence groups. This was a pragmatic decision, there being an acute imbalance of forces between Riga and Moscow, but not one taken simply because no other option existed. History affords us countless examples of weaker forces taking up arms against those more powerful. This course was chosen in part because in a sense two "revolutions" were undertaken in Latvia: a movement for independence and a movement for democracy. These two goals certainly overlapped, but they were not precisely the same thing, especially regarding the press.
Democracy is characterized by the peaceful transfer of power and self-governance. Independence was to be achieved the same way: based on the will of the people and concluded after open debate and negotiation. Nonviolence was at the heart of both aims.
So how was media used as part of a nonviolent strategy to facilitate a new democratic regime and achieve an independent state? Open dialogue and democratic procedures were hallmarks of the Latvian independence movement. The press contributed to this by providing a forum for public discussion. By 1988 censorship had been virtually abandoned in the Baltic states and all manner of previously taboo subjects and issues related to the public interest were featured in the press. Even the prospect of independence became fair game. By 1989 independence was an official goal of the Latvian Popular Front which had grown to be the largest secular organization in Latvian history. Its plan was simple: agitate through nonviolent means, win power through elections and exit the Union. Its decisions were made in the open and discussed and disseminated through its newspaper Atmoda which was published in Latvian, Russian and English editions and was associated with numerous regional "Little Atmodas." This brand of transparent decision-making and open dialogue was implanted in contrast to the closed-door style of Soviet decision-making. While Atmoda practiced advocacy journalism based on democratic ideals other mainstream newspapers struggled with implementing new inclusive standards based on Western concepts of journalism.
A new commitment to a new democratic style of journalism is most evident in the establishment of the newspaper Diena in November 1990. Although, this paper was established by the Latvian Supreme Soviet and printed the proceedings of that body, its privatization and editorial freedom were written into its charter. It was founded with the aid and participation of several Latvian Americans including the Indiana University graduate student Pauls Raudseps and was from the start committed to striving for objectivity, balance and a clear separation of fact and opinion. Its explicit goal was to facilitate democracy by serving as a forum for various viewpoints and by providing information in a manner that would allow Latvians and non-Latvians (it printed a Russian edition as well) the information they needed to make reasoned decisions about their fate. It quickly became the most popular paper in Latvia and remains so today.
It is often said that media define the parameters of public discourse. In the late 1980s Latvian media expanded the boundaries of public discussion to include open criticism of the regime and debate over how to change it. By widening public discourse in such a way, democracy actually began to be practiced and symbolic and inspiration support was certainly lent to democracy and independence-seekers. Media also helped create a community out of diverse people in scattered locations committed to the goals of democracy and independence. People congregated at huge rallies and song festivals, but more often they met in the pages of Atmoda or Diena or even Padomju Jauntane (Soviet Youth). As we in the video, even at the barricades people were engrossed in their newspapers. Papers, by the way, which were printed with difficulty in regional printing plants as the Soviets had occupied the main press building in Riga.
But the Latvian media did much more than serve as a means to facilitate discussion, report events and encourage a new democratic community. Media was used as a vital tool of nonviolent struggle. We caught a glimpse of this in the video when ??, the Atmoda editor talked about organizing the barricade via leaflets. The barricades were organized by radio, leaflets, newspapers and photocopied messages from a center for nonviolent defense in the Latvian Supreme Soviet. By this point a highly developed strategy of civilian-based defense had been developed by the Popular Front dominated parliament. Each barricade had a commander and clusters of barricades had another commander, instructions for first-aid and food distribution were made as well as orders for what to do under in response to various types of attack: chemical attack, tank attack and prolonged occupation. This organization was made possible by the utilization of media.
Gene Sharp has delineated three major forms that nonviolent action can take: protest and persuasion, noncooperation and intervention. In January 1991 we can see mass communication being used to directly intervene in and thwart a kind of Soviet offensive. The message delivered to the people by media at this time was to resist primarily through noncooperation and the press had been engaged in a persistent campaign since at least 1986 of protest and persuasion.
So, at a glance, we can see that media were direct participants in a nonviolent movement to achieve democracy and independence. We should welcome further exploration of this topic for it will help us understand just how Latvia came to have the freedom it enjoys today.
But what were the lasting effects of this experience? Rasma Karklins has written of how the independence movement helped establish effective democracy and avert debilitating ethnic discord by providing experience with pluralism and participatory politics. The press played a part in this as well and it is likely that the stability and peaceful political process that exists today in Latvia is in important ways due to the legacy of the independence movement.
OK, we made it through my speech. These commemorations of Latvian Independence Day, here at IU and elsewhere, are often very formal, reflecting the seriousness of the occasion, but the Latvian president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, has recently been urging us to make such events more of a celebration and to have some fun. It is a holiday after all. So heeding the president’s advice, the rest of the program will contain two of the basic elements of fun: music and food.