Reflections on the Process of Transition 1919-1922 and 1989-1992
By William Urban
Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies
Monmouth College (Illinois)
In 1992 Eberhard Demm, a German scholar employed at the University of Lyon III, organized a conference in Paris that October to compare the conditions under which the Baltic States became independent after the Bolsheviks seized power from the Kerensky government to those following the collapse of the Communist empire. He subsequently persuaded the joint editors of the Journal of Baltic Studies, Roger Noël and me, to publish a number of the papers. Later Demm suggested that all contributors write out their comments more fully so that a book could be published. This agreed upon, he obtained funding from the University of Paris XII (Val de Marne) and I persuaded John Rackauskas of the Lithuanian Research and Studies Center in Chicago to publish the volume.
As often happens in printing conference proceedings, however, some contributors did not finish their papers promptly, so the volume did not appear until 1996, by which time some of the questions that seemed pertinent in 1992 had been answered by the swift transformation of Russia, the former Soviet bloc states of East Central Europe and the Baltic States as well. Also by the change in the relationship between Russia and the West, changes which put the Cold War firmly in the past.
This delay was very disappointing. I had anticipated a response more like those of three prominent scholars I had contacted on the day that independence was achieved in the summer of 1991, who managed to produce excellent short articles on the Baltic States that were printed in the Journal of Baltic Studies within a month. These articles were widely read and perhaps had some impact on subsequent political decisions. Further delays associated with the process of writing scholarly reviews limited interest in the book primarily to scholars interested in the era of 1918-1919. Only a few years later, however, one sees that there are lessons to be learned from both.
What did these two eras, seventy years apart, have in common? The first era was at the end of a Great War, four long years that exhausted the wealth, idealism, patience and patriotism of almost every European people, complicated by two changes in the government of Russia. The second era came at the last stage of what might be called the end of a great dream, a dream of a more equitable and prosperous society based on scientific socialism, a dream that had become under Stalin a nightmare and under his successors a boring and demoralizing insomnia. Independence came in both cases because the governments no longer had the ability to suppress popular movements and, to a certain extent, because the leaders had lost the will to do so. Nicholas II and Kerensky could no longer find people willing to kill, or to risk being killed, to defend the existing system, and that was the situation, sixty years later, of the Soviet Union. The successor governments realized that something had to be sacrificed to order to save the heartland, and among those burdens which could no longer be borne was the effort to retain control over the Baltic States.
Each independence movement had come, more or less, as a surprise both to advocates of independence and outside observers. I remember telling students afterward about my experiences in East Berlin on the day of the currency reform, how even as the end of the day approached, people nervously worried that Gorbachev would change his mind or he would be overthrown (as almost happened later) and the process of German reunification would be halted. Even among the well-informed members of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies few anticipated the sudden collapse of an empire with the military power available to hard-line generals and the presumed self-interest and commitment of the communist leadership, especially when western leaders were unwilling to risk reviving the Cold War. Western policy could be summarized in one phrase: when in doubt, do nothing. The East German and Czech peoples, however, inspired by the Baltic example, took history into their own hands. One day the Berlin Wall was a deadly barrier, the next it was material for souvenirs.
A major concern of the moment (surprisingly not mentioned in any of the book’s essays) was the Soviet Union’s massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons. A communist system that had failed partly because of sloppiness and inefficiency probably had hydrogen bombs under the control of unpredictable commanders or not under any control at all. What would the western powers do if missiles were launched, or if they fell into the hands of terrorist states? What would the West have done if the coup had succeeded? In this sense 1919 did not resemble 1991 at all. World revolution was far less dangerous, or likely, than world destruction.
Certainly in 1914 nobody envisioned that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (or even Finland) would become sovereign states. Autonomous perhaps, but not independent, and certainly not without the Baltic Germans being very important in the government. Estonia and Latvia had not been governed by the native peoples since the thirteen century, and Lithuania had not been independent since the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been gobbled up by its neighbors in the eighteenth century. Western politicians had a habit of considering nationalism a practice of established states, not of tiny populations they had barely heard of. Poles had to be taken seriously, but not Czechs, Finns, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. In the end independence came not as the right envisioned in Wilson’s 14 Points, but as a convenient way to deny the region alike to the Bolsheviks and Germany. Even so, independence would never have been given freely: the Baltic peoples had to take it for themselves.
Although the need to act is an imperative, simply seizing power can make the situation worse, not better. In his contribution, Jan Arveds Trapans of Radio Free Europe noted that the Yugoslav crisis was beginning at the very time the Baltic situation was being resolved. In many ways the Yugoslav situation resembled that of Russia three years earlier. I had taught in Yugoslavia in 1986, had seen the Balkan crisis building and believed that it could be a bloody business, but the usual response to my efforts to warn about the impending crisis was that of my congressman: “why are you telling me this?” Since the Yugoslav situation had been studied in depth by experts for decades, I was distressed by the Bush and Clinton administrations’ inability to formulate a policy other than trying to prevent the disintegration of large states. Croatians, Slovenes, Bosnians and Kosovars were very near as right in principle as Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians, but they were unfortunate in having a ruling party and leaders who were willing to use exceptionally brutal force to keep the state intact (or to redraw the borders), while removing potentially dissident populations. Also, the secessionist leaders failed to develop a strategy or tactics that would lead to peaceful change. Hurrying the declarations of independence led to war, not accommodation and reconciliation.
This illustrates the importance of publicity, to impress on both the national population and foreign opinion leaders, why a national independence movement is necessary and to reach agreement on the tactics that will be followed. The Balts excelled in this in 1989-1991, the Yugoslav republics did not. The role played by “exile” groups such as the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies and journals such as Lituanus was important in this. Important not just in publicizing the case for the Baltic States, but in setting a tone: the goal was to establish democratic institutions and economic and social practices that provided for maximum freedom and prosperity, not merely sovereignty.
The western failure to deal effectively with the Baltic crisis represents a systemic problem, not a unique case. To give policy makers credit, they had to consider seriously questions such as “how small can political units become and still thrive?” and “will each break-down of viable economic units just create new crises of ethnic cleansing?” Perhaps there is no universally applicable answer in an era marked by the mutually contradictory processes of dividing large states into ethnically purer nations and then joining large multi-national bodies. Thus, the Czech and Slovak peoples first separate, then petition individually to join NATO and the European Community; and few find it strange. Tragic often─as we see can in several regions of the former Soviet Union─but not strange.
Change is inevitable, but change can be managed. Properly done, even a process of substantial change does not have to be a revolution, but can be a transformation. The Baltic States have experienced both, and Balts can testify that the second method is much to be preferred. But a transformation cannot be achieved without long preparation, a good idea of what the ultimate goal is, and widespread public acceptance of both the goals and the means by which the struggle will be conducted. The process, moreover, involves more than the local population; it is also necessary to persuade the occupying power that it is morally in the wrong and will not suffer by giving up control peacefully, and to gain support abroad, especially among the democratic countries of the world.
The Baltic States did this in 1989-1991. Though they did not achieve independence without sacrifice and some loss of life, their cities and villages were neither demolished by war nor ethnically-cleansed by mob action. The first revolution had been mental, the second was actual. The only mistake had been to count too heavily on western support.
Intellectuals and common citizens alike had learned from the first era of independence that nothing can be achieved unless circumstances are right. (This was a favorite maxim of Marxist scholars─but non-Marxists recognized its validity; and Soviet praise of American civil rights demonstration was also taken to heart.) But they only partly appreciated that even under the most favorable conditions it would be up to the people themselves to bring about fundamental change. They better understood that discipline and solidarity were essential. A few hot-heads could have turned the singing revolution into a massacre.
The transition from socialist centralism to a free market required the same kind of careful reflection and planning, followed by inspired leadership to persuade a sometimes reluctant public to look beyond the problems of the moment to long term resolutions. The process is less heroic, but no less important.
The efforts of other minority populations to acquire national independence and then to provide maximum freedom and opportunity to all its citizens can be seen in many states around the world. For those of us who look on these crises, often only halfway comprehending, we might remember that most westerners looked on the Baltic independence movements of a decade ago in the same way. Perhaps our only guideline to a sane policy is to look at dictators and would-be dictators who retain power by eliminating all competitors−those who would normally exercise influence in the economy, education, the courts, the media and religion. The transition to a free society involves returning power to those groups. Then to observe the strategies and tactics of the groups advocating national independence or autonomy. Terrorist acts and civil war may gain the activists’ ends, but only at a high price; and they may not succeed.
The events leading to the independence of the Baltic States thus provide political scientists (i.e., scholars who study the art of politics) more than mere examples of heroic patience, daring resistance and the exploitation of opportunities. They are casebook studies of situations that will be seen around the world for many years to come.
Eberhard Demm’s speech opening the Baltic Conference, October 23, 1992, was entitled: “Which Freedoms for Which Baltic Nations.” Political freedom had been won, he noted, but if political freedom only meant economic poverty, then all would be soon lost. Help from the West was required, and not just drops of help, but bucketfuls. He concluded with the words, “Long live the freedom and the independence of the Baltic nations! Vivent la libertJ et l’indJpendance des nations baltes!”
These are sentiments which have not lost their validity. The Baltic States provide good examples of how people can bring about political and social change, and how democratic governments could have been more supportive. Diaspora or exile communities are invaluable, making up to a certain extent the fact that western governments provide cupfuls of financial aid rather than bucketfuls. Still, disapora communities are ineffective if they are not organized; that was an essential difference between 1919 and 1989. Moreover, disapora communities can only support what exists; they cannot transform a nation from without. Transition is, in the end, not about money. It is about attitudes and the leadership that creates and sustains attitudes. Laws, rules and regulations are important, but those will be created wherever the public demands them and opportunity allows them. It is the spirit that gives life to the laws, not laws that give birth to the spirit.
Lituanus, 49:1 (2003), 39-47.
 The Independence of the Baltic States: Origins, Causes, and Consequences. A Comparison of the Critical Years 1918/1919 and 1990/1991 (Edited Eberhard Demm, Roger Noël and William Urban. Chicago: Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, 1996).
 Andrejs Plakans, Toivo Raun and Alfred Erich Senn. JBS, XXII/3 (fall 1991).
 My wife and I were supposed to be teaching at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania, but we were unable to persuade the Soviet embassy to issue our visas, though approval had been given from Moscow. So, having been offered the use of a car by German friends, we spent the late spring and summer in Czechoslovakia and the two Germanies, speaking with people who had taken part in the recent demonstrations. Several times we were the first Americans border guards and ordinary people had ever encountered.
 Many knew that the eastern bloc was in danger of collapsing. Even the communist leadership was aware of the situation. But when? As far as putting one’s reputation on the line by announcing a more or less specific date, this was usually done from the vantage point of hindsight.
 The major difference is that they were not independent states during the interwar period. Croatia and Slovenia could cite their medieval predecessors and their belonging to the Habsburg empire, as could (to a lesser extent) Bosnia, but Kosovars had no historical example to claim sovereignty from.
 In the summer of 2002 I spent three weeks in Russia, on a Global Partners program studying the transition in the Kuban region before traveling more widely. I returned more optimistic about the future than I had expected to be. The necessary reforms to the legal and commercial codes have been made, examples of successful foreign investment can be seen, and self-confident young people have been trained in western methods of business and politics.
 Even when bucketfuls of financial help are available, as was the case in the former East Germany, the transition is not easy. It is also important to remember that bucketfuls of money have to be poured into something, and if the only existing receptacles are the pockets of politicians and gangsters, western nations may proper hesitate before transferring large sums of money into the creative books of stooge accountants.